Why is India shining?

It has been called the greatest show on earth, and not without reason, as the world's largest electorate of 670 million voters goes to the polls. Although Indians have been voting uninterruptedly for more than 50 years, elections are still festive affairs. They may be cynical about their politicians, but they remain addicted to democracy. Between April 20 and May 10 sixty percent of the India's electorate is expected to vote in 700,000 polling booths via 1.1 million voting machines, supervised by 5.5 million state officials (many of them school teachers). To avoid the Florida fiasco, the Election Commission says that Indian made “high tech voting machines have zero tolerance for failure”.

There is another difference this time around. The economy has grown at a blistering 8.1% in 2003--10.3 % in the last quarter, crossing China for the first time—and not surprisingly, the ruling National Democratic Alliance, led by the nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), has capitalised on this feel good factor with a highly successful 'India Shining' advertising campaign. The opposition Congress Party has retorted with 'India Whining', and as if to prove it my mother just phoned to say, “How is India shining when my house is in complete darkness because of a power cut this evening?”

Whether India is shining or whining, what makes this election different is a shift in rhetoric from religion and caste to the economy and development. Amidst the usual scramble for seats and alliances, politicians in urban constituencies have been forced to learn Economics 101 in order to debate the economic reforms with an increasingly sophisticated urban voter. The strident oratory of Hindu nationalism seems to have died, and even the talk about Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins lacks conviction. The turning point was last December, when the outcome of four major state elections was decided on economic issues much to everyone's surprise. Thus, “bijlee, sadak, pani” or “electricity, roads, water” has entered the political lexicon, having replaced “mandir, masjid, and mandal” or “temple, mosque, and caste”. If this is an enduring trend then we may be looking at the most dramatic change in the Indian political mindset in fifty years.

The BJP claims that it's policies are responsible for the fine economic performance and the changed mood; the Congress argues that the economy grew faster under Narasimha Rao in the nineties. Both are right (and wrong). The reality is that India, in a sense, has been shining for over two decades, its GDP having grown at an average annual 6 percent real rate, making it one of the fastest growing major economies in the world over a 23-year period. While it is slower than China's, it is almost double the Indian growth rate of the previous thirty years, and double the rate at which the West created its Industrial Revolution. More recently, India's population growth has also begun to slow, and in 1998 it was down to 1.7 percent compared to its historic 2.2 percent growth rate. And literacy has   begun to climb—it reached 65 percent in 2000 compared to 52 percent in 1990, with the biggest gains taking place among women and the backward states. Almost 170 million Indians have risen out of destitution since 1980 as the poverty ratio has declined to 26 percent. Finally, India may have finally found its competitive advantage in its booming software and business process outsourcing (BPO) services to the world.

If its economy continues to grow at this rate for the next few decades—and there is no reason why it should not—then a majority of the people in the south, west and northwest should be middle class by 2025 and the poorer Eastern states should get there by 2050. Had India's GDP growth continued at the pre-1980 level, Indian incomes would only have reached American capita income levels by 2250; but at the current rate India will reach it by 2066. It is thus increasingly possible to believe that India will finally be able to conquer its age-old worry over want and hunger--this is what “India shining” is really about.

The amazing thing is that all this growth and prosperity is happening in the midst of the most appalling governance. In the midst of a booming private economy, Indians despair over the simplest public goods—good behavior from the policeman on the beat, honest justice from the lower judiciary, for a government schoolteacher to actually show up and teach in village school in Bihar. Hence, it is the public sphere that is “whining”. So, also are the unreformed sectors of the economy, such as electric power. The contrast between power and telecom is obvious to everyone. After a successful reform program, India is in the midst of a telecom revolution that is a profound as China's. Its telephones have grown from 5 million in 1990 to 60 million today and they are growing by 2 million a month. Power reforms have failed on the other hand, and no wonder my mother whines about power cuts. (Like most Indians, she is not aware, however, that a major legal reform has now set the stage for a similar power revolution over the next 5 years.)
More and more Indians hold ideology responsible for their past economic failures rather than poor management. They blame Nehru and Indira Gandhi's socialism without realizing that even that socialism could have delivered more and did not have to degenerate into License Raj. It is this failure of day to day implementation that makes public institutions weak. Indians admire their armed forces, the Supreme Court, Reserve Bank and the Election Commission. (Curiously, except for the Election Commission, these are the same institutions that Americans admire most in their country.) So, they know it is possible to have good institutions, and India will not truly shine unless there is a vigorous reform of institutions.

