Aspiring India has two facets to it. One focuses on the individual and outlines a dream of mobility and consumerism. The other is the collective dream of the nation state. Our elite and middle class constantly dream of India as a great power with a seat in the Security Council, preening over its defence arsenal and claiming to be one of the great markets of the 21st century.
This group often cites our achievements in IT, our role in Silicon Valley as the beginning of this hit parade into the future. The dream of India being one of the hotspots of the world, the new Silicon Valley of the mind has always been there. The question is: What kind of model do we follow? Let us be clear that India cannot be a cynosure of the globe if we follow current development models.
If India were to follow the current development models, we will at best be a poor third or fourth rate nation, always imitating the innovative nations of the West. We will survive as imitators, as mimics, as a second hand version of America, with a picture of a mall or of Disneyland replacing the Asoka Pillar on the flag. India has to reinvent itself if it wishes to be part of the new debate. Let us face it. India cannot go the way of the West or pretend to be another China which can cannibalise its own people.
Without our democratic imagination, we cannot survive but our democracy cannot be the current majoritarian self. From our examination systems to our security policy, we are anxiety-driven. India has to become more playful, take itself and others less seriously. Our VIP status should not be measured by the amount of time an Angela Merkel or an Obama gives our prime minister. The success of our NRI has little to do with India and, in fact, India can become a creative hotspot if it secedes from its current notion of itself. We will be less pompous, more creative, more pluralistic and not collapse every time Moody’s or the World Bank fails us on an indicator or two.
In inventing ourselves, we have to see ourselves bi-focally as a civilisational mix of Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Jainism. We are a fascinating polyglot mix. As a nation state, we are a simplistic brutalising entity harassing our minorities and securitising our borders. India should move away from its obsession with the nation state and its fixities and elaborate a civilisational model of development, where nature, the body, the mix of religions creates a different dream.
There is no poetry in World Bank indicators and an India competing for brownie points is an inferior creature. By positing alternative ideas of energy, knowledge in India will not become genocidal. As a commons of alternatives, it becomes an attractive proposition, open to dissent and eccentricity. It will not close up like Europe after terrorist attacks or become a China.
India is only attractive if it becomes more like the idea of India. An India of surprises can ambush the world, the current idea of India will even make Nepal and Bhutan laugh. India as an inflated idea of the nation state lacks cultural confidence and confuses moral policing for cultural revival.
An Indian today is a piteous creature. A victorious Indian is someone triumphant in an English spelling bee or a candidate who has come second after some Chinese student in a math Olympiad. These are mimic men who have no sense of the original. An India which produced a Bose, a Ramanujan, a Raman or a Chandra now has to be content with these exam achievers. Original research as risk-taking of adventure has been replaced by this tutorial college mentality. Our IIMs, our IITs are low on research, yet claim to be centres of excellence, of creativity.
India can be open to the world, display a hospitality to ideas and yet create some of its own, beyond the jugaad models it puts up for display. Originality need not be in English because the world will find a way to access it. India can be a centre for world thought if it becomes the home for dissent, marginality, eccentricity, for defeated knowledge to be recreated. India should be the home of all disappearing languages and knowledge, for crafts which now die through indifference. India as translator and philosophical interpreter to the world can help us rethink the cities we need.
I think where India has dulled is in the act of middle class leadership. We still inflate ourselves on old ideas of patriarchy, masculinity, of hawkishness, of rhetorical patriotism while our heritage and our informal economy are what attract people. An India of ideas is an India of the informal economy where new notions of citizenship and survival are invented every day.
Take a simple idea. When visitors come, the modern complex bores them. They go to the old city for stimulation. We have to rework our idea of inventiveness to become a society that invites and celebrates difference.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist.)