This Article is From Nov 29, 2020

Why I'm Losing Hope In India

My generation of Indians has often been disappointed in our country, and we have sometimes despaired about the direction it was taking, but it's been impossible for us to stop hoping.

Our own past has trained us to see the silver lining.

Opportunities we couldn't imagine growing up in the 1970s and '80s emerged from nowhere and changed our lives, and many of us believe history will keep repeating, with the pain of the pandemic shocking the economy out of its pre-Covid inertia.

So it breaks my heart to have to suggest to today's rising generation that this crisis is different than others we have weathered, that the walls are closing in again, and the opportunity set for India is shrinking, perhaps for a very long time. The national dream of emulating China's rapid growth is receding - by some economic yardsticks, we can't even keep up with Bangladesh.

A disturbing arbitrariness has crept into policymaking, institutions have decayed and the economy's structural deficiencies have worsened. Animal spirits have been sucked out of all but a handful of firms. Zombie business groups are perched atop the debris of debt-fuelled expansion, waiting for politicians to signal what role they still have, if any. The defeatist slogan of self-reliance, which blighted our parents' generation, is back. Politicians are using religious discord and caste conflicts to drive a wedge in the society.

To make matters worse, India has handled the coronavirus pandemic with the same inept authoritarianism that's come to define its approach in all spheres, economic, political and social. With more than 9 million infections, India is the second-worst affected country after the United States. The economy slipped into an unprecedented recession last quarter.


Coronavirus: India is the second-worst affected country after the United States

The post-lockdown economy will simply not have enough demand to consume what can be produced. There's some attempt to reform the supply side - labour and farm markets, in particular. But not much is being done to revive demand, either in the short or the long run. Some of us are wondering if this callousness will cause India's demographic dividend - two out of three Indians are still in the magic age group of 15 to 64 years - to go unclaimed.

Yes, there's time. If India stops turning inward and embraces an open, transparent partnership with global investors, hundreds of millions more would get a shot at prosperity. A stagnant world economy could tap a new source of future demand. The West might win a strong and reliable security partner in Asia. The '90s optimism will renew itself. But if India remains stuck in a middle-income trap, people will soon stop asking if it could be the next China. My generation already has.


A previous generation of Indians also knew violent change. My parents went from being British subjects to citizens of an independent republic. They carried the trauma of partition and lived through four post-World War II armed conflicts, one with China, three with Pakistan.

They recoiled in horror when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi - the child of the great democrat and freedom hero Jawaharlal Nehru - suspended democracy for two years in the mid-1970s.

Amid this turmoil, they underestimated the shadow on their lives of the mid-'60s economic crisis, when after a bad drought, India devalued the rupee by 37% because that was the World Bank's condition for assistance.

The promised funds didn't arrive in full. Indira Gandhi, too new to power to be in control, took a sharp pro-Moscow turn and rejected the capitalist path that South Korea, almost as poor as India back then, was choosing for itself. She raised tariffs, nationalized the banks, but failed to democratize credit. The government bloated up; small firms remained stunted.

The "developmental enthusiasm" of Nehru's idealistic socialism gave way to political expediency and policy incoherence. The post-colonial dream of rapid industrialization faded. India remained agrarian and poor, led by a tiny English-educated urban elite. At the top of the order were bureaucrats with the power to say "no" to any expansion in the private sector. The economy's speed limit was 3.5%, pejoratively described by scholars as the "Hindu rate of growth."

To those of us whose families neither owned rural land nor had secure urban jobs, life was about making the most of a heavily state-subsidized education. Very few experienced upward mobility, and often only when the U.S. or U.K. embassy stamped their passports. The friends and family who came to see off the newly minted doctor or engineer at the airport went back to their unchanging lives.


All this ended when Manmohan Singh, the economist who became finance minister in 1991, devalued the currency to stanch the bleeding of foreign reserves, made the rupee convertible for trade, dismantled industrial licensing and began slashing import duties.


Manmohan Singh devalued the currency to stanch the bleeding of foreign reserves

After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, our politicians ran out of their anti-imperialist excuses. India engaged with a victorious West, my elder brother got a job in New Delhi with AT&T Corp., and he brought home a shiny red push-button telephone.

A hook-up from the state phone company still took years, so we borrowed the neighbour's line. But there was no time to brood over what we lacked - or what our parents had lost to autarky and state planning. Somehow we knew that our shortages were ending, and our choices were expanding. India's ruling elite had run out of options for self-preservation. It had to open the doors to a better life to more of us. There was work to do.

