INDIA’s galloping national economy has made its people so impatient that growth under seven per cent a year could have a deeply de-stabilizing impact for the country, a well-respected Indian editor, Shekhar Gupta, told an audience of academics and South Asia watchers in Ottawa Tuesday.
Comparing such a slow-growth scenario to “falling off a treadmill,” Gupta noted that consistent progress over the last 25 years of economic reform (since 1991) has raised expectations and created high aspirations among the country’s 1.2 billion people.
“For Indians to be really happy, 8.5 to 9 per cent growth would be ideal,” he suggested.
Based on his extensive travels for a variety of news organizations, the veteran journalist said Indians are “leapfrogging” across social and wealth divides in both villages and cities.
He senses a “churn” in his country, driven by three realities – a smartphone in the hands of all Indians, widespread use of motorbikes to travel and cheap college education.
This has resulted in social and economic mobility, but most importantly, widespread literacy programs have empowered the people to make India “an argumentative democracy”.
“Democratic politics is meant to be competitive. The voters can throw you out if you don’t perform,” he pointed out, adding that this is exactly what’s happening in most of India today.
In both states (similar to provinces in Canada) and at the federal level, leaders who deliver on economic growth have won re-election, sometimes several times over. The reverse is also true. Over the last quarter-century, politics has become “meritocratic,” accompanied by the rather unusual trend of rising voter participation – unlike most other democracies.
Continuing his decidedly optimistic take on Indian affairs, the television host and newspaper columnist sees the media business also being a growth industry – again, unlike most other democracies. He pointed to his own start-up enterprise, The Print, as indicative of an industry that is still hiring journalists.
He repeatedly referred to a “value chain” along which Indian citizens climb the rungs, including in the area of language. Typically, in his view, it begins with a vernacular mother tongue, then learning Hindi and then eventually, English.
Gupta was delivering the annual Dhahan lecture organized by the Canada – India Centre for Excellence at Carleton University, on the theme “India in transition”.
He generally gave high marks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for instilling pride in Indians and his ability to impress audiences wherever he goes – both at home and abroad. “Modi has made India the most selfie crazed nation in the world.”
The Modi government suffers from “an intellectual deficit,” in Gupta’s opinion, but has proven good at project implementation. “It’s a government in a hurry.”
However, Modi has also swung India to the socio-religious right – not the economic right – and harped on nationalism. This nationalism combined with national pride could prove to be a “double-edged sword,” Gupta warned, pointing out that politics in India is not divided over economic policy differences, but rather over what it means to be a secular country.
The last 25 years has seen a move away from an almost-agnostic national ethos to a muscular nationalism that appeals to the Hindu majority population. “This will be the ideological and philosophical point of argument in the years to come,” Gupta forecast.
Anil Varughese, a South Asia expert at Carleton, who was among those who heard Gupta, offered this assessment: “Gupta’s lecture was a splendid testament to his wide-ranging knowledge of India and the remarkable complexity and richness of Indian democracy. In a tour de force, he captured the chief drivers of fast-paced change in contemporary India.
“His basic premise was that consistent high economic growth combined with easier access to information has spawned far-reaching transformations to India’s politics, society and culture, making its people impatient for change.
“His most valuable insight, I thought, was his remark that to understand changing India, one needs to ‘read the wall’ (the billboards). While his optimism for a more aspirational and assertive India was palpable, his caution against the dangerous cocktail of high economic growth and brazen peddling of nationalistic pride was prescient.”