[ opinion - april 06 ]
So, here I am in 2010, in the foothills of our climb to become a Superpower. What’s new? What’s happened in the last five years that I can look back on and then turn my sights on that lonely Everest? Well, moving through this city, Chennai, I notice that everyone has a mobile stuck to their ear like a new limb. I mean everyone, the professional beggar on Cenotaph road, no doubt chatting with his banker about mutual fund investments, the dustman checking the Sensex, the bus conductor discussing new techniques in rudeness, the vegetable vendor with his cart calling the commodities market about the latest price of spinach, beans, chillies. We appear to be seamlessly connected together by this instrument and now are the largest users of mobile phones in the world.
Traffic still moves at slower than a snail’s pace. Back in 2005, it moved at a snail’s pace but it has slowed even further as everyone seems to own a motor car and five million motorcycles have been added to the roads. The fatality rate on the roads has reached near astronomical figures, as we still don’t obey traffic rules. The air is nearly unbreathable as, though we’ve signed the Kyoto treaty, and other climate change treaties over the last five years, we’ve not implemented the controls. We’re going to be a Superpower and Superpower-dom doesn’t come with such controls. The city now seems to sprawl forever - south, west, north- and the urban middleclass with millions of disposable rupees have changed the city into a huge shopping mall.
We’re also the biggest shop-until-you-drop population of consumers in the world. There’s Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue in Mumbai and Harrods in Delhi. They’re planning to expand into Chennai. This was once a masala dosai city but now gourmet chefs from all over the world are opening up their restaurants here. Back in 2005 there were a few Brits, Americans and Koreans wandering around like lost souls. Since then, the city’s become so cosmopolitan that now every nation has its own ghetto- American, Korean, British, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Brazilians, Australians. We’ve become the hub of car manufacturing, the Detroit of the world with even Rolls Royce building its own factory for our new billionaires; it’s the IT capital of the nation, stealing that away from Bangalore, still mired in gridlock.
Overhead, like a London or New York, there’s the constant whine of planes coming in to land and taking off. Although there are 20 flights a day to Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, 30 a day Singapore, London, New York, it’s still near impossible to get a seat. The law of the roads - the wider the roads the more traffic fills it- also applies to Indian air travel. More flights, many more passengers, after all we’re now a wealthy people. Our super six-lane highways cut through swathes of rice, chilly, sugarcane fields. It looks as if the bucks generated in the metros have flooded down into the rural areas, enriching them too. But it’s the illusion of nation-wide prosperity.
Unlike America, we were not granted a Dream. It was the only nation with that boon on its birth. There was that deep well of hope, happiness and unlimited wealth that the American people could drawn upon for two centuries, and the well has not yet dried up- for some. The United States of America, to give its full name, is the role model, the ideal, for us Indians, according to a survey taken in 2005. Back then, 71% of Indians surveyed had a very favourable opinion of America. (Though I was around, I wasn’t surveyed for my opinion, a different story). I hadn’t read the demographics of those surveyed but I assumed they were the urban middle class for the most part. And why not? Virtually every Indian ‘middle class’ family has a son or a daughter thriving in America. We boasted of their success, not only in familial gatherings, but in the press when they enter any Forbes list of richest people, direct a film or get a bit part in a Hollywood film.
However, I could have been wrong about the survey being exclusively urban middle class. Maybe even our rural poor were part of that survey and dreamt of living the American Dream too, anything to escape their debt traps, empty promises and poverty. Seventy-one percent is a formidable proportion when we consider that in Britain, America’s closest ally and still a possible 51st state, only 38% looked on that country favourably. Even more alarming than that statistic was the10-year defence pact we signed with America in 2005. It only meant that the 71% are the iceberg of longing and the defence pact the tip that has floated us here.
What we were granted at our birth was freedom and somehow muddled our way through, somewhat intact if tattered, into the 21st century. We all remember 2000 and the hype of that time threshold. We believed that we would step out of the old and into the new, as if it was a magic threshold like the one back in 1947, and struggled to awake to our own Dream. Jawarahal Nehru, in his famous ‘tryst with destiny’ speech had vaguely outlined our Dream. In that speech he had described ‘the task ahead’ as ‘the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality in opportunity’. Nehru had also announced that predicting India’s future was nearly impossible.
