The Delhi airport,now undergoing a major renovation,tells me a lot about our Republic and our democracy. After a slow start,the work of expansion and modernisation has gathered speed,leaving visitors with a sense of pride that soon our Capital will have an airport comparable to the best in the world. Gone will be the days when it looked pathetically small and ill-maintained. A glance at the passengers attire,baggage and air of self-confidence tells you how much the life of upwardly mobile Indians has changed in the past ten yearsand also how much more it will change in the years to come.
However,a look at the labourers working on the construction of the airport and allied structures and services tells a different story. They have probably come from Bihar,Jharkhand or some other poorer part of the country. Their faces are dark,their bodies ill-fed. Some wear ill-fitting helmets and women sweepers have fluorescent uniforms. In all likelihood,they carry a sense of relief at having got a job,since life back home has fewer livelihood opportunities. But there is no cheer in their faces,and no zest of the kind that well-heeled air-travellers have in their gait for after work,they have to trudge back to their tiny abode in some jhuggi-jhopadi somewhere in this rapidly expanding city,where streets are full of litter,water is scarce,sanitation is poor,healthcare costs are unaffordable and they have little time to spend with their children. Social security for contract workers in India is a joke. Some of themindeed,many of themmust be dreaming of flying one day. At least,they would like their children to fly some day. But,right now,life is miserable. It has taught them not to be immodest in their ambition.
This is Bharat at the heart of Shining India. The scene repeats itself in almost every city in India.
Nevertheless,when elections comeand they will in April-Mayit is Bharat,which in villages or urban slums,that votes in greater numbers and with more hope. Our democracy displays an instructive contrast. Bharat votes,but does not rule. India rules,but rarely votes.
As a political worker active in the election campaign,I am troubled by the thought of how to communicate to these faces of Bharat that you confront almost everywhere in the streets of India. What message can meaningfully connect the two contrasting but clearly interdependent halves of India? How can we make our democracy mean to the common man more than his five-yearly vote,and indeed give him (and her) an empowered voice? How can we reassure them that their work for Indias progress is as important and valuable as that of their more privileged counterparts?
At the airport,while waiting for a flight to Mumbai,I revisit the inaugural speech of President Barack Obama and am struck by how much his words speak to us in India. He reminded his countrymen that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product,but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heartnot out of charity,but because it is the surest route to our common good. He spoke of the need to carry forward that precious gift,that noble idea,the God-given promise that all are equal,all are free,and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. He exhorted that the path to a nations greatness is not for those who prefer leisure over work,or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather,it has been the risk-takers,the doers,the makers of thingssome celebrated,but more often men and women obscure in their labourwho have carried us up the long,rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.
And when Obama spoke of the common Americans of the previous generations who built Americathose who packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life… men and women (who) struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better lifeI could not help imagine the parallel narratives of those crores of migrant workers in our own country travelling from villages to cities in search of a new life.
Obama spoke with profound emphasis on a new cooperative relationship between government and people. For as much as government can do and must do,it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. I asked myself: How much faith does the government in India have in its own people? How much does it respect and support their capabilities and aspirations?
There is no mystery to why Obamas amazing presidential journey evoked so much interest in India. For,when he called upon his people to choose our better history and appealed to them to re-enshrine old-world values of responsibility,work,sacrifice and service,didnt his words touch Indian minds and hearts? Our challenges may be new, he said. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success dependshard work and honesty,courage and fair play,tolerance and curiosity,loyalty and patriotismthese things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibilitya recognition,on the part of every American,that we have duties to ourselves,our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly,firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit,so defining of our character,than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.
My flight takes off. After two hours,it lands at another airport currently undergoing renovation,an airport surrounded by sprawling slums. I reach home,my inner voice saying,Obama,you spoke for India,too.
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