Fledgling software firms got down to it with the help of a colourful lobbyist. Dewang Mehta sported a luxuriant crop of hair - it was a wig - and went around selling a puffed-up story to global corporations that their computers were going to crash at midnight on the new millennium because of the Y2K bug. Outsourcing of code-writing, at a fraction of what it cost in the West, began in earnest. Jobs were created in telecom, media, technology, finance and newly denationalized aviation industries; the median home-buying age began to fall. Global carmakers came to India, inspired by the popularity of a small hatchback, the Maruti 800, made locally by Suzuki Motor Corp.

China's example beckoned. After the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Beijing wouldn't brook political freedoms, but the economic reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping were deemed irreversible and foreign investors were mostly welcomed. The economy took off. China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and grew at 10%-plus rates for 20 years.

It was never going to be easy for India to emulate its neighbour, whose single-party state struck a bargain with foreign investors, while discriminating against its own business class. Such stratagems weren't possible in India's noisy, federal democracy. Politicians couldn't ignore local businesses that gave them money to fight elections. So India cleaned up the stock market and opened it to overseas investors. This made sense. Unlike China, which was saving more than half of its national income before the 2008 global financial crisis, India lacked the capital to sustain a liberalising economy through messy cycles of coalition politics, let alone to build the roads, power plants and other basics of missing infrastructure.

So we put our faith in institutions. Our heritage of English common law, independent courts and regulators held the promise of fairness and protection for all stakeholders, and we thought these would get stronger over time. The state, we hoped, would shrink as an economic player, and become a more robust referee. Governance would improve, endemic corruption would recede. The anonymity fostered by urbanization would smash the regressive caste system. We liked it when scholars such as Yasheng Huang, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, said that India could overtake China.

To me and many of my generation, Manmohan Singh was a saviour, someone who carried the scars of partition and had known poverty as a child. He was one of us. Our disillusionment with him was 20 years in the future.

Unfinished reforms

The 1990s reforms in India began with trade and investment liberalisation. Tougher "second generation" reforms in markets for land, labour, capital, energy and goods were to follow.

However, myriad interest groups captured the weak coalition governments that became a norm after 1996. Even as India's openness grew, the larger project of boosting competitiveness kept getting shelved. Internal markets continued to malfunction.

An additional problem arose: Now that the government was retreating from being a producer, it had to give land, energy and commodity rights, wireless spectrum and other concessions to the private sector and procure - on behalf of the public - electricity, roads, ports, telecom services and jobs. The opportunities for corruption swelled, and a nexus of businesses, politicians and criminals coalesced to exploit them.

By 2004, the once-dominant Congress Party's Manmohan Singh was prime minister, leading yet another ragtag coalition. He returned to power in 2009, but the triumph of his victory didn't endure. With the world economy entering its post-2008 funk, India's unreformed markets, political opportunism, fiscal profligacy and the private sector's unregulated greed overwhelmed Singh's second term.

Around 2010, I was heading up editorial operations for a business TV station in Mumbai. That's when, surrounded by the nouveau riche (my toddler's return gift from his host at a birthday party was an iPod), I began to notice cracks in the enterprising spirit of the '90s. Peeking from those gaps was a business class seeking riches in private rents. Praful Patel, the then-aviation minister, gave me an interview at the newly modernized Delhi airport, which was going to replace the shambolic terminal that used to frustrate and embarrass us. The private consortium that had won the 60-year management contract wangled a passenger fee to cover a big part of the cost of the upgrade - after snagging the project. "This important condition should have been known upfront to all the bidders at the time of bidding," the government's auditor noted.

Public-private partnerships of all hues proved problematic. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous Indian state, made a special zone for alcohol distribution and gave it to an Armani suit-wearing businessman named Ponty Chadha, who on a November day in 2012, went to his farmhouse on the outskirts of New Delhi with his security detail. His brother arrived with his own henchmen. The two sides were there to sort out a property dispute. Before long, they were shooting at each other. Both brothers ended up dead.

The vulgarity of crony capitalism became a lightning rod for mass mobilization. An "India Against Corruption" movement fed a frenzy of disgust against crooked politicians and businessmen who were usurping farmers' land, promising to create jobs and then not delivering. But most crucially, people's anger was aimed at the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty. Even as Singh nominally ran the government, Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law, the Italian-born Sonia, and her son Rahul wielded real power, as Singh's former media adviser Sanjaya Baru claimed in "The Accidental Prime Minister."

