September 29, 2015

Ashok Desai on The art of selling India

The Telegraph, September 29 , 2015

The art of selling India
- The country could become the best show on earth
Writing on the wall - Ashok V. Desai

Narendra Modi has surprised his countrymen in one respect. The Bharatiya Janata Party has the reputation of being a 'nationalist', in another word, a parochial, party. Its gurudom, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is best known for the way its members dress when they get together: in khaki shorts, with a stick long enough for a fight. They do not mix easily with other Indians. Since the latter do not know how swayamsevaks decided to adopt such a juvenile dress for their uniform, they are prone to make fun of them. The latter do have a better reputation than more muscular members of their family, like the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. But it would not be unfair to say that the BJP and its family members are known to other Indians for their exclusivity and hostility towards those who differ with them - a reputation that some of them reinforce from time to time by their attacks on those who think, talk or dress as they like, transgressing the prejudices of the RSS. After coming to power, they have removed those whose intellectual views they disliked from official institutions, and replaced them with people better known for their faith than knowledge. Knowledge is what survives after every sceptic has tried to demolish it with facts and arguments. The BJP has placed people at the head of institutions who have never participated in this game. The purification is not perfect; scientists have been left alone to shoot rockets at the moon or drill holes in Antarctica. It is only social scientists that are being cleared out because they want evidence before they can believe that ancient Hindus could cut the trunk off an elephant and replace a boy's nose with it. The Hindu mythic family is an exclusivist one which does not make it easy for others to live with it.

And the leading member of this family has gone abroad and urged foreigners - Christians, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists - to come and set up industry in India. That is not irrational; he could argue that religious belief is irrelevant to someone's manufacturing skills. He could also be pretty sure that few foreign industrialists would bring explicit religious views with them, and that even fewer of them would make a show of them. Nowadays, many people, especially in the West, have replaced religion with entertainment, which they can indulge in privately. Maybe, some of them would like to get together over beef and scotch; maybe, they will be allowed to do so everywhere except in Maharashtra. But other states retain the right to be as arbitrary as Maharashtra. No doubt, questions over taboos and social life must be in the minds of those whom the prime minister is courting; they will find India a lot more attractive for them if he can reassure them that they will be able to enjoy their luxuries and social lives wherever they set up shop in India.

This is not the first time the problem has arisen; it arose before, and solutions were found. Medieval cities had mohallas in which foreigners of a particular ilk gathered and did what they liked. The British perfected this solution. Wherever they decided to settle in India, they appropriated land outside the old city, divided it into large rectangular plots, and built spacious bungalows surrounded by gardens. Such civil lines survive in Delhi, Bhatinda, Bareilly, Kanpur, Agra, Jhansi, Jaipur, and many other cities. Some Englishmen must have left with regrets; one even haunts the bungalow on 33 Alipur Road, a Delhi road typically renamed after an eminently forgettable post-British politician, Sham Nath.

That was a century ago. Those lovely bungalows are all appropriated; some are still owned by governments and occupied by their servants, some acquired by rich men and converted into villas, some torn down and replaced by horrid modern architecture. They are no longer available for the new flood of foreigners that the prime minister's repeated invitations may unleash.

So if he is serious, the prime minister will have to build new cities for those foreigners. It is not worth accommodating them in existing cities, which are too crowded, noisy and expensive to acquire land in. So are the present industrial estates; new industries had best be built in new areas. Since foreigners will be working in them, they may as well be accommodated in those areas. In other words, when the prime minister starts pencilling in new foreign industrial estates into the map of India, he may well combine them with new foreign cities.

If foreigners flock into the new cities, Indians will not be far behind. India is still a country of cheap labour; though chuprassies and punkah-wallahs have receded into history, drivers and ayahs will still be in demand. Then there will be the co-workers and collaborators of foreigners. And there will be Indians who want to enjoy the same luxuries as foreigners; since racism cannot be revived, they cannot be kept out of the foreigners' cities. But it is not necessary to let them swamp the cities; reservation is an Indian innovation - known nowadays as the caste system - and can be applied to these cities as well. To safeguard the cultural integrity of the new foreign cities, the share of Indians may be fixed at the old reservation share of 22.5 per cent. Within this quota, priority should be given to those needed by the foreign residents. The rest too may as well be chosen by foreigners on the basis of linguistic knowledge and cultural affinity.

These new cities should be administered by the resident foreigners; let us have cities as well run, in as many different ways, as Berlin, Vienna and Istanbul. They should have schools and universities teaching in the foreign language and attached to foreign universities; that will make foreign education available to Indians as well within their own country, and without having to spend a fortune abroad. They should have hotels, restaurants and bars serving the food and drink of those foreigners. Some may consider that a problem: those weird foreigners will want to eat sheep's eyes and drink tequila. That is the point: they should feel at home, and there should be no spoilsport lording over them. The foreign cities should be freed from the shackles of the states; each of them should be given the status of a state.

Should they have representation at the Centre? Not in the Lok Sabha; but there is no harm in giving them seats in the Rajya Sabha. And in what language will the foreign representatives speak? In their own, naturally. Knowledge of one of the foreign languages should be the minimum qualification of Indian members of the Rajya Sabha; they should set an example in cosmopolitanism for the rest of Indians. That is an ideal that has been put at risk by the cultural onslaught of Hindu nationalists. If the prime minister is serious about opening up India to the most productive foreigners, he should also get serious about opening up the Indian mind to their influence. If he does it successfully, India will become the best show on earth - instead of just an Indian Pakistan.