Wednesday, April 01, 2009

India: Up, Close and Personal - In Delhi

I am in Delhi and put up in Le Meridien, a hotel very close to Rajpath and the Parliament. From the 12th floor, I have a good view of the Gateway of India, and an unique opportunity to do some morning walk on Rajpath.

Coming from Mumbai, it is such a change. I was travelling with the trade mission and some of members commented about the cleaner roads and clearer traffic. This, despite the omnipresent extension work of Delhi metro, which seemed to be coming right near the Parliament House, and past that, to the Airport.

I also notice something peculiar in Delhi, which I never notice in Mumbai. I feel discriminated, only if slightly. I am travelling with a Northern Irish Trade Mission. I am Indian, and hold an Indian passport, though my rooms have been booked together and the same fare has been paid. Interestingly, everyone in Delhi assumes me to be a junior member, or an assistant, to the other, white members of the mission. It does not infuriate me anymore. It amuses me. It was funny when the coach driver requested me to sit in the front passenger seat, not knowing that in English/ Irish culture, that will be the seat of privilege. It was a bit disappointing when the hotel will allocate rooms at the higher floor to the Irish members but not to me, despite me making an expressed request, both at the time of booking as well as at the check-in time. I could see that I made them uncomfortable with that request; there was a body language message, between the Front Office person and her supervisor, which told me that higher floors are out of bound for me. May be.

This is Delhi, the city of status and privilege. I can see that if I open my window. The tree-lined streets and clean lawns, majestic late colonial architecture, belies our crowded, chaotic nation. You have to be someone to be counted in Delhi. At least, in this part of Delhi. Your status, and your parents', is important. As I said, this amuses me. The contrast with Mumbai could not be more direct. In Mumbai, we have created the closest to the opportunity society we can get. But, in Delhi, we have preserved all the majesties, and the trappings and privileges, of our colonial past.

I keep coming back to this subject and here I am in this again. I keep thinking that we have created India on an unique, wonderful idea. It was like a dream, too romantic to be true. And, then, in all practicality, we preserved our colonial institutions and statutes, and the civil service, and asked them to implement that idea. So, in effect, we asked people, who have been steeped in the tradition of exclusion of native Indians, to create world's most inclusive democracy. I should not really be surprised if I am not treated at par with my trade mission colleagues at the Hotel Front Desk.

I admire Nehru and I think he was a true visionary. Uniquely among all his contemporaries, creators of modern states, he had an 'opposable mind', an unique asset in leadership. [Barack Obama talks about this at length, and cites Lincoln as his inspiration] He indeed had a dream, of a modern India, an inclusive, equitable and just society and of an economic powerhouse. Nehru internalized the lessons Gandhi and Tagore taught him - to embrace the common man and to embrace the world respectively - and he became the embodiment of the idea of India. But, then, he failed - and his dream did not even last his lifetime - and the process was subverted into a privilege based, bureaucratic mess.

One of the reasons that mighty dream came to a whimper is the much praised 'continuity', India's transfer of power was possibly one of the most peaceful in history. Partially because of Gandhi's understanding that economic persuasion is more effective than armed struggle, and partially because of Nehru's faith on the efficacy of the British administration system, India's transfer of power was merely a transfer of sovereignty, with little changes at the functioning of the state. Unfortunately, this efficacy came at the cost of exclusion of Indian people, and this disease continue to bother us long after the British are gone.

Hindsight is an exact science, but never very useful, as a friend like to say. Looking back, it seems that the Indian state needed a root-and-branch reform at the hour of independence. It seems that the political ideal of India was never transferred to the administrative reality of the Indian state. It seems that our independence was merely a transfer of power from the British to a 'class of Indians, who are Indian in colour, but British in thought, belief and action', as Lord Macaulay famously sought to create.

There were many real life considerations which may have prevented it then. The trauma of partition and the massive task of resettlement of refugees forbade any possibility of radical reform. However, one does not know why such a reform was completely taken off the agenda. Nehru's, and of his other colleagues', faith in the British administrative system was probably the key reason, though one can clearly see that Gandhi had a different vision of post-Independence India and he failed to persuade the rest of the Congress Leadership to adopt his idea of root-and-branch reform.

Sitting in Delhi, it is easy to see where the Indian state starts and ends. It is easy to see Gandhi's idea, of creating a federation of villages, is not as off the mark as it seems. The essential idea was to invert the power structure and allow a new state to form - this is as peaceful a 'Cultural Revolution' can get - which would have formed the basis of a new Indian identity. It is hard to say whether this idea would have severely hampered progress, as was argued, but it is clear to see that the idea would have created a more inclusive, equitable and proud society. While I brood about Delhi's culture of exclusion and privilege, that forgotten idea does not seem that bad after all.

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