Are we Indians still afraid of change? Do we lack leaders who can chart a vision of change? Are we trapped, as a distinguished editor has written, in the "dangerous romance of nostalgia" by which we hark constantly to an imagined era of the 'good old days', wallow in perpetual hatred of the present and have no collective dream of the future? Today, an overload of shallow nostalgia (rather than an informed sense of history) is becoming an obstacle to change.
The government's announcement of 51% foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail saw the BJP and the left raise the old bogey of the 'foreigner' entering India. Images of the 17th century East India Company embarking on a new era of plunder was invoked. A stark picture was painted of helpless Indians at the mercy of cruel foreign forces. Politicians, who send their children to 'foreign' lands for higher studies and who represent voters many of whose children are excelling in 'foreign' careers, nevertheless propagated the age-old fear of 'foreign exploiters' to prove their nationalist grass-roots credentials.
The globalisation of the economy—now a two decade-old process — has not produced an accompanying intellectual maturity about the West. Uma Bharti's announcement that she would set fire to Walmart showed the extent to which the Sangh continues to pander to knee-jerk, immature anti-westernism.
The left is known for its hatred of everything American and can be relied upon to oppose everything from Walmart to the nuclear deal. But why should a right-wing party like the BJP, too, uphold leftist economics? Apart from considerations of small retailer vote banks, in terms of rhetoric, the BJP's and the Sangh parivar's relationship with the west or with 'foreigners' is in need of drastic and immediate overhaul. The close relations with the US, forged at the time of the Vajpayee interregnum, has sadly not created a more reasonable relationship with 'the foreigner' in the Sangh mindset. India's cultural right has embraced an ersatz westernisation of malls and fashion shows and has seized upon that American invention, the internet, to disseminate its views. But it has still not hit upon the combination of cultural traditionalism and economic modernity that mark modern right-wing movements.
The foreigner as 'enemy' is an idea the Sangh parivar has to change and change fast. To rail against foreign governments, pour scorn on degrees from Oxford and Harvard and block economic reforms on the grounds that they will re-institute the East India Company is not only to wilfully and fatally misunderstand the interdependent global economy but also a resounding failure to grapple, intellectually and politically, with the massive changes marking the 21st century.
The BJP is not the only party resisting a thoroughgoing systematic intellectual transformation. If the BJP is trapped in a static view of cultural nationalism, the Congress is failing to grasp the idea of a modern government. Failing to engage with Anna Hazare in a public debate on the lokpal, seeking to police social media, treating 24x7 television as the mortal enemy and visualising 'real India' as an unchanging Pather Panchali-type rural idyll — where mobs of faithful voters will line up to greet dynastic rajas and ranis who hand out sops by way of free food and loans — shows that the Congress too has failed to understand that information, aspiration and quest for equality are the dominant features of a fast-changing country.
The discourse of royalty-among-the-people, refusal to communicate as equals, standing on ceremony with civil society 'upstarts' are indicators of the Congress' failure to effect full scale intellectual reform even as it attempts to push economic reform. Uma Bharti is nostalgic for an India of small shops and swadeshi; Rahul Gandhi is nostalgic for an India without 24x7 media and an aggressive middle-class.
Dalitbahujan scholar Kancha Ilaiah once said that to radically change Indian society and attitudes, the Rig Vedic hymn, the Purusa-sukta, should be publicly re-written. This is the verse that says different castes were born from different body parts of Brahma. According to Ilaiah, only a complete excising of such a hymn would rid India of the evils of birth-based hierarchy.
Similarly, citizens and leaders alike have to be prepared to junk past prescriptions and urgently embrace the idea of change. Harking back to the old days of the third world economy when there were no 'sinful' page-three parties, to an imagined era of nationalism when we fought the East India Company, wistfully dreaming of an all-powerful State and public sector, yearning for the days when there was no oh-so-terrible 24x7 media — the outpouring of nostalgia is an exercise in preachy moralism and not remotely constructive.
Nostalgia is a wonderful indulgence among friends and family. But if nostalgia becomes a principle of governance or a plank of opposition, it can become dangerously destructive.
In our preference for nostalgia over dreams of the future, we forget that politicians were often far less accountable then than they are now; the media much more hand-in-glove with the establishment then, than now. Indians then were afraid to look a 'foreigner' in the eye. All of that has now disappeared but the tentacles of nostalgia shackle us to the past. As 2011 ends, and recession looms, it is time to snap those tentacles and effect a mental re-birth. As a duty to future generations, the time for nostalgia is gone. The time for mental transformation starts now.
Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.