I love India but no longer like much of what I see, I lamented in October 2011.
The 80s and the 00s can't be any more different in Indian consciousness.
80s was when fate switched off the light. We were riven by identity, suffocated by air, vulnerable to theft. Bluestar, Bhopal, Bofors. And most of us were poor.
00s was when fate shone on us. The earth became flat, India became young, the world accepted our bomb. Davos, Demography, (nuclear) Deal. And some of us became prosperous.
On the surface, this is a great narrative. And, yet, something seems amiss.
80s, as I wrote, was when fate switched off the light. It was our decade of despair.
Then the Berlin Wall fell. India may have had to pawn her gold but fate had rolled in her favor. America's heady holiday from history swept over Indian shores as well. We thought, at least for a while when the money was easy, that we had overcome those Oh So Twentieth Century divisions on caste and faith and language and race and economic status. We were all getting rich so none of this mattered.
Yes, Babri Masjid, Mumbai, Kargil, Kandahar, Sabarmati Express, Gulbarg Society, Akshardham, Mumbai again, Kokrajhar, and Muzaffarnagar all happened. But the overarching story was more about BRICS, Bangalore, Chandrayan, Commonwealth Games, and GDP than the tales of murder that we wanted to move beyond. Everything became about the vibrant economy that would soon make us a superpower.
To understand the depth of our delusion, just look at the current political discourse. One party is defending its economic record, another is running this down while boasting about its own record, and a third is fretting that some (corrupt) people became too rich while everyone was becoming rich.
We get it. It's the economy, stupid.
But it's never so easy, is it?
Recall that I wrote my lament at a time Indian economy was still growing strongly. In every visit, I found a country bubbling with endless optimism and limitless energy. There were no takers for my growing unease with what I was seeing. I myself didn't fully understand it.
As India has slowed, the nascent unease has crystallized into full blown despair.
Just because we were busy chasing riches doesn't mean we had advanced into modernity.
Caste politics still dominates the Hindi heartland. Regional divisions are tearing apart Andhra Pradesh. Liberalism is in all out retreat. Religious bigotry passes for political debate. Racism - to our own people as well as towards foreign guests - is routine. Gay people may not practice love. Gated communities proliferate while children panhandle for change. Khaps are defended by all political parties and rape is blamed on victims by supposed advocates for women's rights. Even justice is accused of lust and the army is sought to be divided by faith. Soni Sori is tortured by an officer who India then decorates and Irom Sharmila still starves.
All this ugliness has been here all along. Dazzled by wealth and blinded by hubris, we willfully denied what was right in front of our eyes.
Well, India's holiday from history is over and the time has come to deal with the ghosts we thought we had left behind.
Some will say that all will be well if only we could return India to economic growth.
I am not so sure. Economic growth, as the past two decades showed, is too small a band-aid over a vicious oozing wound. It can't hold back the bleeding any longer.
For all the conversation about governance and growth and fight against corruption, the real political issue at hand is discovering who we are as a people. My wager is that we will spend the next decade sorting this out. Indian energies will be spent more on settling identity issues than creating the infrastructure of modernity.
Breakneck growth will likely have to wait.
This is not all bad. India has to settle these matters at some point. This is as good a time as any.
For India's teeming millennials, who have mostly seen good times, this back to the future sojourn into the our incomplete 80s will be jarring. Maybe, just maybe, this will teach them some humility.