Independent and cutting-edge analysis on Turkey and its neighborhood

Alyssa Ayres was originally trained as a cultural historian, having received her BA from Harvard College and her MA and P.h.D. from the University of Chicago. Her professional experience spans public and private sectors as well as the government. She served in the Obama administration as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia between 2010 and 2013. In addition to her frequent media presence as a leading expert on South Asia with on the ground experience, she is currently a Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has been publishing on India, Pakistan and South Asia since 2002 and Our Time Has Come is the sixth book she has written or edited on the region.

Ms. Ayres begins her book by recalling her first visit to India in 1990, which coincided with large-scale protests and even a case of self-immolation over low-caste quotas. Just before her second visit in the summer of 1991, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan separatist group, and the country had begun to undergo a severe economic crisis.[1] Ayres was watching history unfold before her. It is in this context that a new government led by P. V. Narasimha Rao was formed. The new government began a process of liberalization, undertaking wide-ranging economic reforms and opening up the Indian economy step-by-step to the world.[2] The India of the 90s, with its “marketplace of deprivation,” attracted the “spiritually hungry, more adventurous tourists and committed academicians,” however the India of today, a “consumer land of plenty,” attracts investors seeking deals, Fortune 500 CEOs, and startup investors.[3] Referring to India’s growing IT sector, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proclaimed in a 2014 speech at Madison Square Garden: “Our forefathers played with snakes, but we play with [a] mouse. Our youth push a mouse, and make the whole world shake.”[4] India’s economic growth and political stability helped elevate it to the world stage from its inward-looking socialist past and heralded its global ambitions and its rise as a major power. According to Ayres, “This book is about that process as Indian citizens make their country’s place in the world.”[5]

Our Time Has Come is structured in three parts: The first part, “Looking Back,” includes the prologue and the introduction, as well as subsections on how India has historically seen itself and the world, and a brief economic history of India with a focus on the process of opening up of trade and investment to the rest of the world. The second part, “Transition,” has two subsections about India’s regional and global ambitions and about India’s long-standing cautiousness, non-alignment, and non-intervention with regards to global alliances and trade agreements. The third and final part “Looking Ahead” includes four subsections concerning India’s changing global role, its changing economic future, and policy recommendations about how the US should work with a rising India, which concludes with an epilogue.

Ayres has a wealth of expertise and knowledge about India, and she portrays the past and current trajectory of India in an easy to read and well-crafted manner. One point of controversy about Our Time Has Come is her uncritical attitude towards economic reform and liberalization in India. The literature on labor regulation in India—just as the literature on labor regulation elsewhere—remains divided. There are studies that conclude labor regulation hinders economic performance,[6] but there are also studies that dispute this conclusion, finding the results ambiguous and further emphasizing the discrepancy between de jure labor regulation laws and the actual enforcement of these laws.[7] Although the author acknowledges challenges facing India, such as infrastructure, poverty, growing Islamophobia, and attempts to curb freedom of speech,[8] Ayres does not confront the economic side of the debate and has a straightforward view on economic liberalization and reforms in general.

A telling example of her viewpoint is her passing remarks on Amartya Sen. Ayres mentions a debate between two leading economists prior to India’s 2014 elections between acclaimed economist Jagdish Bhagwati and the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Bhagwati published Why Growth Matters in 2013 together with another distinguished economist, Arvind Panagariya from Columbia University. In the same year, Sen and Jean Drèze, an Indian economist of Belgian origin, co-authored An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. Bhagwati and Panagariya argue for further economic reforms and liberalization and an enhanced role for the private sector to lift an increasing number of people out of poverty, while Drèze and Sen advocate for greater public investment in social services such as healthcare and education as a prerequisite for poverty reduction, vouching that growth alone may not be the solution.[9] Ayres remarks that “The very fact that this debate exists at all appears puzzling to people familiar with the East Asian-style emphasis on growth. But in India everything is hotly contested.[10] To quote Sen and Drèze:

While India has climbed rapidly up the ladder of economic growth rates, it has fallen relatively behind in the scale of social indicators of living standards, even compared with many countries India has been overtaking in terms of economic growth. For example, over the last two decades India has expanded its lead over Bangladesh in terms of average income (it is now about twice as rich in income per capita as Bangladesh), and yet in terms of many typical indicators of living standards (other than income per head), Bangladesh not only does better than India, it has a considerable lead over it (just as India had, two decades ago, a substantial lead over Bangladesh in the same indicators).[11]

