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Sumant Sinha Image

India is such a land of contrasts that sometimes one wonders how the different pieces form part of the same whole. How does the 8%-plus GDP growth economy coexist with one where little, unclothed children sleep in the freezing streets of our Capital? How do we have a world-beating IT sector living side by side with huge amounts of corruption in our civil society? How do we educate some of the brightest minds in our IITs and IIMs and yet are not able to provide basic education to a huge mass of our children? Why is it that we have some of the richest people on the planet but yet also the highest number of malnourished children in the world? How do we aspire to be the new global superpower when we live in some of the worst cities of the world as far as infrastructure is concerned? How do we claim to be the world’s biggest democracy when our politicians use every trick in the book to divide people on the basis of religion or caste or region?

This contradictory reality makes India a true paradox — a country hard to understand, where the future path is less clear than it should be. While on the one hand my middle class, nationalistic aspirations would have me trumpet India’s rise in the world and our growing influence within it, at the same time, when I see the results of our elections — where chances of success are often directly correlated to the level of corruption because the corrupt have more largesse to distribute and where our judicial system is so often powerless — and the nature of our polity would have me shake my head in despair. So, who are we really: are we truly world-beaters , or are we a cold-hearted people not caring much for the suffering of our fellow citizens?

My thesis is that there really are two Indias at work here. The first is the one that is honest, hard-working , carries the aspirations of the large mass of Indians, is proud of the nation and is looking forward to India’s emergence in the world and is working towards it. I hate to call it middle-class India but essentially that’s what it is — in mindset at least it espouses middle-class values — of wanting a better lifestyle, being consumption-oriented , working hard, carrying the right set of values, perhaps secular in outlook, not wanting to get or grant any special discrimination either, still caste oriented — but rapidly losing this vestigial hang-up , and so on. This India operates above board: it is transparent and, by and large, follows the rules of the game. It is not necessarily urban only — the same values drive many in rural India as well.

Then there is the ‘other’ India — the one that is driven primarily by self-interest . The motive of this lot of folks is self-enhancement at all costs. This India believes in subjugation and exploitation by any handle: whether it be based on religion or caste or ethnicity, as long as it perpetuates financial or political interests. It thinks nothing of flouting rules, does not believe in growing the pie — and certainly not in sharing it — indulges in corruption on a vast scale, and thrives on the seamy nexus between business and politics, and politics and criminals. This India wins plenty of elections too: taking advantage of the immaturity of our voters, it gets or doles out large government contracts, mining leases, land and other public assets at lower than market prices — and benefits personally in the bargain. This is the India where public funds are diverted to line local pockets at the cost of the poorest and the most dispossessed without batting an eyelid. This India operates alongside the aspirational India, and it does not have a soul.

There are many who operate seamlessly between the two Indias — and, in fact, there is a large grey area between the two Indias and there are those who can swing either way, and, in fact, often do.

The struggle between the two Indias is in some way a struggle for India’s soul, and will determine where we end up as a nation and as a people. As the modern India grows and the middle class increases in size and middle class values become more deeply-rooted across a broader swathe of people, then the chances are that, over time, this is the India that will become more robust and stronger. And, in fact, this is the best way out of our current paradox. More growth, even though it is highly inequitable right now, will inevitably pull more people into the ‘aspirational class’ . As this happens, our society will slowly become more open and more transparent. Our democracy will become more effective and robust, and the benefits of growth will be spread more widely through more effective government programmes, NGOs that operate in the field, and a higher level of philanthropic activity on the part of more giving citizens.

However, there is equally the chance that this growth is held back by the other backward-driving elements or, more disturbingly, is held back in the hands of the few, further concentrating wealth and, along with it, power. Or that this growth is held back from the underdeveloped parts of India so much so that divisiveness in the country keeps increasing, and dark areas within the country keep becoming darker.

The statistics say that every year, 1% of India is pulled above the poverty line. But some 25% of India — a full 260 million Indians — still eke out their existence in some fashion or other. It is not only this part of India that we will let down if we lose the battle for India’s soul. It is in everybody’s interest to ensure that the paradox of India is not only resolved over time, but that it is the aspirational India that is able to impose itself on the ‘other’ India. This will only happen if we have sustained, high-quality 8% growth for many years, and the quality of our civil society develops at a rapid and corresponding pace. And this depends on all of us contributing in our own unique but important middle-class way — working hard, working honestly and contributing to society sincerely. Motherhood and apple pie perhaps, but important nevertheless to the next and very critical phase of India’s future journey.

Source: Economic Times