For sure, India is different!
Anyone who has spent some time in India has found it difficult to box the Indians into any of the acknowledged stereotypes. Indians are just Indians, not Asians, Arabians, Americans, Europeans or Latinos.
For the less travelled and innocent foreigner, the difference is immediately noticed in the diversity in anything he sees in India. Be it infrastructure, tax laws, wealth distribution, availability of healthcare, governance, language, cuisine or the way we drive, in everything one sees easily the gaps or lack of homogeneity. Some of the diversity is explained by the fact that India is still a developing country. Most of us (the educated professionals) believe that economic development will finally usher in a panacea for a lot that ails our current state of civilisation. But, for those who spent some time working with India and are curious rather than being judgemental, they could sense a palpable difference in the way Indians approach anything in life. They could put their fingers on something that could be only captured in the envelope of philosophy or the Indian way of life. And this is about opinions, intentions, hope, efforts and future. The present is just not as important as it is expected to be. The approach to what apparently sits on our nose-tips, always appears too chaotic. Indians just don’t know how to keep things simple, we make everything so complicated!
Indians do not find it easy to say ‘no’ to anyone or anything. They just accept anything that comes to them and ‘try’ to do their ‘best’. For foreigners who come to India to do business or live in this country for some time, they find it very difficult to understand the meaning of what is ‘commitment’ by an Indian. Not only our common response of an ‘Ok’ or a sideways nod is seen as a ‘yes’, our trying to do our best is mostly understood as delivery short of the commitment they apparently received. Outsiders do not understand that we have the ‘best’ intentions and are making our ‘best’ efforts. Not before it is a bit too late, we grudgingly accept that our yes was taken as a ‘commitment’ to deliver by a set time or date. They do not understand the most important thing for us is to be honest internally to our intentions. We Indians appear to live a lot of our communication inside our minds. We talk to ourselves more than to the outsider. We argue internally and are searching for internal rationalisation while the train has left the station.
I wonder if this has something to do with our theological or spiritual moorings, where the famous shloka from Gita, ‘Karmanye-vadhikaraste ma faleshu kadachana’ somehow grows roots in our psyche as we grow up. Even the nearest translation of the above shloka in English, ‘You have the Right to Work only, but never to its Fruits …’ does not entirely communicate what the original Sanskrit is supposed to say. Hinduism, a way of life derived from the ancient epics carried forward by word of mouth over millennia and then recorded as stories or dialogues leaves one to figure out what to do and does not motivate anyone by the fruits of his labour. As a common Indian that is all I understand about the way of life I was born into and grew up with. On the other hand, it is also true that motivation theory as explained by Maslow as late as 1943 is equally applicable to all or most Indians (definitely to me!). This leaves Indians always in a state of paradox – to go by his Karma or get seduced by the Fruits that our actions may produce.
I guess living the above paradox is the quintessential reason for India being experienced as a chaotic society.
A paradox cannot be broken into two parts. One needs to live with it as a whole. Indian philosophy teaches us to be driven by Karma, by making a Choice and living with it, while Maslow explains that man is naturally driven by unfulfilled needs and only fruits or the results could fulfil that. Hence, we are a society that is and perennially will be debating, intending, opinionating and finally deciding, changing, suffering, enjoying, and even accepting all that touches our lives. We will always be open to difference and try it, pursue it but will pull back once we find it straining against our ethos, our moorings. As long as that goes on, we will remain Indian, distinct from the other stereotypes but ever enthusiastic to try and make our best efforts with anything new or different. For some of us, this tension may become too much and we may try to subsume our ‘selves’ into one of the available stereotypes, only to repent as we grow older and handle the variety of responsibilities in life.
But, philosophy is probably only the beginning of why India stands out as different to any other country in the world. When one looks into the socio-economic history of this country and its recentness, one may find even more important causality for what we see happening in the civilisation we live in today.
India became a ‘country’ literally overnight, just 67 years back. That is really young as a country. Combine that with the fact that 50% of India’s population today is under the age of 25 and you have a society that is obviously in the making and not in the baking oven. We could go back shortly into a bit of history to track the changes that affects our civilisation even today. Throughout the last millennium, while disease, trade and commerce and wars for economic power were evening out wealth and power distribution in Europe and the Americas, India continued to be the only sweet spot being sucked dry by feudalism and foreign rulers. There is no country in the world whose people had to be serfs under almost 600 little kings at the mercy or patronage of a couple of foreign powers for several centuries till as recently as the 1940s.
