Under my byline

It would be nice

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 28 November 2009

OVERLEAF 57

The zeitgeist builds itself; being right up close to events, we see at first only the individual bricks. At some particular moment, however, a precipitating event suddenly converts the soup of soluble doubts to a crystal of certainty. Bricks become house.

The precipitating point, for me, was a lecture by the political scientist and academic Sunil Khilnani, delivered in Delhi this week. Khilnani is the author of the well-known The Idea of India (1997), and is currently finishing up a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, the last truly big thinker in Indian government. His lecture was titled “The Paradox of India’s New Prosperity”, and was closely based on a chapter he has written for the Business Standard India 2010 annual, to be published in January.

Khilnani told his elderly audience (it was at the India International Centre) that India’s post-liberalisation economic success had pushed some sectors fast and far, and in doing so had created an image of India shining, “India as a brand”, that reflected the boosted aspirations of millions of young Indians. He quoted from a survey in late 2008 according to which, he said, “a remarkable four-fifths of these young Indians [under 30] are optimistic about their future, and the future of their children”.

The problem, Khilnani explained, was that expectations had outpaced reality. Steps urgently needed to be taken to manage the consequences of the inevitable disillusionment. He offered a glimpse of a solution: “Disparities between growth in the countryside and the cities, regional unevenness, conflicts over scarce natural resources and over how to deal with the environmental effects of growth — these not only require aggressive efforts at redistribution, but also a new national story.”

Now, none of this is uniquely insightful — and Khilnani stopped short of describing that “new national story” apart from saying that it had more to do with politics than economics — but even so, the penny had dropped. Two processes have been building in parallel: economic success in some quarters and thereby aspirations for all, and, at the same time, a sense of looming universal crisis.

It’s not just the delicate economy, nor the USA’s jerky slide from hegemony. On nearly every front of organised human activity, columnists and editorial writers, as well as ordinary people making everyday conversation, are anticipating blowback from problems long deferred to the future. It all follows along the lines of W B Yeats’s oft-quoted poem, written after the First World War, which admittedly will suit many circumstances:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

There must be some message in this collective throwing-up of hands. Even David Brooks, the wise New York Times columnist, wrote recently that America, to rescue itself, had to rediscover its faith in the future. He said: “It would be nice if some leader could induce the country to salivate for the future again. That would mean connecting discrete policies — education, technological innovation, funding for basic research — into a single long-term narrative.”

“It would be nice” is a blazon of defeat. We know what ought to be done, but also, equally intuitively, that nothing much can be done. Unless there’s a revolution; and those who know their history know that revolutions are rare, and that when they do happen they are messy, unpredictable and failure-prone. Even the idea of revolution is full of paradox: it encompasses a sense of humans as fundamentally flawed and perfectible. On the one hand the rising tide of panic is soul-sapping, and on the other, the realisation that nothing short of a new paradigm — a Second Coming — will spring us from our trap, curiously, reaffirms our faith.

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