Patralekha Chatterjee | Hype and reality in India: Let's focus on the present

Modi's 1,000-year vision for India: hope or hyperbole?

Update: 2024-05-24 19:20 GMT
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting for the Lok Sabha elections, in Shimla, Friday, May 24, 2024. (PTI Photo)

Narendra Modi’s India may have done away with Five-Year Plans. But a 1,000-year vision is a recurring theme. Last year, on Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “We will take decisions one after the other, and the golden history of the country for the next 1,000 years is going to emerge from it. The events taking place in this period are going to impact the next 1,000 years… We are at the milestone between 1,000 years of slavery and 1,000 years of a grand future that is about to come. We are at this crossroads and hence we cannot stop, nor shall we live in a dilemma anymore.”

Earlier in the speech, Mr Modi had talked about “a thousand years of subjugation” and India being “ensnared in slavery”.

As India’s long drawn-out general election reaches the final stretch, talk of the 1,000-year plan has surfaced again. “What’s happening now will take India towards a brighter future for the coming 1,000 years. In my mind, this is our time. This is Bharat’s time, and we must not lose the opportunity,” Mr Modi recently told a TV channel.

How does one interpret a 1,000-year blueprint for a country in these hugely unpredictable times when climate change, artificial intelligence, economic distress, simultaneous wars, uncertainties and interlocking catastrophic events are turning the best-laid plans upside down? Does one smile?

Or does one see it as part of a package -- the persistent refrain about 1,000 years of foreign rule, interpreted by many political commentators as conscious referencing of India’s history when it was under Muslim rule and framing it as invasion, subjugation, and slavery, juxtaposed with Modi’s India, the start of “Amrit Kaal” and Hindutva, with Mr Modi as its principal narrator.

In hyper-polarised India, how you react to the idea of a 1,000-year framework -- whether in the context of the past or the future -- depends on your political orientation. But one thing is clear -- constant talk about centuries gone by, and centuries ahead hugely distracts from what we need to be doing to cope with the extremely challenging present and the near-future.

Arguably, politicians routinely tap into a nation’s desire to be great and powerful. In 2016, Donald Trump sledgehammered MAGA (Make America Great Again). Chinese President Xi Jinping envisions China to be a modernised, innovation-driven country by 2035 and a modern “strong power” by 2050. In the age of strongman politics, catchphrases pivoting around national pride and national rejuvenation are common.

No Indian has any quarrel with acknowledging progress or the desire for a bright future for India or with the idea of seizing opportunities that come our way. But ordinary Indians can’t escape the pressing problems of today, and they have to prepare for tomorrow. They deserve a grounded assessment of their country and specifics of plans to improve their everyday lives in the days ahead.

In a country with a dominantly young population, the present tense must be the priority -- education, skills, jobs, health, social cohesion, the environment. But in the phantasmagorical packaging of India, many critical gaps related to these critical issues get glossed over.

Countries where ordinary people have a high quality of life have invested not only in physical infrastructure -- ports, airports, bridges, etc -- but also human capital. Many parts of India still trail woefully when it comes to the latter.

India’s economy is growing but millions of young Indians entering the labour market every year continue to be underemployed or engaged in low-paid, precarious work. Economists have drawn attention to the persistence of unemployment even among college graduates. India remains a grossly unequal country and the staggering inequality is a roadblock to the country realising its full potential.

Rich or relatively affluent Indians can access excellent education and healthcare. That is not the case for those without money. India’s female voters are often referenced through the prism of welfare schemes, but what about jobs? Female work participation rate in India continues to be extremely low.

“Building a new Singapore is achievable if we apply ourselves,” Mr Modi said recently. India has around 1,300 islands, including many uninhabited ones. Some are nearly the size of Singapore. But building an economic success story like Singapore is not merely a construction project. The multi-racial, multi-religious city-state, which has one of the most diverse populations in Asia, has assiduously worked at social cohesion, social trust. None of this happened purely by accident. As Keshia Naurana Badalge, a writer from Singapore, pointed out in an essay: “It is, in part, the product of a strong central government that dictates certain aspects of everyday life -- and sees racial harmony between its people as too important to be left to chance.” A unique feature of Singaporean housing, she points out, is its remarkable racial diversity, and that is due to government intervention and as part of Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), introduced to counter the emergence of ethnic enclaves.

In his recent TV interview, Mr Modi also talked about global standards. Every Cabinet note related to a bill now comes with a global standards report so that the legislation can be aligned to the best practices worldwide, he said.

That is good news. But ordinary Indians must know how a law is aligned to global best practices as well as how it is implemented on the ground. Is India following global standards in every sphere? What about recent reports about Indian food products failing basic safety standards? If India’s food regulator was doing its job meticulously, would two popular Indian spice brands be flagged as unsafe in Hong Kong and Singapore? The European Union has also raised concerns about contamination in Indian chili peppers.

In addition to everything else, there is climate change. Climate change is no longer future shock. It is happening now.

As I write, many parts of India are facing excruciating heat stress. “Some countries, like India, have comprehensive heat action plans in place. Yet, to protect some of the most vulnerable people, these must be expanded with mandatory regulations. Workplace interventions for all workers to address heat stress, such as scheduled rest breaks, fixed work hours, and rest-shade-rehydrate programmes (RSH), are necessary but have yet to become part of worker protection guidelines in the affected regions,” says a recent study by the World Weather Attribution, an international group of scientists that studies the effects of climate change on extreme weather events.

These are just a few issues where ordinary Indians deserve an honest response and a grounded conversation which differentiates between hyperbole and genuine seeds of hope, between efforts to create an alternate reality and reality.


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