Is India as great as it often claims to be?
Dear reader, in normal circumstances the courage to put pen to paper on a subject so emotional would have failed me. It was, however, our friend’s furrowed brow and distraught manner, strikingly out of character and at odds with the tempo of the Saturday evening conversation that dug below the surface of the merry-making and caused me to pause.
One has learned to live with caution; it has become second nature during these Covid-blackened times that guides routine and conduct and has replaced the happy spontaneity of yesterday. Get-togethers, the meeting of friends, are an infrequent occurrence at best.
To preserve the happy fun of a rare meeting, therefore, I could have deployed sleight-of-hand and side-stepped the probing statements with a smile and a laugh. The heavy thoughts could have been temporarily dissipated, or with some luck even postponed for all times. But his dismay at being confronted by innocence and his inability to respond with conviction was genuine, and it would have been remiss of me to not give heed to this distress.
So we sank into our chairs, fortified ourselves with drinks and snacks, spoke and imbibed, and spoke some more. The matter was emotive, controversial, and forced repeated attempts at answers that made at least some sense. The challenge of collecting the words to articulate a position both appropriate and sensitive equaled our friend’s poignant concern. Witness then a sliver of a conversation most telling and which must serve as the starting point to our journey.
An innocent conversation
“Dad, are you proud of India?”
“Yes, of course!” came the answer, startled, a smattering of self-conscious laughter.
“Ah, OK, great. So you’re proud of being Indian, right?”
“Yes, yes, of course, very much so!” now amused with a wary edge. “Why do you ask?”
“Just like that! But why are you so proud of India and being Indian?”
Now with a tinge of irritation: “I just am, I guess. What do you mean? And why all these questions?”
“Because you and Mommy are always saying that I should be proud of our country. Not just you, our teachers at school, they keep telling us the same thing as well. Especially when I’m studying history, not sure why! I guess I wanted to understand what you meant when you say that you’re proud of being Indian.”
“But of course, there’s so much to be proud of. Look at our history. Look at our achievements over thousands of years. I don’t even need to say all this -- you know it better than I do! You’re reading about our civilization every day. Why shouldn’t we be proud?”
By now he is protesting and defensive.
“Sure, Dad,” in a tone that causes father’s heart to sink, aware now only of the inadequacy of his side of the conversation.
Parnika Dey, all of 13 years old, possesses a razor-sharp brain and a charmingly mischievous personality, gracing the world with the occasional impish smile. An all-rounder crafted for leadership, it was a foregone conclusion that a combination of effort and outcome would pave the way to her appointment as co-captain, junior school of a school with established reputation and proven results in Gurugram.
Migrating to the friendly rival and sister institution to pursue the demanding ways of the British-based IGCSE syllabus, for which the friendly rival is apparently super-geared, it goes without saying that she will excel in a curriculum that bears the added challenge of requiring learning from scratch after unlearning the facts and figures crammed in to her young mind over the initial years of formal classroom attendance.
Parnika’s individual talents and abilities notwithstanding, Mom and Pop make a good case for the soundness of genetic theory and the logic of heredity. The bemused and somewhat shaken father, caught off-guard by the innocent barrage reproduced above, is Kaustubh Chandra Dey. A few years into his forties, Kaustubh is an accomplished entrepreneur who presides over the high-risk and high-volume game of an infrastructure project company.
Specializing in the generation of electric power, Kaustubh creates and executes strategy and plays the mergers and acquisitions game in an energy-hungry nation with ruthless aplomb. The affable personality conceals a mind honed to process and eviscerate project reports within crushing timelines and identify at the speed of thought the next opportunity for investment bolstered by institutional financing. India needs power, and the CEO and his team stand over the drawing board, elbow to elbow, determined to do their bit in the mission to reduce the still-enormous deficit in electricity that India suffers.
The man of the house is well complemented in intelligence, charm and business acumen by wife Shyamali Dey. Senior Partner in a global advisory firm, Shyamali aggressively seeks out new clients in the ever-burgeoning mergers and acquisitions market and works around the clock to nurture her brood, a team of young men and women trained to execute assignments won from new clients and wrested from the rivals of her generation.
For the politically and socially sensitive in management, antennae permanently tuned to the gentlest breeze of opinion, she is a ready-made and convenient poster girl for the new program of diversity driven by the senior leadership of Corporate India.
