Tuesday, December 17, 2013

1234. India’s Aspirational Volcano

By Roger Cohen, The New York Times, December 16, 2013
The two worlds in New Delhi

NEW DELHI — In a few hours it is possible to drive out through the car-clogged, rickshaw-ridden streets of leafy Delhi into the dusty churning sprawl of Gurgaon, with its sprouting apartment towers and 21-hole golf course (18 holes would not be sufficient for its upwardly mobile achievers) and shopping malls and water problems, and from there, down a bumpy lane, to a village like Abheypur, where high-rises with names like “The Masterpiece” seem a distant memory and illiterate women pat cow dung into cakes to dry on the nearby hill for use as fuel.

Multiple Indias have always existed in Gandhi’s land of 700,000 villages, but never perhaps in such proximity or with such access to one another, a rising class of conspicuous consumers hoisted through a decade of now faltering growth hard by villages where unemployed men dim boredom with alcohol. Images of a hyper-materialistic and hyper-sexualized world are transmitted to the cell phone of a street vendor. People see but learn not to see how surfeit and suffering coexist. A bon mot doing the rounds in Delhi is that the only successful secession movement in India’s history is that of the burgeoning middle class, with its gated communities, private security, private hospitals and private education for pampered kids.
There is truth in that but only up to a point. In fact the contradictions and tensions of this country, where the average Indian is in his or her mid-20s and per-capita income has almost tripled over the past decade, have reached a tipping-point. The old politics are over. The governing Indian National Congress, the centrist reference point of the nation’s democracy, seems out of touch, and with it the Gandhi dynasty. Passivity is giving way to a ferocious engagement. It is driven by anger over corruption, incompetence, inequality and inertia. The skewed development that skewers the commonweal, or public space, seems unsustainable. New forces and parties are emerging with unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous, consequences. If China is a top-down nation and India bottom-up, then the world’s largest democracy is about to witness what happens when social media connects the long voiceless bottom.
“Aspirations have been unleashed and a child in a slum wants to be a doctor or an astronaut,” Nandan Nilekani, a billionaire software mogul now in a cabinet-level position overseeing the building of a huge identity database, tells me. “We are sitting on an aspirational volcano. But the political system is clogged. People want change in real time.”
That frustration was evident in state elections this month that saw the Congress Party hammered by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party on its right flank and the year-old Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, on its left. The aggressive, take-no-prisoners B.J.P. leader, Narendra Modi, has parlayed his brand of Hindu nationalism, his red-tape slashing economic success in Gujarat (where he is chief minister), and his much-vaunted decisiveness into Modi mania, a fever fed by Indians intent on climbing the economic ladder who are tired of the muddling-through politics of handouts and believe Modi (with his 2.9 million Twitter followers) can at once give business a boost (a view shared by Goldman Sachs) and assert the new India’s place on the world stage.
Modi, of course, was governing Gujarat in 2002 when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in communal rioting. The Supreme Court cleared him in a belated inquiry (official India specializes in the belated) but allegations of complicity in a pogrom persist, and a recent remark to Reuters equating his remorse with that of a driver who inadvertently kills a puppy sparked renewed controversy. His hardline fans were unfazed; they know the subtext of his ascendancy. Still — such is India — Modi would not become prime minister in elections next May without significant coalition-building compromise, a bulwark, but not a wholly secure one, against the sharp tensions his rise provokes.
The other man lifted by the volcanic turbulence of Indian development is Arvind Kejriwal whose Aam Aadmi has learned lessons from Obama’s campaigns — including fund-raising through small contributions from millions of people — to develop a new political force at record speed. It is new not only in its techniques. The party has shunned habitual emotional platforms of caste, religion, language and region in favor of channeling the anger of an undifferentiated citizenry. That anger over rampant corruption and indifferent service is boiling. Kejriwal’s Twitter account proclaims, “Political revolution in India has begun.”

On the road from Abheypur back into Gurgaon’s tentacles, there were women washing cattle on one side of the road. On the other walked dozens of adolescents in maroon school uniforms, literate boys and girls who will not live as their forebears. How their demands are met, how various Indias reconcile themselves, hangs in the balance. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of mild demeanor, may well be recalled as the calm before the storm.

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