This post is triggered by a very interesting discussion we had at our weekly team call. Most young, smart and ambitious Indians want to leave the country and do so at the first available opportunity. What is the root of this malaise and what can we do to remove it?
In the league of nations, each nation gets pitted against each other. Whatever the arena, wealth, innovation, sport, economy, art, people want their country to count among the winners. This brings pride and pushes them to do better as a nation. If each country represents a flavor of civilization, then this is the ultimate competition among ideas for civilizations. A civilization doing better than its peers is a matter of pride and binds people into its society more than anything else. Winning instills a strong sense of nationalism.
What happens to countries that lag at the bottom of this competition? Does it mean that people end up losing faith in the vision of their countries and civilizations? It appears they end up either hostage to dictators or hold on to regressive systems like religion or even worse, descend into chaos. India is one of the countries in the bottom half and its sense of identity as a nation is in the danger of falling apart.
India has among the lowest per-capita income, our “innovation” is being the back-office of the world or making generic medicines or churning out me-too products, the art scene is extremely thin and we are an embarrassment in most sports other than the one played by less than a dozen countries. Is there any redemption for countries like ours?
The tiny, highly educated elite of India now live in gilded, gated communities or have fled the country. Our brightest, most of whom have been educated in state subsidised technology institutes, exit the country by moving to America or any other first world country that would accept them. They often end up creating world beating innovations as Americans.
Beyond the elite, tens of millions of “middle class” Indians live in cramped apartments of crumbling cities that are full of pollution and pathetic infrastructure. They hold on to the dream of becoming the elite one day, still believing in the system and working hard to make it big one day. These Indians have put their faith in the education system and India’s growing economy for stable jobs and better life. They are next in line for an exit.
Then there are the other hundreds of millions who still live in pre-modern times. They live in small farms and fringes of small towns and cities all over the country. They just want to survive. They have very little to look forward to, other than hoping that their children will be able to quit their desperate lives and one day hope to live in a cramped apartment in a crumbling city.
For either of the categories, the nation exists as a faint, flickering source of light. The strides that India has made in life expectancy, education and quality of life since independence are not enough. India exists because somehow it manages to live another day without collapsing into sheer chaos. There is no invigorating national dream, there is no inspiring vision that makes them get up and fired up every day. The Idea of India, of the elite liberals, has kept us alive and together, but left us impoverished, and its light is fading out.
What has taken its place is a religion fueled majoritarianism. The inspiration comes from ancient quackery and the sense of pride comes from belittling the other. This is typical of all religious societies. They are bound by their hate of the other. In the absence of any other idea this is what India is descending into. It seeks pride by entitlement, not innovation and hard work. This is why we urgently need a New Idea of India.
This New Idea of India must help it regain a healthy sense of pride and confidence. It must be inclusive and lift us as a nation. India does not crave being a superpower like America, but it does seek respect that comes from admiration and merit. This New Idea of India must make us rise together as a wealthy, capable and aspirational society.
This cannot happen overnight. The Chinese have regained a sense of pride by pitting themselves against the West and forcing their people to learn and compete with the best nations. India is too large and diverse to follow such a path. On the other hand, a few leaders can raise the nation.
The leaders of New India must rise meritocratically by pitting themselves against the best of the world and win. It means that every Indian or group of Indians that have a shot at building something world class must make it count. The attempt must come from those who are privileged to fight. These winners will become an inspiration for others who can dream of becoming equals in the league of nations. This will require winning and building institutions that capture its core DNA and culture which can be passed on to more and more people. New India must be both inclusive and successful.
Otherwise the poison of majoritarianism and stupidity will finish us and there will be nothing left to fight for.