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Do you think this century will be India’s?

“For some time now, people are saying that the 21st century is India’s century," Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in the US during his visit.

Reports quoting him said this confidence came from the fact that 65% of the population was under 35, meaning 800 million people in all.

This idea that we are on the move and will presently be at the podium receiving our reward is something many believe. But is size and population alone enough to get us there? I do not think so. It is not even clear whether this great mass of people is an asset. What else is there to validate our claim? We are proud of the fact that we are the world’s fastest growing economy. We are expanding at 7-8%, yes, but on a modest base, about $1,500 ( 98,370) per capita, which puts us at the bottom of middle-income nations.

Many nations get to this pass. It is accelerating on that is the problem, and it requires something special.

The last century was called the American century for a reason. Europe led America for most of American history. In the late 17th century, England after the Restoration, with the Royal Society and the genius of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton and the rest, took the lead. Individuals in Germany and Italy and France all contributed to science. Sweden developed proper field artillery, changing warfare. Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Great Britain, France, the other nations of the Atlantic seaboard, developed ocean-faring marine platforms to carry big guns, conquering what came to be called the New World. Colonization made most of these nations wealthy.

But despite all this, by 1915 the US totally and indisputably dominated Europe’s large nations, Germany, Britain and France, economically and militarily. It had become the world’s leader scientifically and industrially. Its entry in the last stages of the two world wars defeated the Germans and on the waters it also clobbered the most advanced Asian power. It bankrupted its great Cold War rival in the latter decades of the century and its currency became the place the world fled to in years of crisis and uncertainty. In the last two decades, American companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon have again conquered the world.

It is 2015. Who can see signs that we Indians are or will be in a position to do anything of the sort described above? I cannot and I am not being mean-spirited or pessimistic. I would say that it is up to those who claim we are at the threshold of greatness to prove it in the face of the evidence. That it should exist at all given the reality is a mystery to me.

This sense of optimism, the conviction that India is marching to greatness, is what drives Modi’s popularity. It is true that both he and his constituency believe in this idea of manifest destiny and it is not a fake political promise or dream.

Given that it is serious, it must then be looked at seriously.

What has held India back? There is insufficient analysis of this. The Hindutva groups assign blame elsewhere: to colonization by Muslims and Christians. To the extent that they can look inwards, they attribute our decline to a departure from the wisdom of our ancients. The middle class, to the extent that it may be generalized, blames government. Our debate in the media is also centred here. With such facile tools, it becomes difficult to look at things meaningfully.

The starting point for a nation’s greatness is respect for the individual. I am not insisting on this as a liberal, merely pointing out the experience of the world. We have not shown any signs that we have understood this starting point. One indicator which leads me to say this: Collective punishment is acceptable in India.

This tells me we have a very long way to go yet, but ask yourself if any of the chest-thumping we do on the global stage accommodates this kind of admission.

Our claims to greatness seem to be almost akin to entitlement. We are great, because we insist we are.

Almost anything from this vantage point becomes rosy. Brain drain, which is a serious and crippling problem, is actually brain gain (how?). It is a brain deposit that will repay India in time. For now 85,000 doctors are gone from a nation with abysmal healthcare, but I suppose that is fine.

Now I am not dismissing the idea that India will ever be a force on the world stage, and I hope it is (in more pacific a manner than the US). But I do not think it will be in the 21st century. And for it to happen in the 22nd, things will need to happen which are not happening today.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.

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