While parliaments, government and democracy in Britain evolved over seven centuries to ‘govern’ the English and the Scots, India remained a colony to be merely extracted from for the latter half of that period. The English East India Company spent the 17th century trying to establish a monopoly over the valuable exports from India till their ‘monopoly’ was defeated in the British parliament due to growing petitions from the English textile manufacturers. This led to the collapse of the textile industry in India. In the 18th century the Company developed India as a ‘part of a continental empire in Asia’ under the master strategist, Robert Clive. First expanding in Bengal after vanquishing the local kings through the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764) the Company took over the Mughal ruler’s taxation institutions with an even more intensified zeal. It drove the Indians into famines and penury with forced de-urbanisation and cultivation of what they could export, primarily opium and indigo. For the next 150 years, India languished as a colony practically under the ‘British Raj’. Almost two thirds of the country later known as India was ruled by the Indian (British) Civil Service under the Governor General and the rest through feudal ‘Rajahs’ under the control of British Residents. The Rajahs and the British Raj were in the same game as any feudalistic power anywhere else in the world – Extraction through taxation by force!
India finally got ‘disinvested’ after the 2nd World War with the British balance sheet bleeding profusely due to social and economic devastation. Militant revolt by the Indians in the armed and police forces in India since the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny and later the Quit India movement by a dedicated urban political leadership educated in England did not anymore justify the Opex and ROI in India.
Feudal India under British Raj – 1947
Politically, India catapulted overnight into a democracy from a feudal land of multiple kingdoms. In Western Europe, feudalism withered away by the 17th century thanks to critical events like the Black Death, rise of traders and commerce, development of economic institutions and finally the Industrial revolution. India as a land was ruled till its independence in 1947 by a 3-Tier power hierarchy, the Zamindars (vassals), the kings and the ‘British Raj’. The polity of India while under feudalism and British Raj meanwhile practiced all the three principal religions of this world. Does it sound chaotic as a case study to be taken over for governance in the 20th century, in the 1950s? I would have considered that almost catastrophic. Luckily for the new rulers, the Indian polity was quite naïve at that time with over 95% still ensconced in agrarian rural society with scant awareness about the rights or responsibilities of a citizen in a civilised or democratic India.
The world over, most democratic countries evolved in line with natural logic over centuries. After man learnt to exploit natural resources, the need to acquire, accumulate and protect the same became paramount. Feudalism came to roost with power and the right to rule vested in those having control over the same resources. Families with more number of hands, tribes and communities led by the one who controlled the most resources became the mother crystal of a ‘civilised’ society. Even in the 21st century, this has only got extrapolated as the underlying basis for power and influence for states, nations and corporations. Man’s pursuit for more whether out of insecurity or greed has led to the same result, a divide between the haves and the have-nots, to use an almost forgotten communist cliché. Why communism failed to survive as a form of governance is simply because it dared to ask man to lead his life within and not beyond his basic needs!
Surplus for the landed led to trade and commerce and drew a lot of people into trading centres to be labelled as towns, where land and what it produced became the basis of the society that developed. Black coated law ‘brokers’, accountants, menial workers and traders even today dot most of the traffic in Indian towns. The landed now employed the landless to till their lands or work for their assets in ‘villages’ and towns. Wealth and surplus aided by resultant leisure led to other rewards like mobility, exposure to diversity and education. A lifestyle evolved out of the habits and accoutrements of such townspeople typified by their sartorial & social behaviour – to give rise to a new dudish class representing the landed.
In 1947, a dudish but civilised leadership epitomised by Nehru gleefully took over the reigns of independent India and inherited the British governmental machinery with its fixed and human assets that had the habits of working for a colonial ruler for more than a century. The political leadership wore their soft intellectual hearts on their sleeves, a hangover from the freedom struggle led by those like Gandhi who shed his sartorial tastes in empathy with the millions of peasants toiling every day for the landed feudal lords. The civilised leadership was educated, trained and installed under the patronage of the British rulers. The likes of Netaji had either been martyred or traded off as settlement against getting the right to rule an ‘uncivilised’ India. Nehru and his ilk were respected by the unaware but overwhelming majority primarily due to their justifiable claim in having negotiated independence from the British. They successfully seduced the innocent and gullible multitudes with their elitist bouquet facilitated by the romantic sentiments of the hopeful. Almost the whole of India was agrarian back then, barring some specks of industry that the British and their Indian partners had set up for their own supply chain requirements. Exceptions to the rule like the Tatas were too few to wield any influence on the narcissistic tendencies of the new rulers of India. Even Gandhi had succumbed to the wiles and guile of the narcissist.
