India, Notes From the Bright Side


India, Notes From the Bright Side

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

It’s that time of the year again. As 2016 slips into twilight, several of us are glad to see the back of this year. It has been a year of historic upsets and disruptions, some global, some local. We’re likely going to see the aftershocks in the years to come – and I haven’t even started thinking about Bob Dylan yet.

I gather this sense of apocalypse-now pessimism will endure into the first few months of 2017. In India, this doom and gloom is countered by the shrill, extra-cheerful noise of nation-building initiatives like demonetisation. It’s difficult to maintain a sanguine outlook, especially when even  Amartya Sen, declares that he is “more pessimistic” than he has ever been. Couple that with disruptions in parliament and the utter lack of clarity in the media around government decisions or the economy, and you’re completely blinded to the long view.

But maybe, a long view is just what we need – of a future that is guided by the past. Maybe what we all need is a shot of enthusiasm, powered by a cautious sort of optimism.

India will always have some laurels it can rest on. These are our reasons to celebrate rather than keep berating ourselves. Very few countries, especially with the size and complexity of our social and economic fabric, have been able to handle large socio-economic transformations in a relatively peaceful fashion. (And I say this with full awareness of the various violent incidents that have happened since Independence.)

Think about some of biggest transformative shifts that we have witnessed after the Partition. We accomplished the integration of the states in the ’50s, inaugurated the green revolution in the ’60s, or the nationalisation of banks in 1969, without erupting in all-out civil war. Even the wars with our neighbours or dark phases like the Emergency came and went without the country falling into total chaos. If at all, the democratic frameworks and institutions of this country started getting stronger, save a few dark years in the ’70s. I think we can safely congratulate the people of India for that.

Imagine implementing the world’s largest rural employment guarantee scheme or biometric identification – a ready setup for failure – and still accomplishing it.

Similarly, economic liberalisation, the telecom revolution and IT boom, all pretty much job-creating as well as job-destroying moves, have come to be accepted as a gradual and phased shift to capitalism. All this without the notorious opposition that afflicted several erstwhile socialist countries from making this transition. I know you’ll think of China as a beacon of transformation, but remember that it is, well, China. A country with a terrible human rights track record.

In comparison, India’s power centres are a little more well-respected. We have a relatively independent judiciary, a thriving private enterprise, and a relatively functional bureaucracy. We have also attempted to keep our media free-ish. We can question the quality of all these transformations, but the fact that we have not faltered as a nation is something worth commending – even though it all looks chaotic on the surface.

Imagine implementing the world’s largest rural employment guarantee scheme or biometric identification – a ready setup for failure – and still accomplishing it. Imagine attempting to change education and healthcare (though much remains unfulfilled here), and the right to information without getting into trouble with the economy or politics. Imaging trying to unify the states with all their religious and linguistic divisions without segueing into riots. Imagine even the attempt to raise 500 million people out of abject poverty in a generation. Imagine creating a road, rail, and air-connectivity network that is accessible to a significant part of India’s billion-plus people.

These are not small achievements by any standard. Even as we pursue these tough national goals, a lot of the softer aspects of our society, like the focus on family, have not been totally relegated to the dustbin despite the emergence of nuclear set-ups.

My belief is that we are already well on our way to becoming a middle-income nation. Instead of chasing after the elusive dream of turning into an overnight superpower, instead of turning our cities into Shanghai or Singapore, that’s something to aspire to.

In the next decade or earlier, I estimate that our per capita income will cross USD 5-7,000 per annum. This will be the spark plug that accelerates the completion of many unfinished civil society projects. Be it less corruption, better implementation of infrastructure projects, a fairer law and order machinery, or better civic sense – the things that make us look like a mess on the surface. We have a history of handling real backbone-level changes and transformations with alacrity and a sense of acceptance. The next phase of changes, with the groundwork already in place, is hopefully going to be easier.

So as we head to the close of another year, as we enter our 70th post-Independence, it’s alright to be a little generous to ourselves. We’ve come a long way without falling apart. That is deserving of at least a pat on the back.