Partha Chakraborty –
A bearish stance against secular growth of India will be a sore loser…
Over three weeks I crisscrossed thousands of miles in India by rail and by road – waking up with infinite loops of sugary milk tea in small glasses at no-name places, eating exclusively in roadside Dhabas, sleeping straight-backed over hundreds of kilometers before I found a bed. All of it was more than worth it for one simple lesson and one lesson only. Be bullish on India.
Act 1: Scene 1: Dancing to Jai Ho at a school event in a small SoCal town
Sometime in February 2013, I found myself in a crowd of a hundred parents waiting for another school event to begin. It was a dreary SoCal winter day, rained all night before and the ground was wet, bare surfaces felt cold; reflecting the mood of barely awake munchkins. To spice things up, they turned up the volume – I remember Gangnam Style scratching and that woke kids up.
And then they hit “Jai Ho”. Right at the moment, every foot went tapping and arms up in the air; parents, teachers, everybody – this school had only four South Asian kids then.
Act 2: Scene 1: Dancing to Jai Ho at Wagah Border, Attari
Last three weeks I was in India; one of the highlights was a visit to the Wagah Border for the Closing Ceremony. Most of the crowd on our side was seated two hours in advance, and BSF officers were doing everything possible to keep us engaged. A woman officer had the bright idea of getting most women spectators out of the enclosure and into the open road. Soon there was a crowd of several hundred women – of all ages, clothes, and shapes, gathering less than 20 meters from the gate.
And then they hit “Jai Ho” in a loop and the crowd went wild – really. Having been abroad mostly for 25 years, I was not ready for this. No Bharatnatyam this. Just hundreds dancing with abandon, in broad daylight, in complete freedom of self and with no care, no concern for any norm or expectations, no patriarchy, no self-pity, no b.s. It was beyond beautiful.
Act 2: Scene 2: Jai Ho in a transformed Connaught Place.
My memories of Connaught Place includes an attempted pick-pocket mid-1990’s that left a poor student shaken to think of consequences. I also remember grimy facades barely holding up to the old grandeur, and, ever-present beggars; who, thankfully, had better fish to fry than try me.
This time it was different. Again Jai Ho was playing somewhere, the Big Tricolor visible from pretty much everywhere, facades all clean, people walking straight or glued to their screens, hand-in-hand as lovers, roadside trinket sellers confident and aspirational,… And not a single was asking for alms – I was asked tens of times if they could polish my shoes, sell some tea, etc.– just another economic agent hawking their ware as anywhere else.
India has grown up and is on its way to bigger and better despite everything thrown at it inside and out. Just like Jamal and Latika in Slumdog Millionaire. I experienced this first hand after thousands of kilometers of road and rail trip across India in cramped quarters over three weeks – and I could not be happier.
In Kolkata, my hometown and the land of the Argumentative Indian – they’re no longer trying to blame federal/state/local government for piled up garbage outside own homes, or for potholed roads, if simply because there are so few now. In small towns all over the country, youngsters are asking which coding skill will get jobs sooner, not how to get a handout. Passing through big industrial hubs I saw snaking lines of workers’ bikes waiting patiently at the gate and little talk of industrial unrest. I saw miles upon miles of farmland, they all looked well-tended to my untrained eyes. Agra, still as resplendent with The Taj Mahal – and still as maddeningly lawless with traffic –seemed to have impressively improved with cleanliness. On road to Amritsar, I have never seen so many Dhabas, so lit up and inviting – with food is just so much better than anything roadside stateside. Expressways in and around NCR are old news; even by-lanes of NOIDA or Palam Vihar where filth tucked behind fancy cars was common back when are scrupulously clean. The list goes on.
That gets to an overarching theme – that of aspiration and a drive to make it happen, along with a penchant for enjoying little, or large, blessings of life. Inside boardrooms as well as in tea-stalls, I clearly saw confidence, a can-do, and a candid camaraderie with the rest of the world – things that were never so pronounced, so pervasive and so deep-in-the-veins as I experienced this time. They are complementary to one another, and together they will define longer-term growth of India.
