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Much less to despair about

This nation will pull through – despite all the pessimistic takes

After criss-crossing India some years ago, my late friend, the Israeli educationist and philosopher Yehuda Elkana, marvelled at the complexity of the country and its surprising cohesiveness. He was clearly astounded over how this crowded land of such diversity had managed to hold itself together. Yehuda went beyond superficial impressions to appreciate an India of unexpected improvisations and astonishing resilience.

Of course he was overwhelmed by the gross inequalities he saw and despaired for the poor, highly visible everywhere. But he also recognised the fact that a country that had survived so much trauma was moving forward, had progressed economically and remained ever-hopeful. What impressed Yehuda most was that densely populated as India was, it was remarkably peaceful and relatively safe. And above all, it remained a democracy and not a caricature of the term.

Nothing had prepared him for a continent that was a country, and a land of terrific complexity. This is much the same a reaction that many foreigners coming in with ideas of India far removed from the realities will have. It will surprise them, and no aspect more tellingly than its diversity and size. As the writer, Sam Miller explains: “We all have our patchwork ideas of India, our notions and opinions and prejudices – often fallacious and absurd – of this enormous disparate country, which is, as I take pleasure in reminding newcomers, bigger in population than all but its own continent: Asia.”

Since the days of Megasthenes, the observations of perceptive foreigners have enabled us to see our own country in perspective. Amongst medieval travellers two stand out in their detailed assessments of India are Al Beruni and Ibn Battuta – which were neither dark nor foreboding. Today of course there are many contemporary takes on India and few are more incisive than those of Mark Tully, formerly with the BBC, long-time resident in India. Mr. Tully had seen India inside out and grown to love it, but not uncritically — having a terrific appreciation of its weaknesses but also its many strengths, not the least a secularism that doesn’t negate religion. The Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s book, A Million Mutinies Now, brings out how a country he had given up for lost was pulling itself up by its bootstraps into modernity.

As insiders we Indians are too close to the picture, and the sense of wonderment we had about our remarkable country is now giving way to creeping enervating cynicism. We tend to make all sorts of unfair comparisons — “look at Singapore,” being one of the commonest — that cannot stick or hold. We also despair, and none more so than India’s educated elite, who share a very negative perception of the country and view every development that deviates from a narrowly defined ‘liberal’ view as one leading to catastrophe. With every small crisis we Indians hastily conclude that a chaotic break-up of the union is imminent.

We refuse to recognise and still less acknowledge the very long way we have come from our tentative beginnings some seventy years ago, in very unpromising times, under impossible circumstance. It is worth reminding ourselves where we were in 1947. India then was miserably poor — life expectancy was 40 years; we were overwhelmingly illiterate and, despite being predominantly agrarian, unable to feed ourselves. Clearly, a basket case. These are conditions that in most countries would have seen the emergence of a strongman, a dictator to run the show by fiat rather than by debate and consensus and slide them into the kind of mess Robert Mugabe has got Zimbabwe into.

Ours is certainly not a country on the verge of breakup or going the fascist way, least of all because of an election or two! Shiv Viswanathan, academician and a columnist, despaired that “politics has become more backstage, more managerial and more technologically fixated”, and that, “once sacrosanct ideas such as transparency of information, necessity of participation, power of the public – the ideas that made democracy an act of faith and trust- have been eroded. Elections, rights, governance and leadership are becoming empty words." Those are seductive and unsettling words, but is he right?

A country that repeatedly recovered from wars and internal insurgencies and one which went to the brink and back during the Emergency in the 1970s and got over an economic meltdown in the 1990s, and, however imperfectly, gave its citizens a say in who will govern it, is a much more resilient and tougher entity than many of us conclude it is. It took someone as perceptive and observant as Naipaul to tell us in his book, A Million Mutinies Now, of the strengths quietly accruing over time that are only now coming into play - strengths that have emerged out of the silent work of millions over decades.

Returning to India after a couple of decades, Naipaul finds a vastly changed country, one where “there is nothing of the destitution I had seen 26 years before”. All of us who are past sixty, who have endured rations and Nutan kerosene stoves, and waited endlessly for milk, a phone connection or an LPG connection or for a scooter or a car will agree. Where once we could get no information out of the opaque government, today it is available, almost on tap, through the RTI, and consumer grievance redressal we never thought would be there, now clearly exists.

Shiv Viswanathan’s is a point of view that is unsustainable. He fails to notice the way democracy and public debate have evolved in India and the distance it has moved from a class of people educated in India’s elite boarding schools and colleges within, often followed by degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. It is no longer shaped by a small elite that circled its wagons and held off against the rest. India has of course moved beyond them and has, if anything, become more open and more articulate.

Public participation in the politics of the country is now driven by a febrile, irreverent younger generation at ease with technology and impatient with vacuous debates. The marketplace for ideas that Joel Mokyr talks of in his recent book, A Culture of Growth, has never been more in evidence than in today’s India, contributing not only to a more creative and more engaging nation but also, as the columnist and economist, Swaminathan Anklesaria Iyer tells us, a more sensitive and less intolerant one.

There are of course some less pessimistic albeit critical voices too. Ramachandra Guha, a chronicler of our times, while somewhat frustrated at India emerging not as an electoral democracy but an “elections-only democracy”, nevertheless accepts that as a democracy India is 50% there while being 80% successful as a nation-state. Not bad for a country that many didn’t give much of chance at birth, expecting it — not unreasonably then — to break up in a welter of famine and internal strife.

Dr. Uday Balakrishnan is a visiting faculty member at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science Bangalore.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 11:29:28 AM |

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