IAN Jack is a distinguished British journalist who lived in India for extended periods in the early and late '80s. He currently edits the prestigious literary magazine Granta and can be classified as a 24-carat India-lover. Returning to Delhi recently after an absence of a few years, he was asked if he noticed any change. "Yes," he said, "my Indian friends don't ask me to bring things from London any more." He then lamented how his beloved land was falling prey to a dreaded American communicable disease: consumerism.
The bazaars are indeed full and it is not only fat women from Samarkand with even fatter bags buying up the mind-boggling array of goodies displayed. From shampoos to whiskies to computer chips to motor cars to hamburgers—everything traded in the West is now on sale at your friendly neighbourhood store. Is 1996 the year Planet India joined Planet World? Are we finally part of the global village? And is this late entry into the coveted club a matter for unqualified celebration?
Before we get into a Huntington-type civilisational debate on whether India is in danger of losing its soul to Hershey's Chocolate Sauce, let us single out the defining moments of 1996. I select two. First, Michael Jackson doing what he does best in Mumbai. Second, a former prime minister in the witness box at a special court signing his bail papers. Curiously, both these moments were interlinked and they add weight to the Outlook cover theme—which is that India today is no longer a country on the margins, forever on the receiving end and persisting with discredited dogmas. It takes both courage and humility to admit that we travelled along the wrong path in the '60s, '70s and '80s. Growing up is a painful process. India (thank God!) is not Singapore, but we must accept that even a nation where not flushing the loo is a penal offence, has some lessons to teach.
In a society which still holds Gandhi, Nehru, Azad, Patel as role models, it is no surprise that public life represents service at its highest and the politician at work represents public duty at its highest. Alas, 1996 was the year which shattered that myth terminally. We always knew our politicians as a class were corrupt and incompetent, but the scale.... Whew! Whatever else happens in the years to come, the entrant into public life will henceforth be viewed with extreme prejudice by the citizens of this republic. He will be presumed guilty unless over a sustained period he can prove his credentials.
Overkill? Excess? No. In Planet World, on which we have confidently trod, politicians never had a Gandhian halo. They were always perceived as crooks requiring Z-category surveillance. Whether it is Italy or Japan or South Korea, or Bill Clinton in the White House with his real estate deals, the global politician is actually brother to Narasimha Rao, Madan Lal Khurana, Jayalalitha and Sukh Ram. And his standing among the citizenry is mud. (Opinion polls in the West consistently reveal that politicians run close to pimps and prostitutes in public esteem.) So, in 1996 if the scales fell from our eyes and we saw our netas naked, there is no compunction to feel uniquely cursed. As Indira Gandhi observed of poverty, crooked politicians are a global phenomenon. Indeed, we should be grateful that realism has replaced reverence.
The new realism should actually be seen as a boon. Even more than gunny bags, the politician values survival. The sight of countless colleagues in handcuffs getting into and out of police vans must have a chastening effect. In the past the price of corruption was low, with a fair chance that ill-gotten loot could be stashed away without fear of detection. Now, with the common man, the courts and the media working in tandem, the price of corruption is high, with a fair chance that ill-gotten loot will be detected sooner rather than later.
Multiple benefits could accrue. One, Sukh Ram and his ilk, if not converted to rectitude (one should not expect miracles), will at least become more circumspect, exercising both caution and restraint when fingers begin to itch. Second, it is likely that people who see public life as a means of growing rich quickly may think of other professions such as pick-pocketing, ransom-hunting and dacoity. Whatever their choice, the country will gain.
As far as India losing its soul is concerned, the fear is exaggerated, unless, of course, friends (both native and foreign) who urge us to remain pure and uncontaminated by worldly desires prefer us impoverished and deprived. But then they heap scorn on us, saying we are enervated and mediocre. Worse, karma obsessed: the poor man in his hut and the rich man in his five-bedroom, Scotch-filled penthouse. Poverty may look pretty on picture postcards and could conceivably be turned into a tourist attraction, but it is neither comfortable nor dignified.
Moreover, those who worry about our character and culture underestimate India's assimilative powers. For 2,000 years and more—much before Kentucky Fried Chicken made world-wide invasions—we displayed an extraordinary capacity to absorb and prosper: armies, religions, dynasties, cuisines, languages, customs. You name it, we absorbed it. Gandhiji's warning to keep the windows of the house open so that winds from all corners could blow through without the house being blown away, is most pertinent.
REMEMBER, besides chicken tikka (statistics reveal this is the most popular dish in Britain), India is famous for propounding the theory of the 'middle-path'. The latest instance of the theory being McDonald's. This transnational, like Coca-Cola, is the number one symbol of cultural corruption; wherever it goes Yankee degeneration follows. Some months ago, McDonald's first outlet opened in Delhi; the queues made headlines and watching people line up became a spectator sport. As the police tried to keep the hordes in check, an agitated newspaper letter-writer (S.N. Tripathi) saw the entry of McDonald's as a coup de grace. The death knell for Indian civilisation had been sounded.
Last week, I found myself outside the infamous eatery. There were no queues; the police had disappeared. The frenzy was missing. The place hadn't closed down either. Inside, normal business was being conducted with an average number of customers. Next door, the idli-dosa, butter-chicken Nirula's, which the doomsdayers had prophesised would lock up, was also doing normal business. Thus McDonald's was absorbed Memo to Ian Jack: The Indian soul is safe.