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Shape up or ship out

The May 16 verdict follows trends first seen in the 1990s. Wherever people have seen development — or have been afforded respect — politicians from local ruling parties have done well, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: May 25, 2009 21:05 IST
Samar Halarnkar

‘Today she (India) swings blindly between a blind adherence to her old customs and a slavish imitation of foreign ways. In neither of these can she find relief or life or growth. We have to think in terms of people generally, and their culture must be a continuation and development of past trends, and must also represent their new urges and creative tendencies.”

A comment from election 2009?

Actually, you’ll have to go back to 1944.

<b1>It was the monsoon, and in a prison in the great fort of Ahmadnagar, Jawaharlal Nehru was writing out more than 1,000 pages (Yes, with a pen).

What Nehru wrote in that dank prison was finally published as The Discovery of India, an exploration of his country’s past and future by the man who would be India’s first Prime Minister.

It’s a bit of an irony that everything he said 65 years ago is a comment on the India we seek two days after our 15th parliamentary elections. Nehru’s Congress party (nugget: Sonia Gandhi holds the copyright to his book) would do well to heed his words.

They were never more urgent.

The May 16 verdict follows trends first seen in the 1990s. Wherever people have seen development — or have been afforded respect — politicians from local ruling parties have done well.

Delhi with its unprecedented vote for all seven Congress candidates has, over 15 years of Congress rule, watched and celebrated the growth of the metro (by next year there will be nine lines spread over 193 km) and the frenetic mushrooming of flyovers and new buses.

Mumbai with its vote for all six Congress candidates has watched the — albeit slow and confused — start of the construction its own metro, monorail, a freeway over the sea and elevated roads by an otherwise bumbling Congress government.

To the casual visitor, our cities appear, at best, shockingly chaotic, but for us every little change matters, and the party that can provide them — or appears to — will benefit.

In rural India, too, there appears to be a large correlation between addressing aspirations, giving respect and winning. Urban voters — forgetting how pampered they are — have usually opposed the Congress’ rural welfare schemes. But, however poorly these might be administered, schemes that waive loans, build roads and provide employment have helped the Congress and regional parties address aspirations.

Parties and politicians that substituted development talk with divisive rhetoric (well, except Varun Gandhi I suppose) and the arrogance of long incumbencies have declined.

Consider the CPI(M)’s antipathy to development and violence against its own people in West Bengal, and the shock delivered to: a) Mayawati and her megalomaniac orgy of statue-building in UP, and b) Mulayam Singh Yadav and his bizarre we-will-ban-English-and-computers manifesto.

Many farmers deserted Mayawati and Mulayam when loans of up to Rs 20,000 were waived by the Centre for 5.42 million farmers. The UP farmer said: I didn’t need to ask, and I had to pay no bribes.

British colonial rule did not last more than 90 years, and while it was highly organised and gave us a real country, it barely touched the lives of the great majority of Indians. It was a few of the older, more established princely states that addressed aspirations better than British India.

As Nehru points out, the erstwhile state of Travancore started organising popular education in 1801, nearly 70 years before England. In 1944, the literacy rate for men was 58 per cent and 41 per cent for women, four times higher than British India.

Today, Kerala (into which Travancore was dissolved) is of course India’s most literate state.

The bottom line: Development requires a legacy.

That legacy was never a part of the great northern plains (now Bihar, MP, UP and Rajasthan). The British, who stepped into centuries of a vacuum of governance, couldn’t make a substantive dent. Successive local governments have failed to pull the BIMARU states out of their misery. Whoever has — in fits and starts — given them respect or development, or both, has temporarily prospered.

When I started this column in March, my first observation was that India’s politics were increasingly being defined by its people’s aspirations.

I propounded the Nokia Theory of Rising Expectations, which said that the 19,000 cell-phones India buys every hour indicates a fundamental reshaping of our politics and values.

Downturn or not, no party could tell India’s 714 million voters there was anything more important than their aspirations — of better jobs and education, more political power, better social respect and overall a more dignified life (especially in the case of millions of Dalits, backward castes and other minorities).

It is no longer enough to be an Indian elephant to China’s tiger. If change is not quickly visible to an impatient new India, if the legacy of development is not now rocket-propelled, governments will be dumped faster than they ever have, especially by younger voters, rural or urban.

What could not be done in 50 years must be addressed in five — 2014 is not far away.