Friday, November 04, 2011

A Visit in Three Parts: Finding Middle India

I am back in Calcutta. The incessant train journeys ended for now, and I felt comfortable the train pulled into Howrah station: After a long time, it felt like home. It looked a lot poorer and less privileged, not too many flashy cars and beautifully decked up ladies in evidence, but unlike Delhi, this was somewhat a familiar space and even the porters were slightly less aggressive. It helped my mood that the weather has become better, cooler, and this is closest to my idealized winter morning I can actually get. The chaos and cacophony were refreshing, indeed because of my new-found love for Indian diversity, and the slow pace of life, almost ubiquitous, is a welcome change from the chambers of power that I was visiting last few days.

I am more optimistic too, with a real chance of reconnecting back with India in my grasp, or so it seems. There are some exciting projects that I managed to discuss with people I met, and though the talks were vague and wide-ranging at this time, this gives me a sense of start. Also, this visit humbles me: I no longer carry the expectations of being pampered because of my overseas experience. I now know that the real story in India is the middle India, that diverse, intensely local opportunity of raising the lives of the unseen millions, rather than about creating global companies and going international. India seems to be thriving in the middle of a global recession because the middle India continued its journey into a better life, and had a bottomless reservoir of optimism. A strange mixture of low expectations, where only a few hundred rupees more meant slightly better life, and a sense of destiny, that India will emerge as a great country to claim its rightful place in the world, have kept this middle India going. What I see and complain about - the lack of privilege and access, the absence of freedom to live one's life according to own wishes, the crudeness and rudeness of life all around - does not seem to bother the people from the 'white tiger' generation. And, this, rather than the verbose intellectuals on telly or the well-set business houses eying international prestige or the politicians looking for the next dough, seems to be sustaining India through this global economic and political turmoil. And, this undaunted, unperturbed, unchanging India was very much in evidence as I stepped out of my VIP train and onto the streets of Calcutta.

I am no revivalist and this is not a claim for a Bengali resurgence. This is rather an appreciation of the role that the little people will play, Calcutta and elsewhere, in shaping the new new India. I can also see a transformation of India - part of a deliberate strategy of the government - where the focus is on the Indian villages. If one needs to detect symptoms, here is one: The government is withdrawing Petrol subsidies, but raising the Minimum Support Price of grain. Both directly contribute to raging inflation, and the government is trying to contain this by raising savings rates and raising interest rates on mortgages etc. On the surface, this is a curious mix of Keynesian and Monetarist economic strategies, but below the surface, this is a clever political attempt to alter the terms of trade between the city and the villages, agriculture and everything else. If this works, and that's a big if as the corruption interferes at every level, we would be looking at a new transformed India, one that may not shine much, but will be rock solid. And, the drivers of this India will be today's unglamorous crowd, the skilled tradesmen and small businessmen, rather than the captains of the industries and software programmers. And, this crowd will be found not in the hitherto coveted locations of Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, but in the smaller cities and left-out places like Calcutta and Patna, and indeed, in its surrounding villages.

Indeed, the optimist in me sees this celebration of middle India as the effective antidote of the monotony of mainstream media, the drabness of institutionalized intellect and the exclusivity and group thinking of the Babus, who are possibly feeling slightly besieged by the shift of political priorities. This, rather than Team Anna that some of these bureaucrats and businessmen have conceived, seems to hold the key for a new Indian prosperity. This is the first time I feel good about India: My objection that India is trying to follow the Industrial Revolution model as played out in England and elsewhere two centuries ago rather blindly proves baseless. It seems that finally India is evolving its own model of prosperity: That of finding the middle India.

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