Scandals surfaced and metastasized. In 2012, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 telecom licenses. The government's auditor said that the granting of those licenses had cost the country $23 billion. This debacle was soon dwarfed by what the auditor said was a $42 billion scam in allocating coal mines to private firms. Those were also scrapped.

Wounded and cornered, Singh's government lashed out. It began to hound long-term investors like Vodafone Group Plc for outsized tax liabilities, charged retrospectively. It passed a law that made it prohibitively expensive for private businesses to acquire land. None of this helped politically. Singh's failures, meanwhile, were helping to make Narendra Modi, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and chief minister of Gujarat, look good. Although his stint there had begun with huge Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, Gujarat's economy grew 10% annually through the first decade of the millennium, faster than the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a second term in the general election in 2019

As the 2014 general election approached, many voters thought that only muscular leadership could end India's economic paralysis and social stasis. Even those of us who found Modi's Hindu right-wing politics abhorrent thought his development record as an administrator had earned him a place in federal politics. In our impatience for growth, we ignored the warnings of scholars such as Indira Hirway that Modi's capital-intensive "Gujarat model" was built on generous subsidies to businesses, and that the state was slipping in poverty reduction, human development and hunger removal. I wrote that Modi could be like Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a leader who would suppress his nationalist instincts, and use his popularity to drive hard economic reforms.

PM Modi's "permanent revolution"

PM Modi came to power promising business-friendly policies and an end to "tax terror." But when he tried to undo the previous government's land acquisition law, the opposition attacked him for being anti-farmer. PM Modi had to drop the plan.

Vodafone's troubles in India didn't end. In fact, harassment by tax authorities intensified. "Sab chor hain," Hindi for "Everyone's a thief," became the state's informal motto for dealing with the private sector.

Then, in November 2016, PM Modi performed a high-voltage stunt: He outlawed 86% of the country's cash, presumably to unearth illicit wealth. People queued up for days to return their worthless notes. New currency was in short supply. Small businesses in my hometown - a shoe-making hub - couldn't pay workers. Women-run micro enterprises on the outskirts of Mumbai later told me that their going rate for weaving golden threads into a sari crashed to Rs 4,000 from Rs 7,000.


Old currency notes were banned overnight in the demonetisation move in November 2016

Ultimately, demonetisation was a fruitless exercise. Most of the outlawed money came back to banks, but the pain PM Modi inflicted on society helped launch his cult. As Arvind Subramanian, then PM Modi's chief economic adviser, would argue later in a book, sacrifice, "as a necessary condition for achieving a larger, loftier objective," resonated with the population because it harked backed to Mahatma Gandhi's strategies during India's freedom struggle. That elevation of PM Modi in the public consciousness was a turning point in the citizen-state relationship. Unquestioning devotion was in; critical examination was out. Gone was the pre-poll promise of "minimum government, maximum governance." The dirigisme of the '60s and '70s was back. "We are now entering the politics of 'permanent revolution'," Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political scientist and commentator, presciently warned after PM Modi's currency ban.

Since then, the government's whimsical decision-making has intensified. Don't like what a consumption survey shows? Suppress it. Getting flak for a slowing economy? Publish unbelievably rosy GDP data. Think Covid could get out of control? Impose a nationwide lockdown on four-hours notice.

"Sab chor hain" now defines most interactions. Homebuyers don't trust builders to deliver homes; financiers don't trust property developers to repay loans. The government doesn't trust either the builder or the lender. Nobody trusts politicians, though PM Modi, like all strongmen leaders, can elicit any response he wants from the public. During the coronavirus lockdown he asked Indians to light candles, go on the terrace and bang utensils. They did, as told.

True, some bottlenecks have eased. After failing to double in size in the four decades before 1991, the national highway network has quadrupled since then. From less than 65,000 megawatts in 1990, power generation capacity has surged to almost 375,000 megawatts. Half of it is in the private sector. A further doubling by 2030, without setting up any more polluting coal-fired plants, is possible, thanks to investor interest in solar and wind power.

But therein lies a problem, a variation of the old resource crunch. A large section of the capitalists to whom a cash-strapped government outsourced roads, ports, airports, power stations and mobile towers is bankrupt.

