Great expectations, stark realism: Will India achieve its manifest destiny?

Resolving all structural issues is crucial to India’s rise as an indomitable global power, not just an influential regional player vying for influence in its backyard

| Updated: 21 May, 2023 7:10 pm IST
The Million Mutinies are still raging, though they have now assumed a different character (TNI Photo By Sumit Kumar)

India surpassing China as the world’s most populous country and with the youngest demographic, is being seen as a defining moment at the crossroads of the country’s fractious tryst with destiny and the glittery promise of the new millennium.

Due to tremendous progress, rapid development, and the massive boom in telecom connectivity, IT and digitalization, India has put the age of collective scarcity, noble destitution, long queues, arbitrary import quotas, irrational tariffs, endless waiting times, substandard goods, and stultifying licencing and regulations behind it. And largely for good!

The tech wizard, the software prodigy, and the dashing entrepreneur are the most visible Indian stereotypes in the West today, not a saint, turbaned snake charmer, or despair-ridden angry young man of the 1970s fighting a gloomy, Sisyphean war.

From software applications to satellites, cellphones to automobiles, and garments to pharmaceuticals, India has done remarkably well.

With upward social mobility, urbanisation, more disposable incomes, and changing patterns of consumption, a lot of the former remnants of quasi-feudalism have eroded.

Potholed roads and congested single-lane highways are being replaced by fast expressways. Communication and connectivity are becoming the two primary levers of national cohesion.

Though there are some deeply structural fault lines that still exist and, in the face of new aspirations and a changing world, are even widening.

India’s middle class is still largely what I would call a minuscule multitude, retaining what VS Naipaul once termed the perpetual anxiety and vulnerability of the poorer classes in the West, and with no rooted commonality or tradition.

By sheer number, India’s middle class is immense. Yet it is no more than 10% of the national population, according to the most liberal estimate. The Million Mutinies are still raging, though they have now assumed a different character.

Liberalisation unleashed the animal spirits and repressed energies of the country, pulling millions out of poverty, engraving the patina of a new modernity, and replacing sullen gloom laced with romantic idealism with vibrant energy and optimistic hope, as the new national identifiers.

Though, at the same time, it intensified the clashes of identity and led to confusion, chaos, dislocation, and uprootedness. India has simultaneously been a resounding success story of globalisation and a witness to its downsides. We made the most of the ‘World is Flat’ globalisation years and weathered a lot of market shocks, but remained amnesiac about fundamental investments in quality education, healthcare, and skill development.

In his illuminating 1990 essay, ‘The Coming Anarchy’, Robert D Kaplan wrote about the coming millennium becoming a competitive turf between two unique species. One is the Last Man of Nietzsche-Fukuyama, a passive consumer, content with a modicum of decent living, and Western trappings of affluence and urban security, living in enclosed, gated communities.

The other is the First Man of Hobbes, for whom everyday life and eking out a livelihood are an unending struggle.

For the former, any identity is either a chain to be broken or a voucher to be encashed. For the latter, it is a wellspring of sustenance, dignity, purpose, hope, and attachment.

The ultimate liberal-democratic ideal is the Last Man – blithe, untethered, indifferent, splendidly isolated, with no strong mooring, and wearing the cassock of cosmopolitanism, the ‘nowhere people’ of David Goodhart.

But what moves the juggernaut of democracy and channels its inner vigour is ultimately the belief, hope and aspiration of the First Man, not the anxieties of the Last Man.

The chasm between the two only widens when a rooted cultural hegemony weakens, and there is nothing that can supplant it.

The mimesis of Rene Girard and Naipaul’s ‘mimic men’, along with Nietzsche’s ressentiment – he borrowed a French term because it connotes not just resentment, but resentment fuelled by an inferiority complex and an envious desire to disrupt and achieve – is the petroleum of Neo-Liberalism in aspirational societies eager to rewrite their destinies. It is the primary political lubricant for a lot of fancy activism these days.

India’s per capita income and HDI are among the lowest in the world. It would take decades more to even catch up with China in average income and consumption, forget about being a middle-income country and then enter the dreaded middle-income trap.

India still remains a major agrarian country, with around 60% of the population dependent on farming, which is increasingly becoming unremunerative, and with most being smallholders, the parcels are getting fragmented.

Without an overarching reform of the agro sector, the gains cannot be transferred to the industry. And the bus for both has practically been missed.

Before embarking on industrialization, China freed up its agro sector. Agro-economist Ashok Gulati has written about the difference in agro policies between the Indian Tiger and the Chinese Dragon.

Despite numerous subsidies, PLIs, and attractive packages to lure investors, Indian manufacturing still struggles with a skilled workforce, productivity, and quality.

Labour in Japan and South Korea is among the most skilled in the world, while in India it is among the lowest. This is why the prospects of dethroning China to become the offshore workshop of the world, are grim. Moreover, the era of Asian Tiger economies, labour-intensive production, and advantages in offshore manufacturing are passé.

If India manages to become a semiconductor powerhouse and chip exporter, then it will have a unique technological leverage. But that is far-fetched at this juncture. With Taiwan still retaining more than 87%+ share of the world’s chips, and Vietnam turning into a leading electronic component exporter with the largest Samsung factory, optimism may prove to be illusive.

When Aldous Huxley visited India in the 1920s, he wrote about the acute mismatch between young graduates in the then-Mysore state, and the employment opportunities available to them. This skewed gap has exploded over the years. Straggling queues for a single clerical job, or millions of applicants for a few hundred mid-level posts, demonstrate this stark reality.

This would someday lead to the quagmire of what Peter Turchin terms ‘Elite Overproduction’: too many people with higher education, and fewer avenues available for them. The yawning gap between their self-appraisal and reality.

Easy access to YouTube and similar digital content – the locomotives of social mimesis – along with the reality of constrained means, and the dubious value of vaunted diplomas, would lead to a unique demographic deadlock.

It is not surprising that even while the economy is growing, there has been a steady increase in people desperate to flee abroad. After Mexico and El Salvador, the third highest number of illegal immigrants in the USA are from India.

Overpopulation, depleting resources, or any such Malthusian trepidation, is no longer a concern for India, with birth rates as well as fertility rates plateauing. But wokification, social mimesis, a collision of interests, superficial absorption and thwarted desires, will have a socially disruptive influence.

‘India is old, and India continues’, as Naipaul wrote. But it remains to be seen which direction the world’s largest nation takes now, and whether its billion-plus hopes and aspirations can be satiated.

Resolving all of these structural issues is crucial to India’s rise as an indomitable global power, not just an influential regional player vying for influence in its backyard.

Aditya Chaturvedi is a communications professional with an amateur interest in politics, history, international affairs, ideologies, culture, and how their intersection shapes societies
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own

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