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Rethinking India
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(Loong post :D)

I've been mulling over my own conception of "India" for many months, esp. after some extensive travels last year. The recent "Anna Hazare" protests - and don't just dismiss them, eh! - actually increased my belief that I'm thinking on the right lines. Let me explain..

There was a time when my perception of the nation hinged majorly on signs of economic progress. Easiest to keep track are GDP growth, inflation, poverty, malnutrition, literacy. Or [insert your favourite economic/social indicator here]. On the micro level, you always know if your quality of life is improving, whether public services and physical infrastructure are up to the mark.

But to me all these visible changes never added up to an overall narrative. India is so unequal that a nationwide statistic tells nothing. And coming to my own experience, I couldn't generalize based on Bangalore as the city is going through a unique phase. I even questioned if a coherent vision of India is feasible. Perhaps it's a fluke of a nation-state? Am I looking for patterns in essentially independent, random phenomena?

Luckily I've begun to see some answers, some "axes of thought" I should say, along which it makes sense to comprehend India across time and space. To stay free from sentiment or bias, approach this piece not as any "citizen", but as a disinterested observer, or an alien looking upon the earth. Currently I'm only writing from intuition. I haven't bothered to match it with existing/established ideas. You can help me out.

The biggest material "effect" of India is that it has made it possible for such a large number of humans to live and work freely anywhere in its territory, without artificial restrictions. This has contributed more to their welfare than the sum of all government works and welfare schemes. I'm not saying our government had to struggle hard to achieve this! But at least we're not saddled with China's bizarre registration system, called Hukou. Considering India has about 20% of the world's population (and so does China), this is a remarkable feat for humanity in general. A side effect of this is that India's urban centres are noted for being crowded and polluted. For example, Bangalore's population has increased by 47% in the last 10 years. It now has more people than Greater London. Nevertheless, not just Bangalore, but many of India's cities will continue to grow bigger and they'll continue to be open to any of its billion people. "Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.."

(An aside: Isn't it weird that our domestic movement of commercial goods is actually hampered by tariffs and regulations, whereas people can move about freely?)

Which brings me to the next point about India: Politics. Of late I have realized India is not much of a politicised country at all! That sounds counterintuitive? I'll take Wikipedia's definition: "..a process by which groups of people make collective decisions". Obviously, the major collective decision that we make is the choice of a representative. But firstly, politics is also about the process. By which I mean various pressure groups acting upon each other, conflict between classes, claims and counterclaims, ideological debates, powerful lobbies and so on. This is easy to discern in the West. Many Western countries have ideologically defined parties (at least in name!). The media is full of "right-wing" or "left-wing" opinions, there is enough paranoia to go around (and then some), thinktanks exist to buttress your favourite viewpoint, and election campaigns are prolonged. You get the feeling that many people have a point of view and make an effort to express it.

In India, elections largely revolve around the candidate's personality or lineage (and yet we don't have televised debates). It is hard to discern any ideology or stance. Most dreadfully, candidates are elected on the basis of their "execution" ability, with great allowance for corruption too. Thus the legislature tries to make up for the failures of the civic administration by arbitrary promises - TVs, sarees, mixers etc. No one (including myself) is sure of the difference between central, state and local governments. Even if their intentions are noble, you get spooky men like Narendra Modi. Or Karnataka's present bunch of robber barons who will pave the roads as long as they can line their pockets.

I must emphasize I'm not being negative! In fact, the situation has vastly improved. If you look back at earlier decades, there was a shocking lack of politicization. Bad decisions would get perpetuated for decades. The media was too staid and uptight. Corruption was highly structural and probably more widespread but less visible. Our history textbooks focus excessively on the freedom struggle and make it seem like it was the pinnacle of possible political activism. Does that mean that soon afterwards everyone went back to being lethargic and apathetic?

Nope. In short, India is beginning to approach the cacophony of noises, political views that characterise a democracy. The current lack of an ideological atmosphere is also shown by the fact that few of our major papers or news channels can be easily associated with a political leaning. It's slightly better online, but I look forward to the day an aam aadmi can listen to an Internet Hindu ranting on the radio while driving to work.

Secondly, our politics hadn't transcended elections. Voting once in 5 years can only do so much. And this sentiment is gathering steam rapidly. The public reaction to the spate of corruption scandals in the Centre has begun to put systemic pressure on our governance structures. People are demanding a more responsive legislature, administration and judiciary. How long can our judiciary continue to take summer holidays? From a democracy centred around elections, India is moving towards democracy as "governance by discussion", as Amartya Sen calls it.

My next broad theme about India is the nature of power. Partly due to being a libertarian, to me the most important aspect in social/political relationships is the distribution of power. In general if people have equal and as little power over each other, the better it is. This has been slowly playing out in India (and of course world over). These power relationships get encoded into legal do-s and don't-s. I won't belabour the point that any Indian (rich/capitalist/landlord etc) now has less absolute control over the life of the poor/labourer/peasant compared to the past. And this won't change.

This power dynamic was always heavily skewed by the very existence of an all-powerful, unaccountable State. Monarchies are thankfully dead. But the nascent nation-state tends to centralise authority within a small circle. In India we've seen powerful Central and State ministers perpetuate a "culture of arbitrariness" as P Sainath termed it. So even as the average person felt helpess to effect or resist any change, anyone remotely associated with government wielded power well above the rule of law, largely operated in the dark, and of course abused it.

Therefore I feel that the Right To Information act constitutes our most important piece of legislation in a looong time. Unlike a top down scheme like NREGA or JNNURM, the RTI enables every Indian anywhere to question what any official body is doing. Hardly a week passes by without the papers reporting some application of the RTI act that uncovered a governmental wrongdoing. This is changing the dynamic of power unlike anything before it. Now the interesting thing is that the RTI Act had far less popular resonance than the current Lokpal bill, even though it is more significant!

I believe this indicates that Indians are becoming more acutely aware of the power imbalance between government and the people. The "Jan" Lokpal bill is just one reflex action. If an RTI Act had been conceived in the current atmosphere it would have taken wings!

Now to tie this whole essay together: What I'm seeing in India is the peaceful existence of a billion people, with an audacious promise of basic freedoms. In an environment of rapid urbanisation and a powerful State, this is creating an increasingly political civil society that is attempting to fix the power imbalance and information asymmetry w.r.t government. Our democracy has now decisively moved beyond 5-year election cycles. Our (mostly) free media functions as a powerful catalyst. And none of these changes are reversible.

Note that I studiously avoided the usual bijli-sadak-pani-illiteracy-poverty-famine themes. I believe political rights should take precedence over economic entitlements. And frankly, without the level of political mobilisation we're seeing, our "infrastructure" problems can't be solved in a meaningful, humane manner (Can you say Jaitapur?). So the way to analyse India may not be as a Third World country having the luxury of democracy. In fact I won't be surprised if we bring in election primaries before we tar our highways :)

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