Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eyeless in India

Byline by M J Akbar: Eyeless in India

If I was, God forbid, chief censor of world media there is one four-letter word that I would ban completely: doom. Doomsday is as dull a concept as one can imagine, for it represents the end of all action. Doomsday is the ultimate reaction. Whether therefore the end is nigh or far out, why worry about it, particularly since you can do nothing about it? It is far more sensible to explore options in the sunshine instead of sniffling through gloom, making a virtue out of misery.

But there are limits to optimism, and it has been crossed by those who have concluded that India is a superpower. A curious and crazy mania of self-congratulation has overtaken us in India.

Perhaps every word in the previous sentence needs some elaboration. First: who is "us"? I suppose every reader of an English newspaper would belong to "us". Broadly, "we" or the "us" are those who have crept, slithered, slimed or worked our way legitimately to that huge space above the misery index of India.

Poverty is only one of the lines dividing Indians. The poverty line is in fact the weakest line; it is the line of non-resistance. The truly impoverished do not have the strength to resist, or they would wreak havoc of a kind you might not deem suitable for a mere doomsday.

Above that comes the anger line. These are the Indians who have escaped from destitution, and discovered the courage to exercise their democratic right to anger. For them democracy is not a matter of a vote every five years; they test its flexibility as often as they can, and with a gun if they can find one. Call them Naxalites, Maoists, terrorists, whatever: they don’t care. They have no interest in categories. They know that Indian democracy’s methods of healing are to offer a Band-Aid when the disease is cancer. They have been told that the honey of economic growth will trickle down to them eventually. Try offering the mirage of a trickle to a man dying of thirst.

Then there is a hatred line. It is a thin but potent line, and consists of those who are the leaders of anger. They channel anger towards violence. It is not a moral line, for those who hate also know how to negotiate. The establishment exploits this weakness quite liberally, offering rewards which buy leaders out of their group. Parliament is full of those who have been purchased by the establishment.

Above hatred is the envy line, that huge mass of Indians who are almost there, seething through small towns and villages, anxious to join the long queues of upward mobility. Envy is a good spur for aspiration, as anyone in mass marketing, or indeed banking, will confirm. This is the target group of future consumers which will keep the growth rate at 10 per cent and possibly send it higher. Envy is good for the economy. May it always flourish.

And on top of it all sit the exalted "us": a mix of the smug, the complacent, the rich and the wealthy which now believes that it has arrived, and is totally convinced that because it has arrived India has also reached her historic destination. This is the hyper India class, the doctrinaires of Superpower India. This is the fairy-tale "middle class", the subject of international attention, which hates looking below, except of course to find servants. This class has reinvented the morality of caste. It believes that the less fortunate deserve their misfortune, just as untouchables once were thought to deserve their untouchability: karma is the curse of the inferior mind. But there is this difference. The new caste lines are not rigid. You can buy your way across the divide with a colour television set; and there are no questions asked once you reach the Maruti 800.

This great collective "us" has shifted night into day. India is already a superpower and cannot be defeated in anything, including cricket. Defeat in cricket wounds the self-esteem of this new India, and it howls like a banshee until its lollipop is restored. Cricket is no longer a game in which eleven men might play well one day, and badly the next. It is a drug fed with unimaginable wealth, and every cricketer must be on steroids all the time, or he will be banished into that dangerous pit called middle-class purgatory. At the same time as the Indian team was getting properly and deservedly thrashed in South Africa, the National Family and Health Survey report was issued. It told the truth about "Superpower India": three out of four infants in the 19 states surveyed were anaemic, as were more than half (54% to be precise) the pregnant women. Two out of five children were underweight, which, in a poor country like ours, means appalling malnutrition.

Parliament interrupted its regular interruptions in order to debate defeat in cricket and demand immediate action from Sharad Pawar, head of the Board of Control for Cricket, so that the hungry ticket-holders of the cricket amphitheatre could see their gladiators do what they were paid to do, kill the enemy. Parliament did not have time for the National Family and Health Survey which, frankly, is such a bore compared to cricket. Cricket is hyped by multinationals who produce lurid television spots screaming, in jungle rhythms, "Ha Ha India!" — the best one can say about the ad is that it is about as tasteless as the product. Any chorus for the Family Survey would have to keep its refrain to a more doleful "Hai Hai India!"

The new middle class has created its own deities. The new Mother India carries, in her ten invulnerable arms, a nuclear weapon, a share market index printout, a mobile phone, a cricket ball, a ticket from a low-cost airline, a job offer from an outsourcing company, a colour television set, patched jeans, an iPod full of superbly arranged dancing music from Bollywood and an English dictionary.

The high priests of this India are politicians and businessmen, two terms that encompass a wide variety of types. (Some of my best friends are politicians and businessmen.) Whenever high priests have taken charge of a nation’s destiny, they begin to tend towards corpulence and corruption, and the brightest minds are tempted into sloth. You can see the victory of fantasy over fact in the constant homage to the mirror, and the easy dismissal of everything that does not comfort or reinforce this self-image.

Back to our initial sentence: that this is crazy is obvious, but why should it be curious? The curious bit is the blindfold that all of "us" wear each morning as we head to work, and retain till it is time to go to sleep. It is not as if impoverished India lives in another geography. You can see poverty in the slums of Delhi, the stench of Mumbai, the peeling decay of inner Kolkata, in the thousands of street orphans and beggars that are a constant reminder of failure. The urban poor are the elite poor. Think of the tribal enveloped by fear outside Ranchi, or the rural Muslims stretched across the eastern curve of the Ganga. But we, all of "us", are Eyeless in Delhi. Who has time for the hungry at our doorstep?

I am not a Utopian who believes that prosperity must march in step with equity; economic growth will come in stages, and there will be inexplicable disparity as we seek a better future. But what is it with the successful Indian that makes him so criminally indifferent to the truth of our poverty?

We have certainly moved away from a hopeless past. India might become a superpower; India should become a superpower. But we are not there yet. We cannot call ourselves any kind of power as long as half of India still goes to sleep on a stomach that is only half-full.

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