The Quiet Indian

Politics

The Quiet Indian

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

I
t was 1991. I was trying to get a book on wars in the Middle East off a tall shelf in my mother’s study. Some time back, a megalomaniac named Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. Sadly, for him, the US and its allies pummelled his forces and forced him back to Baghdad, tail between his legs. With the world’s media bringing pictures of the war to our television sets, I was in a frenzy, reading up on wars and famous generals like Subutai the Mongol, Vietnam’s Võ Nguyên Giáp, Israel’s Moshe Dayan, and India’s Sam Manekshaw.

Just as I managed to reach the book, I heard my father exclaim with much agitation, “India is bankrupt. That’s it. We are done.” I did not understand what he meant back then. With war on my mind, I wondered for a second whether we were headed for one. But, I dismissed that idea in the following days. Years later, I realise what a big war we’d actually fought at that time.

As I type, I am trying to remember the main characters and circumstances that led to 1991 when the Indian economy faced one of its toughest challenges. The country was left with just enough reserves to buy less than a month’s imports. Our current account deficit – what we owe other countries for the goods we buy from them – was going up. The price of oil, which we continue to import, had gone through the roof thanks to an angry Saddam. Government finances were in bad shape, inflation was high. Our biggest ally on the world stage, the Soviet Union, was collapsing. And the economic model we borrowed from them had proved inefficient, corrupt, and was in a shambles. Mind you, we did not have nuclear weapons back then, like North Korea and cuddly Kim now, who can blackmail the world into donating food and essential items.

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