What India Wants

18 minute read

State of a Nation

by Zoher Abdoolcarim

In the fall of 1979, I traveled from the U.S., where I was a college senior, to India to attend my sister’s wedding in a small town in Gujarat state. On the way back, I got stranded in Mumbai because a fire had damaged the airport. I was with my brother and his wife, and we checked daily on when flights would resume, but found little progress. Exasperated and, as overseas Indians, accustomed to better efficiency, we rounded on an airport official. While he was annoyed at our impatience, he was also apologetic—and philosophical—about the lack of urgency to reopen the terminal. “You must understand,” he said, “this is India.”

This, of course, was India. For decades the country was known for being hapless and inept. Not until the early 1990s did India first become serious about deregulating and opening up its hidebound “license raj” economy, and the nation’s international image transformed. Suddenly, India was hot. By 2007, GDP was expanding by 9%, nearly treble the old, anemic “Hindu rate of growth.” Multi­nationals wooed India’s rising middle class as desirable consumers, just as they long had the Chinese. FDI surged. India became synonymous with what was smart and modern. Heck, it even produced and exported CEOs to run top U.S. companies. Today, if I flew out of Mumbai, I’d do so from a sparkling new airport terminal—1979 is so ancient history.

And yet history has a depressing habit of repeating itself in India. The country’s upward trajectory has stalled. Its economy has slowed dramatically, largely because the authorities have not undertaken further, much needed reforms. India’s reputation has taken a hit in other ways too. Countless egregious attacks on women make the country practically Rape Nation. The recent assault on Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, one of numerous times the written word has been lashed in India, is akin to book burning. The Supreme Court’s reinstatement of a 154-year-old law means that, in the 21st century, gays are rendered invisible. In India, little moves linearly, with its past often dragging back its future. My TIME colleague, South Asia bureau chief Krista Mahr, describes these violent swings between bursts of liberation and oppression as “India interrupted.”

More than anything else, that sense of a stumbling giant is at the core of India’s coming general elections, a massive five-week exercise beginning on April 7. Many have framed the vote as a fight between the left and the right, can- and cannot-do, strong and weak leadership, the sclerotic but inclusive Congress vs. the dynamic but divisive Bharatiya Janata Party. While all those elements are valid, they feed into a central existential dilemma: What is India?

Other major nations are secure in their identity and ambition. The U.S. remains a beacon of opportunity for the world. China’s dream is to again be the Middle Kingdom and Russia’s to resurrect its old empire. India doesn’t have a national idea. A society making a quantum leap from poverty to prosperity (as China already has)? A moral model? Both narratives, for now, are bankrupt. “India has become a flailing state … too weak and too intrusive,” writes Gurcharan Das, former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, in his book India Grows at Night.

As the elections near, the mantra about India being “the world’s largest democracy” will be chanted ever louder and more frequently. It’s a tired slogan, true only by the numbers (more than 814 million voters, billions of dollars spent on the polls), and undermined by the inequalities and injustices that still stain the nation. “The public aspiration is that India should return to greatness,” Mohan Guruswamy of think tank Observer Research Foundation recently told me in New Delhi. “But it stems from ignorance; it’s not necessarily informed.”

It’s entirely understandable, though. Indians now expect more from their political and business leaders, and from themselves, precisely because they have experienced what’s possible. In the following pages, we report on the hopes and fears of voters in India’s biggest cities and smallest villages. Above all, their catchword is change. “There is change afoot,” says historian and author Ramachandra Guha. “It may be incremental, but it can’t be stopped.”

India, land of the million mutinies, is too diverse and fractious to speak with one voice. But it’s safe to say all Indians want what anyone anywhere would: the freedom to choose, so long as it does not impinge on the rights of others, the chance to pursue a better life and the space to live that life in dignity. If there’s a single united message to those seeking office and power, perhaps it’s this: You must understand—this should be India.