A sequence of thoughts
This is, therefore, a picture of a gifted couple with a gifted daughter who is destined to “go places.” But while describing this microcosm of holistic success, the question that triggered the sequence of thought still begs a response. And it begs a response precisely because it is important to this family and a million other families across the broad expanse of the nation seeking meaningful identity in a country that should have been the bellwether of nations many years ago.
When we force a glimpse of the bigger picture, what does the introspection reveal? What do we really have to be so proud of? Showcasing the recorded intelligence of a civilization that invented the zero and predicted, with almost pinpoint accuracy, the age and smaller epochs of a constantly expanding universe is, tragically, considered old hat. The scientific and medical advances achieved a hundred generations ago need to be placed in the context of their present-day significance, and measured against the achievements of a recently-bygone past, the continuing present, and the path we forge in the immediate future.
What, then, is the standard to apply to assess the achievements of the present? Have we as a nation achieved anything in two generations which in turn can be showcased to a world which steadily, inexorably, pulls away and leaves us floundering in the continued status of a second-rate nation?
The epitome of spirituality?
We are purportedly the epitome of spirituality, a land blessed by the continued presence of Gautama Buddha, Vishnu, and Mahavira. But conducting one’s life in accordance with their precepts is, sadly, the exception to the rule. For the well-heeled, for whom religion is a luxury to be confidently indulged, invoking the name of God is merely an extension of the cynical game that we have reduced life to.
Deprived millions, further weakened by the ravages of King Corona, eke out subsistence on the margins of the Republic, which makes calling upon God for them an urgent necessity tinged with affection more genuine than the mercenary enterprise for which devotion passes off and has been reduced to by the more secure and privileged.
The first principles of this most sublime heritage of the country, the tradition of God and compassion, could have been exported long ago as a way of life worthy of emulation to all corners of the earth. Alas, we are mentally and materially so compromised that serious introspection would be needed to attempt to salvage whatever remains of the tawdry spirituality that pervades the land.
Even vis-à-vis the West, a term used for a group of countries nominally of the Christian faith which sit in the northern hemisphere and control the lion’s share of the capital of the world with a superior standard of living to boot, we have not managed to leverage the historical reality of India being the home for 2,000 years to a strong and unbroken tradition of Christianity. In global terms, is this not something to be proud of and showcased and taken constructive advantage of?
Our gaze rests on the modern edifices of concrete and glass, and we crow about how much our country has developed and how the economy has expanded. Perhaps, but it is only the surface. According to a study, India’s share of global gross domestic product adjusted for purchasing power parity from 2015 to 2025 is forecast to range from 6.44% to 7.97%.
This sounds impressive enough but for the fact that it is a single-digit statistic that accounts for the industrial output of a country with a monstrous population of close to 1.5 billion, a significant number when viewed in the overall context of a world population of 7.9 billion. The percentage cited for the total value of goods produced and services provided in the country during one year, therefore, is severely out of proportion -- read deficient -- to the sheer demographic weight that we enjoy in the world.
And the percentage is nothing to write home about when viewed in the context of the historically unprecedented size of the potential workforce in India. This puny statistic is rendered even more meaningless when dividing the annual gross number by the hundreds of millions to arrive at a per-individual figure.
The per capita figure, the basic unit of measurement which fuels democracy, the individual by whom governments are voted in and for whom governments supposedly strive, is so miniscule as to be laughable. India’s share in global merchandise exports is a further mockery at a paltry 1.67% in 2020, with a low share crucially in top globally traded items.
The 3.54% share in global services could be impressive, but pales when viewed in the backdrop of the deterioration to insignificance of the manufacturing economy built up over decades and its replacement with a services economy for which the country is now apparently known. Very low single digits indeed!
We have little sense of nationhood and nation-building and the exercise of mass participation that it entails. In the relatively recent past, mega-schemes have been launched with the sole objective of driving democracy down to the roots of society by placing a modicum of economic power, however small, in the hands of the impoverished woman and her family.
The slew of affirmative legislation notwithstanding, we and our countrymen have never been sufficiently motivated and enthused to unlock the vast material reserves that have been accumulated, generation after generation, for development, investment, and for the overall good of the country. You could build a model replica of the Great Wall with the amount of gold accumulated by the citizens, but public policy is not designed to leverage this wealth for the national benefit.
Perhaps the reason is obvious. With the introduction of the monetary economy to the world a few centuries ago as the sole viable method of economic life, legislation and politics have never favoured greater investment for the greater good. The presumption is that the existence of “big business,” in the form of government or private parties, is required to generate growth, a notion that mocks the success achieved by thousands of micro-initiatives in the post-colonial era.
