Time: 6 PM
Date: January 26th, 2021
It’s been an intense day. Had lots of classes and seminars. But the most interesting one was the class on poverty. There was an article on IITs too- around the ever-burning issue of meritocracy vs reservation (will save this for some other day).
Anyway, for the Republic Day, I had planned on doing quite a few things- writing an article on what all is going well in India, an event around India’s growth story with my LSE Indian friends and some good food for the celebration.
I really wanted to look into the positive side of the Indian story- overarching all the issues, India has made rapid strides in a lot of fields which need to be celebrated too. Infrastructure, digitization, start-up ecosystem- there are a lot of sectors where India has registered impressive growth. The article, the event was all supposed to be centred around this- “The positive side of the Indian story.”
But when I woke up, all I found on news channels was the farmers’ protests, and how a part of it had gone violent. The ongoing two-month long farmers’ agitation had become slightly off the track, with the proposed ‘Tractor Rally’ (like the Republic Day parade) getting out of control.
Protestors were seen hoisting a flag atop the Red Fort. As always, political pundits chose their sides and spoke accordingly. There were scenes of chaos, anger, agitation, vandalism, confusion, allegations all over. Even the glimpses of the Republic Day parade didn’t get much media coverage, leave alone development stories about India.
This was exactly the case last year in Delhi when the country was the hotbed of Anti-CAA politics. Shaheen Bagh had taken over the national rhetoric, and all that the country discussed during that time was CAA-NRC. Lawlessness and pandemonium everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not commenting on the intentions/correctness of these protests (in fact if you have followed me enough, you would know my stand on both these issues well). But as a proud Indian, I do want to hear some success stories of my country too. I mean a country of a billion does deserve moments of celebration and pride, right? And days like 26th January are supposed to be for commemorating Indian triumphs. But alas, it was not the case this time. Again.
All my enthusiasm was drained out. What exactly is there to feel proud about, huh? The country is in chaos and has been in for the last 6 years. India has become a bitterly divided nation, where clashing ideologies have polarized people beyond imagination. Everyone has chosen a team, and no one is ready to listen to the other.
Discussions have been replaced with fights, disagreements have been replaced with allegations. Differences have been aggravated into fault lines, the Opposition is being met with subversion. Politics has crept into our policies, demagogues have taken over on the entire political spectrum.
The police, media and judiciary are being increasingly used as political tools. There is no place for constructive criticism, for opposing policies, for questioning the government anymore. The arguments have been coerced with the rhetoric of nationalism, making it worse. Either you are with the government, or you are anti-national. Our economy has been in bad shape for quite some time. Our exports are falling, investments have stagnated. Our growth numbers, even pre-COVID have been dismal. The unemployment rate has been the highest ever.
With these thoughts occupying my mind, the Republic Day celebrations started anyhow. Almost everyone in the group seemed exasperated with the state of affairs in the country. But somehow, I convinced myself to push everyone to only talk positive.
As a part of the event, I boisterously asked everyone to talk about three things, the key one being “one success story which keeps them optimistic about the Indian story.” Taking the ‘organizer’s advantage’, I made everyone answer this, without having an answer for myself. I thought that while others speak, I would remember at least one story which keeps me hopeful.
Although, at some point, the inner me just wanted to shout- “Let’s leave this, guys. India is in turmoil, and I don’t see much hope.” But as people talked about their stories- the efforts of villagers and government school-teachers in implementing SMC model in Telangana, the democratic success of the country, the successful vaccination drive- I got my answers, which propelled me to write this article.
I want to use this article as a shoutout to everyone, who like me, don’t see themselves associated with an ideology (my affiliation with AAP would make some think that I am lying. But does anyone know me more than myself?). I have always believed in loyalty towards the nation and not with an ideology/political party. To all such people, I want to say today, just hang in there. I know it all looks a bit gloomy right now. I know this is not the India we love. But just hang in there. There is something really idiosyncratic about this country which should make us optimistic about its future. Something just Indian.
When we decided to go with a democratic model of governance in 1947, political pundits declared India as a future failed state. Churchill said- “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre & men of straw. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India.”
It was expected that India would break up into more independent nations, or dictatorship would soon take over. Odds were stacked against us in all the political circles. We were expected to drown in an ocean of chaos and anarchy.
India continues to be the largest democracy in the world, as well as one of the longest functioning. Our free and fair elections are globally recognized, and political representation in the country continues to be equitable and representative.
