It should have been a sobering thought amidst the frantic dance of democracy of these past weeks that India may soon have to cede space to Bangladesh that famously derided “basket-case” of the American establishment which seems destined to overtake us in growth statistics. It’s for our rulers to realise that winning an election isn’t enough. The real challenge comes afterwards.
Listening to politicians, television anchors and panellists – all three often cut from the same cloth – it struck me during these six weeks and seven phases of voting how susceptible they are to believing implicitly in the same comforting formulas. An American ambassador, William Saxbe, I think, reported to the US State Department that Indians were too obsessed with India to look beyond.
A Chinese Singaporean colleague of mine returned from his first visit goggle-eyed. Indians were drunk on superlatives, he reported. Theirs was the biggest country, the oldest civilization, the largest democracy, and so on and so forth. It reminded me of Hamish McDonald, the Far Eastern Economic Review’s India correspondent, writing how he once mentioned South Korea to an Indian passenger sitting next to him on an international flight. “Don’t compare us to those under-developed Asian countries!” the Indian retorted.
Bombast and braggadocio have soared in the last five years. When Atal Behari Vajpayee, wise, realistic and a man of the world, spoke of India living in “a tough neighbourhood”, he meant China. Nowadays, our sights have been lowered to Pakistan. The talk all through the campaigning was of security. Narendra Modi is seen as the stalwart and only defender of a country that is permanently at the mercy of Pakistan and of terrorists nourished and nurtured by Pakistan.
As a result, we have lost sight of the roots in domestic socio-economic conditions of the Maoists of the so-called Red Corridor from the Nepal border down to Andhra Pradesh. As a dangerous feature of that amnesia, we no longer even notice that Bangladesh is ahead of India in many of the indices of wellbeing listed by the UNDP. It is soon expected to outstrip India in per capita GDP.
We live in an age of irrelevance where mobile penetration and digital marketing are regarded as more important than jobs, housing, education, health, and medical care. People who cannot write a single grammatical sentence are glib with Twitter. It was proudly reported that Asia’s richest man, MukeshAmbani, had paid $88.5 million for Hamley’s, the loss-making British toy firm that has been owned in recent years by Icelandic,
French and Hongkong Chinese, and have outlets in some 167 countries, about half of them being in India. Earlier, his brother Anil, with no previous experience of aviation, was rewarded with the licence to manufacture Rafale fighter aircraft in preference to the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
Ironically, well-meaning observers abroad hailed the verdict of the hustings in 2014 as a much-needed return to native grassroots. Their case was that ruled by the Congress Party and its variants and offshoots since 1947, India still moved on the momentum of the British Raj.
Jawaharlal Nehru even described himself (perhaps with a touch of pride?) as the last Englishman to rule India. But his successors also had to work with and through practices and precedents that the British had left behind. The expectation in 2014 was that Mr Modi would achieve what Vajpayee did not even attempt and create an altogether new narrative to reflect a creative indigenous identity.
When we read of new school and college syllabi, of the transformation of existing institutions, of people singled out for promotion or doomed to be discarded, and of bizarre scientific and medical theories, it does sometimes seem as if the prophets were right. But, then, I am reminded of the claim by the South African social scientist, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni that “the ‘postcolonial’ is yet to be born.”
As he elaborated, “This is because colonialism, if it was ever buried, it was buried alive.” In other words, to adapt the old European monarchical chant, “The king is dead, long live the king!” Mr Modi might pay highly publicised visits to Kedarnath and Badrinath and have himself photographed ostentatiously meditating in a cave, but although seemingly violative of the Model Code of Conduct and deserving of the Election Commission’s attention, these were not fundamental departures from the past.
Modest brass plaques – if they haven’t been robbed or vandalised – on the front pews of Christ Church in Shimla reading “Viceroy” and “Commander-in-Chief” are reminders that the highest in the land in British India did not neglect the deity they believed in. As the French say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The difference between now and then is not that we have reverted to some authentic indigenous type but that we have made a different selection from the same international buffet that has always been on offer. But whereas the items picked up under the influence of leaders like Nehru were chosen with intelligent and educated care, the selection now reeks of crass wealth and the desperate desire to dazzle.
Mr Modi’s monogrammed coat is not the only example of showmanship although his sartorial elegance does betray what rightly or wrongly is regarded as the Indian ideal. When he describes himself as a “faqir” who will pick up his “jhola” and go, he is tactfully acknowledging the austerity and simplicity that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi identified with India. Our public interlocutors have become so sycophantic that no one points out the gulf between practice and profession.
The alacrity with which Indians have taken to the capitalist road makes one feel we were all hypocrites when a socialistic pattern of society was supposed to be the nationally endorsed model. We live in an era of crony capitalism. Foreign direct investment is falling.
Mr Modi’s “Make in India” has had little or no impact. The GDP has declined from 7.8 to 6.5 per cent. Unemployment at 6.1 per cent is higher than it has been in the last 45 years. It has been calculated that a mere 1 per cent of the population owns 58 per cent of the national wealth while in real terms, 60 per cent of 1.3 billion Indians languish below the poverty line.
Yet, miraculously, the economy played little part in this election campaign. The official emphasis on security, Pakistan and terrorism enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party to distract attention from unsatisfied basic needs. When the ordinary Indian who is still reeling from the impact of demonetisation wants a job, he will not be satisfied with either a Hamley toy or a Rafale fighter. The new government must attend to his neglected primary needs.
Sunanda K Dattta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.