The Voters’ Voices

by Krista Mahr

There are worse places to plot a revolution than the headquarters of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Amethi, a small, rural town in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Pradeep Sundriyal glances around the bunker-like room on main street, a subterranean space with AAP posters stacked on a table and a few no-smoking flyers taped to the concrete walls. Just a few months ago, Sundriyal, 40, had a high-powered IT job near San Francisco, but after years of worrying about how his country was being run, he decided to quit and come volunteer back home. “It’s now or never,” says Sundriyal, sitting in a plastic chair surrounded by other volunteers from across India who have also left their day jobs. “People see a ray of hope. If the movement fails … it will be hard to bring people back.”

The movement is AAP, India’s upstart political party that has become a symbol of the discontent of Indian voters ahead of the coming general elections. Aam Aadmi, which means “common man,” has pledged to purge the nation’s halls of power of corruption, criminality and dynastic politics, among other blights. It’s a message that has resonated both with rickshaw drivers harassed by police for petty bribes every day and expatriate Indians watching from afar, like Sundriyal. In the December vote for the New Delhi legislature, AAP helped unseat the Congress Party, which had been governing the capital for years and which also leads the country’s ruling coalition. AAP’s leader, former civil servant Arvind Kejriwal, briefly became chief minister of Delhi. His party’s unexpectedly strong showing sent an unequivocal message from voters to Congress: We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

The anti-incumbency mood has boosted not only AAP but also the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s main opposition group and Congress’s archrival. The latest polls indicate that the BJP will win the single largest number of the 543 elected seats in Parliament’s lower house. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that Indians prefer the BJP over Congress by more than 3 to 1. Those surveyed reckoned a BJP government would do better at everything from fighting corruption and terrorism to creating jobs and reducing poverty. That sentiment can also be chalked up to the surging popularity of the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state. In part because of its Hindu rightist character, the BJP might not be able to form a government unless it secures a parliamentary majority—another coalition could be cobbled together. But the BJP has benefited from the anger of voters. “There is a distrust of the current government,” says Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a top party official. “When we are on the ground, we can feel the pulse of the nation.”

Given India’s more than 800 million eligible voters, and the country’s great diversity, there’s no one pulse of the nation. In one state, a Maoist insurgency may be foremost on voters’ minds; in another, it may be subsidies for farmers. But there’s now a sense of Indians not settling for less, and a broad frustration with bad governance. At the heart of this shift, says historian Ramachandra Guha, is the waning influence of India’s foremost political dynasty. Though Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s vice president and son of party president Sonia Gandhi, heads his party’s election campaign, the gravitas of his name may be lost on the tens of millions of voters who did not live through the assassinations of his grandmother Indira and father Rajiv, both former Prime Ministers. Says Guha: “The charisma that [the Gandhis] once undoubtedly had has more or less disappeared.”

Nowhere is that theory being more directly tested than in Gandhi’s own constituency: Amethi. He has represented it in Parliament since 2004. Before that, his mother had the seat, and earlier, it was held by his father and uncle Sanjay. Many voters here take great pride in that legacy and scoff at AAP’s attempts to unseat the country’s most powerful family. “No one wants Rahul Gandhi to leave,” says Dharmendra Kumar, an Amethi resident. “He’s going to be the next Prime Minister. In Amethi, we don’t produce MPs. We produce PMs.”

But Kumar works in sales for Vodafone. He admits he has it easier than a lot of his neighbors who toil for a daily wage on somebody else’s land. Those are the Amethi-ites that Sundriyal and his cohorts hope will vote for Kumar Vishwas, the AAP candidate taking on Gandhi. Recently, Vishwas—who, at 44, is just a few months older than Gandhi—stood in the middle of the farming village of Sambhava, wearing the marigold garlands requisite of any out-and-about candidate in India. A poet turned politician, he stirred up the crowd by addressing what he says his rival has not delivered: roads, good jobs, adequate health care. “Your children will ask you where you were when India’s second revolution took place,” Vishwas shouted into two handheld mikes. “You can tell them you were here with me!” Gandhi agrees with his rival on one point: that voters want more from government. “The change that is taking place around us is unstoppable,” Gandhi said in a Jan. 17 speech. But, he added, “Unlike others, [Congress does not] respond by complaining about all that is wrong without articulating clearly what is going to be done about it.”