It is easier to explain India's economic rise after 1991, when Narasimha Rao's government opened the economy, dismantled controls, lowered tariffs and taxes and broke public sector monopolies. And the economy responded brilliantly with three years of 7.5 percent growth. But how does one explain the jump in the 1980s? And here Indians don't give enough credit to Rajiv Gandhi. Although modest, his reforms seem to have had a big impact. The real miracle, however, is that all the governments after Rao continued the reforms, albeit in a slow manner. Yet this elephant-like pace of reform has made India one of the fastest growing economies in the world. So, the lesson is that if you consistently reform in one direction in a democracy, it adds up. This “adding up” over time has enhanced the nation's confidence, which is at the heart of the notion of “India shining”.

Where has this self-assuredness come from? I traveled widely across India in 1995 and discovered that the nation's mindset had changed in the nineties, especially of the young, whose minds had finally become decolonised. This became one of the premises of my book, India Unbound, and I felt this mental liberation would be a powerful force in national regeneration.

A changed attitude to English, I think, illustrates this new mindset. Ever since the British left we have heard constant complaining against the English language, and then one day in the 1990s it suddenly disappeared, and quietly, without ceremony English became one of the Indian languages. English lost its colonial stigma, oddly enough, around the time that the Hindu nationalists came to power. Hindi protagonists lost steam because they lost their convictions--their own children wanted to learn English. Based on present trends India will become the largest English-speaking nation in the world by 2010, overtaking the United States, according to the English linguist, David Dalby, the author of Linguasphere Register of the World's Languages and Speech-Communities. Dalby predicts that India will become “the center of gravity of the English language” within a generation.

When I was growing up it mattered how you spoke; you could speak rubbish but you had to do it with the right accent. Today, young Indians in the new middle class think of English as a skill, like Windows or learning to write an invoice: “I need to answer my customer in Hungary and my supplier in Taiwan, so I have to know English.” This is why a confident Hinglish (Hindi mixed with English) is spreading. Encouraged by the flourishing private television channels and supported by their advertisers, the newly emerging middle classes avidly embrace this uninhibited hybrid of Hindi and English, and this popular idiom of the bazaar is rushing down the social ladder. The purists naturally disapprove, but they grudgingly accept it because they see amazingly confident faces on these screen.

I don't know how it has happened. Perhaps, it is the impact of television, especially with the advent of competitive cable TV. (India has more cable homes than all of Latin America!) Perhaps, it is due to the reforms, which have been reducing the intrusive power of the state, making Indians more self-reliant. Pop stars like Daler Mehndi and A.R. Rehman display an exuberant nonchalance, as do the new young Bollywood heroes. So do new the fiction writers in English, the designers of fashion clothes, the beauty queens and the cricket stars. Indians seem to have lost their hypocrisy towards making money and getting rich.

Earlier this month Kiran Mazumdar became the richest Indian woman, when her biotechnology company went public and her personal net worth crossed $500 million. To some Indians this is the true shining India, and they point to the many multinationals that have set up R&D centers in India in recent years, including General Electric, Microsoft, IBM, Texas Instruments, Cisco, Intel, General Motors, and Motorola. Supplementing them are Indian companies like Wipro and Infosys, both with billion dollars in sales, who provide customers with R&D services. Some Indians attribute the explosive growth in R&D labs to their Brahminical heritage, arguing that they are conceptual people and that the knowledge age plays to their advantage. They explain that Indians have wrestled   with the abstract concepts of the Upanishads for three thousand years; they invented the zero and the decimal system, which came to the West via the Arabs. Just as spiritual space is invisible, so is cyberspace, they say, and hence, their core competence is invisible. We are past the half way mark in the election, and the exit polls seem to suggest that the ruling BJP coalition is likely to win by a narrower margin than expected earlier. If these polls turn out to be right,it will mean that the winning side will have to domore horse trading to bring in more coalition partners. This will weaken the government and diminsh its ability to continue the reforms. That in turn might slow the rate of growth.

The most popular word in the Indian election lexicon is "anti-incumbency", and this awkward word is being used to explain why the voter is not keen to return the ruling party with a bigger majority, especially at a time when the the economy is shining. This I think goes back to poor governance on the ground. Despite strong economic growth, Indians are unwilling to forgive bad governance and this is the weapon they use against incumbent politicians--they don't reelect them.

Truly interesting article,

Truly interesting article, the nation is inspired with people like you. thank you

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