So far, our statistics of his vision for India are decidedly lobsided. While we have, in the last decade, seen an explosion in the middle class, we still have 400-odd million of us living on or below the poverty line. In literacy, males hover around 75% and among women less than 50% are literate. An appalling number when we consider that for China (our competitors in indicators, progress, success, GDP to name a few) the numbers are 90% and 80%! Life expectancy in India is still 64 years, in China it’s risen since 2005 to 80. We are still in some sort of race with China on many fronts but if we could manage to achieve 100% literacy by 2020, we’ll leap far ahead of it. Will that happen in next 10 years? There is still too much rhetoric about universal education, wiping out illiteracy, among our politicians, and that will still remain in 2005 percentiles.
The Dream, like all dreams, had receded to 2010. This year became the next magic year, the next milestone in this marathon of our existence when we expected not to lumber and stumble, but sprint towards the ever moving finishing line. But do we have any idea what we want India to be like, not merely in 2010 but in 2050? Twenty-ten is merely the springboard for our leap towards Superpower-dom. It looks as if our government, and that seventy-one percent, did have a vision - we were to be another America. We’re shaping ourselves to imitate the American Dream in Asia.
I would certainly like to see some parts of that Dream fulfilled for India. We do have the economy starting to boom. Since 2000, we’ve seen a seascape of change in India. By 2010 no doubt the parameters of our success - telecommunication, IT, manufacturing- and I’m not going into a litany of our possibilities, have accelerated. Today more Indians, maybe 70%, are living above the poverty line. I doubt in five years they will be catapulted into that fortunate segment of what we call the middle class but at least they have food, education and jobs. Whether our infrastructure can keep pace with such rapid growth is impossible to answer, though we are planning to spend many more millions on roads, telecommunications and airports.
All these are the economics of success, the cash in hand, our spending power that we’ve achieved so far. But do we know what we want to be after, 2010? A mirror of the US? Another US with our Asian faces? Already we’ve wiped out our heritage buildings to make way for shopping malls, American style office and apartment blocks, hamburger joints. We’ve emulated the American lifestyle - page three people, expensive automobiles, shop-till-you-drop spending of the new rich. I believe we’re surprised by our success and haven’t thought further than emulating that shrine of capitalism.
America is a far from perfect country, despite the highest of ideals in its constitution. It still neglects its poor, despite its vast wealth. For 25 million Americans, the Dream is the Nightmare which has trapped them in poverty, hunger and despair. If we have slums still, the Americans have ghettoes still with high crime rates, drug abuse and hopelessness. Unlike other western countries, America has no health insurance for its citizens, certainly not for the poor. Seven hundred out of every 100,000 Americans are in prison, percentage wise more than any other nation in the world, and it executes more of its citizens, barring China, which leads that statistic. (Let’s not be complacent about such numbers as we belong to the same club with our bad human rights record). The gap between the very, very rich expands at an exponential rate, fuelled by President Bush’s tax cut back in 2002. The poor, equally exponentially, only get poorer. We know that Bill Gates is extraordinarily rich and that his wealth now is in excess of the wealth of 45% of American households combined. While one per cent of Americans own 38% of American wealth, 10% control up to 70%.
Is this what we aspire for I our India? The American Dream is the excessive accumulation of wealth, the only barometer of success today, at the cost of its less fortunate people. Of course, optimistically, we imagine this new Indian wealth will trickle down, remember Reaganomics way back then? But how far and how wide does this wealth spread to our millions of rural poor? Certainly by now, the fringes of our urban centres, these IT metros, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, have benefited as more jobs were created to lift the life of our fringe poor to an economic survival. But the wealth has to go far beyond to benefit the 400 million. There has to be a flood of money to do that, and right now it’s still a trickle. We must always remember the ‘India Shining’ slogan that brought down a government which had its gaze fixed on our urban class, forgetting they seldom bother to vote.
Within that American Dream there was also a sense of justice, though sometimes warped and weighted according to the liberal or conservative climate, in America. But ‘justice’ was thoroughly discredited by the cruelty in Guantánamo Bay and the prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Justice has gone down the tubes in America.
Nehru had dreamt of social justice in India but that still remains distant. The rich and powerful walk away scot free for murders, rapes, thefts and corruption. Sadly, despite our economic progress, our politicians still remain the same. They’re the same men and women who ruled us back in 2005 and these predators do not change their spots over a mere five years. There are still many others waiting to slip into their shoes, once they die, that’s if our politicians ever do.
We still attach to much importance to their every silly utterance as they scramble and claw at each other for power, playing their musical chairs. Coalitions continue to rule us at the centre and in the States the regional parties have alternated in power. We have succeeded, despite them. Our Lok Sahba remains top heavy with criminals while our state legislators sometimes seemed packed with men, and women, wearing a list of crimes as though they are rose garlands. They stall all reformations of themselves, despite the best intentions of some of our leaders. We have to wait a few more years for the younger ones, who promised so much, to become our new leaders.
