Vivek Haldar

What changed in 1991 in India?

A recent EconTalk podcast interviewed Jagdish Bhagwati about his new book chronicling the economic path of India, particularly since the 1991 reforms.

Russ Roberts, the host, asked Bhagwati, “…What changed in 1991?”, to which he replied:

…the Prime Minister himself … said, look, I have lots of my own family abroad, sons and daughters and nephews and nieces, and this is true virtually of everybody in the upper classes in India–they have family abroad. They keep coming back and saying: How come we have such idiotic policies? With such enormous restrictions on diversification, on capacity expansion, etc., etc., which are driving us into the ground? And so, the diaspora effect is what I call it. A lot of young people coming back said: You really cannot have this. Because India is really losing rapidly its position in the world economy. Because if you are not performing well, nobody is going to pay attention to you. And the second thing I think was that increasing as people went … abroad and they would find that nobody took India seriously. So the Indian politicians and bureaucrats were increasingly running into situations where they were simply disregarded and looked down upon.

That might be a factor, but it strikes me as a weak one. The much larger factor was that the Gulf War brought cable TV to India, and with it, the culture and mores of the West. When you go from decades of one state-sponsored TV channel that broadcast eight hours a day to dozens that run 24 hours a day, the impact is enough to move a nation. If you grew up in India during the 90s, there is absolutely no question about the impact of cable TV. Like I wrote before:

And when we were not watching the military-industrial complex peacocking, we were soaking in its cultural counterpart. Baywatch. MTV. Moonlighting. We didn’t even have to filter the crap. Only the hits were re-broadcast. Suddenly our culture seemed parochial. Suddenly our things seemed archaic, clunky.