Given up the ghost?

It seems that finally the dust has settled. About a year and a half into the Narendra Modi government, and with elections in Bihar grabbing the attention, India’s dreams of becoming a superpower are finally done and dusted.

The first indications of the Modi government giving up the ghost were in the acquisition of 126 MMRCA fighter jets from France. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar literally stated before the press that there was simply no money for that kind of huge purchase.

Now, the new government is scrambling to meet the Air Force’s requirements, for the UPA had dilly-dallied until the fall of its government over this acquisition, creating the impression that such an acquisition was actually feasible and all the while probably cursing the global financial crisis for stalling and finally crushing its superpower dreams. The indi-genous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, albiet with a GE engine, is being considered as a poor replacement for the ultimate acquisition that was not to be.

Then Arun Jaitley, ever the finance-cum-legal eagle, points out that all the black money is in India – indeed, it was to take 10 years to fix the system! No one is getting Rs 15 lakh in his/her bank account any time soon. As a substitute at least,  Vijay Mallya, the King of Good Times, has had the CBI raid his houses, declaring that he has siphoned money advanced as loans to offshore-tax havens.

Just when the government hoped that it had quashed the flames, a new forest fire emerged, with writers returning their awards, protesting curbs on freedom of expression and an intolerant – read, communal – atmosphere that had polarised the country after the murder of Kannada writer M M Kalburgi and a lynching in Dadri of a Muslim man, who happened to be the victim of a rumour that he had eaten a meat that his community does not ban.

Pooh-pah-pish, says the government; law and order is a state issue. On this, the Central government is absolutely correct. However, then there was the burning of Dalit babies in Haryana, a BJP-ruled state. Sorry to make light of an abomination on the nation, but was this karmic forces chiding the government, purposefully derailing a growth and development agenda of Modi as if to say that atrocities occur in BJP ruled states too?
Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah finally stepped into the fray, ordering his soldiers to shut their traps afterone was caught on tape comparing the Dalit incident to a mob stoning stray dogs.

A tasteless analogy aside, if it was that, the question of India jettisoning its position as superpower-to-be has not grabbed the headlines, primarily because no one trigger has grabbed the headlines of a sensational media as final defeat. However, there are two incidents, I believe, that have put the final nail in the coffin.

Education and health
First was the Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani admitting that Indian universities are no longer to be ranked on a global scale, but rather ‘Indian conditions’ (my paraphrase) are to be kept in mind. Second, a recent Lancet study saying that Modi is failing India on health.

No country in the world has developed without two essential public goods – education and health – that are key to contributing to developing the human capital necessary to sustain for long periods high GDP growth and escape the middle-income trap. Of the countries that have developed in the post-war period in the 20th century, all have developed their own technology independently of the superpower help.

They are Japan, Russia and China. Even off the BRICS nations, leaving out Japan and Russia, it is only India that has no claim to independent technology, a rot that surely stems from the lack of educational institutions of any calibre at all.

Thus, my question is that instead of cutting health budgets and rashly removing Indian institutes from world rankings, why not increase the health budget? Let the Indian institutes languish around 500th place (at least the Indian Institute of Science), but invest monumental resources in those institutes that have a chance of being globally competitive. Use any research and development that may come from these institutes as independently developed technology to create a fighter aircraft with an indigenous engine.

Indians have the talent, without which, it would be impossible for them to be CEOs of Google, Microsoft and Pepsi. Clearly, what is lacking is the backing from the Indian government. What Indians need is not nostalgic appeals to a tolerant past of ancient history, but a new direction, a new path forward, into a new modernity. It is up to the government to back its people.

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