Neither side is specific. But AAP has given people like Nand Lal Kashyap, a farmer who listened to Vishwas’ stump speech, a chance to criticize a system they say no longer works for them. “We used to have this boundless faith, but now people are saying, ‘No more,'” says Kashyap. “People are changing the way they think.”

The Good Fight
Trying to change the way people think is on the agenda at Mitr Trust, a drop-in center tucked away on a dusty, anonymous street on the outskirts of New Delhi. On a March afternoon, a dozen or so hijra, a transgender and transsexual community, sit in the center’s narrow meeting room. Aditya Bandopadhyay, a lawyer and LGBT-rights activist, broaches what the group members can expect from their future MPs. “Elections are all about the majority, and the majority in India does not support gay rights,” Bandopadhyay says plainly. “Sure, this is a democracy, but nobody is going to talk about us.”

A few months back, there was more talk than usual about LGBT rights in India. In 2009, Section 377, part of the Indian Penal Code introduced by the colonial British criminalizing “intercourse against the order of nature,” was ruled unconstitutional by the Delhi High Court. But on Dec. 11 last year, at the instigation of several religious groups, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, upheld the archaic law, and effectively passed the buck to Parliament to decide whether the law was just or not. The LGBT space that had been created suddenly shrank. Many men and women who have come out are rethinking how public they want to be about their sexuality. “It’s hard to explain the influence of 377,” says Rudrani Chettri, Mitr Trust’s director. “You’re a citizen of India. You pay taxes and eat the same vegetables as other people. But you’re different.” The decision is also a blow to Indian liberals. “India was being lauded by human-rights circles around the world,” says Shaleen Rakesh, a gay-rights activist and director of the India HIV/AIDS Alliance. “Now this is what we offer.”

Social transformation in a place the size of India can only take place in fits and starts. After the national and global outrage over the New Delhi gang rape in December 2012, protests erupted on the streets and new legal measures were introduced to try to make India a safer place. But all too many egregious cases of predatory sexual violence have been widely reported since, under­scoring the deep-rooted challenges of reforming not only laws but also a whole ecosystem, from courts to cops, that has allowed sexual violence to go unpunished.

It’s not all doom and gloom. “We’ve moved on from questioning why the Supreme Court has done it,” says Shobhna S. Kumar, who runs Queer Ink, an online platform for India’s LGBT community. “At the end of the day, nobody wants violence. People do know that they can exist together.” That much was plain during the weeks of vigils held after the New Delhi gang-rape victim succumbed to her injuries in a hospital in Singapore. And it’s plain, too, listening to a hijra talk about how she has fought police extortion since 377 was re­instated. “If you want to remain passive, you are free to do that,” Bandopadhyay tells the group. But he says they should make their voice heard. “If someone throws a shoe at you, throw your shoe back.”

Seeking a Win-Win Solution
Sometimes the line between the good fight and what’s good for the fighters is blurry. On a humid morning in early March, Mahinder Rout, a thin, 50-year-old farmer in the eastern state of Odisha, paces the tidy rows of his betel-vine greenhouse, flushing the vines’ roots with water. Once a month, Rout harvests these leaves and sells them for some $800 to buyers in big cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, where they are rendered into the ubiquitous Indian chew, paan.

For nearly a decade, residents of Rout’s village, Nuagaon, and neighboring hamlets have intermittently been up in arms over a deal between the South Korean company Posco and the state government to build a 12 million-ton steel plant near the coast not far from Rout’s greenhouse. The plant will take over state land that locals have been tending for generations. Rout’s greenhouse is outside the project site, but other betel-vine greenhouses have already been razed. Posco and the state say farmers have been paid, and many may find work at the plant. But people are skeptical. “We have never depended on anybody,” says Veena Behera, a young mother living in the area. “When [Posco] comes, we’ll just be day laborers.”

