Thursday, May 16, 2013

India 2020: Missing The Moment

India is on its way to squander its opportunity to lift itself from poverty to the front bench of the world, its moment to make a mark and a development that could have defined our era. This tragedy is set to happen not because of any worldwide conspiracy, or even acts of nature, but because we, Indians, collectively, failed to imagine. This failure, if it occurs, will be crushing, era-defining in itself, as this will possibly destroy India, and alongside, the ambitions that it represented, of creating a modern democratic nation out of a population long used to subjugation and dependence. Seen that way, it is more than India's economic future that hangs on the balance now: Beyond the grim possibilities of the failure of the India project is the spectre of dissolution of hope, that a subject nation can ever overcome its dependencies, and people, long used to fatalistic ways of life, can be really free and govern themselves fit for the modern world.

But, it is not about slowing GDP growth rates, though at 5% a year instead of 8% a year, it will take India decades more to overcome abject poverty. It is not just about unemployment, though India has created no new jobs between 2004/5 and 2009/10 (though it created 60 million new jobs in the previous 5 years). It is not even about middle classes feeling queasy, squeezed by high inflation, corruption, and high interest rates. It is also not about failing governance, though some of India's leaders, both at the Central and the State Government levels, are pathetic caricatures and completely devoid of any ability to lead. It is not about being overtaken by China, threatened by Pakistan, squeezed by the Europeans and ignored by the Americans. It is not about the populist handouts to the villagers, corrupting greed of the industrialists, pampering of the minorities or the polluted environment of the cities. Each of these problems, big hairy issues that India must address, can be solved, have been solved by other countries as they waded their way through the development ladder. But, India has another, deeper, issue that it must solve before it can move forward - an issue which rarely gets discussed - and this is about the idea of India itself.

The idea of India was a beautiful construct. Despite the denial of today's demagogues, it is not about resurrecting an age-old civilisation but construction of a new one, which embraced modernity. It was an idea full of lofty dreams, that people, once free, will never be able to go back to bondage, and the magic wand of democracy would bring out the best in all of us, the involved, responsible citizens. It was bold in its construct, as it took an imagined notion, a geographical hotchpotch with varied languages, religions, food habits and world views, and bonded it together with values, both ancient and modern, both real and imagined, and ideas, traditional ones such as tolerance and modern ones such as constitutionalism. Idea of India was a fusion, of modern and western with age-old and Eastern, of poetic imagination and scientific tradition, of reason with devotion, of sacrifice with ambition. 

But, at the same time, as all these ideas always are, it was a responsibility. At its birth, India was not a given nation, but a responsibility bestowed on its citizens. It was a plot of land with dreams of a cathedral, not the family house one inherits and then gives out to the developers. But, in this, was India's greatest folly: We sought to build a paternalistic state, in the image of our emperors and rulers, to protect our dreams. This was surely the most practical thing to do: But its most unintended consequence was today's India, a people who take the notion of India as a given, a land to be trampled upon and a name to boast about when convenient, but not something to be sculpted, protected and make sacrifices for. 

In essence, I am arguing, that the greatest danger to India today isn't its lack of growth or the moribund or lacklustre governance: It is the apathy of its citizens, who forgot the responsibility and sought to maximise individual gains. It is an old-fashioned idea, but very real the moment one sets foot in India. Indeed, there is pride in being Indian, something not just the residents of India feel, but also for the non-residents like me, as we renew our identities every passing moment: But we take the identity as a given, not to be interrogated, built upon and to be engaged with. And, in this passive acceptance of the idea of India, lies its greatest existential danger.

There is another problem with India: It is a distant state for most of us. Having taken it for granted, we have collectively devolved our citizenship in the hands of lumpen elements, those who sought to capitalise our collective apathy into a profiteering opportunity. By disconnecting from the conversation, we built a nation of echo chambers, in which each group only listens to itself and the notion of a nation to be built becomes progressively surreal.

I strike this desolate note not because the country has failed to effect 'economic reforms' that would have brought growth, not even because the government seems to have failed and government ministers are getting caught in scandals. Rather, I wonder why we are tearing ourselves apart on the foreign investment bills and labour law reforms, but failing to notice, which Veer Shangvi points out in his column in India Today, that our law enforcing agencies are demoralised, untrained and poorly paid, our courts are failing (as Fali Nariman writes in his brilliant new book), and that we have abandoned our responsibility to educate our citizens and given in to the dark arts of the education mafia.

So, in essence, India is an abdicated nation, an anomalous idea whose ownership has to be reclaimed. It seems a full-blown crisis will be required to wake us up, and given the perilous state of India's finances, and the precarious nature of its polity, that moment of awakening may not be far off. But, then, this is also the ideal messiah moment: A time when leadership is sought and often emerge. The chaotic state of the nation may put off many, but it is an opportunity for a new idea whose time has come. This is indeed not a plea for a strongman administrator, the one we have at hand seeks not to construct but to destroy the Indian dream, but involved citizens: This is about a nation that we need to take back ourselves, not give it away to voodoo all over again.

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