“India is changing all the time,” said Shekhar Gupta in his keynote address Understanding India in Transition for the 2016 Dhahan Lecture series presented by Carleton’s Canada-India Centre for Excellence. Choosing 1991 as a cutoff point, he illustrated how the past 25 years in India’s history have seen a transition in Indian society, economy, politics and the larger Indian world view.
Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao’s government, elected in 1991 following a balance of payments crisis, ushered in an era of far-reaching economic reform that raised the country’s self-esteem and changed the way India looked at the world, including understanding that India could not join the emerging global economic and political order if it continued to consider the West an enemy. “Today you have reached the culmination of this process,” said Gupta, “where you have an Indian prime minister go to Capitol Hill and say we are essential strategic allies.”
Over a quarter century of economic reform, the country has seen increasing political division and instability, but also increasing growth, which is evident today. “It has made India not just the second fastest-growing nation, but the most consistently growing economy in the world,” said Gupta.
Shekhar Gupta: Encouraging Indian populace to be aspirational
The resulting social forces unleashed — free speech, democracy, availability of information — have encouraged the Indian populace to become more aspirational, ambitious and political. Gupta pointed to the 2014 election results of how Indian society has changed, which gave India its first genuine government of the Indian nationalist right. Indians have great pride for current prime minister Narendra Modi, who has garnered more media than any Indian since the Gandhis. Modi has pushed India in the direction of social right, but not sufficiently in the direction of economic right, according to Gupta.
Today, the gap between rural and urban is narrowing due to the availability of affordable smartphones; the mobility enabled by the motorbike; and the availability of cheap private college education, which has afforded social mobility. As a result, cities and villages are voting the same, people are breaking through barriers of caste and parents in villages have the same expectations for their children as those in cities.
It is imperative that India’s growth remains at 7%, said Gupta in closing, as anything less would be destabilizing. It will be a test of the country’s politicians to understand, manage and harness the change of Indian society in the right direction. The current government — not great with vision, but great at implementation, said Gupta — has an intellectual deficit in dealing with this complex society and will be tested.
“I’m hoping, as an optimist, that as growth picks up as more jobs come in, I think you will see a surge of India’s economy and Indian society,” concluded Shekhar Gupta.