Whatever your understanding of India today, the exact opposite is probably equally true. Life has changed dramatically since India began to liberalize its economy in the 1990s, and yet it remains a land where several centuries exist simultaneously. If you visit one of its scientific centers, you could well believe you are at NASA, but walk to a village that still has no connection to a drivable road (and there are thousands of them), and you will find people living exactly as they did 2,000 years ago (albeit, perhaps, with a cellphone pressed against an ear or a satellite dish poking out of the roof of a mud house). More than 25% of the world's software engineers are Indian, but another 25% of the Indian population goes to bed hungry every night. Women like Pratibha Patil, the female president of India elected in July 2007, have risen to top positions of power and authority in both the political and corporate world, yet in some regions, girls are still awaiting access to primary school education. Millions more across the country struggle without the most basic human rights.
India has the world's highest number of malnourished children, yet obesity in urban children is a new and menacing problem. The country has armed itself with nuclear weapons, but has difficulty providing drinking water to millions of its citizens. It ranks low in the United Nations' Human Development Index, which measures quality of life, trailing even Sri Lanka and the Maldives in meeting targets set in the U.N. Millennium Development Goals Report, but in terms of purchasing parity, India is the third-biggest economy in the world after the United States and China. During the call center boom time, the country saw the rapid emergence of a large new class of young urbanites keen to flash their disposable incomes, and as a result a luxury market in India exploded, with every international brand from Louis Vuitton to Greubel Forsey vying for their slice of this burgeoning market. Yet, with its shackled judicial system and excessive regulation, India struggles with a reputation as a "mostly unfree" economy coming in at 123 in the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, trailing even Gabon.
Meanwhile, agrarian crises continue to brew in rural India, with droughts and floods, paradoxically, always major impediments to the earning and survival strategies of millions of people across the nation. In 2009, a much-delayed monsoon once again severely hampered crop production. And to compound natural disaster, India struggles with a massive, often overburdened, infrastructure and bloated bureaucracy. In 2008, the country fell behind China in the Global Corruption Perception Index, and many people on the ground harbor suspicion and some sort of resentment against the government, no matter who's in charge; studies reveal that Rs 9,000 million is paid in bribes by 30% of the population (which lives below the official poverty line) just to coerce public servants into doing jobs they're already paid to do. In mid-July 2009, the issue of corruption came into the limelight in a big way when a bridge under construction for the Delhi Metro collapsed and killed six people; reports revealed that the accident was a direct result of cuts to the safety budget on the project, supposedly to save on construction costs, but in actuality a selfish scheme to put more money into the pockets of fewer contractors than was appropriate.
All of this doesn't exactly enhance India's marketability. It ranks low when it comes to attracting foreign visitors; in comparative studies of India's Travel and Tourism Competitiveness, it comes in lower (relatively tiny places like Panama and Puerto Rico rate higher), and that's in the wake of the most intensive national branding and marketing campaign -- "Incredible India!" -- the country has yet seen; there are more hotels and tourism products than ever before, and the international imagination has surely been touched by films such as Slumdog Millionaire and the success of the book Shantaram. Yet acts and threats of terror, perceptions of crime and poverty, and fear of illness, scams, and hostility continue to plague India, keeping many travelers away. No wonder India is confusing, confounding, incomprehensible. How can you make sense of this land? It's like emptying an ocean with a spoon.
All through the 1970s and even 1980s, Western diplomats and journalists predicted the "Balkanization" of India. It didn't happen, but in 1991 India's foreign exchange reserves plunged to a catastrophic $1 billion, barely sufficient to service 2 weeks of imports. India was forced to embark on its radical liberalization program. Since then, India's economy has grown at a rate rivaled only by neighbor China: 2007-08 saw India's thousand-billion dollar economy grow by a staggering 9.8%, the fastest in 20 years; and even with the world economic slump, the nation's GDP grew by 6.7% in 2008-2009, while the stock market has continued soaring to unheard-of numbers (on May 18, 2009, in fact, the Bombay Stock Exchange rose by 17.3%, the highest single-day percentage gain of any exchange across the world, ever). But this growth has also spurred inflation (which peaked at a whopping 12% in Aug 2008) and a rise in interest rates, not to mention the obvious fact that India will no doubt experience the knock-on effect of the world's economic winter.
Statistics show that the overall standard of living has improved drastically, but the truth is that the benefits of a booming economy have not reached a vast percentage of the population, and India still has the world's largest concentration of poor. Nearly 300 million people live without the basic necessities of life: water, food, roads, education, medical care, and jobs. These are the Indians living on the outer edges of the nation's consciousness, far away in remote tribal areas, barren wastelands, and dirty slums, totally outside the market economy.
With a billion voters, every national election here is the biggest spectacle of fair and peaceful democracy that humankind has ever witnessed. And yet increasingly democracy is often a masquerade for a modern version of feudalism. Clan loyalties propel electoral victories. The victor rules his or her province like a medieval tribal chieftain, often showing scant respect for merit or rule of law. Cronies are hand-picked for jobs, rivals are attacked or harassed, public funds are misused to promote personal agendas. Modern-day versions of Marie Antoinette abound in Indian democracy -- while the poor were dying of cold in January 2003 in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, its chief minister, Mayawati, was strutting around in diamonds and celebrating her birthday with a cake the size of a minibus. Later that year, having been indicted by the Supreme Court in a case of alleged corruption, Mayawati resigned only to return to power with a resounding victory. Proof that real choices are limited? Perhaps, but many low-caste people, whose cause Mayawati (herself of low-caste origin) supposedly champions, support her fiery attitude and are inspired that she too can celebrate like India's rich.
