Always there was hope. If all else failed, the promise of 2020 was there. It offered a target, and that always brings together effort, resources and people in a marvellous way. It even offered a plan of action. Through all the ups and downs of the intervening years, from 1998, when India 2020 was published, to 2020, it became a guide to the future. It offered so strong a vision that, as 2020 ends, with all the downers it offered, the dream still survives.

It is worthwhile to go back to 1997, when I got the idea for a book that pinned down the fuzzy notion of a developed India and went to meet APJ Abdul Kalam, a meeting whose outcome India 2020 would be. The Indian economy was progressing at a reasonable pace, the streets were bright, shop-shelves had their share of attractive imported goods alongside the homespun fare, the cars were better with just that little edge for some that were roomier and more powerful, such as the Contessa which had been around for several years, and the more recent Cielo.

Land of dreams

India was on the cusp of a bright new future but not quite there. Imported goods were available but not freely, there was much more happening on television, but it was just enough not to result in satiation.

A well-meaning coalition government led by IK Gujral was trying to create a friendly neighbourhood as it made its quiet way to dismissal, and somewhere in their labs and research centres Indian scientists were maintaining the tempo of their high-end research in rocket technology and nuclear science, among other things. It might appear a much more quiescent time looking back, but for those living through it, it certainly wasn’t. There was the excitement too of soon crossing a billion in population.

Kalam, who was then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, had just been awarded the Bharat Ratna, a great honour not easily bestowed on anyone, for his contribution to the space programme and missile development. Gujral would proudly tell me that he was instrumental in giving the award.

In hindsight, though, when technology has leaped forward and there is so much more now by way of economic growth and consumer choice, one wonders why that period still seems full of wonder and possibilities. There were widespread disparities, however, and serious problems that refused to go away.

India as a developed country, one that could hold its own among advanced nations, provide a decent living standard for its people, offer healthcare systems that worked, and build schools that provided an education to launch children on a journey of curiosity and towards knowledge was, therefore, an exciting idea. The book, as I envisaged it, would offer an alternative to political fluff, those wretched promises one had grown tired of hearing, made cynically by politicians looking for re-election – housing for all, education and healthcare, telephones easily available. Those were the landline days, and providing telephones meant laying thousands of miles of cables and setting up exchanges. It wasn’t going to happen.

The purpose was to provide specific, segment-wise targets, and a way to get there within a timeframe. The areas covered were in part technological, as they had to be – food, agriculture and processing; materials and the future; strategic industries. There were also chapters on what was needed from people themselves to realise the vision.

The emphasis was on being positive and willing to work for the general good. Some of the targets may have been unrealistic, but this was in a sense a draft document. Notably, it was an inclusive picture, leaving out no one, including the marginal farmer. There was no discrimination here on any grounds, faith, social status, caste, no ideological baggage, nothing divisive, nothing that stoked dislike or hatred, no gloom or doom.

A series of meetings took place with YS Rajan, a colleague and friend of Kalam’s, who could pull ideas out at will from the interstices of his thick, greying hair (the beard followed later) as we tried to work on an outline. Some weeks on, a TIFAC report which examined the growth potential in different sectors with 2020 as the target year came up, and the project was suddenly clear – the book was on.

The authors had a busy schedule, and sometimes used to travel out of town to one of the research or missile launch centres in Odisha or in South India to find some quiet and workspace. Much of the manuscript was written by hand and then typed out – Rajan would complain of arthritic fingers for months afterwards from writing for long periods at a fast pace.

Twists and turns

Publishing can be a very tough business. Deadlines can be set which prove, as the project proceeds, way too tight. India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium, as the book would be called, was slated for release in August 1998, with a manuscript submission of April after a discussion with Dr Kalam at his office in South Block.

On May 11 and 13, 1998, the nuclear tests took place in Pokhran, and the their impetus made the author and the subject of the book even more interest. The book was timed, appropriately, for release around Independence Day. In July the editing was still on, the last few chapters were still coming in, and this was still the pre-digital age when you needed camera-ready copy – basically neat printouts from the typesetter – to send to press.

I will spare readers all the twists and turns – for instance, it would later turn out that the first submission date of the manuscript, around mid-April, was close to the date initially fixed for the nuclear tests, but of course we had no idea that there was anything in the works. Or the fact that as the manuscript took shape, while the deadline pressure mounted, the print-run, put at 10,000 initially, dropped steadily as the contents veered towards the technical, ending up at 4000.

Eventually it became a race against time, and there were three editors, sitting in a flat in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, sprinting through text at eye-popping pace to correct as much as we could. A taxi had been kept waiting, and the last set of pages was sent near midnight to Rajinder Ganju, a one-man army who is one of the heroes of Indian publishing for the series of big, budget-making books he has typeset against impossible deadlines for just about every English-language publisher. The pages were in by morning, and grabbed by the production manager with no chance of further correction.

The book came out as scheduled by 15 August, and remarkably, the 4000-copy print run sold out in two or three weeks. It was well on its way to regular reprints over the next couple of decades. The book was also the darling of the pavement booksellers in Connaught Place, its electric cover, designed by Anil Ahuja overnight, invariably catching the eye.

It was translated into virtually every Indian language, and in the English original has sold several hundred thousand copies – the last update on the cover of 200,000 copies sold was done some fifteen years ago.

In 2002 APJ Abdul Kalam became President of India. In the years from the book’s publication to his presidency and after, the theme of a developed India would feature in hundreds of speeches to lakhs of students, specialists and lay people. It became the subject of conferences and seminars and plans.

On Twitter one can find dozens of responses and comments on the book. I did not keep track of all that was going on around the book, only asking a few people whom I knew a couple of times, including an IITian whose opinion I respected, what they thought of it, and was pleased when they offered praise.

Mission mode

Nevertheless, there may be much to criticise or question in the book. Even so, one could say in its favour that after a long time there was an idea that captivated a nation, bringing its attention to targets everybody could identify with. Remarkably, it appeared at a time when the possibility of India’s ranking among the world’s biggest economies was a gleam in the eye.

Events after the 1998 nuclear tests would make it appear even more unlikely. An economy under pressure came under more stress as several countries imposed sanctions. Some of the following years saw growth drop precipitously to 4 per cent and less. The Y2K crisis at the beginning of the millennium posed its own challenges, and 2001 with its spate of terrorist attacks in India too besides that on the World Trade Center was around the corner.

But the BRICs report which started to be taken note of from around 2002 would change things – suddenly India moved into the limelight with the report’s predictions of India becoming a major economy, and India 2020 started to appear a real possibility. If it did not quite achieve all that was projected, it is not entirely that the targets were unrealistic but also that we did not take them seriously enough.

Regardless, as target dates are set for various programmes – from doubling farmer income to piped water to every home – by 2024 or 2025 or 2030, it may not yet be time, as the year 2020 passes, to let go of the original vision that so enamoured everyone. It is not a question of wealth or prestige, but of what connotes true development – for instance, reductions in maternal and child mortality, longer lifespans, better healthcare, fewer people in abject poverty, including the pavement dwellers in city streets, the unseen of urban life.

It is not superpower status only that is important – all things considered, a $5 trillion economy is not so far from reach with the possibilities in the service sector, for instance, and on various other fronts that can yield high incomes, besides price-rise itself – but the provision of ordinary, basic facilities for a decent life, which was what the book set out as goals.

Krishan Chopra is Publisher, Non-fiction at HarperCollins India.