I read somewhere recently that Charles Dickens said of the USA that if its citizens were to be believed, America "always is depressed, and always is stagnated, and always is at an alarming crisis, and never was otherwise". Currently it seems germane to India for sure. A pervading gloom perhaps reflecting our pathological negativism seems to have afflicted us. Self-flagellation is du jour and might soon overtake cricket as our most popular sport.
While I was in London a few weeks ago, I happened to see the Queen's diamond jubilee celebrations held right outside the Buckingham Palace which was incidentally bombed during the War. But on that big day, there was a different kind of fireworks. London looked sozzled on draught beer, as pop artistes entertained an excited crowd. Elsewhere, at close proximity, the severe Euro crisis had engulfed Spain and Rupert Murdoch's unsavory shenanigans with former prime ministers and David Cameron himself had gathered steam. But the land of fish and chips was treating itself to strawberries and cream. They were not really too worried about their perennial underachievers in Euro football, or the escalating security nightmare of the impending London Olympics.
Barring perfunctory tokenism, do we really celebrate? Anything? Independence Day, Republic Day, Gandhi Jayanti? For most, it is just another holiday to go shopping or sleep late. When did we last rejoice with hysterical, unbridled restraint? We did not actually go bananas even after MS Dhoni's men won the World Cup after 28 years because soon we were hooked onto the well orchestrated TV reality show of Team Anna's first season at Jantar Mantar. Are we becoming a chronic moan and groan nation, hamstrung by a visual paralysis, like the glass ceiling effect-building artificial proscriptions where maybe none exists?
Of late, all I hear is India's lachrymose lamentations; we magnify problems into gigantic magnificence whether it is the railway budget, a recalcitrant army chief, a disgruntled regional satrap or the rise of petrol price. Frankly, it is reaching alarmingly atrocious proportions.
Let us get this clear, India has two hard realities that it should not pretend has withered away simply because of Goldman Sachs rosy prognostication - we are a terribly unequal society and have the world's largest poverty challenge. Also we are now globally interconnected in a modern media age. Thus, we will be on a constant tightrope walk, it's a tricky equilibrium. There are and will not be for several decades a single magic bullet prescription for our aching sores. If anybody is expecting an overnight miracle, they need to see a shrink.
The S&P downgrade threat is less about our macroeconomic fundamentals and more of a perception deficit but it creates serious short-term collateral damage. India can do without the persistent knock-out punch from all and sundry. Truth is that the poor need hope amidst their grim survival. The chatterati, of course, thrive in woebegone posturing. Society columnists who do not know Mumbai beyond the Bandra-Worli sea link pontificate on anti-poverty schemes. India is a complex argumentative maze. Amartya Sen was so right.
Stable and strong GDP growth, RTI, Lokpal Bill (work-in-progress), RTE, NRHM, MNREGA, Aadhaar are landmark initiatives but are casually overlooked. While we need to highlight inadequacies, celebrating milestones is also an unfinished task. Sure, no government can afford complacency. The "too big to fail syndrome" applies to both corporations and countries. Look at what happened to USA in 2007-08, Italy and Spain or Lehman Brothers, AIG and General Motors.
Let me be brutally honest. Cantankerous and cacophonic characters like Team Anna and Baba Ramdev have damaged Brand India, paradoxically enough, under the subterfuge of strengthening its national stature. The rabid intransigence of Team Anna at sporadic bursts has not gone unnoticed by those in distant shores. The hurt is imperceptible but has cut deep. India's farcical inner bickering has become dormitory humour in the global investor community. What is palpable is the absence of national pride.
There goes a famous episode that when Winston Churchill remonstrated against the televised coverage of the Queen's accession to the throne, Queen Elizabeth said, "The cabinet is not being crowned, I am". In ticking off the obdurate Prime Minister, England found bountiful joy in watching the ceremonial coronation, at least temporarily overcoming the depressing times of postwar austerity. But we seem to relish being habitual grumblers, incoherently mumbling biblical exaggerations of doom. If we don't get instant gratification, we begin cursing liberally. Either we are prodigiously arrogant or simply stupid.
Building optimism though I must confess is also a state responsibility. The UPA's biggest inadequacy has been sloppy marketing, inconsistent communication, defensive posturing and reactive mode of response. In a sense, a prolonged drift has created unwarranted space for rabble rousers and Cassandras, besides providing a desperate opposition breathing space to exhale vehemence. This has been the singular drawback plaguing UPA, whose good intentions and several positives have been lost in a nebulous haze. It needs a dramatic reversal. Thankfully, the turnaround can be equally quick. Bad news travels faster maybe but the sunshine is just unstoppable.
We are the world's most complex, fledgling and largest democracy in a most enthralling yet exacting phase of our growth. India's social-economic value system is at the crossroads and we must recognise that for every incremental change, there is a trade-off. If we want efficient and safe railways, passenger fares need to be hiked. FDI in retail will entail that the local shopkeeper quickly reinvents himself or vanishes; SEZ necessitate land acquisition norms which favour the displaced land owner. It's the only way a new economic order emerges, in a state of dynamic transmogrification. It's the dilemma of change and growth. To reduce poverty and inequality, we need MNREGA, RTE, Food security but taxes must rise. A single examination for IIT will help students but will require administrative adjustments. Progress is necessarily accompanied by pain. In varying degrees, its intensity alters but a niggling injury invariably remains. The cycle of growth has a bumpy ride even amidst affluence. Just see the US and Europe today!
We need to overcome our insomnia. Positive thinking does not require a parliamentary debate or constitutional amendments. Quantum leaps are possible but societies need to believe in themselves. Yes, the government needs to do its bit. It must, it has the responsibility to do so. But so do we. As our famed "demographic dividend" crowd would say: Chillax!
Perhaps India needs cheerleaders now more than ever before. Or the sunshine boys.