Verging on two years of being Principal Economic Advisor in the Finance Ministry, Sanjeev Sanyal has shared a fascinating insight into his philosophy around telling the story(ies) of India, while speaking to Republic TV's Editor-in-Chief Arnab Goswami about his new book 'India in the Age of Ideas'.
Speaking first about his experience working in government following a long spell as an outsider-looking-in whilst in the financial industry, Sanyal says that a key realisation has been that India is a "genuinely complex country with genuinely complicated processes" and terms the opportunity (of being economic advisor) as an extraordinary one, not just to serve, but also, from the point-of-view of an analyst, to see how decisions are made from the inside.
Given the journey that Sanjeev Sanyal has had over the last few years and knowing that his latest book is a collection of his wide array of writings from the last decade, one would perhaps be forgiven for presuming that he would face some amount of trouble tying it all together. However, Sanyal says that all of it - whether it be history, society, politics, economics, urban design or anything else - fits into a philosophical framework that he has in his hear. It's not a random design, he puts forth, rather it's derived from Complexity theory - which itself is based on Chaos theory, which Sanyal says "relies on the world being a naturally unstable or unpredictable place."
(The cover of India in the Age of Ideas)
He elaborates on this with a grouping of examples that are very intrinsic to policy: "When you have these grand plans, like 5-year-plans... or you speak to someone on the streets and hear something like 'Oh, if only we had planned Gurugram better', it is actually fundamentally impossible to do. The best we can do is react quickly and manage the process." Distilling this, he says, "it means that predictions and plans matter less - what matters is actively being aware of what's happening and managing it."
When asked about what the concept behind this is, Sanyal opines, "We have been captured by the 20th century. Look at the debates you see and hear. We basically debate 20th and 19th-century ideas. We've not broken into the 21st century. Look at the economic theories - what we knew in textbooks has basically been thrown out the window." Cross-referencing this with what he sees in the political space, Sanyal expresses his discomfort with people who don't allow for economic and social churn to take place, equating them with squatters.
"The idea should be for the churn to continue. For example, I am a huge advocate of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, because the idea is of constructive destruction. There must be continuous churn", he proposes. This belief also extends to his ideological leanings - when asked about whether he is a Rightist, he concedes that labels are difficult but provides an answer nonetheless, calling himself a 'Chaos theory rightist'. When asked, he goes on to outline the history of Left vs Right intellectualism in the last century in India:
"I think Indian intellectualism has been dominated in the last half-century by the Left. Before that there were many Right intellectuals but their ideas all unwound by the second half of the 20th century. Now we're seeing a revival of the Right, they've come back in the political and economic space, in a wider intellectual space - but it's still early days. But this could be a way to create deeper intellectual roots and also modernising many of these ideas", he says, setting up a contextual niche for 'India in the Age of Ideas'.
Coming to specifics of the kind of ideas in his book, Sanjeev Sanyal speaks about his long-held theory that there is no need for the Prime Minister's Independence Day speech to be delivered in New Delhi only. He argues thusly: "Republic Day belongs to the state. The Constitution came into being, and so it belongs to the state - fair enough - and hence we have a parade. But August 15 doesn't belong to the state, it belongs to the people. Hence, it doesn't belong to just Delhi and the Red Fort - which is a symbol of imperial authority. Hence, I don't see why the August 15th speech by the PM should always happen from Delhi. Why not from the Cellular jail in Andaman & Nicobar islands or from the ramparts of Chhitorgarh that fought for freedom?"
Moving to the manner in which India's history has been recorded, he opines that "the narrative of India has for a long time been told by non-Indians. We have imbibed this to such an extent that when we tell our own stories, we're not really telling our own story."
He references how this manifests itself: "If you look at the usual textbooks of India and take the story of the Indian ocean, it would probably start with a perfunctory note on what happened before Vasco Da Gama turned up, almost as though we were sitting around growing spices waiting for the Europeans to turn up! What about the Cholas, the Pallavas and the voyages people from India took to south-east Asia? There's India everywhere there. Singapore was Singhapura - the Lion city (Sanskrit). Indonesia names itself after us, its national symbol is Vishnu's Garuda!"
"The rest of the world celebrates our civilisation and yet we seem to be held back. Why?", Sanjeev Sanyal asks, coming to the conclusion that "We need to begin to be consciously telling our own story, from our perspective."
On the topic of how it is to be a high-profile and outspoken technocrat in the government of India, Sanyal lists his forerunners and says, "I am who I am... I was writing books before I joined government. I intend to write others as well. It's important to engage. To be sitting and theorising about policies isn't the role for somebody like myself. I'm willing to stick my neck out, like I do, but I don't do it without thinking. I have a philosophical framework. I research to make my case."