A Test Ahead for India’s Defiant Optimism

A Test Ahead for India’s Defiant Optimism

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

PONDICHERRY, INDIA — The last couple of months have seen a slew of retrospective articles and issues in the Indian media. The end of a decade is an occasion for looking back. But this, my first column in the new year, is also an occasion for looking forward.

As we enter the second decade of the millennium, I feel a tremendous sense of anticipation in the nation: Is this the decade when India will finally achieve its potential?

The past 10 years have been marked by substantial excitement — and more than a little hype — over the nation’s possibilities. We have been told that India is on the path to “economic superpowerhood,” and that we are on the cusp of an “Indian century.” The media have jubilantly reported on the country’s rising stock market, and on its growing population of billionaires (the world’s third largest now, according to Forbes magazine).

All this is heady stuff, especially for a nation that was for so long synonymous with poverty and underdevelopment. But over the next 10 years, rhetoric will meet reality. The question is whether rhetoric will bump up against reality, or whether reality will finally match the rhetoric.

For me, the anticipation — and the hype — of the preceding decade crystallized during the nation’s 2004 general election, and in particular in the then-governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s “India Shining” campaign. That campaign, involving $20 million of print and television advertising, sought to capitalize on national pride in a thriving economy. It projected the vision of an India at the apogee of world power, poised to overtake Europe and America.

The campaign was a failure. Contrary to pre-election polls, the B.J.P. lost the election. In the aftermath, analysts agreed that the “India Shining” tag line had backfired. Many voters — especially rural voters — bristled at what they perceived as urban hubris. For them, as for the millions of Indians left untouched by rising foreign capital inflows and accelerating growth rates, the campaign was an insult.

I had an early inkling of the B.J.P.’s impending loss when, reporting an article a few days before the end of voting, I visited the village of Chetichavady, a farming community deep in the south Indian countryside. Outside a tea shop, at the edge of fields flooded by unseasonable rains, a man asked me what proved to be a portentous question. “The government says India’s shining,” he said. “Do we look like we’re shining here?”

And yet, for all its shortcomings, the B.J.P.’s campaign wasn’t entirely mistaken. I had returned to India shortly before the elections, after a decade abroad, and in my travels I discovered a country that was in many respects shining. In the booming metropolises, in the small towns that were repositories of middle-class ambition and even in rural India, where I lived, I found a new confidence, a sense of optimism about India and its place in the world.

Gurcharan Das, an author and businessman, wrote that, in the wake of India’s market reforms, initiated in the 1990s, the nation underwent a second round of decolonization. This time, the victory was mental, a psychological liberation from the shackles of a chronically underperforming economy and the resulting low self-esteem. By the time I returned, it wasn’t just India’s economy that was growing. The country’s spirits — its self-confidence, its faith in itself and its future — were soaring, too.

It was apparent even then, however, that for all the nation’s progress, it faced very real difficulties. Poverty was still rampant, and governance in large swaths of the country was abysmal, a morass of inefficiency and abuse and corruption.

The specter of Naxalism, a hard-line Maoist revolutionary movement that had for some time languished, was rearing its head on the national stage, fueled by resentment and alienation on the part of those excluded from the nation’s new prosperity. In the years since, the Naxal movement has spread throughout northern and central India, leading Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently to declare it the “single biggest internal security challenge” facing the nation.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the B.J.P.’s triumphant campaign was not so much wrong as premature. It energetically — and correctly — celebrated the nation’s progress, but it was marked by an equally energetic refusal to acknowledge all the work that remained undone.

That sense of willed optimism, of a blinkered enthusiasm that shuts out all contrary evidence, has for me been the defining mood of the last 10 years. Nielsen, a market research firm, conducts regular surveys on global consumer confidence. Year after year, in good times and bad, India tops or comes very near the top of the list. Even amidst the depths of the economic slowdown last year, when the stock market had lost more than half its value and the papers were filled with stories about layoffs, the nation remained defiantly ebullient.

Arguably, this ebullience helped India ride out the economic crisis. But going forward, I can’t help feeling somewhat ambivalent about the nation’s state of mind — hopeful, because the relentless optimism does provide a font of confidence and ambition that can drive progress, but at the same time skeptical and even concerned, because it also raises expectations to unrealistic levels. Most dangerously, the self-congratulatory celebrations of what is essentially an urban elite risk exacerbating social divisions and resentments.

India has always been a country of contrasts, but there is something particularly striking about the gulf these days between those who have benefited from the fruits of economic reform and those left out. At times, it has felt like the past decade was one big party — with only half the nation invited.

Sometime over the next 10 years, I suspect within the next five, we will know whether India can live up to its own expectations — whether achievements will match words, and whether the nation’s self-confidence will prove prophetic or mere bravado. Either way, as we move from rhetoric to reality, the coming decade promises to be a lot more complicated than the one that has just passed.

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