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The Indian Century
Monday, November 1, 1999
The characters that played upon it - villains and heroes, and like the Mahabharata, generally a bit of both - tempered the waters that flowed through the bustling, tumultuous river which is the present, until it merged with the calm, forgetful, and insatiable historical sea which we call the past. In a land of a billion people representing every major world religion, in a country that, as Shashi Tharoor puts it, found ten thousand ways to cook a potato, the necessary antecedent of diversity - contradiction - must also be present. And India - by being the land of everything, also becomes the land of everything opposite. It is simultaneously the land of the unaccountably rich and the unimaginably poor. It holds the world’s' second largest pool of trained professionals, while half the country consists of angutha chaps who put their thumbs to documents, hoping to blotch out this great inconsistency. It is the land of transcendentalism and spirituality, ravaged by a material corruption that threatens the entire fabric of its being. It is the land of secularism and religious massacre, of satellite launches and leprosy, of Gandhi and nuclear weapons. Sometimes, India is just too much.
And India, a grandfather of world civilization, is actually a newborn of a nation. A civilization that goes back some 5000 years finds itself in a nation that goes back some fifty. The idea of India is an imagination, a vision, and perhaps a hallucination. What is the idea of India? A territory, a grid, on which pieces move a certain way, because that's the way they have moved for time immemorial. India, like the game of chess, is a set of relationships laid out on selected squares, a cognition of the Indian mind. And in the 20th century, this idea held through some of the world's most terrifying material conditions. The nation of India was a never before conducted experiment on an unprecedented scale. The land was the laboratory, these sociologists were the scientists, and whether the experiment was a success is still up in the air. Introduce to this the notion of democracy - will the mice be able to select new scientists whenever the maze gets too twisted?

VS Naipaul notes that the plain cloth dhoti - which was once a symbol of the visionaries subordinance to vision - became, with wholesale political corruption, the manifestation of power under the disguise of public service. In an India in which political corruption has become ubiquitous enough to be boring, it is difficult to believe that leaders once commanded the moral sanctity they did. And though they have seen emergencies declared and governments collapse overnight, it is to the credit of the Indian people, as the subjects of a democracy, that they have never once interfered with the mechanisms of public choice. India, as perilous - and sometimes outright ridiculous - as a democracy as it may be, is still a democracy. Faced with natural obstacles as high as the Himalayas and internal schizophrenia which has different voices screaming different slogans, India has also faced a constant external threat.

The bulk of its problems have been with its step brother nation, Pakistan. With a ferocity that only a family feud can warrant, both these developing nations have done more than any flood or famine to hinder each other's progress. They have seen three major wars, several major conflicts, and innumerable border skirmishes - the term seasonal shelling is sometimes employed, because at the same time that the leaves are showing a golden hew in New Hampshire, shells start pounding both sides of the LoC. With China, the nation that India identifies as its primary external threat, and the justification for the Pokharan blasts, things have been equally dysfunctional. After the words, "Hindi Chinni Bhai Bhai" were drowned first by heavy artillery fire, and then advancing Chinese infantry, India lost chunks of its border territory to its northern neighbor. The event, which was to leave Nehru a broken man, demonstrated the inadequacy of applying benevolent philosophical principles to Machiavellian aspects of national defense. And after all this, Indian leaders found it hard to sing songs of love and peace to a population demanding, well, respect.

Many people have talked about the idea of India. But the idea of India is not static. As the millenium fast approaches, India becomes an idea rethought. In these October elections, Indian voters - second only to American consumers in terms brand name recognition - chose a markedly different approach. Our spiritual father may have shunned trains, but we can't get enough supercomputers. He may have imagined - or perhaps hallucinated? - a simple, rural, India, unconcerned wish the rest o the world, and at peace with itself. What we have now is major player on a world stage, a nation as concerned with artha as it is with dharma - one that is refiguring what kama is, and what moksa could possibly be. The India that is emerging in the 20th century is a break from the past, a contradiction in the face of history. That, of course, is to be expected.

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