Our institutions, albeit a bit compromised at times, still stand strong. India has become a shining example of democracy and how countries can prosper against a democratic backdrop. A lot of countries which democratized in the 1960s were soon transformed as authoritarian states. Many of them have had at best inconsistent chapters of democracy. But India hasn’t. We have managed to stay a true democracy. As my professor at LSE said, “Indian democratic story doesn’t fit in any of the existing theories. There’s something more to it.”
When Indira Gandhi declared an emergency in 1975, the entire state was turned into an authoritarian one. Press freedom was sacked, political opponents were jailed. Freedom of speech and expression, the key pillars of democracy went for a toss. The state came down heavily on any form of dissent. Civil liberties were curbed, and several human rights violations (like the forced sterilization campaign) were recorded.
All this had been preceded by a dismal growth rate. Foreign businesses couldn’t enter India, domestic ones were incompetent. This combined with an emergency signalled a permanent shift to a dictatorial state.
Indira Gandhi lost her elections. It was for the first time Congress had been ousted from the government. The Morarji Desai Government became the first non-Congress government, securing a massive majority of 298 seats. It passed constitutional amendments significantly reducing the arbitrary powers being given to the Prime Minister.
In 1991, the fledgeling economy led to a balance of payments crisis. There was a time when India had foreign exchange reserves only for three weeks’ worth of import. The government couldn’t pass the fiscal budget. It came close to defaulting on its own financial obligations. All this forced the government to mortgage its gold reserves. Gold was air-lifted to banks in England and Scotland so that India could take a loan from the World Bank or the IMF. It almost seemed like the final nail in the coffin.
We opened our markets. Liberalization happened. India’s credit ratings improved, investors now saw India as a pool of opportunities, ready to rise and grow. Not only did we survive, we soon became the fastest growing economy in the world. 1991 is no more regarded as a year of economic crisis- it is remembered as a year of landmark transformations in India’s economy. A year when India turned a crisis into an opportunity.
More recently, around 2010, the country had been dumbstruck with the number of 0s in 3G, and Coal-gate scam. Every month we had some new story of corruption. The massive commonwealth games scandal with estimated pilferage of about ~$15billion was a major shame for the country, for it brought the menace of corruption out in international media. The growth story of India looked like coming to an end. There was hopelessness all around.
People came down protesting on the streets. India witnessed one of its biggest protests in recent times under the banner of India Against Corruption. The images of an old Gandhian, Anna Hazare fasting in the Ramlila maidan caught the imagination of young India. The protests garnered support from across the political spectrum. The anti-corruption protests not only resulted in a crushing defeat for the Congress in following general elections, but it also led to the establishment of a new political party. A party which has now won 3 back-to-back elections in Delhi.
Fast forward 2020. COVID rocked the world. And India, with its dismal health infrastructure, dense population, poor testing infrastructure looked like the ultimate loser in the pandemic. In an apparent jibe at India’s governance system, the former Goldman Sachs chief economist said, “Thank God this didn’t start in somewhere like India because there’s absolutely no way that the quality of Indian governance could move to react in the way that the Chinese have done.”
A lot of international development organizations expected mayhem in India, predicting that the health system would soon crumble and the entire country would collapse. Not only would people die from COVID, but there would also be far more casualties because of an unprecedented economic recession which would follow.
We survived the pandemic. Not only did we have one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, but we have also been able to produce our own vaccine. We have mass-produced vaccines for the world and are distributing a lot of these free to the poor nations. Indian vaccine diplomacy has garnered international accolades. We have been hailed for reaching out to poor countries in times when every country cared just about itself.
Look at India’s history post-1947- there is plenty of evidence of this very peculiar quality unique to India. The quality of surviving the worst and better, bouncing back strongly. The quality of fighting the odds when no one expects you to. The quality of staying put when no believes you can. The quality of facing monumental obstacles every now and then, and yet standing straight. Indian resilience is one of the most fascinating but lesser talked about phenomenon in the world. The Indian story of defying the odds. A charismatic story in itself.
So how, or better asked, why does this happen? A lot of people call it an act of God. In the language of one of my seniors, “हमारे देश पर रब दी मेहर है” (Our country has the blessing of the almighty).
That we have been blessed to survive. Until last March, this is what I believed in too. That maybe this is all just India’s destiny. But working in the Delhi COVID management team during the first wave changed it all. It gave me answers. The answer to Indian resilience. The answer to why I won’t ever lose hope in India.
