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November 12, 2011

Time to get started

While we are living in a moment of extraordinary change across the globe, little has been said of India, and of how these changes may affect us. Much of our attention seems focused on the shadow puppetry of our entrenched political class, or the street tamasha of our self-proclaimed saviours from corruption. Lost in the cacophony are the first clear glimpses of change, both internal and external, that will affect us not only now, but in the foreseeable future.

After nearly two decades of economic liberalisation and despite the political deep-freeze of the current central government, the slow Indian juggernaut rolls on. The changes wrought to our lives are transformative, and although far more needs to be accomplished, the overall transformation of the economy and its impact on the citizenry is obvious. However, this economic growth goes hand in hand with an increasingly literate and ambitious population, much of which is quite young. This demographic cohort is both strategic advantage and potential cause of concern for our polity: while the young are motors for potential economic growth, they are also less patient in face of bureaucratic and political stagnation.

Similarly the permutations of coalition politics, as well as the numerous elections of the 1990s have done a great deal to bring most of our polity close to the centre. While levels of competence may vary, and specific ideological issues remain outstanding, there is little real difference between the intentions of our wildly varied political parties. This too is a double edged sword: in moving closer to the centre, the political parties have found ways to work across ideological and political divides. At the same time, in some ways, their ineptitude and lack of clearly defined agendas are rendering them irrelevant. In many ways, Indian democracy is revealing the signs of a mature democracy: its political parties are by and large becoming irrelevant to its policies!

But the changes do not stop at our borders: the imminent, creeping shift of economic power from West to East is a change that, along with the terminal decline of the EU, and the slow degeneration of the US, can no longer be ignored. Add to this the historical wild card thrown up by the ‘Arab Spring,’ and we are truly living a transformative era.

While this brings great challenges, there are also unprecedented opportunities. Economic growth and growing literacy are marking our polity in significant ways, not in the least by the steady fragmentation of old-style identity politics. While the Anna-show over the summer may not have been to the liking of many of us, the social, political and economic cross-section of its supporters does suggest that the Indian voter is moving towards demanding specific steps from its political systems. This also suggests that caste, religion, region, and language are slowly taking a backseat to electoral platforms based on administrative proposals, although we are still far from having achieved this.

When all this is combined with the evolving global environment, we find that we have a unique historical opportunity to leave Partition and the narratives of religious differences behind. Many of the above factors are playing a part in solidifying this opportunity: economic growth and political stability that are steadily fragmenting identity politics are also providing a stake in the nation to many of India’s historically disenfranchised, not least to the nation’s minorities.

As horizons abroad have steadily narrowed in the past decade, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, there has been a palpable shift within Muslim communities within India. Nowhere was this most clear than in the political rhetoric from minority community leaders following the atrocities of 26/11. While we have not yet put sectarian tensions behind us, there has been a clear and mostly positive shift in minority perceptions and experiences that we in India must find a way of harnessing.

Add to this the body blow dealt this year by the “Arab Spring” to Wahhabi-funded Islamist nationalism, and we have a real window of opportunity. Although many of our leaders and commentariat still obsess about the ‘Kashmir issue,’ we must also realise that this issue is dead in the water: increasing political participation by Kashmir’s citizens, growing economic stakes in peace and political stability, increased marginalisation of Islamist elements (who are running out of both sponsors and masters abroad), and the impending implosion of Pakistan are all factors in this.

While Kashmir remains an emotive issue – for India, it is the symbol of our secularist state while for Pakistan it remains a clear taunt to its failed national project – we must begin to move beyond simplistic constructs. When (not if) Pakistan implodes, India shall be faced with far larger problems including rogue non-state actors armed with nuclear weapons, terrible instability in our immediate neighbourhood, as well as a potentially catastrophic humanitarian and refugee crisis. Kashmiri separatist leaders, their Saudi-funded financial backers, and Pakistan-run hired guns will play only minor (albeit violent) parts in the process.

However, while many of the external factors are beyond our control, there are internal and external policy steps we can begin taking now in preparation for this moment in the not too distant future.

Externally, we need to decouple our foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa region from both Pakistan’s (and Saudi) brand of Islamist rhetoric as well as the American (and Israeli) brand of Islamophobia. Neither of these has served our interests well, and must be replaced by a new ‘non-aligned’ policy in the region that builds on the immense wells of goodwill for India, while jettisoning our default defensiveness regarding our Muslim citizenry or its rights. This shall of course require a far clearer engagement with the region than we have had so far.

Internally, it is time our leaders of various stripes stopped swinging schizophrenically between a host of non-secular policies and positions. Vote bank politics are damaging to the nation, no matter which side of the religious divide plays it; similarly the implicit double standard, based on intellectual hypocrisy or a divisive fear of our minority community by politicians and commentators merely divides our internal polity and forces us on the defensive on key issues.

For the first time in independent India, we have a chance of detaching national politics from religious identity. This does not mean instant change but we can start the ball rolling.


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