Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Into India: Constructing A New India

I am writing this from Bhopal: First time in Bhopal, I am stunned by its beauty and serenity. I somehow imagined it to be a provincial town and somewhat of an industrial wasteland, my perspective informed, perhaps, by my adolescent memories of Union Carbide gas leak. Instead, I see a city wrapped around a lovely lake, pleasant weather and mountainous roads. Such 'discoveries', however naive, make up for all the troubles of travel, spending nights at nameless hotels, and irregular patterns of life this entails.

But apart from the beauty of this city, I see ambition: The giant malls straddling the city centre not just changing the consumption patterns of the city, but also its social life. The private universities, only a few years old in the province, churning out a new generation of graduates, and international schools forming a new ambitious pattern of parenting. My initial assumption that the new India is being shaped in smaller towns is proving to be accurate, at least at its surface. 

Travelling around the country also gives me the privilege to talk to different people. While we usually talk business, I can't help but marvel at how different the mood is in India than it appears from outside. I trace on the BBC the start of a new corruption scandal, with India cancelling a contract with an Italian defense firm under suspicion India's Former Air Force Chief in their investigation. This may, I fear, dominate the conversation about India in the coming months, raising a cacophony inside and outside, causing ugly scenes at the parliament to the amusement of the rest of the world, dampening the analysts' views of the country and spawning more articles like Ruchir Sharma's recent Foreign Affairs piece, Broken BRICs. This can turn really ugly, as the firm happen to be Italian, the country of birth of Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling coalition, whose foreign origins have always been a talking point and a great source of suspicion. However, regardless of all the distraction, the mood in small town India is buoyant: The change is too obvious to ignore, regardless of slumping growth figures, the general end-of-the-world storytelling of the media and endless stories of abuse of power, discrimination, violence and corruption. 

However, if life is getting better, it is also becoming different. The old and new India seem to clash regularly. The large IT and IT services companies, which have become the new microcosm of India, show the conflict and the emergence of the new. On one hand, Indian IT companies are pulled apart by regional rivalries, with one or the other community getting a favoured treatment, supposedly or for real, displaying in abundance the divisions in India that refuse to die. On the other, however, younger workers, as they are forced to stay close to each other through the trials and tribulations of a difficult job, find love mostly in office, cohabiting with, and in some cases, marrying, people from other regions, caste and even of different religion. These companies, seen that way, are the new melting pot, enabling inter-marriages, causing mobilities, and yet spawning fierce battles of regional affiliations more often than not.

And, in this backdrop of clashing optimism and pessimism, regionalism and modernism, small town versus the colonial big cities, a new Indian narrative is starting. Sixty years back, the Indian leaders embarked on a path of creating a paternal state looking after its citizens, a state that itself tried to be the melting pot, the saviour god and an ideologue-teacher, all rolled into one. But this was based on a view of power and ambition, deeply entrenched in the psyche of the independence struggle, of being being a subject race for so long and of the horrors of partition; no longer, all such memories have been wiped off in the last twenty years of liberalization in India, where the new middle classes, rising from small towns, jostled with old elite in ambition, taking over public roles and spaces with their rough manners but abundant aspirations. The old state narrative is falling out of favour, but, strangely, it is not being replaced by high-culture postmodernist atomised individualism. Rather, the new elite wanted the reassurance of a new state, strong and linear, less nuanced, less argumentative, less interfering, but a state which gives them identity and confidence. 

What I am seeing, I shall claim, is the beginning of this new state. The old values, some cherished, such as secularism, some redundant, such as socialist bureaucracies and reservation mentality, are falling out of favour. Instead, things which were rebuffed before, such as majoritarian nationalism, the idea of India as a Hindu-Hindi country, and, at the same time, paradoxically, strong regionalism, the rediscovered charms of being Bengali, Tamil, Telegu and Maharastrian, without necessarily appearing anti-Indian, are being considered acceptable, even fashionable. This is a very different statehood, philosophically, from the statehood enshrined in our constitution, built on a consensus forged by the freedom struggle and worldview of a subject race. I do complain that Indians are arrogant, and they are indeed, but this arrogance is shaping the positive view of India and Indianness, and prompting a revisionism, wiping out the toils and tears of the freedom struggle and somewhat conjoining the modern, small town India, with a mythical, glorious, imagined past.

It is easy to interpret this tension as the tension between Congress' world view and the BJP's, the struggle of two ideas of India, as some will put it, one defined by secularism and the other by chauvinism: But this is a continuum, parts of the same journey. It is as if the country wants to unleash itself, committing itself to the mobility and relationship revolution that silently started in the BPO corridors, just because it has lived long enough to the shadows of its past. While this may indeed somewhat echo some of the Rahul vs Modi rhetoric, it isn't exactly that: In fact, just as the constitution may be part of the past, the political parties may be similarly passe. The Congress has abjectly failed to match expectations; but equally, BJP has failed to imagine and to deliver, when and where they were given the opportunity. They have succumbed to the same dithering indecision, same webs of factionism, corruption, and politics of perks and privilege, whenever they were in power. Worse, the BJP's strategic thinkers have still not aligned themselves to the future, not imagined the coherent strong nation but merely succumbed to a meaningless fantasy of revivalism, a big city dominated polity and majoritarian rhetoric so irrelevant in modern India.

Therefore, new political formations are bound to emerge, one fit for a rising country of billions, of millions of young people. Power is shifting and will shift: The post-industrial production will shape the futures and fortunes of smaller cities like Bhopal and Bhubaneswar, and unleash the tremendous energy and productive capacities of its millions of residents. A suitable politics must not be about choosing the least worst alternative, but to genuinely move forward. To keep with it, possibly, the days of platform parties, such as Congress and the BJP, big national formations who are too cumbersome and distant to do anything, are over: Power may now return to the regional parties and functionaries, all working within the frameworks of a common identity. The current bottom-up pressure may reorient India to achieve a new coherent national identity based on strong governance at the regional levels, synced together in search of a common destination. This will be very unlike the European nationalism, but this may stand out to be the model of national identities and democracies in the time to come. 

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