The difficult job of saying something good about India

Like a slum, all modern poverty is a design flaw created by political corruption, incompetence, idealism and other evils.. Photo: Mint
Like a slum, all modern poverty is a design flaw created by political corruption, incompetence, idealism and other evils.. Photo: Mint


There are at least five things one can list with confidence that should fill us with hope for the country.

On occasion, a columnist should attempt to do the difficult thing. So I want to say what is good about India. Also, as this is my first column of the new year, a joyful opinion might be appropriate.

Most Indians do not need my help in identifying what they like about India, so I must first diminish their confidence. They like the India they see through their car windows, watching the many centuries that co-exist in the present; the public chaos that they claim is the real human condition, as opposed to the civic order of the West; and the low threshold for happiness among the poor, and the high quality of domestic life among the middle classes. I do not take these joys seriously because I do not have romantic notions about excessive civic freedoms on the road granted by an incompetent government, or the low standards for happiness among the vast poor, who also subsidize the good lives of those who have romantic views about India.

I present five good things about India that are not misunderstandings of bad things.

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One: There is a sense of economic well-being, especially in the immediate future, and this optimism has infected many social rungs. I share this optimism, and through simple tools like buying shares, I plan to bet big on India over the next five years. The quality of our lives will not improve, but India’s economic ascent will continue.

It is true that the rich will get richer at a faster pace than the rest, but I am not horrified by inequality. I find inequality a natural consequence of progress, and in my defence, I present all of human history in every square inch of the world. Equality is one of those academic thought experiments that some people have taken too seriously. What is as unnatural as equality, though, is modern abject poverty. Like a slum, all modern poverty is a design flaw created by political corruption, incompetence, idealism and other evils.

India is not only prospering, but also reducing the number of people who have to endure the modern hell of poverty. That explains the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in many regions. Most Indians are prospering and feel their rise will continue.

Two: There is a persistence of peace and stability in India. India has reasons to be war-torn, and descend into violent civil wars, like some African nations with comparable per capita income. Yet, India has never lost complete control of itself. It has pockets of war and violence, and there exist thugs who are merciless with the defenceless, and most of the nation is generally unsafe for women and children, but by the standards of global strife, India is largely peaceful. Indians have demonstrated, without articulating in sophisticated ways, that they see wisdom in political stability.

Also, some of India’s evils have contributed to the peace. For instance, the absence of European-grade human rights in Indian police stations and the incompetence of the judicial system make it very expensive for low-rung criminals to get caught, and for their handlers. What India lacks in systems and efficiency, it inadvertently makes up for through weak human rights.

Three: Even though Indians are practical, they are suckers for idealism, not only in other people but also in themselves. In this way, India has kept the morals of the freedom movement alive. Indian politicians generally say the right things, claim to do the rights things and are under pressure not to gloat over all the wrong things that made them successful. We may scoff at idealism as merely theory, but then, that is its actual job—to be a theory, to show how other people should be, and also on good days how we ourselves should be, and what we should hold up for our children, and to outline the best that is possible in a human being, however improbable. As a result, most Indians might be corrupt and may even reward criminals in elections, but they retain a sense of righteousness, which is a fundamental right to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy helps us, in an unconscious way, exert pressure on the powerful to keep their practicality within limits. Without idealism, we end up giving too much power to the shameless.

Four: India has not been subsumed by Western culture. Beyond its social elite, India is not a desperate imitation of the West. The true culture of a place is not what its intellectuals try to protect, but one that does not require any egghead to revive—like food, wedding garments, music and fun. An endangered lingual dialect, which cultural conservationists try to save and almost always fail, demonstrates that tradition cannot withstand the force of obsolescence. The West, with its marvellous things, has made many ways of the world obsolete. But Indian fun and some middlebrow art have been robust enough to survive. Most of our films might be bad, but they are our trash and not borrowed. We forget that there are vast regions in the world that do not have their own films or music.

Five: The rise of collective shame. Indians are still not as ashamed as they should be about the unnecessary difficulties of Indian life, but they are more ashamed than they have ever been. And that is a good omen. Shame is not always a performance; we do not need to be ashamed only in the presence of foreigners. A state of the nation can fill us with shame even if no one is watching. It is possible that as Indians prosper, citizens will grow ashamed in indignant ways of poor air and dangerous pot holes. I wish I could say that Indians may even grow ashamed of how we treat those who have lost India’s cultural wars, like Muslims and Dalits, but my promise was that I would say something good about India, not something fanciful.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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