Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A Visit in Three Parts: Meeting New India

I am in Delhi. I shall make my third, and final, train journey in a few hours time. This one, on a Super-fast express, is expected to be different from the ones I have done so far. I am told that this is an 'elite' train, used by Ministers and MPs, and hence, everything will be first class. Indeed. This is a two speed country and I am reminded of this one more time.

In this visit, it was always about this contrast. India is no longer just the land of opposites, but the battleground of different ideas of the nation and progress. Silently, all over India, as the old divisions supposedly crumbled, new zones of exclusion have been built. Indeed, there is this 'elite' India and a vast 'non-elite' one. Then, there are urban and rural India, Hindu and Non-Hindu India, Young and Old India: These are not self-containing groups, surely, but for each identity, there are certain privileges or the lack of it, there is exclusion and inclusion: Any visitor will be reminded of this every passing moment.

This is a bit of a reality check for me, someone who fantasized about the inclusiveness of Indian culture. In fact, the whole idea seems to be passe now, inclusiveness does not matter any more. We grew up, in the 80s, believing in the homegrown liberal notions of Pre-Independence Bengal, which envisioned India as a benign, all-accepting civilization, its greatness founded in its ability to absorb all-comers. This is no longer the idea of India that the people I met, movers and shakers in new India, carry. Their India is all about exclusiveness. Their India is about being young, energetic, one that will take over the world, that must take over the world. They are impatient about people who are dragging the country behind, minorities, villagers, old people and the like. They want to wish them away.

Stuck in an endless traffic congestion outside Delhi yesterday, in a car which had a visitor's sticker for the recent Formula One event held in India, I was reminded of this rather starkly: The roads outside were taken over by some of the 4 million 'Biharis' living in Delhi, who were celebrating their water festival. In utter disregard of the impatience of new Indian elite, they had taken over the roads, invading, at will, some of the new, fenced highways outside Delhi, slowing everyone down. New India, as one can clearly see, does not want to include these people: But neither can it wish them away.

Nor can it wish away the old, the group I seem to belong to. I am reminded of age in every private and public conversation. Being old in India is being excluded. So far, I am very spectacularly unsuccessful in my efforts to put age in perspective. Oldness has no charm in a country which intends to defy its past. Indeed, there are many young people around, particularly in North India, where I am now, than in the South, and their lives knew none of the constraints, barriers and difficulties the previous generations have grown up with. They would tend to see anyone above Forty not eligible for their attention, possibly because we are full of foreboding. Or, may be, they seem to remind them that everything can go wrong yet again.

In a sense, this tension about newness and oldness is symptomatic of the impatience. This is an India which is running low on patience, as this must achieve, in all of one generation, what has been denied to it, or perceived to have been denied to it, so far.

All good, but there are indeed risks in such thinking: Democracy may seem expendable as it slows progress. This did seem to come up quite a few times, though only implicitly, but it did seem that the New India does not mind trading off some of its liberties for a little more prosperity. And, indeed, such a thing is possible: In the India I am experiencing, every man is a true island, concerned about their well-being and immersed about the practicalities of life, work and stock market. They wouldn't know if the Gestapo knocked on their neighbour's door.

Indeed, such democratic disregard may be impossible in a country with 'free' media, and particularly as the satellite channels are currently crucifying the government of the day for its inaction on corruption. However, I am not sure about the solution they offer: They seem to have put their weight behind a technocratic body, run by the same bureaucrats responsible for the current corruption, which will be even less accountable than they are today. In fact, the media frenzy on this seem to confirm, not contradict, my feelings that democracy is in existential danger in India.

I am sure one would feel that this is an unwarranted exaggeration of threat but as I believe, one can't be too sensitive in matters like this. The problem is 'free' media is never too free, when it remains united in interest by the unity of ownership structures and the background of people who run them. It seems to operate from within a zone of exclusion of its own, a barrier erected somewhat by the privileges of English language and the in-group thinking inculcated at the schools for the elite in India. In one sense, democracy is so fragile in India because it sits uncomfortably as a political system and not embedded in the way of life or thinking. There were magical effects of giving away the right to vote to everyone at the beginning, but somehow it stopped there: Democracy does not cross the front porch of any of the grand family homes in Delhi, and once within, conforming to social norms and elder's wishes reign supreme. This, mixed with the generational impatience and disregard for everything long term, including public safety and environment, has created a dangerous cocktail that can quickly turn India into a self destructing state. Paradoxically, the only thing to save us from that fate will be India's cacophony of diversity, the Biharis on the street, the old and the excluded, the moaners full of foreboding, and the sundry commentators out of touch and out of faith with the current idea of progress.

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