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Delhi Talks: India must build on gains or risk becoming a footnote in history, says journalist Kanchan Gupta

Editor's Note:  This is the sixth in a 10-part series of interviews with well-known residents of Delhi on issues that they believe define the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Read other articles of the series here

Kanchan Gupta does not mince words. He can attack a fellow journalist, question his integrity and ridicule him for trading allegations as facts. Many dismiss him as one who says what BJP wants to hear. Journalist Madhu Trehan once described him during an interview on Newslaundry as “saffron.”

Gupta, the youngest assistant editor in the history of The Statesman, has worked with legends in journalism. In 1995, he quit the profession because he was “getting bored”. He took a break and worked with LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and later in the Prime Minister’s Office when the National Democratic Alliance came to power. Then national security advisor Brajesh Mishra was Vajpayee’s eyes and ears and Gupta drew his power from Mishra. His proximity was talked about in political circles. He was also the PMO’s representative on the National Security Advisory Board.

 Delhi Talks: India must build on gains or risk becoming a footnote in history, says journalist Kanchan Gupta

File image of Kanchan Gupta. Twitter

Many see him as a “rabid right-winger.” Born to Bangladeshi refugee parents, Gupta was raised in Jamshedpur and Patna where he attended missionary schools. He later moved to Kolkata and later shifted to Delhi. Till then he was left of centre, but one visit to Ayodhya changed it all. It made him see India beyond cities and understand how the masses look at faith, identity and religion. But Gupta is better known for his writings than his politics:

“When we were growing up in an upcountry industrial town, nearly five decades ago, there was a certain ritual to celebrating Republic Day and Independence Day. Part of that ritual was for the organisers, usually those stepping out of their teens, to play 'patriotic songs' on a borrowed and battered HMV Fiesta. I doubt that practice continues but memories remain of Mahendra Kapoor belting out 'Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle...'

“Those were years of what we now call India's shortage economy: everything was in short supply, from food to fuel to even school notebooks. Deadly diseases like smallpox and cholera stalked much of the hinterland. Hunger and deprivation were a common feature. We looked at picture postcards relatives sent us from exotic places and photographs in tattered foreign glossies bought from pavement stalls and realised how poor we were, how impoverished was our nation. This land barely offered morsels to its teeming millions; it did not spew gold and pearls and diamonds.

“Yet we felt happy and were filled with pride every time we heard the song 'Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle...' It was like taking refuge in an imagined India, almost keeping faith with the country and its future. We were not wrong. In these five decades India has radically changed and bears little resemblance to the country we grew up in. And that change is not only in the growth of our economy but the way we think of our place in the world. India is now generating wealth at a pace never seen before.

“A question arises: has all that has changed been for the better? The answer clearly is 'no'. Like joint families disintegrating into nuclear families, united India has been splintered into jostling, contesting identities. Millennials may find it hard to believe, but there was a time when we spoke of striving for a casteless society where religion would be a matter of private faith. Today, caste identities have become sharper than ever before and religion is on public display. Regional parochialism has come to substitute federalism. The north-south divide now also runs through east and west. That's how politics has reshaped India.

“Even while signalling our break with the past when umbrellas would come out in India every time it rained in the USSR, we have not quite given up the ghost of socialism. It remains embedded in the Preamble to our Constitution and in the way government thinks, irrespective of the party in power. Which explains why government continues to own banks, fly planes, run trains, ply buses and operate telecommunication services. It makes a terrible hash of it all, just as it continues to make a terrible hash of public sector education.

“Going back in time to measure expectations makes little sense. There's no percentage in that. We could, however, look at expectations five years ago and measure them with expectations today as we prepare to elect a new government. At a personal level, like many other Indians, I had expected radical changes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power with a stunning majority. I had looked forward to government disengaging itself from public sector enterprises, rid itself of ruinous expensive habits like propping up Air India, and a lot more, including shutting down Soviet-era ministries like the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Minimum government, maximum governance appealed to most Indians tired of a wasteful nanny State. That did not happen. For instance, we continue to see taxpayers' money squandered on film festivals and awards, apart from discredited public broadcasters like Doordarshan and All India Radio. Low-hanging fruit was not plucked.

“Nor did we see the Centre tackling the looming farm sector crisis by doing the right thing of dismantling the old, decrepit and outdated Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) driven Minimum Support Price regime, letting market determine prices and allowing farmers to sell wherever and to whomever they wish. Antiquated land ceiling laws still remain in place. Agriculture is a State list subject yet the Union Government won't stop interfering in it and allow states to fashion their own farm sector economy in competition with other states. It would be nice to see the next government abolish the Ministry of Agriculture and insist that states manage what is their responsibility. Would that happen?

“Which is not to suggest nothing has happened. Actually, a lot has happened in these past five years. We have become a business friendly country. We have stepped on the infrastructure accelerator. We have become a favourite destination of foreign investors. We are now the fastest growing economy, the sixth-largest in the world, all set to become the fifth-largest, moving ahead of Britain which colonised us and left us a broke nation. We have a new healthcare policy and housing for all could just about become a reality. We are part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We have a robust, even if imperfect, national security policy.

“That said, we are also a deeply divided nation where the majority feels it is under siege. The rise of the cultural Right is more a defensive response to the feeling of being besieged, of interests and sensitivities being neglected. It would be easy to brush aside the deepening sense grievance as imagined, but that would be of little help. A balance has to be struck so that India's weakening pluralism is not weighed down by strengthening (and competitive) communalism. The secular State has to reinvent itself and make it more relevant for our times. Highfalutin mumbo-jumbo won't do.

“Similarly, 'cooperative federalism' has to move beyond platitudinous slogans and statements and become a reality. The states need to be made partners, not adversaries, in pushing the India story: 'Sabka saath, sabka vikas' cannot remain unilateral in approach, it has to become multilateral in action. The adoption of GST has served this purpose to an extent by forging a consultative process. But nation-building is not only about taxation. Can we see states playing an increasing role in national policy-making?

“Cliched as this may sound, India stands at the cusp of history. In the next five years it can either tread a path that will take it to a destination on the right side of history. Or it can fritter away the small but significant gains of these past five years and run the risk of the India Story becoming a footnote in history.

“That, in a sense, is what this election is about: to see this land of ours live up to the once stirring lyrics of 'Mere desh ki dharti sona ugle...' Cynicism is not an option.”

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Updated Date: May 08, 2019 16:33:22 IST