Vested interest will always ensure that, in a collective sense, we as a country will remain suspended in the permanent purgatory of economic mediocrity. Undoubtedly, the sheer scale of participation through legislative action, however marginal individually in the mainstream economy, will ensure that the trajectory of minimum “growth” is sustained because of the volume generated by this enterprise, but current trend reveals that a seat at the high table will continue to elude.
Sops are thrown to us by countries with cash in huge reserves and circulation: Consider that India’s hopes are periodically kept alive for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council; sovereign states queue up to felicitate Modi for the high-profile “vaccine diplomacy” which yields spectacular results; a resurgent Great Britain recently unshackled from the European Union lauds India as a reliable venue for the service industry; and the PM’s relentless efforts to guarantee immediate recall of the concept of India in the collective consciousness of the Comity of Nations.
Who can disagree that the Indian passport today enjoys a reputation and respect unrivalled since its independence? All, unfortunately however, a flash in the pan, for visions of grandeur are built on the foundations of sound economy and content citizenry. Otherwise, they remain a pipe dream born of wishful thinking.
And why do we parrot the automatic statement, with its predictable variations, about how proud we are of being Indian? We spout by rote, without examining its implications. Featherbrained staples of the social circuit in the full throes of a cocktail party deliver in pseudo-American a half-baked commentary on the glory of India to disbelieving white faces.
Amusingly, they seamlessly transition to the topic of how many trips have been personally undertaken to America, who of the extended family live there, and the education and jobs secured by the children in the Free World. Our children know in embarrassing detail the delicious doings of Beyonce, the Kardashian family, and the progress of the recently concluded elections in the United States. TikTok and YouTube superstars from across the ocean are followed with a mania unbecoming, and dancing and prancing adolescents amass millions of followers for their inanities.
How about posing a couple of questions about the rapidly transforming social milieu in India? Better yet, why don’t you answer them? What are the poverty levels, and what are the tiny portholes of opportunity for respectable livelihood? What does India manufacture, and what is meant by the services industry? What is the poverty line, and how much does the labourer below the poverty line earn on a good day?
What is a constitution? Who is the president of India? How many seats are there in the Lower House of Parliament? Who is the speaker of the Upper House of Parliament? With what frequency are general elections held? What is the age of majority, and what is the age of voting? How many states form the Union of India? What is the easternmost state, and which state lies farthest to the south? What is the current political status of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh?
And it is precisely at this juncture, dear reader, that we draw a perfect blank. “Roll No 7” and “Chhota Bheem” are just two examples of a battery of children’s programs offering an adolescent peek into the culture and mythology of the nation, and which are devoured with glee by the young in so many homes. But I would be pleasantly shocked if this initial interest were to convert into a sustained desire to explore the vast treasure trove of mythology and the Amar Chitra Katha comic books recounting countless aspects of the Bhagavad Puranas.
The Promised Land?
Instead, interest and mind-space are captured by a constant diet of high school dramas on Disney International underlined by the ubiquitous accent of Middle America. For it is the outcome of the most successful marketing and propaganda story that we look to the United States of America and its fellow travellers as the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey.
For the rest of humankind, the self-proclaimed “Leader of the Free World” is the torch which illuminates, and to reach its shores with the objective of creating an existence, any existence, is the answer to the most heart-felt prayer of the married couple in every second household. At the practical ground level of our lives, therefore, if we have any sort of savings, then they are happily spent (or squandered?) in the hope of securing a seat for the offspring in an American university with the mandatory accompanying message: “Do well, beta, get a job there, and don’t come back.”
The last few years have demonstrated the practical attitude of the South Asian. He can settle for second-best, and is prepared to even send the matriculated offspring to centres of learning in mainland Europe to obtain a decent degree at a fraction of the cost, secure in the knowledge that good education does beget decent employment, regardless of the colour of the skin.
The custodians of Generation Next have even learnt to exhort the superficial philosophy and sentiment of a liberal America. Thus, President Trump was the latest bogeyman to be reviled. He hates women, and treats them badly, and he’s a racist, he hates “Black people.” The parent generation nods its head in collective sympathy, for these are indicators of character which cannot be condoned in any person.
But what is the “state of the nation” of your own country? What is the level of apartheid and atrocity? Where are we located on the global social indices? Freedom House is a US-based non-profit organization funded by the government conducting research into democracy and political freedom around the world. India has been downgraded from a “free” country to “partly free.” Judged on various political rights and civil liberties, the downgrade is attributed to “rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population” and “crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters” under the current dispensation.
