Here’s a hypothetical, though not altogether unfamiliar, scenario that academic and writer Sunil Khilnani invoked in a lecture at the British Museum to warn against what he called the “paradox of India’s new prosperity.” He asked his audience to imagine two traffic lanes, both at a standstill. After a while traffic in one of the lanes starts moving raising hopes of those stuck in the next lane that they, too, should be on their way soon. But, quickly, hope turns into frustration and then anger as they watch their neighbours whiz past them while they remain where they were. In the end, their patience runs out and violence erupts.

According to Prof. Khilnani, currently Director of the South Asia Studies Programme at Johns Hopkins University, Washington, something similar is happening in India where, despite the impressive economic growth of the past decade, disparities remain widespread with one “lane” speeding ahead of the other. As a result frustration is building up in the “slow lane” and if things don’t start moving (and moving fast) a backlash is inevitable.

Prof. Khilnani, whose book The Idea of India was a tribute to Indian democracy, has a less tinted view of the country’s current direction which, he says, is being driven solely by “market optimism.” He believes that there is too much obsession with growth and not enough is being done to use it to reduce the yawning urban-rural and rich-poor divide. Such a strategy is fraught with risks and could ultimately affect India’s unity which, he says, is already under pressure for a variety of reasons.

“One-third of India’s landmass is officially ‘disturbed’ which means that the Indian government’s authority in these areas is under contestation,” Prof. Khilnani said speaking on Ideas of India: Today and Tomorrow to mark the Museum’s Indian Summer season.

Arguing that growth alone was not enough to hold India together, he pointed out that GDP figures touted by economists “disguised” the social tensions bubbling under the surface. Growth must be backed by policies aimed at ensuring that the benefits of the economic boom percolated down. Otherwise, the Indian success story could end up in tears, he warned.

Still not too late

His view was that it was still not too late. For, despite the simmering discontent there remained a great deal of optimism, surprisingly even among those Indians who had not so far benefited from the new prosperity — an optimism built on the assumption that eventually the benefits would trickle down. But if that didn’t happen, then, as in the story of the two traffic lanes, optimism would give way to anger and conflict, Prof. Khilnani said. His central argument was that the challenges confronting India were too big to be left to economists alone (and he gave some fairly scary figures to underline the scale of the challenge) and it was important that the State intervened in a “more supportive way” than it had so far to protect the weak. His message to politicians was: don’t be deceived by “dizzy” statistics.

“It’s not the economy, stupid. The Western countries who believed that economic growth alone could deliver have had a rude awakening,” Prof. Khilnani said. He was wary of attempts to market India as a “brand.”

“India as a brand is not enough. What India needs is a greater sense of what it stands for,” he suggested saying that India’s future would be determined not by economists and brand managers but by politicians. In other words, it was the politics, stupid.

However, Prof. Khilnani sought to dispel the impression that his grim analysis somehow amounted to an obituary of “new” India. It was not all doom and gloom, he believed. For one thing, the country appeared to be moving out of the confines of narrow identity and communal politics. It was significant that the more toxic brand of casteism and right-ring Hindu nationalism that had blighted the Indian political landscape had been “tempered”— at least for now — by the Congress party’s decisive victory in the June elections with voters across the country standing up for a more inclusive political agenda.

“These tendencies remain but their capacity to assert themselves has been checked for now,” he said.

Encouraging signs

On the policy front, too, Prof. Khilnani detected some encouraging signs. For example, the Manmohan Singh government had managed to build up a “repertoire” of good policies but the effort remained largely “defensive” and there was still a tendency to go in for quick-fixes. He was particularly critical of the reservations policy and thought that the 1950s-style positive discrimination had “exhausted” its efficacy.

Instead, the government needed to think of more “imaginative” ways to resolve conflicts caused by uneven economic growth. Issues like allocation of resources and adjudicating conflicting claims of various social groups could not be treated as simply administrative matters but called for a “self-conscious engagement” on the part of politicians with these problems. Or the “traffic lanes” scenario could become very real.

The challenges confronting India are too big to be left to economists alone.