Our justice system still does not deliver justice for the unjust and, even for the just seeking it is so long delayed that it is denied them. I doubt the miracle of delivering justice to our people, swiftly and fairly, will happen by 2020, possibly by 2050. We are too focused on the tangible, creating wealth, and not such intangibles of compassion. And yet it would be such a visible dream for us. To dream that the Supreme Court clears its backlog (depressingly I read somewhere that would take 200 years) while we tripled and quadrupled judges and magistrates in our lower courts. Yet, we don’t understand we have untold wealth entangled in court cases in our near-paralysed judicial system.
Maybe we can even revive the ‘India Shining’ slogan as there may be a larger grain of truth, the embrace wider to include our many million poor on whom this light reflects. There is sheen on many faces but still not on all. We haven’t moved fast enough to embrace all into this privileged fold.
At least, we sit at the high table of the United Nations, the permanent seat that we’ve coveted for so long and pawned our souls for. We scraped in only because the American Superpower needed us as allies in the Council. It is a matter of pride admittedly, an acknowledgement by the other permanent members that we deserve our place in this powerful council of nations.
What comes next? With such responsibilities does come certain powers, certainly pride and our voices are heard by those privileged to have been born to the security council seat. We’re looking ahead to 2050, we have belief in ourselves that by that magic date we will be India, Superpower Inc. If we are emulating the nation we so admire, we must be extremely cautious. With Superpower-dom comes enormous responsibilities and before that ‘tryst with destiny’ we must formulate our own philosophy, not emulate a western power’s. Power certainly corrupts and Superpower corrupts totally. Power and humility are an antithesis as power breeds arrogance. In our mythology we have too many stories of the downfall of arrogant kings and princes, they get their comeuppance by the end of the tale. America has become arrogant with its new found status as the single superpower. Its reach, militarily, is global and no one is safe from America’s desire to dominate and dictate its terms to all us lesser nations. Since 2003, America hasn’t won any new friends, lost many old ones and created new enemies, and remains isolated by its power. We do her bidding as we want so much to emulate that country. They use our air bases for fuelling and for strategic purposes still to come, while since 2004 they have used our ports to refuel, entertain and sail the Indian Ocean as if it were the Atlantic or the Pacific.
Will the United States still be a superpower in that time? This belief of Imperial Infinity is not new. A subject of the Roman Empire must have believed that that Empire would rule into infinity. Probably it did during one man’s lifetime. But that Rome, which ruled the known world, both economically and militarily, began to shrink, accelerating at an alarming rate until Rome only ruled Rome.
I wrote a novel about the British Empire, choosing to begin it in the year 1900. I chose that time because the British Empire was at its very peak. The Empress Victoria was on the throne, in India our Viceroy was Lord Curzon and, from that point of view, the power of that Empire looked infinite to an Indian subject. Nothing could shake such a power that, militarily and economically, ruled most of the world. Yet, within a dozen years, the collapse began, in India anyway, accelerated by World War I and then Jallianawallah Bagh. The British Empire lasted a mere 100 years.
The point I am making is that every Empire ends. It has a sell-by date, except neither the Imperial power nor the subject people know when this date will come. It will come; history teaches us of this certainty, if nothing else. Nothing lasts forever, not the earth, not the sun, not those tiny pin points of light above our heads, some a million times larger than earth. Down here, the Greek, Byzantine, Ottoman, Russian, Mongol, Mughal and British Empires are footnotes in our history books. The American Empire too will go the way of all empires. The American Empire could believe that, like a Third Reich, it will last a thousand years. We are at that point when there is infinity in the Empire’s life.
Will we adopt America’s arrogance towards the rest of the world? By nature, we can be a most arrogant people, it’s our defect, and our own self styled superiority sweeps us away. But we do have to share this superpower status with our immediate neighbours, our borders grate together like tectonic plates. China to the east is our immediate competitor in the power stakes, wealthier and more focused than us. While to the west, Pakistan has become an economic tiger, and Kashmir still remains the tinder box between us. Neither of us has matured to reach an agreement on Kashmir and infiltrators still continue to cross the line of control to kill and maim. The threat will remain forever, I pessimistically suspect.
Yet, if we can find a new path in the 40 years, to build on that original American Dream without being corrupted by our wealth and power, we will become a greater nation. That we should have every child nourished, educated and employed, a health system for everyone of us so that we can all live to 70 or 80, and a pension plan for the many, many millions who need it. That we have a justice system that will be the envy of the world, a free and a democratic system too that, despite acts of terrorism, we will cherish.