How to achieve “inclusive growth” is a key election issue—and the Posco plant is a classic test case. India’s economic growth dropped from over 9.5% in fiscal 2006–07 to just under 5% in 2012–13. A recent McKin­sey Global Institute report found that 680 million Indians don’t have sufficient access to clean water, schools and health workers, and suggests the best way to bridge that gap is by improving governance and raising incomes, not spending on welfare. Congress has devoted billions of dollars to pro-poor programs since a coalition that it led came to power in 2004. Abject poverty has been on the decline, but many voters think it’s time for a new approach and that the BJP’s Modi, who has successfully attracted investment to his home state of Gujarat, will be better for India. “People’s aspirations are shifting away from getting free doles toward getting employment and livelihood,” says Rajya Vardhan Kanoria, a former president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Creating those jobs is not easy in a country still entangled in red tape and where the right to make a living off the land is deeply tied to personal and national identity. When Posco started looking at emerging markets where it could expand, the choice was among India, China and Brazil, says Ryu Ho-chan, deputy managing director of Posco India. He says India beat out its rivals for its combination of friendly officials, latent demand and availability of raw material for the plant—in this case, iron ore. Posco signed a $12 billion memorandum of understanding with the Odisha government that included the steel plant and mining rights to extract iron ore in another part of the state.

Nine years later, there is no mine and no plant. The state says Posco should have done more to win locals over. “There is a feeling that if it had been an Indian company, the plant would be up and running right now,” says Vishal Dev, an official in Odisha’s Industries Department. Posco says there has been confusion over the company’s mining rights. Getting the necessary clearances from New Delhi has also been slow. Without the mine, Posco says, there’s no point in building the plant. “Our headquarters [in Seoul] are very frustrated,” says Ryu. “After waiting nine years, they are tired. They ask, ‘Is this really possible?'”

Many investors, foreign and domestic, have asked themselves the same question in recent years. The government has helped them negotiate some of India’s stickier areas, including passing a new land act that lays out more favorable compensation guidelines for landowners, among other things. But more needs to be done to return the shine to India as an investment destination and for the country to get back its mojo. “A stable regime can get growth back on track quickly,” says Kanoria. “It’s just a matter of confidence.”

Strutting India’s Stuff
Confidence sums up the vibe at the daily flag-lowering ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border between India and Pakistan. In the late afternoon, tourists from across India stream toward the crossing, past hawkers selling popcorn and painting Indian flags on sweaty foreheads for 30¢ a pop. As showtime nears, spectators cram into the stands, waiting to see the celebrated daily ritual of stomping and high kicks performed by the Indian and Pakistani border security forces. A cheerleader in a white tracksuit stands in front of the Indian crowd, leading them in a call and response: “Hindustan!” he yells. “Zindabad!” they yell back. Long live India!

India doesn’t always look this self-assured. As the government has focused on fixing the economy, it has struggled to find a firm footing on the global stage. The Congress coalition in 2004 showed “much greater clarity” in foreign policy, says Sanjaya Baru, a former press adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India built links with developed countries to boost its own growth, a strategy largely absent, says Baru, in the second Congress-led coalition elected in 2009. Today, when New Delhi is courted by other powers, it’s mostly as a counterweight, particularly against Beijing, and not because it’s a global player (it’s not). Relations with the U.S. have sputtered. In December, U.S. authorities arrested a high-ranking Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in New York City on charges of visa fraud. Indian officials have said she was entitled to diplomatic immunity at the time of her arrest. A major diplomatic rift ensued, which, months later, is still being patched up.

India’s testy reaction to Khobragade’s arrest was about more than protocol. Like many other countries, India is experiencing a new nationalism. During the ceremony at the border crossing, R.M. Chougule, an elderly tourist from Maharashtra state, is unable to contain his enthusiasm and does a little jig on the concrete curb. It’s his second time here. Why does he come? “This is my India, and I love my India!” he shouts, and does another little jig. When asked who he thinks will do the best job governing India for the next five years, Chougule demurs naming a party. But of one thing he is certain: “I’m ready for change. The government needs to start working for the nation, not itself. Parties aren’t important. India is what’s important.”

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