NEW YORK: The Congress Party’s unexpected landslide in India’s general election was greeted with euphoria. Many believe that Congress – with its commitment to secular values, economic growth, and helping the poor – now has a mandate to transform India into a great power. Business and financial interests, in particular, are delighted with the outcome, crowing about the bonanza about to be unleashed as Congress liberalizes India’s economy further.
The Americans are happy that India’s pesky left, reduced to a paltry 24 seats, has been all but eliminated from national government. India’s Communists had tried to topple the Congress-led government last year in an attempt to scuttle the nuclear deal brokered by the United States, and had vowed to upend it.
As for the threat from the right, anyone hoping for peace in the region and reduced tensions within India between religious communities is relieved by the defeat of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP’s strategy of painting the Congress as soft on terror and demonizing Muslims as an existential threat to India badly misfired.
Unfortunately, however, the economic trajectory that Congress is plotting, though it may well boost growth in the short term, is ultimately on a collision course with both equity and sustainability. Despite rhetoric about “inclusive growth, India’s wealth gap has widened during the years of exceptionally rapid economic expansion.
The majority of the world’s malnourished children live in India. While private wealth management is a growth industry among India’s 200,000 or so nouveaux riches, 800 million Indians live on less than $2 per day. India’s water supply is stretched to the limit, even as global warming is fast melting the Himalayan glaciers on which millions depend for water. Moreover, climate change threatens to reduce agricultural output by up to 40% by 2080, when India will have another 450 million people.
At that point, the consultancy McKinsey & Company projects India’s middle-class consumer market will have hit 600 million people, twice the size of the current US population. That’s exciting news to retailers looking for new markets. But what about India’s other billion people? And where will the resources come from to manufacture all the stuff these new consumers will buy?
The die was cast for India’s development path on July 22, 1947, when India’s Constituent Assembly resolved to replace Mahatma Gandhi’s spinning wheel, or charka, with the emperor Ashoka’s wheel of dharma on the Indian national flag. The move symbolically rejected what the incoming government abandoned upon assuming office: Gandhi’s vision of an equitable and sustainable agrarian society based on self-sufficient, pared-down consumption.
For Gandhi, the spinning wheel symbolized the need to assume personal responsibility for consumption as a first step toward achieving justice and freedom for all. But Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, believed in industrialization and urbanization, famously calling the new mega-dam projects his government underwrote the “temples of modern India.
In his famous speech on India’s “tryst with destiny, Nehru promised Indians that his government would seek to “bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease;. to ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman. For 63 years, the vast majority of India’s people have waited for this promise to be fulfilled.
As Congress retakes power, it is Rahul Gandhi, the 39-year-old great-grandson of the man who made that promise, who is the heir-apparent to current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Observers expect the young Gandhi to become prime minister within two years.
The essential challenge before him and his country is not transitioning from a more to a less state-directed economic system, as many of those cheering Congress’s electoral victory believe. While bureaucratic excess, entrenched corruption, and other inefficiencies beg remedy, the real challenge before India is its allegiance to a twentieth-century vision of modernity.
Former Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has said that his dream is to see 85% of Indians living in cities and only 15%, as opposed to the current 60%, engaged in agriculture, because to be an agrarian society in the modern era is to be poor and powerless. To be “developed means to be industrialized and urbanized. But, for better or worse, we are no longer in the modern era. The post-modern realities of our grave present make a mockery of modernity.
When asked what he thought about Western civilization, Gandhi famously replied, “It would be a good idea. He also said that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed. For Gandhi, greed led to violence, violence to militarism, militarism to war, and war to annihilation. His philosophy of non-violence was aimed at the most basic form of human aggression: the appetite for more than one’s share.
India’s essential challenge is to take up Gandhi’s mantle and boldly imagine a future that is different from the West’s present. Of course, no one is under the illusion that India or any other country will abandon its cities for a life as simple as the one Gandhi strove to live; but that doesn’t mean that India can’t look to Gandhi’s core values for inspiration.
Rahul Gandhi bears the name, if not the lineage, of the Mahatma (to whom he is not related). If India is lucky, when he assumes leadership of the Congress Party he will let himself be as inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision for India as by that of his great-grandfather. After all, it was out of their complicated marriage of ideas that independent India was born. Nehru’s vision has had a good run; now it is time to bring back Gandhi’s.
Mira Kamdar is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and a fellow at the Asia Society. She is the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).