Yonder Peaks Beckon

Hello to All & Sundry, Thank you for viewing my blog. I am an itinerant purveyor of good cheer and I dare say, a little bit of erudition. This space is primarily an outlet for me to jot down my rambling thoughts and give my brain a little bit of airing, which it really does need!:) I hope you have a good read! Tallyho!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Does India Really Have A Bright Future?

Hello Everyone,
This was originally an article I wrote for Sulekha.com before it turned in to a blog. I am posting it here once again.

What does India mean to her people? When we talk about India with foreigners, we talk about specifics – our families, religion, the Taj Mahal, yoga, ayurveda, culture, music, movies etc.
However, for me, India is not merely a collection of states, a collection of various sub-cultures, a collage of languages, customs and rituals. India is more than that. She is an 'idea' – an idea that she contains the genesis of all that is good and glorious about human civilisation, an idea that she contains many age-old secrets that can and should be used for the benefit of humankind, an idea that her philosophies, her metaphysics, her music, her art, her sculptures, her mythologies can give the world a vision of the lofty heights that human intellect is capable of scaling. India is all the above and much more.

Sadly, India -- the idea is now moribund. We, the people, have failed her. All that remains is a loose collection of individuals and communities – raucous, undisciplined and ready to riot and indulge in sloganeering at the slightest provocation. Since time-immemorial, our country have been in a relentless, remorseless decline – so much so that we have descended into a morass of continuous under-achievement.

In my opinion this state of affairs will continue for the next several generations. In short, we have absolutely no hope of joining the league of developed nations at any time in the foreseeable future. Development is a long-term process, readers may opine. Well, in the long term, as Keynes said, all of us are dead anyway. Any development process that takes several generations to come to fruition is a failure. We have a reform process underway for the last 13 years. Things haven't changed much in India. The only thing different is that we have more TVs, mobile phones, less propensity to save and a voracious appetite for energy (especially petroleum) that will severely damage the environment and will ultimately turn our cities into giant gas chambers. In the meantime, the traffic jams, bad roads, regular bouts of flood and drought, unreliable electricity, bad public transport, air pollution etc., are just as bad as before 1991!

The flag waving patriots in India and the NRI community will protest vehemently at such a pessimistic (very realistic, in my view) opinion. They will no doubt point out a few nascent strands of hope -- an economic reform process that might create a few national champions in the IT sector, our innate sense of confidence in our own abilities, our advantages with the English language and its spin-offs for the 'knowledge economy' of the future and so on. All this however, is a mere chimera for the following reasons.

1) Governance: It is a real wonder that we actually exist as a country. Given half a chance, the leftists would probably advocate freeing up states from central control, letting lose the centrifugal forces inherent in our politics and result in India being just a loose federation of states constantly bickering with each other. Witness how states quarrel like petulant children over water when there is absence of strong central authority. Alas, strong leaders like Indira Gandhi are no longer alive. I strongly suspect a leader like Mrs. Gandhi would have launched into economic reforms with much vigour and sold it to the people on the strength of her personal charisma alone. We completely lack – (a) a strategy for national development, and (b) a system of governance based on the agents of governance being technical specialists rather than generalist politicians. The entrenched interests will never allow the emergence of a new style of governance since it will erode their very raison d'etre.

2) National character: I submit that democracy is ill suited to our national psyche. We are well suited to be followers of strong leaders and relying on them to lead us. We are incapable of working together for a common good without spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to achieve leadership positions. I brace myself now for horrified looks and accusations of harbouring a dictatorial proclivity. However, readers should ask themselves whether they would give up their democratic freedoms in exchange of rapid economic progress and a high standard of living. I think an overwhelming majority would agree. Pride in being democratic is only good for the urban cocktail circuit. The poor would certainly prefer good quality roti, kapda and makaan over democracy.

Another curious thing about us Indians is that we are extremely fascinated by ideology. The right wing protests vehemently against 'competitive pseudo-secularism' while the left wing makes fraudulent claims to being 'secular' and 'pro-poor'. It is laughable to tell a poor starving person that he should be proud of his 5000-year-old civilization. Compare that to the prospects of regular meals from a generously funded madarsa or a local church and an ancient civilization doesn't seem to be of much consequence anymore. There are any number of leftist English speaking intellectuals in our educational institutions who can disparage everything about capitalism and the United States but who would jump at the chance to go and work in the US or UK and demand only the best scotch to drink at parties in the evening!

The amount of energy we spend in bickering and debating ideology is staggering, and what is worse is that it is to no avail. We still cannot come up with a coherent strategy for national development in any case. More often than not, the discussions on ideology that go on in our country are extremely shallow and superficial and typically academic without any practical use.

3) Lack of self-belief masked by supreme arrogance: A favourite point of discussion amongst NRIs and Indians who have traveled overseas is that we are more intelligent than anyone in the world. We may be a nation of highly talented individuals. Yet, as a nation we haven't achieved anything that justifies such arrogance. If we really are more intelligent and talented than the rest of the world then it is inconceivable that large sections of our people should still languish in poverty and misery.

If we really are much better than the rest, then why do we feel the desperate need to behave like Americans or western Europeans? Why do we crave justification and praise from foreigners for everything that happens in India? Why does our press and citizenry gush with pride and indulge in chest-thumping every time some sundry foreign leader says something nice about India or when Aishwarya Rai gets a Hollywood offer, or when more jobs are lost in the west to our BPOs? We are a nation of a billion people. Does it really matter whether foreigners like our movies, our food and our culture? Can't we feel proud of all these ourselves without seeking to justify that pride?

The answer to this conundrum, dear readers, lies in the fact that we are filled with shame when we compare the potential and actual achievements of our country versus piddly little East-Asian countries or countries in Western-Europe and America that have but a fraction of our natural resources, yet are several years ahead of us in the development game.

Is There A Light At The End Of The Tunnel? The daily lives of our citizens, politicians and bureaucrats are filled with making-do, with compromise, with a patchwork of solutions to a problem. There is no search for excellence. Why should there be? Businesses in India know that even if they lose one customer, there will be a hundred others willing to consume the same goods or service whose threshold of tolerance for poor quality will be higher. Politicians know that as long as they keep development coming in trickles there will be no mass agitation, peoples' expectations from them will not be too high and therefore there will be a good chance of winning the next elections.

This kind of lethargic attitude has prevented the governance, social or economic structures from dedicating themselves with single-minded devotion to solving our nation's problems. A few thousand BPO or programming jobs will not make us a developed nation. Taking into account the needs of the vast masses of workers without software and English language skills and providing them with employment and a decent quality of life near their place of residence is the key to development. Just hammering into childrens' heads that they should be justifiably proud of their ancient civilization is not going to make them proud citizens if they only see poverty and lack of opportunities surrounding them.

To those who advocate a step-by-step approach to development, I ask, how many more years of sub-optimal economic and social performance, how many more floods and droughts, how many more starvation deaths, how many more farmers' suicides, how many more terrorist attacks, how many more environmental disasters, how many more scams and frauds, how many more years of bad infrastructure does the average Indian have to suffer before we realize that we have well and truly missed the boat?

An India in 2020 will look pretty much the same as the India of today – struggling with illiteracy, unemployment, pollution, religious riots, border problems with neighbours, poor quality of life, still in the midst of debate over the virtues of socialism versus capitalism, public sector versus private sector, pseudo-secularism versus real secularism etc.

How I wish that my prediction does not come true, that India in 2020 is truly on its way to reliving its glorious days. Alas, I think it won't be so. Why? Because we are like this only!


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