Thursday, April 29, 2010

Making India Work

I am in India, as reported, and in the middle of my usual cycle of passion and depression, accentuated by an odd migraine and excitement in discovering various possibilities. It is hot, in both senses of the word, and we are in that opportune, supreme moment, Kairos in Greek, Mahakshan in Sanskrit, where we shall script India's future - either to greatness or to abyss.

I am conscious that it is easy to get carried away in India. A country's future is not the property prices in Powai, which has gone up by 40% year on year, or the BSE Sensex, which seems to be soaring again to that 20,000 mark, making a lot of paper millionaires across the country at this time. Despite the excitement of the English language press, which is intent on selling the India story 24x7 to whoever cares, this is still a very poor country, with intractable problems. Full of possibilities, though, as I keep mentioning in this blog, but so far, we have failed to imagine and failed to act.

I am reading a brilliant book, from which I borrowed the title of this post. Making India Work, by William Nanda Bissel [who is also the MD of Fabindia, one of India's leading branded retail store chain for handicrafts] takes issues with the lack of imagination that plagued independent India, and the web of privileges and power that we have built and the consumption-centric solution that is being peddled as the end-all today. A few minutes earlier I was watching on TV India's Finance Minister, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, who seemed to be fixated on the growth rate, like the others in English Language media, and seemed to have a target [like us, poor salesmen] of 9% to achieve. That 9%, simply because China has made it fashionable and we want to be seen in their company, means nothing to most people, who are struggling to make ends meet, does not seem to bother Pranab-babu. Mr Bissel makes a point with his criticism of big centralized government, which seemed to have made opaque and distant from its common citizens, creating a privileged class, who, if they had an option, would have left the others behind and taken the country with them to join the United States of America.


Mr Bissel has recommended a three pronged solution to make India work: Fair Markets, Appropriate Scale [of government] and transparency [at all levels]. None of them exist at this time, but admittedly India is making progress. One can argue that this progress is too little too late, and if we continue like this, we are sure to miss the window of opportunity presented to us at this right demographic moment. On the other hand, one could argue, and this is the feel I get right now, that we are moving towards a tipping point, when these slow progresses accumulate enough strength to change everything, and unlock the potential of a young, vigorous, energetic country.

Three reasons I say so:

One, because the consensus among the privileged, which allowed India to be governed by a small group of people primarily based out of big cities, are breaking down. The challenger middle class is visible everywhere, the immigrant from small town has now started claiming their place in the boardrooms, and the cosy alliance at the top are all but shaken. It is visible everywhere, from India's national cricket team to Bollywood movies, to Engineering College campuses and IT companies' recruitment roasters, there is a clear momentum for the change of guard. I did use the statistic that only 15% of India's 2.8 million graduates that pass out every year are employable by a multinational company, but if you think about it: That's a good thing. The 85% who does not know English and may have never lived and worked in a city is graduating. While I am all about upskilling them to a level as good as others, but they have already taken the first step. These are the people who will demand a democratization of opportunity and ultimately bring about the changes we need.

Two, the democracy is working. Yes, India has a fairly limited democracy because the state is too big, too powerful and too distant - but yet, democracy is creating the churn that we need, even in terms of challenging what we accepted as the immutable form of the state. Indeed, it is tainted, accountability is lacking, but that has more to do with the administrative form we are running than the democratic system of politics. To be honest, I think India's polity is now confronting its governance. Way to go, I say, that is a challenge the Babus can not possibly beat off. Democracy should, ultimately, democratize India.

Three, an idea of India is finally emerging. It is beyond the liberal post-independence conception of the paternalistic state, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatmata; it is the modern, self-confident India, which wants to offer an alternate model of development and politics and engage with the world. This India is not afraid to be friends with the United States, talk freely about climate change and to attempt to tackle it regardless of whether the rich countries are giving it a handout or not, the India which is not ready to buy the Western Business Models a la carte but offer its own frameworks to the world. This new idea of India, if the consensus on the street is any indicator, is going beyond the Gen X 'me first' thinking; this is a new, secure, ambitious India. The vision of the new India is inclusive growth, which is beyond the glitz and glamour of Bollywood and IPL, and encapsulated in the ambitions of Tata Motors, Infosys, Rahul Gandhi and the likes.

As you can see, I am a believer: Unabashedly so. This is not about a sense of national superiority, but about bringing out freedom, for a vast majority of people who, till this point, have been wronged. This freedom 'movement' can become one of the greatest events in history, and yet again provide a model for hope, freedom and aspiration for all across the world.


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