Bag a concession from the state, inflate costs, pay bribes, get financing from dominant state-run banks, fleece consumers, siphon off funds into private accounts in Singapore or Switzerland. This, with some variation, was the business model. In 2012, Ashish Gupta, a banking analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG in Mumbai wrote a report, titled "House of Debt." The last eight years this house has burned. It's still aflame and singeing the banking system.

The IL&FS Group, an infrastructure financier-owner-operator I've tracked since I was a newspaper intern in Delhi in 1992, enriched a small cabal by taking everyone - its partners, consumers, capital providers and regulators - for a ride. I described its 2018 bankruptcy as India's "mini-Lehman moment." The sudden collapse of a highly rated institution with billions of dollars of unpaid debt froze credit markets. The psychological impact ran deeper. Before IL&FS went belly up, the overextended Indian private sector was putting up a brave face, chanting "Modi, Modi," and trying to retain its best assets with cheap refinancing. Now the entrepreneur just wants to avoid going to jail. Economic power is concentrating in fewer hands.


The China-U.S. cold war - in trade, technology and finance - comes with its own rich prospects

When I was growing up, telecommunications was a government monopoly. Then came a bustling wireless market hosting a dozen operators. Now the player count is once again down to three effectively. One of them is in serious stress, and the other says it may not be able to bid for 5G spectrum next year. Another private group is establishing a chokehold on seaports and airports, which also were once the state's preserve. Conglomerates may also be allowed to enter banking because government-run lenders don't have capital to grow. For my generation, swapping one form of concentration with another doesn't look like progress.

The rest of the economy is still highly informal, and inefficient: 80% of the output of farms and by small businesses goes to pay for capital, which is scarce. Labour's share is 20%. Workers are liberally rewarded only in a bloated public sector, much of which ought to have been privatized long ago. Because it wasn't, taxpayers have to keep alive debt-addled firms such as Air India Ltd.

The push toward higher wages should have come from higher farm productivity, which would have raised the price of migrant labour coming to cities. India missed this page of the East Asian playbook and failed to create a permanent urban working class.

Instead, it went straight to global services like computer software. For a while, this shift papered over the cracks, even though the billion-plus-people economy only worked to meet the demand of 150 million top income earners.

My father's small firm made shoe uppers, my mother knitted sweaters. There are millions of families in similar circumstances today, with two differences: Prices of everything (including education, which was almost free for us) are decided by a small consuming class, and a billion others must struggle to afford them. Second, there are now gig economy jobs and microcredit, even though the income to sustain borrowing eludes most families.

The structural demand deficiency, as Rathin Roy, an economist at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, describes it, was a problem even before Modi's Covid lockdown in March left millions of scared migrant workers without jobs, shelter or food. Their long, lonely journeys to the safety of their village homes revealed the shaky legs of India's urban growth story.

Workers will eventually return. But getting back to pre-Covid levels will only pull 40% of a billion people of working age into the labor force, Mahesh Vyas at the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy says. At least 10 million jobs are needed annually - matching China's rate between 1990 and 2014 - to raise the participation rate toward the world average of 66%. But the post-pandemic developed world will nurse a massive unemployment hangover. The "End of History" ebullience that greeted my generation of Indians in the early '90s is unlikely to repeat. Besides, creating jobs amid rising automation will require heavy spending on social security, healthcare, childcare, housing and education. Four out of five women in Indian cities weren't in the workforce even before Covid. China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are all doing better.

Entrepreneurs redux?

It would be cynical of me to believe that another entrepreneurial explosion isn't around the corner, and that a larger number of Indians won't be kicking in the doors to progress than in the '90s.

In 2001, the telecommunications firm run by Sunil Mittal, a former bicycle-parts trader and manufacturer of the plastic Beetel phone my brother brought home, won its millionth mobile customer. Today, Mittal is a billionaire, and Bharti Airtel Ltd. has 293 million users in India, and another 116 million in Africa.

Crashing data prices and cheap smartphones give India a chance to spawn its own large internet businesses. Facebook Inc. has bet on Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man, to build the country's most valuable digital carriage, content and commerce triple play. The 152-year-old Tata Group might create its own rival "super-app" to compete against Ambani's.

Perhaps digital capitalism favours "winner take all" monopolists. Rather than bemoan the concentration of economic power, maybe I should look at the bright side?

