This question has been on my mind for well over a decade, ever since I was asked how Indians build national character. I’ve tried to find a quick answer but the more I think, the tougher it gets. I write about it now because the question is moot. Shedding acquired and forced fears of identity, failure and success, and attempting to craft their own path and destiny in the world’s largest democratic exercise that will end this week, what is the India that Indians want?
As an Indian my take is this – we are undertaking root and branch changes, the direction of which is in our hands. Our questions are not those of ignorance – they are informed ones of 900 million voters. The closest I have got to a broad comparison (politically and socially) is Europe with its many countries, diverse languages and people, food, culture, habits and persuasions. There is however, one difference. Europe is Christian and that is why Muslim Turkey will never be part of the European Union (EU). It is however part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military grouping and therein lies the contradictions of democracies and destinies, peoples and nations. I will come to this in a bit.
National character cannot be built on depravity and doubt. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has trained his guns once again on corruption. Corruption has crippled India and denying it would be foolish. Money corruption is the most visible one, but it sits on intellectual corruption and moral and ethical depravity – one that is justified by rent seekers and losers, people who look the other way when a nation is looted, its self worth buried so deep that it takes generations to even begin grasping what the monster is.
By design, the monster has little or no knowledge that India (Bharat) is one of the world’s civilizational countries, the moorings of which were hawked and traded for acceptance in fashionable circles of pelf in and outside India. Their glass ceilings are so low they stifle the millions upon whom they have perched and prospered for generations. To them I say – ambition is not a ceiling, it is a floor and every Indian will decide how they want to soar.
To the entitled and the condescending, I also say this. History matters. Trauma has a legacy and our young country has been traumatised by greed. In the recalling is the telling, in the telling is the understanding, in the understanding is the growing up, in the growing up is the responsibility and in the responsibility is the accountability.
Institutions in democracies are built on this process – of asking and telling, of questioning and growing, of sharing and respecting, of building with respect. Young India’s push back will neither be exponential nor experimental – it will be sudden, it will have feet firmly on the ground and it will question so-whatism with a loud voice. No, young India will not move on till pillaging and looting Indians move out or get kicked out democratically.
This scenario scares the so-what crowd out of their limited and combined wits, foolish enough to compare the last five years of our history to the past 70. So what they to every question that is raised about a young country’s young people? So what if Sikhs were killed, so what is thousands died in the Bhopal gas disaster and almost an entire generation lived and died of cancer? So what if Rajiv Gandhi holidayed on an aircraft carrier? Go on – why don’t you ask so what if the Congress party has kept India begging and poor for the longest period that we have been free? Of for that matter so what if black Americans continue to die because of the colour of their skin.
Back to where I began - what builds a country’s national character? Cricket and entertainment are not nation builders because they don’t throw up leaders. The foundation is obviously basic education and primary health. I looked for examples. In the US language is the unifier of the melting pot (history) English and religion – God’s help is invoked in the oath of naturalisation there. In Western Europe, it is a little more diverse, but the continent is a Christian one. Peace (history) and a common market are the binders. In Switzerland for example, conscription acts as social glue.
When you think of China and Russia, you think of a different kind of homogeneity – one that is underwritten by a historical absence of opposition, a fierce army, sports (staggering Olympic medal tallies) and raw power where civil liberties don’t matter. In south East Asia, we are looking at religion and dictatorships, Australia and Brazil balance language and religion language. My knowledge of the vast African continent is limited but religion and language binds countries and regions.
For the longest period in its democracy, India has been kicked around by the Congress party and it should come as no surprise that as Indians ask questions, entitlement will and must shrink. The biggest tragedy is that the young and the brilliant in India’s oldest political party, the Congress party, have been weeded out so that one family – the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – and their friends continue to empty India’s soul. Many years ago an Indian army general told me that the institutional damage to the executive, the judiciary, the legislature and even the forces has been so deep, it will take years, if not decades to recover from, if that is possible at all.
I believe it is possible and for that to happen, skeletons will tumble out so India knows. Debates are important if they are genuine, sustained and productive so that a young nation listens, absorbs or discards. There is no glory in being poor, no more than there is any glory in being rich – what matters is who you are and what you are doing for your country. It is not a given that India – or Bharat – will return to its past economic, social and political glory. In my view, it is more important that Indians claim their rightful place, first within the country and outside. Together.
Most people in the world don’t want to be stars. A decent education, a good job, affordable healthcare and a little extra money for leisure is all they seek. India is happening in ways that data and design have not been able to capture. It has not yet taken roots of nation-building because weeds are coming in the way. They are being uprooted, hence the nasty talking down to us by the anchorless. It is our job to put down roots we understand and respect. We will get there. Keep the faith in yourself and do not think about what it will take to build national character. It is a community effort – let’s begin by asking our leaders to create jobs.
There is historical evidence to show that a gainfully employed population is a wholesome one.