Delhi had been witnessing one of the highest caseloads in the country. Highly dense slums, international passenger fleet, open borders didn’t help us. South-East Delhi, where I was posted had been at the wrath of massive case explosion after the Markaz building (which fell in South-East Delhi) was found to be housing at least a 1000 positive cases.
There was intense pressure, for every single decision was being directly reported by the mainstream media. We had been working 7 days a week since the second lockdown without fail. But the situation kept deteriorating. Then finally, there was a day in June when the South-East Delhi district reported ~500 cases, the highest ever during that time. On the same day, we were informed that half of our office staff had tested COVID positive.
This included the calling team members who were responsible for calling the patients, taking their medical details and most importantly, allocating them to the right medical facility. It was a mixture of doctors and teachers. Members of data entry team tested positive too- they were responsible for feeding the details of each patient back into the system which in turn was crucial for the central team to track down the unreachable patients and keep a central track of case-load and facility-wise status. In short, two of the most critical teams in South-East Delhi COVID-19 management had collapsed.
I went back to my flat exhausted, thinking that there would be a mayhem tomorrow, for we neither had the calling team nor the data entry team left to work. Months of fighting the battle had finally been lost, I felt. The statistics resonated with my feelings. The situation would soon go out of hands, and ultimately there would be a bloodbath in Delhi, and in India.
I didn’t want to go to the office the next day. I didn’t want to be part of a collapse. But somehow gathered the courage. Back in the office was an image that has stayed in my mind forever.
The District Surveillance Officer had overnight managed to get a team of doctors, a few of them quite senior in their age and hierarchy. She herself picked up a list and started calling patients. The administrative manager got hold of a few teachers to do the data entry. My immediate boss, an inspiring bureaucrat (and a fellow IIT alumnus) had reached early in the morning and was personally overseeing the entire operations.
Everyone was tired, but everyone was fighting. Fighting their hearts out. The entire team didn’t leave the office till late evening. The DSO herself, who was already working 7 days a week went back at 10 PM. This went on for a few weeks until help arrived. That has been the learning for me about the Indian story. Why do we survive, and more often than not, bounce back like champions? It is not a miracle. It is not someone’s blessings either.
It is a product of those unsung heroes who keep going about their jobs, come what may. They are never celebrated, the world doesn’t know them. They don’t come on TV channels every night, they aren’t the stars of the country. They don’t have any personal motives, nor do they gain anything monetarily/politically. They are not hungry of power, nor do they have greed for money. They don’t care about their legacy or individual glory. They just keep going about their work. They keep the system up and running. They keep the structure intact. They keep fighting for us. They keep protecting the country. They are the fabricators of Indian resilience. They keep India going.
During COVID, the best in the world crumbled, but India fought it out. There were these warriors all around me. The SDM who stayed awake for 72 hours to ensure that Markaz patients were evacuated and treated fairly, or the ADM who stayed on railway stations to ensure the safe passage of migrants.
The policemen who guarded the gated societies of COVID patients on an 18-hour duty (in scorching Delhi heat), or the CRPF Jawaan who faced thousands of migrants on the roads. The doctor who took it on herself to ensure that the health management system didn’t collapse, or the bureaucrat who learnt pivot table overnight to make decisions analytically.
The college senior who re-prioritized his solar panel focused start-up to make ventilators, or the lady in Delhi government who ensured that no one in Delhi went hungry. The journalist who stayed on roads for months to cover the plight of migrants or the friend who crowdsourced money for transporting the labourers back to their home. All heroes without capes. Fighting for India.
I am sorry if you have read this far only to realise that my article has no story of some developmental success or an economic miracle, but just a mere recognition of some human combatants. But that’s what India is all about- some lunatic fighters, hidden behind the chaos, silently going about their work. India is not just the land of the Gandhis and the Nehrus who led us in times of darkness.
India is also the land of the warriors who are fighting after Gandhi and Nehru left. They have always been there. They will ensure that India never fails. They will ensure that India survives all the chaos and comes back stronger every time. They will keep the Indian story going.
These people are the reason why India, despite all the madness, chaos and anarchy which currently dominates our lives, would continue to move ahead. These people are the reason why I wake up every day, positive about India’s future. These people are the reason why I won’t ever lose hope in India.
Dedicated to all the unsung heroes of India, who are out there, fighting for us.