If economic growth is accompanied by only limited, minor improvement in living conditions for the bulk of people and even a relative worsening of non-economic indicators vis-a-vis similar countries like Bangladesh, it is quite normal for the primacy of economic growth to be questioned. Instead, Ayres chalks up the problem to “a relatively smaller manufacturing sector unable to provide at scale the good entry-level jobs that pulled much of East Asia out of poverty.” In order to support that view, Ayres cites a World Bank paper that explains the persistence of poverty in India versus India’s progress in poverty reduction as “essentially of the country’s scale.”[12]

Despite her meticulous research on India’s history and present, there are a few minor points where Ayres omits details where they would be warranted: For instance, Ayres talks about the complexity of Indian politics and the strength of “state parties,” which often forces national parties to work with state parties to accomplish their goals; there are seven national parties and 53 regional parties recognized by the Election Commission. However, Ayres omits mentioning what makes Indian politics so complex and regional parties so numerous and strong. One has to look at outside sources to see that in India’s bicameral system, 233 out of 245 members of the upper house are elected indirectly by states (and 12 out of 245 nominated by the president),[13] while the lower house is elected with first-past-the-post elections,[14] which explains the strength and importance of regional parties.

Ayres’s recommends that the US should be treating India as a “joint venture partner” rather than an “ally-in-waiting.” To serve both countries’ mutual interests and to facilitate India’s economic reforms, Ayres recommends bringing India into economic organizations and developing stronger bilateral trade ties. In the security arena, she suggests continuing pursuing stronger security cooperation with India with a long-term perspective and building “habits of cooperation.” She also suggests taking a stricter stance against Pakistan’s insufficient action against terrorism. In terms of democracy and rights, she supports expanding the technical partnership with India on democracy and framing bilateral conversations about rights to include challenges in the US, too. Finally, she recommends funding India studies at a time when India is becoming a vital partner in the global economy, in global peace and security, and in global governance.[15] At a time when the post-Cold War unipolar and the liberal world order seem to be on shaky ground, to say the least, treating India not as a future ally in a block but as a partner with common interests is prudent.

As the era of unipolarity or bipolarity comes to a close, Ayres’s recommendations may also prove useful for thinking about other countries that seek autonomy in foreign policy. The case of Turkey can be exemplary. Of course, Turkey’s population and economy are on a smaller scale than India’s and its potential is correspondingly more limited in scope as a result. Yet, the two countries have notable similarities: They both underwent liberalization through the 1990s and have increasing economic and political clout in today’s world. Inspired by a rich history, both have a dynamic, ambitious population and a government seeking to “make their place in the world” as it once was in the past. Both countries also have similar goals in pushing for reforms in global governance structures such as the UN Security Council. The two countries have much in common in their interest in building a relationship with the US, but they also have strong reservations stemming from their modern history. Thus, Ayres’s recommendations about US-India relations can influence policymakers in approaching other bilateral relationships in the contemporary world.

Alyssa Ayres’s Our Time Has Come is a well-crafted and illuminating book on India’s journey from its past, present and the future and caters to both casual readers wishing to learn about Indian politics and to experts in the field alike. With her experience as a policymaker and a scholar, Ayres makes concrete policy recommendations, which will undoubtedly have reverberations in South Asia and beyond.


[1] Alyssa Ayres, Our Time Has Come (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 4.

[2] Ayres (2018), p. 5.

[3] Ayres (2018), pp. 5-6.

[4] Ayres (2018), p. 116.

[5] Ayres (2018), p. 9.

[6] e.g. Timothy Besley and Robin Burgess, "Can labor regulation hinder economic performance? Evidence from India," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 119, Issue 1, (2004), pp. 91-134.

[7] e.g. Aditya Bhattacharjea, “Labour market regulation and industrial performance in India: A critical review of the empirical evidence,” The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 49, Issue 2, (2006), pp. 211-32.

[8] Ayres (2018), pp. 14-18, 158.

[9] Ayres (2018), p. 58.

[10] ibid.

[11] Jean Drèze & Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), p. viii.

[12] Ayres (2018), p. 15.

[13] Parliament of India, 8 September 2018, https://rajyasabha.nic.in/rsnew/council_state/council_state.asp

[14] The Constitution of India, p.39 https://www.india.gov.in/sites/upload_files/npi/files/coi_part_full.pdf

[15] Ayres (2018), pp. 207-242.

CONTRIBUTOR
Günay Kayarlar
Günay Kayarlar

Günay Kayarlar is a graduate student in the history department of University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US.

From the Desk of the Editor TPQ’s Summer 2018 issue marks the 11th annual edition that we are publishing with the support of NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division. This long-standing partnership has helped TPQ in its efforts to feature nuanced and diverse opinions on the security policy challenges facing Turkey, the region, and the transatlantic community. Over the years, we have had the privilege of bringing the...
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