Sunday, January 26, 2014

Not the same old drill; R-Day brings hope of real choices

By Swapan Dasgupta

India’s national days—Republic Day and Independence Day—have become occasions for both celebration and despondency. There is a bout of flag waving, some pageantry and lots of Manoj Kumar-type patriotic films on TV. At the same time, and ever since I can recall, they are taken up a great deal of existential anguish. Ponderous articles with depressing headlines such as “Nation at the crossroads” and “Whither India” appear to dominate the newspapers and these themes resonate in the talk shows where anchors shed their dark suits for more desi apparel.  

It is unlikely to be substantially different this January 26. With a general election round the corner, a hint of amateurish ‘anarchism’ in the Capital and growth rates down to a sluggish five per cent, citizens will be forgiven for looking at the future with a measure of trepidation. Even the Bharat Nirman ads boasting of India’s dramatic transformation from shoddiness to the glitzy 21st century are unlikely to lift the mood. Not when something as monumentally trivial as the transfer of four SHOs threatened to derail the official Republic Day parade in Delhi.

‘Crisis’, it would seem, is a permanent state of mind in India. In the early days of the Republic, the optimism of the Nehruvian intelligentsia was invariably offset by a fear that things would somehow fall apart. The crippling shortages of everything from food and cooking fuel to telephones and cars defined Indian existence. The only solace was Bollywood and its regional variants that enabled Indians to momentarily escape the drudgery of life.

Some of these problems were inherited but many were politically determined and a consequence of the wrong choices made by the decision-makers. Periodically, some great leader would throw up a great hope to either banish poverty or take India into the 21st century. Unfortunately, these great projects would be derailed through a combination of incompetence, venality and plain bad luck. Yet India muddled through.

More important, India’s institutions endured, although battered and in serious need of repair. And above all, India didn’t lose faith in itself. As democracy struck deep roots, Indian elections were dominated by two big themes: protest and hope. Each alternated with the other for popular endorsement. The only occasion the two themes combined in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi won the most impressive majority ever. It can happen again.

History suggests that Indians loath turbulence. They may be temperamentally fatalistic, hoping for a better after-life, but they combine it with a quest for basic sureties. It was the fear and revulsion of the anarchy post-Aurangzeb that facilitated the transition of the East India Company from merchants to rulers. Likewise, for much of post-Independence history the Congress became the default party because it promised stability with creeping change. In the 1970s, many India-watchers prophesied that the Green Revolution would inevitably turn Red. It never happened because even a poor country found radical breaks too unsettling.

The past is not always a reliable guide to the future. In the past 25 years, India has witnessed profound changes. In statistical terms, the economic growth since 1990 has matched the growth spread over the preceding 100 years. The timeless and unchanging India which fascinated romantic Orientalists is now history. There is now a new India that is discernibly less fatalistic and considerably more impatient for a better life that their parents and grandparents never enjoyed. Above all, there is a growing India that measures itself in global terms. To economists India may be a “developing” country but the aspirations of a significant section are on par with that of a “developed” economy. It is this mismatch that marks India on the 64th anniversary of the Republic.

It is a moment to cherish. On the surface and in the TV debates India may seem a voluble but confused country. Underneath the surface, however, the country is being presented with clear alternatives: between low but seemingly growth and an audacious bid to be a truly breakout nation by removing the brakes on self-motivation. There is also a third choice: to wreck the present in the hope that out of the debris will emerge an alternative India.

For a change, the options are real and meaningful. 

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