He told us so: The best of Swaminomics VIKAS SINGH, TOI 9 Mar 2008
Long before Freakonomics, there was Swaminomics. For close to 18 years now, readers of The Times of India have turned to the weekly column of Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar — Swami to friends and fans — to help them make sense of the most contentious debates on the political economy. They are rarely disappointed, and always entertained. That, in fact, is the USP of Swami. His is a unique combination of formidable erudition and simple — without being simplistic — writing. And he's always willing to float provocative ideas, tongue firmly in cheek. Admirers still talk fondly of a column he wrote years ago, in which he had suggested that Dawood Ibrahim should be entrusted the task of collecting the dues of the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, since he seemed to be the one person who would have no problems collecting outstanding dues!
Like the self-made billionaires and booming entrepreneurship that it celebrates, Swaminomics had a humble beginning. As Swami recounts, "When (TOI Consulting Editor) Dina Vakil took over the Commerce page in 1990, she asked if I would write a column. It was almost like an outcast page, and nobody was too interested in it. But I was quite happy to write. So, there began Swaminomics, in between prices of cotton and aniseed." It's instructive to remember that at that point, socialism was still the prevailing credo, getting into the bureaucracy was the ultimate dream for ambitious youngsters and it was considered singularly vulgar to show any interest in money — even though India had a flourishing black economy. Even after the economic reforms were launched, they encountered formidable opposition. The prevailing wisdom was that Indian businesses would be slaughtered and hapless consumers would be held hostage by rapacious multinationals. Some even spoke darkly of a repeat of the rise of the East India Company.
Swami's was one of the few voices that rang out loudly in favour of the reforms, arguing that they would liberate India from the Hindu rate of growth (3-4%) in which it was trapped; benefit rather than hurt consumers; and free Indian entrepreneurs to take on the world. Today, India routinely clocks 9% growth, consumers have a mind-boggling variety of choices, Indian businessmen are busy taking over foreign marques, and tax collections have been soaring even as tax rates have declined. If anyone has a right to say 'I told you so', it is Swami. As he points out, "After years of being considered a radical maverick, I am now regarded as mainstream. This is not because I changed, but because India changed. The battles I fought have been won."
Many of those battles are recaptured in 'Escape From The Benevolent Zookeepers: The Best of Swaminomics', a compilation of some of the best columns that have appeared in Swaminomics over the years, published by Times Group Books. Young readers who have no recollection of those dramatic years will find it extremely informative to track how India escaped from the cage created by well-meaning idealists. And for those of us who were part of the debate, it's a great opportunity to look back and shake our heads wryly at how many of the powerful shibboleths prevailing then have fallen by the wayside. As for Swami, he's moved on to the next battle: the need for better administration and for governments to deliver the services promised by them. India will be a far better place if his latest agenda also achieves success.