Home >opinion >India remains in the shadows of the olive tree

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

--Rabrindranath Tagore

In a matter of days, during the current session of Parliament, the debate moved from discussing free speech, sedition, dissent, and alternative ideas of nationalism to mythology and religious symbolism of folk traditions. Ministers quoted “facts", which media channels chased down to where the protagonists denied them. Television anchors suddenly had to bring on historians who had spent a lifetime studying Hinduism’s vast and extraordinary (verbal and written) traditions and juxtapose them against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons.

Prime time television debate meant to chronicle the day’s legislative business was instead facilitating an argument on the iconography of Durga. The BJP’s spokesperson was telling the historian that it wasn’t necessary for him to read history before commenting on it. The Congress spokesperson argued that Atal Bihari Vajpayee had called Indira Gandhi Durga—though she had not accepted that title.

Tagore’s poetry and Thomas Friedman’s prose came to mind.

Tagore’s work, because Parliamentarians and spokespersons fail to meet any criteria of his “ask"—the words do not come from any fact base, forget depths of truth, but more tragically, there seems to be absolutely no space or scope for “ever widening thought and action".

Instead, the “deary dead habit" of political mud-slinging and vendetta have become the norm and prevent the walk to freedom that was envisioned by India’s founding fathers.

Friedman’s novel, in prose, then comes to mind. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. In this best-selling book, the author argues that nations have a choice to make—either they stich together a strategy for prosperity and development, (symbolized by the Japanese-made Lexus), or they remain embroiled in narratives to retain identity and traditions, symbolized by the olive tree.

This imagery, and realization, the author says came to his mind while eating a sushi box lunch on a Japanese bullet train after visiting a Lexus factory and at the same time reading an article about violent conflict in the Middle East.

India, today, stands between the Lexus and the olive tree. While politicians promise the Lexus during elections, in between them, they make sure that the only thing that matters is discussing the roots and trunk and branches of the olive tree. A powerful statistic explains their keen understanding of ground realities. There are only two taxpayers for every 100 voters. Rhetoric around religion and caste remain powerful tools to ignite crowds.

Reservations remain a retrograde tactic to win over the unemployed and under-employed youth and together, these tactics win elections. In his book, Friedman explains: “If you can’t see the world, and you can’t see the interactions that are shaping the world, you surely cannot strategize about the world." He adds, “you need a strategy for how to choose prosperity for your country".

In India’s case, we have the strategy, the talent, the organic potential to craft and execute that strategy—but political interests sabotage it, session after session, and we remain cornered in the narrow domestic walls.

Wonder what Tagore and Friedman would have to have to say about the last three sessions of the Indian Parliament, where somehow the politicians would have us believe that their political interest and debate strategies were somehow much more important than to get on with the business of critical legislation.

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