India could also attain the productivity boost China received from the likes of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. The country has built a robust real-time mobile payment system, dominated by Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Walmart Inc.'s PhonePe. October saw transactions on the network doubling from a year ago to 2 billion. E-commerce and payments data could come to replace collateral in loan contracts, offering small borrowers like my dad's erstwhile shoe-upper firm a chance to get around their perennial shortage of marketable assets.


A large portion of the economy is still highly informal - and 80% of the output of farms and by small businesses goes to pay for capital, which is scarce.

The China-U.S. cold war - in trade, technology and finance - comes with its own rich prospects. Indian-born executives such as Microsoft Corp.'s Satya Nadella, Alphabet Inc.'s Sundar Pichai, International Business Machines Corp.'s Arvind Krishna and MasterCard Inc.'s Ajay Banga are in a position to drive investments and jobs to their country of birth.

Of late there's also progress on long-pending reforms. In a shakeup of rural power structures, the Modi government has taken a political gamble by freeing farmers from the institutionalized tyranny of having to sell their produce in designated market yards, where they get shortchanged by middlemen. It's also possible to be tentatively hopeful about labour reforms. Merging 44 federal labor codes into four, for instance, may see more workers on formal contracts, a privilege that eludes most Indian wage earners.

But there are questions: One, how will supply-side reforms fill the demand gap? Two, when will the broken financial system be made whole? Finally, will the narrow elite running India by proxy agree to compete fairly, or will it simply hijack the direction and pace of reforms for its own advantage, leaving a majority of people behind? PM Modi's government adopted a bankruptcy code in 2016, and bandied it as a weapon against crony capitalism. But after the domestic business class lobbied hard against losing prized assets, the insolvency reform lost its sting. Once the Covid-19 disruption began, the bankruptcy tribunal closed its doors to new cases. Out-of-court restructurings are a mess. A resource-starved country is unable to free the capital trapped in dying firms.

Meaningful correction would involve more than tweaking laws. The Indian state must put limits on its powers, end its overreach and rebuild trust. It must clarify if the goal is to remove "socialist" from the preamble of the constitution, something India's economic conservatives have always wanted, or if it is to drop "secular." Turning a 14% Muslim population into second-class citizens is hardly a recipe for peace and prosperity.

Resuscitating society's trust is more crucial now because New Delhi can't put itself back in the driver's seat. The pandemic has sapped the little fiscal strength it had. The investment-grade rating, which took the country more than 15 years to reclaim, looks increasingly vulnerable.

But trust requires honesty. Indians are surrounded by social media spin and empty slogans like "$5 trillion economy by 2024" - from $2.7 trillion before Covid. How exactly will this miracle happen? When Toyota Motor Corp. recently said it was halting expansion because high taxation is suppressing demand, ministers rushed to do damage control by calling it fake news. To acknowledge and fix shortcomings in the 2017 goods and services tax - the five-rate GST is a compliance nightmare - is to doubt PM Modi's acumen.

Independent voices that could challenge the official narrative are being muffled; institutions that could force the executive branch to right its wrongs have been defanged. All this runs contrary to our hopes that our media, judiciary, regulators, professional bodies and civil society groups would get stronger over time.

India's central bank has seen off two governors in the last four years after unsuccessful attempts to force bankers and their politically connected borrowers to clean up their acts. Electoral financing is now via anonymous bearer bonds, with no checks on the source. Recent judgments of the top court, as well as its dithering on important constitutional issues, have invited criticism that its approach is "more executive-like than the executive itself."

In the absence of institutional protection - not even of habeas corpus - trying to engage with the state has become a crime. Protesting peacefully, demanding rights, exposing wrongdoing by powerful people, criticizing policies have all become risky ventures.

The Prime Minister has made his core supporters ecstatic by breaking up Jammu & Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, into federally administered territories, but the move hasn't exactly buttressed India's image as a multi-religious, secular democracy.

The West will be prepared to overlook much of this. As Ashley Tellis, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, puts it, the exigencies of balancing China would force the West into a "constrained acquiescence to partnership." That's a poor substitute for "the enthusiastic boosting of India that would otherwise occur if its liberal credentials were not contested."

The Indian middle class, though, may be less forgiving. In economist Albert Hirschman's framework, the "exit" from India option was only for a minority. Others had to stay, and it was their "voice" that kept alive Indian democracy.

