Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Case for Reinvention of India

India is an ancient land but a modern nation: The battle to define what it stands for is about to begin.

It is common in the history of nations, such battles. Despite the lore, nations are neither perennial nor indispensable, it is only a rather modern construct to define the state with cultural traits and organise the society around it. India as a modern nation, which emerged sixty-five years ago out of a retreating British empire, was based on certain ideas grounded in the belief systems at the time of its creation: of a redeeming optimism at the end of great wars and at the beginning of the end of political imperialism, of the triumph for modern science and technology in beating back our Malthusian destiny and expanding our physical capabilities, and of the faith in human freedom. These lofty visions that defined India, and the nations born thereafter, had one crucial drawback: They were aspirational, and ignored the muddy realities of concocted nations emerging out of centuries of subservience. 

Most new nations born around the time in Asia and Africa were weak states, which fell apart in a few years time: India did well to keep the state together, on the back of the tried-and-tested colonial administration machine, which the new Indian government decided to maintain uninterrupted. However, as a result, the Indian government remained as far apart from its people as the Raj was. The gap was hardly bridged by charismatic leaders and even the television, which transformed the country around Cricket and Bollywood movies. In fact, if anything, the new India of the small screen started to diverge more and more from the India outside, and the alienation of the polity was complete from the society.

What happened, therefore, in the last thirty years or so, is anathema to modern nation building: The emergence of sub-ethnic identities of regions, Tamils, Telegus, Punjabis, Bengalis and Gujaratis, so on and so forth, with distinct culture and polity, to fill the vacuum left by the distant state machine.  The culture indeed has integrated, but around something that is alien and unrecognisable, and therefore, distant from identity: All India may sing around Night Ki Naughty Kahani and create various regional renditions of Kolaveri Di, but it is unlikely that any Indian will see these deeply unifying cultural apparatuses as INDIAN in any shape or form. In short, the culture may have emerged, but done so not as a high culture defining a transcendent nationhood, but rather in the popular form quite distinct from the national project (indeed, many in Bangladesh and Pakistan will sing around the same songs as well). It did not help that the political culture at the Centre failed to redefine itself with any more than a personality cult, leaving leaders with lineage ruling the roost: The modern national project faded into insignificance with the disappearance of the idea of India behind the regional facade, popular consumerist culture and leaders' personality cults.

All this is now reaching a crisis point. The Indian government in Delhi, that potent force that shaped the country for several centuries, the successor of the mighty Mughals and the British Raj, now seems impotent to govern. The virulent Hindu nationalism, anathema to the nation-building project, presents itself as an alternative, its power resting on the assumptions of suspension of democracy and fantastic reconstruction of the Indian constitution. The Indian demography, peaking at this right moment, presents the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (or threat) of having a young nation needing direction: India should be mindful that in the Seventies, Soviet leadership failed to absorb its demographic peak by providing growth and nationhood, and perished as a result. The Indian businesses, largely content to remain politically balanced as long as they make money (The Economist lamented that 'never in history, so few with so much have spoken so little about what affects so many'), are increasingly taking their investments abroad, distraught with lack of progress at home and perhaps fearful of an implosion that may inevitably follow. And, the missing link that could make all this work, Indian education system, is failing to emerge from long neglect, confused demagoguery, lack of policy and leadership, to serve either the nation, or the industry, or even the students. 

In summary, things are falling apart, and the Centre, the India created in August 1947, is no longer holding. The idea needs reinvention, not just with the economic growth story which was used to justify the project for last twenty years but now stumbling, but with a new polity and cultural identity that goes with it. In short, it is time to send the regional demagogues to the dustbin of history and build a new Indian national movement perhaps, first as a cultural event and then into politics. It is time to update Lagaan, the movie that launched the shining India almost a decade ago, and to bring it into the age of transparent corruption and stumbling growth. It is also time to see India not just in isolation but in the context of its world: A dynamic world where the lines between friends and enemies are blurred, where Asia is emerging as world's playground as well as the new frontier, and where, old loyalties matter little and relationships have to be built anew. In totality, we need a new narrative: What India stands for? It is time to write the Discovery of India all over again.

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