We did much better in 2018 and 2019, when we were still a showpiece of the manner in which freedoms are meant to be enjoyed in a liberal democracy. Agreed, reports on such subjective matters are by their nature controversial, and thus need sober analysis. It is also true that but for a miniscule handful, our countrymen are conscientious, law-abiding, and peace-loving who harbour no rancour for persons of different ethnicity and religious belief. But what happened to us in the space of one year which caused the downgrade?
Violence against women continues unabated, and is brought forcefully home in all its lurid detail through a battery of social media platforms. This category of crime refers to physical or sexual violence committed against a woman, typically by a man. The horrifying list includes domestic abuse, sexual assault, and murder.
But these are merely the headline categories, and assaults on womanhood take subtle and insidious forms which often are not categorized as crimes. Again, we are not a nation of macho misogynists, in fact we are far from it. But the reality is that in 2017, India’s Gender Inequality Index rating put us in the bottom 20% of ranked countries for that year. Abysmal!
And the stigma of poverty? Ah, “poverty,” that wretched, demeaning, humiliating word, the ultimate plight of humanity. What, then, is the level of poverty? At the dawn of independence, once the euphoria of sovereignty had evaporated into the air of a newly-minted nation, Nehru pondered on the impossible task before him.
Independent India’s first PM was dapper, elegant, British-educated, and “tainted” by the liberal philosophy of the West. Articulate and patrician, he was an unlikely champion of the seething millions of his fellow countrymen, with whom astonishingly he enjoyed a deep empathy. It was poverty which had to be tackled and subdued, he realized, for without economic strength and independence, the political power so completely and effectively wrested from Westminster would be nothing but a hollow victory.
Seventy years on, the report card is still dismal. Based on information about basic needs collected from 15 low-income countries, the World Bank defines the extreme poor as those living on less than $1.90 a day. However, because more people in poverty live in middle-income, rather than low-income, countries today, higher poverty lines have been introduced.
India now ranks 94th among 107 countries in terms of hunger, and continues to be in the “severe hunger” category according to the Global Hunger Index 2020. According to the study, 14% of India’s population is under-nourished. That’s a staggering 200 million people! India ranks lower than most of its South Asian neighbours -- Pakistan (88), Nepal (73), Bangladesh (75), Sri Lanka (64) and Myanmar (78) -- and only Afghanistan fares worse, at ninety-ninth place. Despite the gargantuan effort by the present dispensation, we have a long way to go and much to alleviate.
Dear reader, the setting and conditions described above are illustrative. The names of this lovely family can be readily replaced with a family from millions upon millions of households across the subcontinent who share and nurse the same hopes and aspirations and search for an identity anchored in the greatness of their nation.
I have merely attempted to record my understanding of an environment most familiar to me. But the malaise is the same with varying shades from Kabul to Dhaka, and from Srinagar to Colombo. When we study the national and global indices of our neighbours, social, economic or political, the result is depressingly familiar.
With small exception, the subcontinent tells the same story of low development, economic destitution, and atrocity against minorities and women. Mentally, we are astonishingly alike, an ocean of landlubbers who have no qualms in contemplating the voyage of no return over thousands of miles of water to discover the New World and make it our own.
Beyond our borders
The permanent imprint on our minds of the land of milk and honey is that which exists beyond our borders. How many of us have breathed the admittedly invigorating air of academic America, how many of us continue to aspire for the opportunity and, sadly, how many of us become prime contributors to an economy alien in the formative years of high school life, and how few return to the land of birth and forsaken parents?
And we call ourselves proud.
Sorry, Parnika. You posed the existential question which goes to the root of who we should be, and I hijacked your story with an unseemly harangue completely my own. I am relieved at not having been confronted with the truth, for I must admit that had I been asked the same questions, I don’t believe that I could have handled them even to the extent that your father did. Frankly, I would have been stumped.
To those who have perceived the greatness of your country and have consciously devoted your energy and the energy of your family to contribute to its next level of greatness, I salute you. For those of you who see little use in investing in a future where you see none, I implore you to peel back the thick veneer which unfortunately passes off for immutable reality, and gaze deep into the soul of your nation.
For it will gaze back at you. Of that I have no doubt. But be warned, for it will also demand your meaningful contribution in the journey to a better world.
If we continue to be provoked into asking the questions of the soul, which cause discomfort and evoke sentiment and an urge to better our lot, then, dear reader, come and partake, for the truth is that we continue to live and be alive.
Sumit Basu is a corporate lawyer based in India and is a freelance contributor.