At 75, India and Indians must make a promise to discard the election-to-election mentality. And this would only be scratching the surface of a reimagination exercise that's needed urgently.
Beyond the occasion of 75 years of independence since colonial rule, this week, a nation of 1.3 billion people will celebrate the fact that they have proven wrong every Western commentator who predicted doom upon a young country in the late 1940s, all the way up to even the 1960s.
Sure, the republic has faltered, even came to the brink of failing economically. But, across the last seven decades, it has moved from barely surviving to now asserting itself to reclaim its lost stature in global affairs.
India, without a doubt, continues to punch below its weight and, thus, leaves many remarking that it shall forever remain a below-average nation.
However, this has a lot to do with the legacy issues the nation has inherited. From socialism and the freebie mindset that plagues states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh even today to unstable economic policies that dented Maharashtra between 2019 and 2022.
The former is a consequence of the latter, and yet, not a permanent reality when the next 10 years are factored in.
The signs of transformation are visible and were most evident in the last two years of the pandemic. Like 1947, the early pandemic months had commentators in India and the West curating prophecies of doom and gloom.
Two years, two deadly waves, and two billion vaccine doses later, India is easily the most robust economy going forward, unlike China, where a real estate bubble threatens artificial growth, and while the West is caught in its foreign policy mess and the consequent domestic political fracturing and economic chaos.
In early 2019, then finance minister Arun Jaitley, speaking at a book launch, said that in 10 years the population of India would no longer restrict itself to caste loyalties and coalitions in elections but be driven by aspirations that would enable them to move ahead economically.
Merely three years later, India’s biggest state, with 200 million people, gave the sitting government a significant mandate on two parameters alone — law and order and the welfare schemes that sustained them before and through the pandemic.
The reimagination, however, is still incomplete.
The election results in Uttar Pradesh and even Punjab, where religious and caste loyalties were tossed out for a change in the state, may indicate a change in social behaviour, but still a lot of ground remains to be made.
In the last few weeks, the conversation has moved to 'freebies versus welfare', and rightfully so. It's not only a political problem, but the freebie strategy of some politicians represents a mindset problem among some pockets of the electorate too.
At 75, India must get rid of its obsession with freebies. In Delhi, between 2020 and 2021, the cost of free electricity and water was visible to the electorate as they ran pillar to post for oxygen cylinders while the chief minister questioned outsiders from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh rushing to the capital for treatment.
More than politics, it's bad economics. If the utilities are free, the voter is the cost, whether in the short or long term, and that should be a wake-up call for everyone, especially those in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
For the longest time since 1947, the average Indian's aspirations were restricted to four commodities: roti (food), kapda (clothing), makaan (shelter), aur (and) sarkari naukri (government job). The guarantee of the first three motivated a desperate search for the fourth.
Even today, many young people squander away the critical years of their 20s in pursuit of a government job. This must change. The Agnipath programme is a step in the right direction. Similar, relevant steps must be taken up for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) and other services.
Employment in India must be reimagined beyond the 'government job' or the '966' working system (à la China's '996'). The primary reason for protests against Agnipath was the absence of a lifelong pension, replaced with a one-time monetary payout worth more than Rs 12 lakh.
Such is the mindset around employment that politicians questioned the utility of the sum for a graduate of the programme between the age of 21 and 25 years. Forget being job creators, most want the government to be in the business of job creation.
The hate for the private sector must go. For the majority of the working rural labour of the nation, formally or informally engaged in employment in the agriculture sector, the acceptance of private enterprise and wealth is necessary.
Farmers in Punjab would have done themselves a favour by embracing the farm laws, but their state would now serve a lesson in ecological damage a few years from now, as neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, and even Kashmir, make progress on the agricultural front.
The economic question extends to entrepreneurship too. A teaser of it is already visible in the MUDRA loans that have been given out to aspiring businesses, many owned by women. But with scalable digital infrastructure in place and available to the public, there is ample room for value-added services, especially as the open network for digital commerce takes over in the near future.
The future of employment is beyond cubicles and cities, in the aspirational second- and third-tier cities and villages.
Education in India must be reimagined on multiple fronts, taking some cues from the West. For how long, in this digital age, can the country afford underperforming public schools and not ensure enough online literature and learning tools for those who want to appear for Class 10, a bare minimum qualification for many blue-collar jobs?
How long can primitive curriculums be the core of learning in schools and universities, and how long can the problem of unemployable graduates be ignored? Are we risking creating a generation of graduates with minimum skills and maximum debt in the coming, say, 15 years?
The last eight years have been a blessing for infrastructure. A ride through the National Capital Region (NCR), for instance, or the upcoming Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) that would connect to Alwar, Meerut, and Panipat are an example for how we must imagine our economic centres.
Beyond the airports, highways, and railway corridors, the cities, suburbs, and satellite towns must have thriving connectivity like in the NCR to ensure quality of life, economic opportunities, and sustainable growth. The path to smart cities goes through strategic infrastructure.
At 75, India and Indians must make a promise to discard the election-to-election mentality. Ideally, a debate on 'one nation, one election' should not be ruled out, but, beyond that, the audacity to link the future of India to one party or one government must go.
The nation as we know it unshackled itself from British rule 75 years ago, but, as a civilisation, India has been here since time immemorial. For it to gain its rightful place in the world, which it once lost, some reimagination on the part of its people is needed urgently.
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