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A drain inspector's report
By Pritish Nandy  

There was a time when everyone frowned on India. Including us.

Everything was wrong with India. We hated her rags and yet, at the same time, we resented the rich and went out of our way to harass those who created wealth. With unreasonable and punishing taxes. With regulations that crushed all initiative and enterprise.

We complained about the roads, the phones, the buses, the trains, the hospitals, the distribution of food grains. Yet we insisted that all these should remain firmly in the hands of the State. A lazy, corrupt, bestial State, as we described it. Yet we allowed it to control everything and become more and more arrogant, more and more corrupt, more and more wicked.

We were bitter about how government servants, from the lowliest peon to the all powerful prime minister, were busy stashing away personal wealth and ignoring the problems of the common citizen. We complained about their callousness, their highhandedness, the sheer brutality with which they treated us ordinary people. At the same time, we wanted our children to grow up and join government service. Even though we were so critical of the government, we applauded when the State hijacked more and more powers, more and more authority in the name of socialism and a welfare society. Of course, the only welfare this society was interested in was the welfare of its corrupt babus and criminal netas.

There was simply no doubt that India was sick, very sick. Yet we were busy hanging up portraits of politicians on our walls and telling our children how wonderful they were, how they had fought for freedom and self reliance, how they were busy building the temples of modern India. And what were these temples of modern India? Big, ugly, polluting factories that churned out rotten, substandard products and employed thousands of untrained people who emerged as vote banks for those who provided them jobs. Jobs which they did badly even as they kept upping their demands, rendering most of the factories sick and inefficient.

There was all round anger and resentment. All round mediocrity. All round disappointment with the way we were going. Those who lived here hated India. Those who came to visit India hated her even more. She was a nation on the skid.

The nineties began to change all that. Economic bankruptcy was no longer seen as fashionable. Liberalisation, slow as it was, slowly began to change our attitude towards the creation of wealth. And even though Narasimha Rao himself got trapped in the vortex of his own corruption and bribery we were lucky that subsequent governments persisted with the reforms he initiated. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. But the reforms continued, largely because weak, waffling governments at the Centre made it impossible to roll them back.

India was lucky.

She was even luckier when Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power and, instead of succumbing to the internal pressures groups within the BJP who were (once again) talking about swadeshi and self reliance, euphemisms for going back to the licence raj where everybody in government could make a fast buck, he pushed ahead with reforms and in fact accelerated the pace of change. Dismantling more and more state controls in the process and returning freedom, as it were, to the people of India.

In retrospect, it is difficult to say which were the worst years of slavery and colonization for India. Three hundred years of Muslim rule or two hundred years of British imperialism? Or, sadly, the 45 years of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic rule when we lived with the pretence that we were free. Dressed in elaborate chains, we spoke of socialism and non-alignment with the ardor of slaves who were taught that freedom was a dangerous idea that only helped the rich and the powerful.

Thank God, that is all over now. Whatever may be the failures of the Vajpayee era, it will be remembered as that period when India started dismantling a corrupt and lazy empire of crime masquerading as a benevolent, welfare State and returned freedom to her people. It was the time when enormous wealth was created, when taxes were paid because they were reasonable, when people realized that profit was not such a dirty word after all. When excellence entered our lexicon.

It was the time when India began to realize her full potential. When she figured out that she was not a Third World nation, as the Nehrus and Gandhis had preached, equating us with Yugoslavia and Egypt. We realized that we had the talent, the wealth, the ability to be a first world nation if we wanted to and the fact that millions of Indians were still defecating on railway tracks or living below the poverty line was not exactly inimical to change or success.

That is why you see less Indians complaining today. You see them going out and doing things and doing them so well that the whole world has woken up to our talent. Leading international corporates, global banks are now headed by Indian professionals. The sexiest start-ups in Silicon Valley are spearheaded by Indians. Some of them first generation literate. Some of the richest men in the world are, in fact, Indians today. Measured dollar for dollar, wealth for wealth.

The fact that apna Azim Premji who lives in Bangalore is richer than the Queen of England or Gururaj Deshpande (having created a new start-up, barely a year old) has acquired wealth faster than the Sultan of Brunei in the past year are indications that Indians are a lot smarter, a lot more hard working and a damned sight more ingenious than most. Give us one more generation of free Indians and you will see how the pattern of wealth changes globally.

What is doubly satisfying is the fact that most Indians who have succeeded overseas are ready to share their ideas, their wealth with people back home. In other words, the Great Indian Diaspora is growing. Give us five more years and you will find an amazing change in our equation with the rest of the world.

Five years ago when I persuaded Captain Krishnan Nair of The Leela to set up India's first cybercafe little did we realize how quickly and fundamentally dot com would change India. The critics carped and said it would take us a century to catch up with the internet population in the US. Today Indians use e-mail more than any other community in the world. There are more Indians working for the knowledge economy than any other people. Soon all businesses requiring talent, skill, ingenuity, technology, service will not be able to do without us. We can leave making steel and cement to the rest of the world.

All this has happened because we chose freedom and democracy as the key metaphors of change. Unlike our neighbours. This is what set us apart. We did not chase short cuts. We stuck to democracy and the rule of law. Yes, we faltered. We faltered many times. We made many mistakes. We allowed, at times, fundamentalist ideas to flourish side by side with liberal convictions. We banned Rushdie when he hurt Muslim sentiments. We rapped Husain on the knuckles when he painted Saraswati naked.

But whatever our failures may be, we allowed a thousand flowers to bloom, a hundred schools of thought to contend. This is what has now paid off. We are today right in the midst of a flourishing new era, an era of far greater self confidence than we have ever had. That is possibly why we get so worked up with Deepa Mehta. We have nothing against her films but we are sick and tired of a mindset that sees only squalor and disease, pain and failure in modern India and wants to export this image to the rest of the world.

No, George Lucas, this is no lone individual's battle against an insensate, unreasonable, fascist State. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite. It is an attempt to commercially exploit a false, misleading image of India to win encomiums in the West. A West that loves to see us as we once were. A nation of losers.

We are no longer losers. We are no longer a sick nation, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and shackling its people to a cantankerous, obsolete socialist ideology. We are a free nation today, trying to redesign our future and our lives. There is still much to be done, of course. I am sure there are many lonely wives finding solace in each other's arms. I am sure there are many poor widows in Varanasi whoring for a livelihood. There is no shame in admitting that.

But surely there is much more to India today than its failures, its aberrations and that is why there are many people like me who are neither bigots nor religious fanatics nor supporters of the VHP who feel that Deepa Mehta must stop selling such sick, prejudiced pornography to the world, as Katherine Mayo once did, to make India wince in public.

The idea is not to curb Mehta's free spirit as a creative artist. She is most welcome to peddle her brand of pornography wherever she wants. She is welcome to see India through the eyes of a drain inspector. But, then, she must also be ready for the backlash of public opinion. In a democratic society you have to live with that. You can mock such opinion as traditional, unduly conservative. But it reflects in its own way, as it ought to, what people feel about their country, their society, their religion, their values.

It is fashionable for the creative elite to treat such opinion with contempt. But then they must be also ready to face the consequences. We are poor. Many among us are uneducated. Some of us may even be lesbians and whores. But we still love India and will not allow it to be denigrated by someone out to make a quick buck.




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