In fact, according to a seminal paper presented by Dheeraj Sinha in 2007, the mindset of India as a nation is changing -- gone (or fading) are the priestly Brahminical values of knowledge, adjustment, simplicity, and restraint, and "in" are the warriorlike Kshatriya values of success, winning, glory, and heroism. Whereas Indians traditionally took refuge in the idea of karma and fate, the emerging mindset believes that karma is shaped by one's actions -- that it is possible to achieve a life that one desires rather than one that's destined.
This represents a huge shift, and is both the result and the driver of the economic engine that is powering India. But there is one growth industry guaranteed to stymie, if not wreck, genuine progress: the feud between Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists. At the heart of the latter ideology -- most acutely represented by the RSS and Bajrang Dal -- is the belief that today's Muslims should be punished for historical wrongs perpetrated by medieval Muslim conquerors. It's a belief that is fired by modern-day resentments (such as the concern that Muslims have, proportionally, the highest birth rate in India) and fears that madrasas are creating hotbeds of Muslim fundamentalism. The worst Hindu-Muslim rioting and looting happened in the western state of Gujarat in 2002, but bomb blasts still occur almost annually and are proof that sectarian trouble is simply on slow-brew.
Nationalism also takes its toll in the Kashmir dispute that bedevils relations between the nuclear-capable neighbors India and Pakistan. The two countries have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, engaged in another low-level conflict in 1998, and came to the brink of another in 2002. Driven by popular enthusiasm and political initiatives on either side, there has been a thawing in India-Pakistan relations since then, and the peace process has enjoyed a visible momentum with issues such as visa issuance significantly improved. That said, there is still a lack of progress in resolving many bilateral problems, and any further improvements are unlikely given the recent spike in terrorist incidences (most notably the devastation that occurred in Mumbai in Nov 2008 when terrorists who trained in Pakistan wreaked havoc in various key locations in the southern part of the city).
The problems of nationalism are exacerbated by politicians who try to pit Hindus, who constitute 80% of the population, against the 150-million Muslim minority before elections in order to garner votes -- this happened again in 2006 and 2007 in the UP elections, when the BJP released a highly inflammatory CD featuring Muslims slaughtering cows and kidnapping Hindu women.
Yet, recent elections have proved that change is definitely on the horizon. The 2004 polls hinted that the masses cannot be won over for long through this diabolical strategy of dividing communities, and in some subconscious way there seems to be a recognition that if divisive politics win, India will lose. When the nation went to the polls on May 18, 2009, some 420 million voters turned up and effectively took part in the biggest single democratic event in human history. That the voters, a hugely disparate group separated by geographic distance, culture, economic situation, caste, religious belief, and access to the social infrastructure, managed to vote, in Fareed Zakaria's words, "with remarkable intelligence" by rewarding the incumbent ruling Congress for bringing economic growth to the nation, is a momentous feat. Indeed, at the polls, it seemed evident that India's voters had given precedent to economic reform, and within days local stock market indicators went orbital. As India's reform-minded government allocated ministerial portfolios and people on the ground celebrated, media headlines emphatically declared nothing short of a virtual new order. The Times of India eagerly reported that "with the Left decimated and the Congress no longer dependent on coercise allies, a stable government would be able to push reforms." In many ways, the election result symbolized the emergence of "a new age for India on the world stage," and the next leg in the evolution of the country's independence -- people power had finally usurped state power. And, to preserve the sense of order established by the Congress's first term in power, its leader, Sonia Gandhi, again declined the post of prime minister, retaining Manmohan Singh -- highly respected for the role he played in the liberalization of India's economy in the '90s -- for the post.
Bill Clinton once said: "India remains a battleground for every single conflict the world has to win." Certainly India copes with huge problems -- massive corruption, joblessness, judicial bottlenecks with few convictions and delays of up to 20 years for delivering justice, AIDS, acute water shortages, poverty, disease, environmental degradation, unbearable overcrowding in metropolitan cities, crises of governance, sectarian violence, and terrorism. India adds one Australia to itself every year -- 18 million people. The rural poor (who form the majority) see children as an economic resource, the only security net for old age, and high child-mortality rates necessitate the need for more than one, or two. Apart from India's huge natural growth rate, an estimated two million poor Bangladeshis slip into India every year in search of work.
But this is a country of remarkable stamina. As Manmohan Singh has stated, "Our real strength has always been our willingness to live and let live." Home to scores of languages, cuisines, landscapes, and cultures, India is a giant. But she will move at her own pace. She is not an Asian tiger. She is more like a stately Indian elephant. No one can whip or crack her into a run. If you try, the stubborn elephant will dig in her heels and refuse to budge. No power on earth can then force her to move. But equally so, she cannot be stopped once she's on the move. And with the slow but fundamental shift from silent acceptance of karma to the belief that one can -- and should -- give shape to destiny, she is most certainly on the move. There is no point arguing whether this is good or bad. It is good and bad. And it is many things in between.
After all, this is India.
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