There was a time when 2020 was far away, and the nation could write a grand vision statement of the new and liberalised India, with no risk of seeing that day come any time soon. Well, we now welcome 2019. In Mumbai, the bars were allowed to be open till 5 am. Party hotspots, homes and street corners across the nation brought many together in a night of merrymaking. Amid the revelry and the partying, we can hope that the New Year will turn out well. But the signs are not too encouraging.
Globally, the turmoil in the markets has already caused the Dow to swing wildly as 2018 ended. The complex set of geopolitical flashpoints – Brexit, Trump, China, oil – will continue to exact a toll in ways that cannot be always seen or predicted. Even those who were willing to tolerate and “manage” Trump now say he is intolerable and wild. Some see the coming of a crisis far worse than the 2008 global financial crisis. In India, the upcoming general elections in 2019 will cause the political temperature to rise further. It will be a bitterly fought battle. Money and muscle will be put to work in what without doubt will be a make or break election for the key political parties and for the nation. Everything will, and already is, revolving around these polls. We are seeing a variety of mega scheme launches, tall claims and rhetorical flourish.
Away from those obvious headlines, it is easy to forget what the nation could have been around this time. It is less known now but there was a Planning Commission that in 2002 offered this best-case scenario: “India2020 will be bustling with energy, entrepreneurship and innovation. The country’s 1.35 billion people will be better fed, dressed and housed, taller and healthier, more educated and longer living than any generation in the country’s long history…A second productivity revolution in Indian agriculture, coupled with diversification to commercial crops, agri-business, processing industries, agro-exports and massive efforts towards afforestation and wasteland development will generate abundant farm and non-farm employment opportunities for the rural workforce. These, in turn, will stimulate demand for consumer goods and services, giving a fillip to the urban economy and the informal sector as well as rapid expansion of the services sector.”
The document was informed in part by the now better-known work of APJ Abdul Kalam and his book (with Dr Y S Rajan) ‘India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium’, which was written before he became the President and envisioned India as a developed nation by 2020. It offered tentativeness: “(Our actions) will determine whether we regard the (above) statement as a promising glimpse of what India can become in 2020, or as mere fantasy and wishful thinking.” This was a BJP-led government under Atal Behari Vajpayee setting out a vision for India, signed off by the long time Congressman and later BJP member K C Pant, in which there was the mention of “our spiritual values, our psychic essence, which is the core strength of Indian civilization.” This came with a message in bold type: “True spirituality will not make us less tolerant.”
Almost two decades after that was penned, we have travelled far under the current dispensation of the BJP, but in a very different direction. Tolerance is at a new low. The agri crisis is severe. Farmers are restive and marching into cities. Banks are in a bad shape. Institutions have been hit. The Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) reputation is at a new low. So is the case with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), where a bureaucrat noted for his praise of demonetisation, has been made the Governor in the face of the sudden resignation of his predecessor and a host of highly publicized differences with the government.
The government today has its own “strategy” document set for a far shorter time frame leading to 2022, when independent India will be 75. The document was released by the NITI Aayog as 2018 drew to a close. It said: “In the lifespan of nations, India is still young. The best is surely yet to come. India’s youthful and aspirational population deserves a rapid transformation of the economy, which can deliver double-digit growth, jobs and prosperity to all. A strong foundation has been laid in the last four years. While there is every room for confidence, there is none for complacency. A surge of energy, untiring effort and an unshakeable resolve on the part of the government, private sector and every individual citizen can achieve this transformation in the next five years.”
It is possible to analyse the content and call this a document set in election mode, full of fancy targets, weak arguments and devoid of any strategic content. But without getting into the numbers, it can still tell us a lot of the broad direction and approach that informs thinking at the highest level. The Prime Minister features seven times in Strategy@75. The position was not mentioned in Vision 2020. In Strategy@75, tolerance features under aviation safety: “There should be zero tolerance of safety violations”. The word “democracy” or “democratic” featured 17 times in Vision 2020; it comes once in Strategy@75 in a chapter on ‘Modernising City Governance for Urban Transformation’.
The documents are a window. They point to a larger malaise that can sap vitality, kill democracy and make all celebration of growth a meaningless and short-term indulgence for a few. Growth for the people will surely mean higher GDP numbers but it also means respect for our diverse traditions and cultures, safety for all people and occupations and the careful nurturing and strengthening of our democratic traditions. No GDP growth, pictured or real, can drive change and preserve the vastness and richness of India without values that support and respect and honour the weakest, the poorest and the most vulnerable.
These are values that must not only protect but also encourage and celebrate the dissenters, the cantankerous, even the wayward – in our institutions, on our streets and in the many bars that notched up good business on New Year’s Eve and helped grow the economy. This is not withstanding the Bajrang Dal threats to ruin the New Year celebrations in Bengaluru this year, terming the celebrations anti-Hindu and anti-Indian. The New Year brings many a challenge but the worry that we will keep growth and sacrifice some of our free institutions for the sake of expediency and divide the people for votes is the one to flag as we step into 2019 and beyond.