Now a Muslim friend from my hometown says he wants to emigrate because his seven-year-old daughter is being reminded by her classmates that she's different from the Hindu majority. A bank analyst in Mumbai wishes he'd left long ago. He reckons on many years of sub-5% GDP growth. The U.S. investor visa program saw a 400% jump in demand from Indians between 2016 and 2019. PM Modi's supporters troll dissenters on social media, and ask them to "go to Pakistan." As many as 7,000 high net worth Indians left in 2019, according to Global Wealth Migration Review. That's 2,000 more than in the previous year. It's unlikely any of them went to Pakistan.

Wither India?

My mother's side of the family comes from Faridpur, in what is now Bangladesh. Once a part of India, Bangladesh will overtake it in current per capita dollar income this year. When and how did we lose the plot to be the next China?

The problems began in the complacency of the mid-2000s. That's when India should have looked beyond software and semiconductor design and doubled down on shoes, shirts and toys - manufacturing that took advantage of the less-skilled workforce. Rather than turning special economic zones into a land grab, India should have created a few large enclaves. Demonetization and the flawed GST made things worse, and PM Modi's campaign of self-reliance may do yet more harm.

Why's the public not angered by it all? In the dirt-poor, northern state of Bihar, almost as populous as Japan, PM Modi's Covid lockdown forced migrant workers to return, fearful and jobless. Yet while interviewing voters before elections for the state legislature, Bloomberg News reporters found no dent in PM Modi's appeal. People's ire was reserved for his coalition partner, the state chief minister. And even he managed to retain power thanks to the prime minister's boundless popularity.


The push toward higher wages should have come from higher farm productivity, which would have raised the price of migrant labour coming to cities

When Manmohan Singh's government was in office, it was preoccupied with people's rights to education, food, work and information. PM Modi, on the other hand, identified touchpoints in everyday lives - a bank account opened with a unique identification, cooking gas to replace a coal- or wood-burning stove, a toilet in the village home - and delivered, up to a point. Whether there's money in the account, running water in the toilet or the means to replace the empty gas cylinder isn't something for which people blame him. Not when he has a bigger civilizational agenda, like building a temple for Ram, the Hindu God, in the same place where a mosque once stood until it was razed by Hindu mobs in 1992. As a 22-year-old student, I didn't fully realise what its razing meant. We were still giddy about the Berlin Wall coming down. The next generation of Indians, I'm afraid, will have to pay a price for that injustice.

The better-governed, faster-growing southern states of India have mostly shunned PM Modi's strongman cult, but they're bit players. It's the poor, over-populous northern states that matter disproportionately in Indian politics, and it is there that PM Modi has managed to shift the Overton window, supplanting material prosperity - which no party has delivered since the '90s - with chest-thumping nationalism and an atavistic yearning for a pre-Islamic past.

It's no coincidence that PM Modi's ascendancy in public life began after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., and export of terror from across the border in Pakistan. In the last parliamentary election following one such attack, Rahul Gandhi, the opposition Congress Party leader, couldn't even retain his family borough in Uttar Pradesh, previously won by his mother, father and uncle. And that was after he promised the equivalent of $1,038 a year to each of the country's 50 million poorest families. The losers of development have turned sceptical even of compensation.

Sadly, I don't see northern India's economic pessimism - or its caste enmities, religious hatred and deep-seated misogyny - making way for a less toxic, more aspirational politics. I say sadly, because I have always been secretly hopeful about India, even when criticizing its cumbersome red tape, crumbling infrastructure or clumsy policymaking.

But the 1990s dream has ended, the world has changed, and so have we.

Just typing that previous sentence feels like betrayal. India is where I was born, grew up, started work and got married.

I have left the country for long stretches, and my teenage children don't have any feel for its culture, cuisine or languages. Yet India and I have never let go of each other. When I write about other places, it's as a foreign correspondent. The India stories are different. They aren't all strewn with the first-person pronoun, but they're all personal. Increasingly, they're also bitter. Like this essay.

Call it buyers' remorse. Those of us who thought that muscular leadership would revive India's dream of mimicking Chinese-style double-digit expansion are not just disappointed. For many of my generation, our long-cherished hope for a better, greater India is all but gone. We wanted to trade some of our democratic chaos for a little bit more growth. We ended up with less of both.

(Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies and financial services. He previously was a columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He has also worked for the Straits Times, ET NOW and Bloomberg News.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.