In many, many ways, it seems to be both the best and worst of times. To quote several friends who write far more tellingly on the state of affairs in India, we seem to be gripped with the need to "take sides". All conversations have turned polarized, and often personal. In this context, I have been attempting to look at issues as a concerned layman, but with as balanced an eye as I possibly can.
I say this while I am in Surat, one of the shining examples of Prime Minister Modi’s Gujarat. When I last visited Surat as a student in 1993, the city was a mess in every conceivable way. The poor hygiene standards led to the plague the following year. The city soon rose from the ashes and started cleaning up its act.
With a renewed focus on sanitation, healthcare and water supply – the city has become one of the cleanest in India, one of our fastest growing, and highly modernized in terms of roads and core infrastructure. Investment has poured into the city and it is up on most parameters.
At a larger level, this is the vision behind the “Gujarat model of development”, a phenomenon used to refer to the period between 2003 and 2011 that saw Gujarat becoming an investment paradise with high subsidies, incentives, single-window clearances and availability of cheap land and plentiful labour. While investments and industrialization soared, it still remains to be seen whether or not Gujarat can reverse its decline in education and healthcare or other quality-of-life parameters.
This piece will not get into the politics of Narendra Modi’s administration of Gujarat in the first decade of this millennium. That is an old story, including the Godhra riots of 2002. Suffice to say that I was pleasantly surprised to see the way Surat has panned out since the last time I was there.
The thrust on 24-hour electricity (a Modi masterstroke) for instance, has ensured tremendous productivity even on the agricultural front, although that sector is now besieged by other market factors. To that end, the selective thrusts on quick development are the essence of the Gujarat story.
The muscularity of our PM’s approach may well have implications in the way we look at “development” in the next five years.
Why? Because my prediction is that it will be the BJP in Delhi, and the same protagonist. This then is my wishlist for 2019-24. These are broad strokes, albeit important ones.
a) A better thrust on education. In my previous column, I addressed several issues in India’s education policies, not least of which was the relative soft pedalling in the past five years. Education’s share of the GDP is currently much lower than desirable. The current BJP manifesto has not specifically addressed the growing concerns in this area.
We need vision in developing our schools, better skilling of our teachers, more imaginative curricula. Also, inclusiveness, enlightened policies for higher education, transparency in administration and betterment of educational standards, just to name a few core issues. Education’s share of the budget should be at least 5-6% of the GDP to be able to even significantly address these concerns. It is currently less than half of that.
b) A thrust towards ensuring peace and all-round cooperation in the South Asia region. Our PM’s swift and decisive action following Pulwama has certainly helped him soar in public perception, try as the Congress might to obscure a national security imperative with often contradictory messaging on the Rafale dealings. However, strong-arm tactics may not always work in such instances.
India’s wish to be a regional superpower will require us to counteract growing Chinese presence (both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean including the Maldives, and of course with our Himalayan neighbours) and deal with a possible escalation of tensions with Pakistan. At the time of writing this piece, Pakistan’s nuclear missile inventory is troublingly equivalent to (if not more than) India’s. This balancing act in South Asian foreign policy has certainly been muddled and mired in missteps in the last five years.
So, what will our long-term vision be? Let us remember this. At the moment, whatever we can do, China can and indeed does do better!
c) Balancing welfare with a thrust on development. NYAY, as I have previously argued, though well-intentioned and perhaps in keeping with the worldwide discussion on Universal Basic Income, may be difficult to implement.
The ruling dispensation’s track record on the economic front has not been promising. Despite the rollout of MGNREGA and a host of other schemes, the fallout of demonetization will take a while for people to forget or condone.
The Congress manifesto has outlined the welfare-and-development dyad in some detail. On the face of it, it appears as though the BJP was caught napping!
d) Reining in the far-right rabble-rousers and communal law-breakers with a no-nonsense, zero-tolerance policy is not only required, but vital. Everyone has had enough, across the board. We are a multi-faith society. Plurality is the only way forward. Getting a clean chit over communal riots is not sufficient. The people need to see that the leadership is truly inclusive, and there is no silence or scripted non-sequiturs in responses to communal violence.
e) A renewed thrust on core manufacturing and job generation across the country. “Make In India” is certainly welcome, provided it can truly live up to its promise and bring down the alarming rise in unemployment, pegged at a decade-high of 7.6% as on date.
Let me end by saying that despite the gloomiest of predictions, I retain hope. I do believe in India. And I do believe that we will ride the tide well.
As always, a song to sign out with. Till next time:
Anil Srinivasan is a well-known musician, educator reaching over 3 lakh children, and an Associate Professor of Practice at KREA University