Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Coming Transformation of India

I feel optimistic about India just when others are feeling despondent, growth seems to be stalling and the media, with the daily diet of horror stories, is proclaiming the end of the world everyday. The Commonwealth Games fiasco, the corruption scandals, the crimes against women, the lethargy in decision making, have all painted a picture of drift and confusion, lack of leadership and a deep crisis in governance; but the fact that all these seem to be a crisis, that people are marching on the streets, the state seems perilously fragile, should be a symptom of a much more forceful, positive, change that would remake India.

India's chief problem has so far been that the state is so dangerously distant from the affairs of the street. This distance is about disconnection, of an unaccountable existence, of its functionaries and officials. This is inherited, in many ways, from the British colonial administration, whose mechanisms Independent India took over and kept intact. Primarily, this means two things: One, the Independent Indian State inherited the vast power without accountability befitting a colonial administration (and enshrined the same in its, British style, constitution); and, two, it assumed a very similar role as a patron - just as the Colonial Administration did - by forming coalitions with a handful of powerful people and attempting to run the country through a network of agents, and thereby, creating layers after layers of power, privilege and influence, each underlying layer surrendering to the interests of those above, and mechanics of the government suitably obscured from the view of all except the ones at the very top. 

Nehru was bold to insist on universal suffrage at the very beginning of Independent India, but not bold enough to consider Gandhi's proposal to disband the Congress Party and build India on grassroots organisation upwards: He instead imposed the patron state, with an automatically incumbent party (more like ANC in South Africa today), with a democratic mandate to soothe his, and his fellow travellers', liberal conscience. However, democratic election does not automatically mean an accountable state: Democratic election is merely a means of selecting the functionaries, one route among many possible ones. The moment the elections are over, the residual accountability needs to be built and sustained through other functioning, independent institutions. In other countries undergoing similar democratic experiments, accountability usually came from judicial activism, media scrutiny or the challenge from the civil society. In the history of post-Independence India, we have seen some of each variety of activism (though they were rarely coordinated, except before and after Emergency), but none of these really sustained, or persisted, to hold the governing interests to account. There were indeed many reasons: Because the Indian state maintained itself through dominant languages and a civil service instituted at the colonial times, which selected its members and operated on the basis of social capital, its institutions were mostly interlocked and incapable of challenging one another. There is a high society, and all kinds of power belonged there. No one really wanted to upset the apple cart as all of the important people were in it together.

The patron state paradigm creates a sense of entitlement among those who help to run it. Any conversation in Delhi, where the powerful is most concentrated, would usually include name-dropping of big government functionaries [the Mumbaikars usually merely recount serendipitous, and often fictitious, viewings of matinee idols]. With time, this leads to the powerful taking their status for granted - why else would I be expected to know that an Assistant Deputy Secretary in the Department of Aviation Modernisation (I made that up) is an important person when I meet his/her fourth cousin by chance (again, I made this up) on a Delhi-bound train - and eventually forget that every public role needs to have a public purpose. The term, 'taxpayers' money', does not have a popular Hindi equivalent yet: Instead, the term in use in Hindi literally translates into 'royal entitlement'. This entitled class, tightly guarded, which occasionally accommodated those populists who could work the democratic elections to their favour but only as long as they remain in their place, took the rent they earn, just for being members of the club, for granted : The corruptions in India, which persist across party lines, are merely a symptom of this structure of privilege.

However, the reason to be optimistic about India is that all this is history: The country seems to be poised to reach another turning point which is no less pivotal than its moment of Independence. This optimism is rooted in a simple hope - that demography is destiny - and the observation that suddenly, there are far too frequent marches on the street, public anger and activism, and more ubiquitous formation of 'crowds' (One has to remember that this isn't normal: Most Indian cities, designed by the British, do not even have public squares, meeting places where such movements can start from). Unsophisticated, spontaneous and leaderless, this isn't a revolution: But, then, as recent events elsewhere may have illustrated, revolutions are not what we construct them to be, post fact. They tend to be far less organised, far more ad hoc - leadership in revolution is situational more often than not, and the leaders emerge from the movement itself. I shall therefore not moan about the disorganized nature of India's public activism, in its headless form, but rather see the roots of an Indian spring and the beginning of the end of its 'convenience democracy'.

There are many who see the watershed moment will arrive in 2015. That coincides with India's General Election, one that should mark the end of another generation of Indian politicians and the beginning of the first true post-independence generation. John Elliot sees this as the monumental battle for the idea of India, with battle lines clearly drawn. However, this is also the time India's demographic peak arrives, its college going population soars, and people born after the economic liberalisation starts entering the working population. In this brave new world, the grand schemes such as idea of India may be less relevant than it is today, but others, such as decline of authority (as Indians move to the cities and traditional family formations start breaking down irreversibly), growth of regional mobility and preponderance of modern consumption may seriously challenge the patron state, and try to turn over its entitlement network. This may sound like chaos, but every nation must reinvent itself periodically, and a similar moment is upon India: It is a historic opportunity, but failing to do so will be like living inside a combustion engine.

Indeed, this hope is fragile and its outcomes unknown. But it is only so because the talking classes are so disconnected. The development talk, that many Chief Ministers and Politicians are trying to own, is a symptom that what sold yesterday, identity politics, may not sell tomorrow. The language of anger, such as shooting the criminals after summary judgement, is immature and ill-advised, but showing that instead of media controlling the streets, the street talk is taking over the media. There are grave dangers to civil society from a flaring of nationalism, which is the wave Mr Modi wants to ride, but India seems to be moving away from militant nationalism rather than towards it: It is not about growing tolerance, but a direct result of ubiquitous consumer identity and dizzying growth of regional mobility. The urbanization is bringing freedom, of all kinds, political, intellectual, financial and sexual, and allowing new ideas of individual to pre-empt the grand debate about the idea of India.

However, this is the time of breaking of the entitlements: Usually, this means flourishing of extraordinary creativity and new possibilities once the life after chaos commences. This is what we will be looking for, I am looking for: This would usher India's moment, finally.

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