They bought Democracy off the shelf from the British and installed a Constitution that is one of the best in the world even today. The institutions of democracy were put in place but the economics of a feudalistic society controlled the wheels of governance. Trade, commerce, industrialisation, and unfettered capitalism preceded the practice of any democratic society worldwide. Western Europe, USA, Japan, South Korea all went through that route but the first nation builders of India chose Socialism instead. Maybe even that choice had something to do with Indian philosophy that chooses to ignore Abraham Maslow’s explanation of human motivation.
Socialism, based upon social welfare for the needy or deprived has become an inherent part of every modern democracy. But, it can only act as a serving spoon once enough wealth has been created. Capitalism has unfortunately proven to be the only ism that can create wealth fuelled by the natural drivers of the human psyche as explained by Maslow. Survival needs, comparative supremacy, knowledge and much later self-actualisation rules human motivation unchallenged in all parts of the world. India or Indians are no exception. In all parts of the developed world, Capitalism and exploitation was followed by Democracy and Socialism. In India, the dudish leadership brought in democracy but used Socialism as a balm for the poor and deprived. Wealth remained concentrated in the hands of the landed few, the patrons who came to indirectly rule India ironically in line with the democratic principles guaranteed by the Constitution. The landless and those with a marginal existence were not only poor but illiterate. For centuries they were used to the life of a serf under the landed few. Democracy was (and even today is) a piece of chocolate that they were not aware of as their right or reward.
India, a land of benign climate and ample natural resources somehow lumbered along with the status quo unchallenged till as late as 1991 when 34 years of democratically elected dudish governments brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Teetering on the precipice of insolvency, the govt. of the landed turned to professionals for a change and the country was grudgingly opened up to liberalisation and entrepreneurship. Unlike most of the countries we Indians travel to or get exposed to, India remained an agrarian economy till the 90s. Even today, over 50% of Indians live off agriculture. A large divide between the landed and the landless continues to be the basis for India’s politics, economy and the state of civilisation.
As per 2011 census, only 10% of the 543 parliamentary constituencies in India were urban. No wonder, in ‘modern’ India, the landed dudish prefer to sport white kurta pyajamas and ethnic winter wear. The graphic below (published in 2012), courtesy McKinsey illustrates the ‘civilised’ India we live in, painfully scripted and created by the dudish elite over 67 years of politics based upon nurturing and exploiting religious, caste and regional divide.
Indian civilisation or society seems to be in a deep churn and changing pretty fast. Maslow’s motivation theory apparently drives more and more Indians today than Gita’s teachings. Thanks to the liberalisation and growth of the Services sector since the 90s coupled with lack of industrialisation (sic!) of the Agriculture sector, India is no longer divided between the starkly rural and urban society. The rate of urbanisation has gone up to around 33% today with another 40% in transition mode. 54% of the 800m mobile phone subscribers in India are NOT from urban India. 60% of Indian households have TV sets; they do not all live in the few teeming metropolises of this country. India must be the only country in the world to have ~800 TV Channels with half of them streaming news in all major Indian languages. During 2002 – 2012, the GDP grew @ 7.7% because of a surge in private Investment and rapid growth in household consumption not in government spending. Private entrepreneurship and venture capital romances daily in urban India while the middle class is rabidly aspirational and getting more and more global. Middle class incomes have multiplied three to four folds in the last 12 years. And thanks to Indian philosophy you rarely meet anybody in India who is not hopeful.
This is not the gullible and innocent agrarian India that can be ruled by the landed neo-feudalists masquerading as Socialists. It does seem to me that today’s India is quite close to actually enjoying the fruits of a democratic civilisation where capitalism and industrialisation has to create wealth and governance has to judiciously redistribute the same through taxation and investments in infrastructure, education and healthcare. Doles, charity and philanthropy can only make the wealthy sleep peacefully not create sustained growth for the deprived. Creating avenues for Karam or Work that is valued by another is the Karma of the political leadership. I have no doubts that Individuals and households will find their balance between Maslow’s motivational drivers and their own Karma. We will manage our Indian-ness or decide to get subsumed into some global cross breed, if there could ever be one.
‘All power is within you; You can do anything and everything’ – Swami Vivekananda