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The Times They Are A-Changin'

By Ajit Balakrishnan
October 17, 2023 09:46 IST
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... And what explains the directions of change? asks Ajit Balakrishnan.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

There was a time when I was in my late teens and preparing to embark on a train from my home town in Kerala to join IIM Calcutta, where I had just gained admission, that Bob Dylan's famous song The Times They Are A-Changin' kept playing in my head (after having heard it first on Radio Ceylon Service, which then, at least in south India, was the main source of Western pop music).

At that time I used to be mystified why that song kept reverberating in my head, but looking back I can understand why: Venturing out to a new city, Calcutta, plunging into the new world of an IIM, transitioning from my teens into my 20s, watching, that year, the Congress, the party that had got us Independence, splitting with Indira Gandhi walking out, the government suddenly nationalising 14 big banks ... the times they were really changing.

Then suddenly last week, more than half a century later, one night, in the middle of my sleep, I found myself humming to the same Dylan song.

I got up from my sleep in a jolt, wondering what had triggered this.

As I stood at my bedroom door in Colaba, Bombay, looking out into the moonlit Bombay Harbour with its giant ships slowly gliding inward and outward, a flood of images came flowing into my mind.

The rupee, which was at around Rs 8 a dollar when I joined the IIM, is now at Rs 84.

Cricket and football, which my friends and I passionately loved and played, are now a Bollywood-like audience entertainment business; movie halls in Bombay, which we all stared at in admiration as crowds thronged and tickets could be got only at a black-market cash premium, are now more or less empty; bookshops we loved to go to and browse books to our heart's content have mostly vanished (even in Colaba)...

The Times They Are A-Changin'.

And then as signs that times are even more a-changin', India has landed a satellite on the south side of the moon and not another American space odyssey to applaud.

An India-created UPI payments system has taken over digital payments as the erstwhile titans like VISA and Mastercard look on speechlessly.

And both these magnificent achievements are being accomplished by public-sector entities during a time when 'Privatise! Privatise!' is a song that 'modern' people are supposed to sing.

I spent much of my time wondering what makes times change so severely every decade or so till I stumbled on a 2020 book by an American sociology professor, Richard Lachmann, titled First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers.

His 500-page effort concentrates on how the United States, today's Great Power, is destined to decline and fade out like empires such as the Spanish, the Dutch, and the British rose to power and then declined in the 16th-20th century period.

But what I found fascinating was the reason he attributes to these events.

His brilliant insight is that we have to look closely at the behaviour of the elite in these countries to figure out a reason for such rise and decline.

In his analysis, the 'elite' in ancient empires were made up of aristocrats/landowners, citizen-soldiers as well as military generals who led these soldiers, and finally provincial elite of lands they conquered.

In our current era, he sees capitalist businessmen and State officials as the elite whose behaviour is what is making the present-day countries go in various different economic and political directions.

To take his US example, he believes that the business elite in America influence foreign policy such that the country is constantly at war and thus ensure that they (and their subcontractors) earn large profits from contracts for weapons.

The unions there also support this kind of aggressive foreign policy because it provides stable jobs in virtually every congressional district in the United States.

He says the political elite, seeking the support of the business elite, have ensured that US federal government receipts from corporate income tax have declined from 23 per cent (in the whole) in 1967 to per cent in 2008, largely by making it easy to use tax shelters in tax havens.

This, he says, leaves little money to spend on things that will arrest the decline, which, he says, is already underway in the United States.

As you can see, Professor Lachmann's model of analysing the role of the elite in the rise or decline of countries, if applied to India, can probably lead to some insightful conclusions.

The Indian elite today are probably made up of family business houses/family-dominated political parties/civil servants/IIT and IIM grads, and so on.

Are their intertwining interests shaping the path of India's economic and political choices and, if so, how?

Is it this intertwining that makes us a world power in IT services but not in IT products?

Is it this intertwining that can explain why states south of the Vindhyas are progressing fast while those north of the Vindhyas lagging behind?

Or, should we listen to Dylan and do what he says at the end of his song: ...Your old road is rapidly agin', please get out of the new one, if you can't lend your hand ... For the times they area-changin'.

Ajit Balakrishnan (ajitb@rediffmail.com), founder and CEO, Rediff.com, is an Internet entrepreneur.

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Ajit Balakrishnan / Rediff.com
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