As someone who is allergic to democratic feudalism, it felt good to see the son of a chaiwallah represent India at the first international conference since the general election. After a decade of having a prime minister whose strings were in the hands of an all-powerful puppeteer, it felt good to see a real prime minister represent India at BRICS. But, no sooner did I begin to revel in these happy thoughts, than a trip on one of our most important national highways brought my happy thoughts crashing with a heavy splash into a vast pothole filled with rainwater. Between potholes lay mounds of rotting garbage and the remains of dead dogs.
Between potholes came so many speed breakers of fluctuating sizes that the convoys of articulated lorries, with foreign names like MAERSK written on their huge containers, had to break hard to avoid banging into each other. These lorries have replaced old-fashioned ‘OK Tata’ trucks on our highways but everything else remains the same. The broken tarmac, the stretches of road that have been under construction for years and the shoddy boards that announce that the road you are travelling on belongs to the National Highways Authority of India.
It was after a visit to China 20 years ago that I began assessing the progress of a country by the condition of its roads. It was my first visit to China and as a patriotic Indian it pleased me to see that Shanghai then resembled Mumbai (still Bombay). There was a shiny new city being built on the other side of the river, but Shanghai in the Nineties looked like any large Indian city. Beijing looked a bit better and it was from there that I drove to the Great Wall on a highway so modern and efficient that it made Indian highways seem like dirt roads. With the exception of the Yamuna Expressway, this remains true today, so if I were to judge India by her roads, I would have to admit that we are 50 years behind most small developing countries.
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This is the legacy Narendra Modi inherits from the benevolent Dynasty that ruled India for more than 50 years. This Dynasty survived because of democratic feudalism whose fundamental principle is to do everything in the name of the poor. So, in the name of the poor, India was bequeathed shoddy infrastructure and squalid cities. In the name of the poor, India was bequeathed useless schools and dangerously useless hospitals. In the name of the poor, children are fed school meals that sometimes kill them, even if it is possible to outsource this service to an organisation like Akshaya Patra. In the name of the poor, all possibilities of India becoming a manufacturing giant were killed by labour laws that force companies to employ as few people as possible.
There is a long list of other things that have gone wrong in the name of the poor, but the thing that has gone more wrong than anything else is that the mindset of India as a country has remained mired in economic and political ideas that should have died when that wall came down in Berlin and the empty economies of the Soviet bloc were exposed.
If the mindset has not changed even today, it is because officials, NGOs, writers, politicians, journalists and even Bollywood remain stuck in a time warp. As long as you state that you are doing something for the poor, you are considered to be noble even if you achieve nothing. But the poor have changed, and the recent reordering of the poverty line by the Indian government comes as proof that at the highest levels of officialdom they have not noticed. They have not noticed that even the poorest Indians today have cellphones, and that in the slums of major cities, it is hard to find a hovel that does not have a dish sticking out of its flimsy roof.
They have not noticed that the poorest Indians today have the same aspirations and dreams as the middle classes. The poor have tried to get their elected representatives to understand this by voting out those who continue to subscribe to old-fashioned democratic feudalism.
And they have voted for the son of a chaiwallah in the hope that he will do something to make their dreams come true. He will not be able to do this unless he begins the enormous task of replacing the legacy of bad infrastructure and bad public services that he has inherited. He will not be able to do this unless he emphasises that he does not subscribe to the mindset that believes India has to remain second rate because ‘the poor’ want no more than dole and handouts of cheap food grain. The poor want much more and they want it now.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh