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Are we nationalistic?

Omkar Goswami


It seems absurd to question the nationalism and patriotic fervour of a country where all work comes to standstill during any India-Pakistan one-day cricket final. But I have begun to do so. Over time, I have got convinced that the lack of sustained economic reforms has as much to do with our lack of nationalism and a shared vision of a prosperous India, as it has with our ‘anything goes’, ‘everything is negotiable’, ‘why make such an issue out of anything’ attitude towards progress.


No doubt, we have our surges of feeling for India as a nation. Indian pride knows no bounds when we chase an impossibly high first innings score and come up trumps. When Tendulkar, Ganguly, Sehwag or Dravid are blasting the opposition to smithereens. When Harbhajan is spinning circles around hapless batsmen. When we collectively pray for Lagaan to win an Oscar. Or when we are abusing Pakistan. Or when we burst five nuclear devices. That pretty much sums up the gamut of our collective view of a nation.


This has to be poppycock. Did we not show our nationalism when Indian soldiers were fiercely fighting and laying down their lives to gain each inch of height in Kargil? Of course we did at the time. But did we remember these brave men a year down the line? Other than contributing to various funds and a few VVIP ceremonies on the banks of the Indus, what did we do as a nation to commemorate those young kids who died for us? What did we do to remember those innocent Indians who died in the Mumbai bomb blasts? Unfortunately, nothing.


Contrast this with the United States. This year, I happened to be in New York on 9/11, and, in the morning, witnessed one of the most simple yet moving ceremonies to honour those who perished at the World Trade Centre a year earlier. Under a cloudless, blue September sky on a podium erected on Ground Zero, citizens of the US read out the names of every one of the 3,000 victims. Ordinary men and women sometimes paired with  worthies such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and ex-Mayor Rudy Guilliani cited the names, while the families of those who died laid roses, pictures and quietly grieved. “Shrawan Kapoor”,  “David Elahu Kaplan”, “Diane Maria Kantorovich”, “Shireen Khan”, “John Mikhal Kozlowski” , “Patrick Ignatius Lombardini” and 2,994 other names — some unpronounceable in Americanese but all parts of the same country — were read  in alphabetical order from A to Z. There was no bluster, jingoism or political rhetoric that lovely September morning. Just a profound sharing of a national spirit, as the high and low of the United States joined hands as citizens to remember, to grieve and to quietly state their unity as a nation.


Could we have shown such a powerfully simple display of unity? For one, we haven’t in my recent memory. For another, we couldn’t, even if we wanted to. Each VVIP at such a rostrum would have been accompanied by scores of over important security men; the police would have acted in their time honoured bullying way to make life miserable for the grieving relatives; and we would have been blasted by long winded bombast from every politico you could dream of, each jockeying for his moment of television glory. You would have seen a crude display of political ego; not a quiet reaffirmation of a nation united in grief.


I give this 9/11 example to highlight our utter inability to create simple, yet powerful, visions of a united nation. And, believe me, this translates to the ‘stop-go-stop’ approach to economic reforms. Let me give you a simple example. In 2001, India’s real GDP was approximately $520 billion, while China’s was $950 billion. Without sustained reforms, India cannot grow at much more that 5 per cent per year. China is expected to grow at no less than 8 per cent. So, in a ‘business-as-usual’ scenario, a decade down the line China will have a GDP in excess of $2,200 billion, while India will be at under $890 billion. Today, China is 80 per cent richer than India. A decade later, it will be 150 per cent richer.


Do you think the majority of our national cabinet ever discusses the implications of a 1.5 billion strong neighbouring nation being 150 per cent more prosperous than ours in the next ten years? What that means for the geopolitics of the region, and the secondary role that we will play in any committee of nations? Notwithstanding Prime Minister Vajpayee’s heroic call for 8 per cent growth, do you seriously believe that our decision-making collective genuinely deliberate what we as a nation need to do to attain this  growth rate on a sustained basis? Or that our leaders have the nationalism to chalk out a collective strategy that says, “Enough of petty sectarian politics, and let’s push the reform agenda to the limit”?


If they did, we would see Parliament enact laws instead of staging daily walkouts. We would see the Electricity Bill being passed; SICA being repealed; bankruptcy being modernised; courts being made to work better; the education system being progressively strengthened; the Fiscal Responsibility Bill being enacted; power tariffs being rationalised; privatisation being stepped up to garner at least Rs.50,000 crore per year; FDI being opened in all sectors; import duties being further rationalised; agriculture being freed from myriad shackles; labour laws being made more flexible; railways being modernised; ports and airports being privatised and upgraded; BSNL being told to immediately offer interconnect facilities to all telecom providers; and every policy being implemented in dead earnest.


We don’t see this, do we? Let me assure you that such conspicuous lack of reforms has nothing to do with our knowledge base. Eleven years after 1991, we surely know what to do. The reason we don’t is because of the profound absence of a shared vision of a prosperous India. Which is why our nationalism consists of Bal Thackeray ordering a bandh in Mumbai after the Gandhinagar temple blast; of Narendra Modi spewing vituperative rhetoric throughout Gujarat; of Uma Bharati and S.S. Dhindsa piping up against NALCO and NFL disinvestments; of Parliamentarians delaying passing key economic bills for over two years, walking out at the drop of a hat, and the pathetic publicised spectacle of hapless Speakers repeatedly saying, “Please behave yourself” to no avail.


To claim that these and other disgraces are merely reflections of a ‘vibrant democracy’ is utter and, need I add, cynical nonsense. Let’s call a spade by its name. These reflect the lack of even the mildest form of nationalism. And that’s why we will talk till the cows come home, while China become 150 per cent richer than us.   


Published: Business World, October 2002


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