Book Review: Backstage by Montek Singh Ahluwalia

Book Name: Backstage: The Story Behind India’s High Growth Years

Author: Montek Singh Ahluwalia

Publisher: Rupa

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: 3.7/5

Book Blurb: Tracing the spectacular trajectory of ahluwalia’s life from its humble beginnings in Secunderabad to the corridors of power in New Delhi, this book is a classic insider’s account of how the India story was shaped and script Ahluwalia played a key role in the transformation of India from a state-run to a market-based economy, and remained a constant fixture at the top of India’s economic policy establishment for an unprecedented period of three decades. The book traverses the politics, personalities, events and crises in India’s recent history. It goes behind the numbers to bring alive the politics of reform, and how policy change was pushed through—at first, slowly, under prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and then much more boldly in 1991 when the opportunity provided by a severe balance of Payments crisis was seized for wide-ranging reform. Ahluwalia, who served as commerce Secretary and finance Secretary during this crucial period, makes a convincing case for why, contrary to the accusations at the time, the reforms that formed part of the conditionality of the international monetary fund (IMF) programme in 1991, were home-grown and not thrust upon a reluctant India by the IMF. Ahluwalia discusses the successes and failures of the up a regime during which period he served as deputy Chairman of the planning Commission, a cabinet-level position. He presents the story behind India’s spectacular economic growth in the first half of the upa’s tenure as well as its historic achievements in poverty alleviation. He also candidly discusses the policy paralysis and allegations of corruption that came to mark the last few years of up a 2. Narrated with wit, humour and remarkable intellect, backstage is a definitive contribution to India’s economic and political history by one uniquely positioned to write it.

Review: Backstage provides a detailed peek into the working mechanisms of India’s economy. The author, Montek Singh Ahluwalia worked closely formulating some of India’s most strategic economic decisions and therefore, this book provides a good background into what goes behind the scenes.

At the very outset, it is explained that the book is not a memoir but it would have worked better as a memoir. Much has been written in detail about the subjects Ahluwalia writes about and the book does not bring anything new to the table. His manner of writing is gentle, honest and diplomatic: wonderful qualities for a technocrat or a politician but not of much use in writing.

“It took nine years before the Apellate Tribunal finally rules in their favour. This is as good an example as any of what can happen when lower level functionaries have discretionary powers and no danger of being held accountable for wrong decisions.”

The more interesting bits are when he narrates snippets from his life and the humble rise from an outsider to the corridors of power (purely on merit) makes for a good read.

The intricate workings of the planning commission and other global institutions is also explained.

“Good economics may not seem to be good politics in the short run, but wise political leaders will realize that it is almost always the best politics in the long run.”

While the bulk of his career was under the Congress government, he is quick to point out the inefficiencies of the governance system in India. The Aadhar roll out and building infrastructure through PPP’s are interesting chapters.

Running an economy is a herculean task and no government in the world has excelled at it. India’s growth has been marvellous considering the various bottlenecks in the administrative setup.

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