Confident because fruits of economic liberalization are no longer an article of faith. Economic growth for over two decades delivered the goods. In colleges, I asked what about India’s economic growth impressed them most. Most hands went up when I said Indian GDP is bigger than UK’s. Not many seemed too keen to “migrate” to US; they’d rather visit, work for a few and be back home – especially in elite colleges. Places around Gurgaon and Mumbai make you feel like you are in Manhattan, and as costly; Mumbaikars were unanimous that they have a better night-life than when back in New York. In small towns, a new generation of coders are still having their eyes fixed across the ponds, and very likely will get there. In industrial hubs technical education provided by the factories – no-free-lunch there – makes it possible to have skilled jobs by people who were left behind. At construction sites, I encountered women and men from remotest corners who are now proud to have smartphones to which they are glued to just like any here.
Can-do because all of this is happening in spite of. In spite of red-tape – my attempt to have a trivial legal matter settled took an entire day, and I admit I was the privileged one there. In spite of, because we are still working through divisions, real and imagined, amongst us. An industrialist told me he is relocating a 2500 seat BPO from NOIDA to Kolkata because he values employees’ physical safety – he was not altruistic, just realistic. In spite of women’s safety, lack thereof, in many places – we were specifically instructed to have two of us travel together after dark, or not to have her travel at all – it was a small inconvenience for us, the reality is much worse for most. In-spite of usual other suspects – traffic, pollution, lack of clean drinking water…
Camaraderie with the rest of the world because India is now proud to stand as equal. Chants against Pakistan at Wagah border are for entertainment, nobody expects Pakistan to cause real damage. China is widely viewed as interested in hegemonistic pretense for the most part, and less in an actual confrontation. Warm relationships with two successive US Presidents, as the opposite of the other as they can get, give India assurance of its seat at the table – UNSC seat notwithstanding. BPO workers are less hesitant to call US/UK because an Indian accent is now a fashionable thing. Cars you only saw abroad are now released almost real time, as are Hollywood movies. Startups born and made to live the bustle inside alleyways of Class B/C towns are now picked up as unicorns. Top 2 global tech companies are both run by Indian diaspora, as are hundreds globally.
India is in the House, Ladies, and Gentlemen. Can we have some tea here, please?
Do not bet against the House of India as you will bet against the House. What assures me of the inevitability is the fact that growth engines are revving notwithstanding most of whatever is happening inside and out. India weathered financial meltdown better than most. Even with ILFC/Mallya/Chit-fund, NPA of Indian banks is so much better than anything across the border. I have not seen a single ghost factory or town in three weeks. Demonetization did not kill SME’s, it gave them a pause that lasted all of four weeks, so to speak. Even in the realty sector – rightly viewed with awe and disgust at the same time for its volatile profile – people are calling current lull a welcome breather.
But most importantly, drivers of secular growth of India remain, just as always, its people. I am not talking about IIT’s, I am not even talking about engineers – arguably India has one too many now. I am talking about that remote village ten miles away from railroad track where only one train stops a day. I am talking about successful digital inclusion programs that bring local minds in sync with world outside. I am talking about newly cherished entrepreneurial goals – no unicorns here – to open up a roadside mechanic shop. I am talking about more democratic credit so a shopkeeper can offer better items, and so on. All of these are already working in India even in remotest corners.
In Slumdog Millionaire Jamal and Latika survive everything, even doubts about each other. Every single character who bets against them gets eliminated –BollyHollywood anyone? I have a similar lesson.
A bearish stance against secular growth of India will be a sore loser. And I will remind that I told you so.
[Partha Chakraborty is CEO of Switchboard Systems. All opinions are of the Author alone and do not necessarily represent that of Switchboard Systems. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission.]