Timely meditations: India at the time of great change

India is among the most conservative countries in the world. Its republican constitution and democratic politics are misleading, as are its shiny IT service metropolises. The day to day life in India, and of Indians all over the world, remains tradition-bound. In a curious way, Indians reconcile science and superstition, and technology and theology in a curious way that would leave most observers baffled. India may shine and emerge, but to the Indian mind, it is just a turn in the cycle of time and it is only gaining its rightful historical place rather than being renewed.

But, then, India is a desperately poor country. Its poverty, which the opulent Bollywood movie sets and slick corporate districts look to underplay, is a stark, persistent reality. Regardless of the brilliance of Indian CEOs of various global corporations, Indian companies are badly governed as fiefdoms. The resilience of the Indian domestic economy somewhat diverts attention from the country's lack of global competitiveness and the dignity of its poor people covers up the indecency of its middle-class culture. The periodic celebration in the media about one technological achievement or another misleads, as launching a satellite, while no mean achievement on its own, is bound to look insignificant when compared to the technological prowess of China or Japan. And, Indians often indulge in false glory, comparing their 'service sector' excellence with China's manufacturing muscle, overlooking the globally leading Chinese software companies, education institutions and research labs that would make any Indian IT company as a mere wannabe.

This self-deception can go on only for a while, but not much further. The global politics is fast-changing and with the United States in a withdrawal mode, the regional geopolitical competitions are more real. The global institutional structure is being reconfigured too, and the outline of new alliances - China and Russia, France and Germany among them - are already visible. And, whatever happens next, the clock is unlikely to be turned back: Brexit may or may not happen, Trump may become further unhinged or get impeached, but the world is going to look different and India has to find its place in this newly configured world. 


So India must change, but India and Indians are not ready for this discontinuity. Its social and political structures, despite the disaster of partition and the democratic experiment, have changed little and very slowly. The Independence did not bring about a 'cultural revolution' and the country is still fighting the battles that it fought seventy years ago. It still remains, at its core, the impossible state - a dynastic democracy and a rich man's republic at the same time. The union of India, sustained in the face of global scepticism, was made possible by a combination of geopolitical considerations and inexhaustible patience of the Indian people, but we are in a new world now. The new geopolitical realities, shaped by an emergent China pursuing its OBOR dreams, may create different pressures than the receding British empire that shaped today's, South Asia. A different generation of Indians brought up not with the shame of subjugation and sacrifices of the national movement, may be less willing to make the adjustments that kept India together for the last seventy years.

India's elite is indeed busy feasting on the changelessness, in the mistaken idea that the party may never end - or, if it does, they can just bail out and decamp in London. But the India that didn't change is coming up for renewal now. Indians traded off a bit of democracy for a bit of development, and true to form, got neither democracy nor development. That makes it even less ready for the global change that is playing out at an astonishing pace and the country must find a way to change itself. 

It is important to remember that unlike the other acts of modern state-making, India hasn't actively sought to make Indians after India was made. Its founding story had been usurped by political families to their own advantage, its proud diversity has fed parochial politics and its failure to democratise opportunity has made it an opportunistic democracy. There was not a single 'ask not' moment in Independent India's history and its people had grown used to a hand-out state, so much so that they have been waiting for its government to deliver global greatness.

Indian elite indeed learnt a good lesson from the British and their show-state: The ceremonies, the pomp, the rhetoric and the rallies, are indeed all there. What's missing is the substance, the debates that make a democracy, the sacrifice that builds a state, the commitment that sustains a constitution. Nehru may never have wanted to create a dynasty, but he was building an empty edifice that must be filled with celebrity, rather than cerebral, politics: And, indeed, that's exactly what has come about.

At this time of reset, however, it may be worthwhile to turn to some old ideas. The last creative period of Indian politics, the formative years of the nationalist movement, may offer some ideas of reimaging India all over again. That was indeed the last time, the great moment at the time of Jalinwalabagh and the movement that followed, India summoned the agency of its people, its whole people, to change. The ideas of that time and the ideas of Gandhi and others may contain the ideas that India needs today to lead this change.

 So, at this point, as we approach a faultline of history, Gandhi's ideas, that change would come only through the painstaking personal transformation of individual citizens, may be meaningful again. India may need to seek out again Tagore's ideas, of rediscovering India's Asian heritage yet again, just as we painfully encounter our Asian realities as China rises again. But change has to come, and India's slumbering elite and the tunnel-visioned neoliberal ideas are not going to lead on it.

 



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