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Monday, November 16, 2009

Seeing Through the Potemkin State

Perhaps it is about getting older. Or that the excitement has waned. Increasingly the prospect of arrival in India fills us with apprehension as the cab winds its inevitable way to JFK or Chicago’s O’Hare. For me, America is a cultural home: the food, the music, the clothes, the humor, the aesthetics, the very idiom of language is all comfortingly familiar. Driving is a pleasure; walking the streets a delight and everywhere smiles and hellos…well, maybe not that many in New York City! But it’s less about extolling America than dreading what lies in wait at Delhi or any other port of entry to India.

Within seconds of landing, the harsh reality hits you between the eyes. The airport is shoddy, grimy and smelly. To exit is to confront a menacing crowd of people, straining at the barricades: vast numbers of drivers pushing and shoving; swarms of noisy families come to receive their near and dear ones; and various other categories teeming around the crumbling arrival terminal. True, such crowds gather at arrival terminals everywhere in the world but at Indian airports it adds another dimension to the chaos that reigns supreme.

Step outside and it is quickly evident there is no system to smooth the way for arriving passengers. You are left on your own to dodge honking and swerving cars torturing the driveway; and everywhere, smoke and fumes and rubble.

However, if you are an anointed “VIP,” as India’s public servants are called, you are whisked away through a plush private terminal to a private parking lot and into your car, all within minutes. Public servants don’t even wait for their bags; there are flunkies to retrieve them and deliver them to your house along the VIP route into Lutyens Delhi of the smooth, wide, tree-lined boulevards with flowering rotaries, manicured parks and expansive villas.

In stark contrast, the taxpaying citizen has to endure subhuman conditions in the terminal and bump along cratered tracks that pass for roads and deal with seriously demented drivers who whiz through the non-VIP parts of the capital as if possessed by demons. It is apparent that you have landed in one of the world’s least developed countries: Incredible India!

You get angry at the rank disparity. In America, things work smoothly for ordinary citizens. Yes, the economy is flagging and people are finding it tough to get or hold on to jobs. But the cities and communities are pleasant and there is a heady rush of egalitarianism in the very air. The entire political and bureaucratic setup in America is geared single-mindedly to the welfare of citizens. The accent on public service is pronounced and evident.

In India, you can have a top job or a fortune as a businessman but unless you are in the VIP zone of the cities and towns, you may not have reliable electric power, adequate water supply and any sanitation at all. Those who can afford it make their private arrangements; the rest suffer. Just in recent days, when it rained consecutively for two days, the capital was submerged. Questioned, a VIP dismissed the water logging and the traffic jams as an act of nature, a result of the heavy rains; he seemed criminally unaware of the problems people faced getting around the city. In his Lutyens Delhi, there is no flooding, light traffic and your workplace is but a pleasant drive of a few minutes.

This disparate order makes the chaos of India not just irksome but menacing. It is as though the system milks the ordinary individual who has a job or business to provide for the VIP. The random but deadly civil disturbances that plague India are spontaneous expressions of civic anger against the system that barely makes room for the middle class, leave alone marginal groups.

In huge swathes of India, the most deprived people have fallen sway to Maoist ideology and have taken to violence. No political party, not the hydra-headed government agencies, not the self-righteous NGOs can control them. Such civil violence will increase in frequency and scope as more and more citizens begin to see the disparity: not just the gap between rich and poor but between the privileged and the rest.

In the past few years, the elite have bought into the notion that India is set to emerge as a world power. Nothing belies the claim so comprehensively than the question mark that hangs over the staging of the Commonwealth Games next year. The controversy has shown up the Potemkin state, a cheap cardboard cutout fashioned by bureaucrats and politicians to fool themselves into believing the world power fantasy.

You don’t have to look too hard to see beyond the Potemkin mirage: dysfunctional highways and airports; garbage strewn cities and hapless villages; deadly traffic and pervasive pollution; the poverty of civic values and the sheer indignity of the human condition.

The slogan “Incredible India!” cuts both ways: one, the Potemkin way that the government intended; two, it is incredible that a modern 21st century democracy with one of the fastest growing economies in the world is in such a shambles.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Times of India, November 16, 2009.

copyright Rajiv Desai 2009