Reflections on India at election time
The public trust in leaders in India is limited by their parties’ narrow-minded regional-and-caste based ideologies, rampant corruption and unscrupulous opportunism despite their occasional Madison Avenue style public relations image-building. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, of the 1425 candidates 222 have criminal records including “charges of murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, extortion,” and other heinous crimes. The scars and burns of the Gujarat communal massacre in 2002 and the mass killings of poor helpless Sikhs in Delhi 1984 are still seared into people’s visual memories. Thanks to television and global media, we saw how ugly and inhuman people can become at times and felt ashamed of ourselves. This is what the media revolution does to a democratic society like India. It never lets you forget the past and it also fuels the desire for change at a rapid pace. Dr. N. Bhaskara Rao, writing for the Center for Media Studies, observed that “in the last fortnight of March 2009 there were more than a dozen instances from around the country that we saw news channels showing cash in large volumes being transported or distributed by political leaders in the context of Lok Sabha poll.” Although this kind of anecdotal observation needs to be vetted by empirically verifiable evidence, perception is reality in the public mind.
While the Internet makes India global, it is television that mirrors the actual realities and can uncover hidden problems including corruption and criminality. Television gives everyone easy access to information and even the most complex topic has to be simplified into terse statements, sound bites and visual moments. Television turns the abstract into the concrete and the visual. It can make corruption and injustice visible. An uneducated worker or a farmer can easily understand what is happening; and given the Indian habit of building quick grapevine communication, eventually every topic ends up in political discussion, and into the voting booth. So when television shows some parts of India clean and bright, naturally the voters, the urban and rural poor, may ask, what about us, the slumdogs? With cell-phone cameras everywhere, every “note for vote,” to borrow Dr. Rao’s phrase, can be captured for the 24/7 television.
It is legitimate for a farmer on the verge of suicide to ask the question: How can you leave us behind? Trickle down economy has not been good enough even for the United States; but for India the economic growth must reach every nook and cranny, the lowly and the humble, the rag pickers of Dharavi-Mumbai and the rat eaters, Musahars, of Bihar. I regard it as an assertion of the people’s right for equal access and equal opportunity to share the good life that one sees on television, soap operas and commercials. In other words, the pace of economy cannot be slowed down; rather it has to quicken to meet the rising aspirations created by television news media in India.
Since globalization, privatization and free market have begun to create more jobs, there’s no reason why any government, communist or otherwise, could afford to oppose the trend and still stay in power. On the contrary, one sees a growing trend in various states in India for generating competitive advantages to attract direct foreign investments and collaboration. I have always wondered why Kolkata lost Tata’s Nano, the little beautiful car which has become part of the global chatter. Competition: This is the global paradigm shift that Indians must understand. So if Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai rise, can Ahmedabad with Nano in its workshop remain far behind? In a competitive environment of the free marketplace, the states, communists or communalists, have to position themselves to attract private investments and encourage entrepreneurship. Information technology industry in India has reached a critical mass and in spite of the Satyam scandal it will continue growing. But India needs balanced development including massive emphasis on agriculture and rural development to spread wealth and reduce disparities. This is not to minimize the importance of information technology as an engine of economic growth. The change of government will not adversely affect the information technology base and the trust that Indian knowledge workers have been building for more than a decade. The Satyam hiccup would not change the fundamentals that India is a reliable source of off-shoring for major companies like General Electric, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and others, who value India’s knowledge workforce. One can say with confidence that the technology sector will continue to receive the excellent support that it has been have receiving regarding infrastructure and developmental policies. ITs foreign collaborators and partners need not have any concern. In fact whatever party or coalition comes to power in New Delhi, it will certainly make all-out efforts to ensure a growth friendly environment to attract foreign investment.
But at the same time we should keep in mind that since not everyone can go to IIT or IIM, jobs off-shored to India from the United States and Europe would play a marginal role in lifting people out of poverty and raising them into the growing middle class. There has to be something else, something much more dynamic like the rise of millions of cell-technology mobile small entrepreneurs who can grow like giants. The next leadership must forge millions of levers to lift India out of poverty.
This much I know that once again India’s millions of electorate will regretfully affirm that the age of giants, those larger than life men and women, Jawaharlal Nehru (Tryst with destiny), Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Integration of states) and Indira Gandhi (Liberation of Bangladesh, accession of Sikkim, bank nationalization that has protected India from global financial crisis today), is over forever. Nonetheless, Dr. Manmohan Singh has been good enough for the country. He has kept the hurly-burly political alliance together for five years, persuaded the country to accept the path-breaking nuclear deal with the United States, braved the Mumbai terrorist attack, and on the top of it he has managed to keep up the average economic growth around 8 percent. Now it is the age of exploration of space, outer space, rural space and cyberspace, for which India needs bravehearts, men and women with courage, integrity and imagination. (ND Batra teaches communication and diplomacy at Norwich University. Readers can follow him at Twitter (http://twitter.com/NDBatra) and access his blog at http://globaldiplomat.blogspot.com)