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GREAT EXPECTATIONS

By Sanjay Jha

India has experienced a stratospheric political paradigm shift, as right-leaning Bhartiya Janata Party has won a sizeable popular mandate in the just concluded 16th parliamentary elections in the world’s largest democracy where close to 540 million people pressed the red button on their electronic voting machines. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumes a gargantuan responsibility, it will be his ability to unravel the unfathomable , often contradictory dimensions of India that will finally determine his success or otherwise. The first budget will be symptomatic of it’s proposed roadmap.

My daughters still cannot fathom how our old-fogey generation lived like cave-men for a considerable period without the mobile phone, internet, courier and the Coffee Bean. They are perceptibly shell-shocked when I tell them those excruciating tales of anguish  when I would drive down to the General Post Office at Janpath, New Delhi to book a trunk call every Saturday afternoon to chat with my ageing parents living in Patna. After waiting patiently for a considerable period in jostling queues, one would miraculously manage  that elusive connection. It was like a eureka moment, for some time my mother would remain speechless simply because it seemed like a technological breakthrough to establish verbal connectivity. When we first got our landline telephone number, I surreptitiously sneaked into the living room late at night where the family jewels were located to just listen to the sound of the dial tone. A small get-together was hastily organized to impress jealous neighbors still fuming with rage for being on that eight-year old waiting list. Right now, my L’Oreal inspired house-help has two cell phones , one for her overbearing family, the other for those nocturnal conversations with illicit lovers. I am assuming that they belong to two different mobile operators on varying savings plans. And to believe that till the early 1990s, that triangular shaped heavy black instrument with long brown wires meandering in a serpentine maze throughout the house was the coveted asset of most Indian households. Our teledensity then was just 1. Now it is being sold as retro-artefact and purchased at exorbitant prices as a piece of timeless value. Old is not on hold.  India has 975 million mobile connections and is a paradise for consumer electronic companies, Facebook, broadband technology and auto-industry, amongst others.  So, can there be an India 3.0?   Author Anita Desai said, “India is a curious place that still preserves the past, religions, and its history. No matter how modern India becomes, it is still very much an old country.” It is being estimated that a large section of India’s Gen Y , several being first-time voters rooted for PM Narendra Modi’s call for change. Unpredictable, possessing a charming chutzpah, aspirational, easily disgruntled and dreaming big, India’s millennial are a challenge for any government. Mr Modi’s will be no exception.

India frankly baffles me every day, every moment ,  given its spectacular  metamorphosis over the last two decades and its continuing mind-boggling contradictions. Somewhere in the manic scramble for the gold rush, India’s celebrated glaring haphazard ways, predilection for swift short-cut methods to browbeat the system, and the ever-ready riposte and  pontification on all things that cause acute discomfort, makes the billion people nation a  compelling case for serious neurotic research. At 9 pm every day, India gets  a performance appraisal report, and the ratings and ranting are usually unmatched for their vociferous personality. It is usually an acrimonious affair, as angry faces in pigeon hole portraits on the idiot box holler at each other with maliciousness bordering on perverse ecstasy.  I have read books on India, and have re-read them, and still find myself prodigiously inadequate in comprehending the country of my birth. I assume I am not a solitary stranger in this queer dilemma and interminable journey. As film-maker James Cameron said ,“I like the evening in India, the one magic moment when the sun balances on the rim of the world, and the hush descends, and ten thousand civil servants drift homeward on a river of bicycles, brooding on the Lord Krishna and the cost of living.

The constant comparisons with China by global investment bankers who believe India’s GDP growth will soon overtake that of its perennial adversary in its northern borders, China has brought extraordinary focus on this erstwhile emerging market story, a dramatic reversal of the woebegone days of financial penury of 1991. But behind those towering monstrosities housing glitzy malls displaying Times Square-kind advertising much like drive-in theatre giant screens in the night in Gurgaon , there lies a dark sinister tale. In the same state of Haryana and at an uncomfortably close proximity a peculiar  assembly of feudal village lords  run their own private legal system, called the Khap panchayat, delivering their own unilateral justice to a terrified village . Even as the Supreme Court of India legalizes live-in relationships, young lovers from different castes in rural India are brutally slaughtered by their own kin for dishonoring family traditions. The Khap Panchayat is indeed the grotesque exhibition of a two-faced India battling its own socio-economic legacies as it attempts to mobilize SEZs. Thus, the constant gripe over the  lamentable perforation between Bharat and India. 11 The top 1% of the country’s population owns 48.7% of its wealth, the disproportionate share is disconcerting.  Women professional managers complain about the glass ceiling in their glistening  boardrooms but they forget that a Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalitha , and Vijayaraje Scindia have stormed the male bastion of perilous Indian politics, and have carved out their own formidable base. The biggest bank in India is non-commercial; it is the various “ vote banks” that political parties see as special interest groups created by religious, ethnic, language, caste and occupational strata. India is the proverbial puzzle wrapped in an enigma, a whodunit that would have got Agatha Christie nonplussed and thinking.

“Countries have choices and those choices have substantially determined whether they succeeded or failed. History is not determined by fate, or by religion, or geology ,or hydrology, or national culture. It is determined by people”, says Alan Beattie, author of the eminently readable False Economy. India has made it’s choice. Now it is for Modi to live up to that expectation.

( The author is National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress party. The views expressed are personal).

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