June 18, 2012

Why The Old Uncles Matter

Every so often we get to hear various opinion writers express some disappointment about the fact that in India -- this overwhelmingly young country -- the leaders are extraordinarily old.

It's easy enough to find that thought agreeable. What's not to like about having young leaders who are able to may be play golf or throw a cricket ball or even enjoy basketball like Barack Obama.

But I wrote in my previous post about how disappointing Obama has been as a president.

He won in 2008 on the platform of change. Because of the nature of the U.S. -- the way some states are Red states and others are Blue no matter what -- and because of the way the electoral system works, presidents can appear to get huge majorities which are not really that spectacular. (Not to forget 2000 when Al Gore got more votes than George W. Bush but Bush won the electoral college and hence the election.)


Obama got more than 300 votes in the electoral college which is huge but he had only 7 million more votes than John McCain.

These were probably young voters who were inspired by the personality and rhetoric of Obama.

Fast forward to 2012. The election this time around is closer. Why? The economy is doing badly with high unemployment rates.

People have gotten used to the rhetoric of Obama and people have realized that probably Obama is not all that different.

The rhetoric about being an outsider and taking back Washington has been uttered by countless presidential candidates.

Probably each candidate is assured of 60 million votes as a baseline. There are about 10 million voters who tend to be the swing voters. Both the candidates are trying to persuade those 10 million.

So that's 10 million out of a population of 310 million. Not a large percentage.

Some of those idealistic Obama voters are probably the ones who started the Occupy Wall Street movement. But those numbers are few.

America is a wealthy nation. It provides excellent social safety nets to the poor and the needy and the unemployed.

Everyone is entitled to emergency treatment irrespective of whether they are insured or not.

There are food stamps available to the poor. There's unemployment allowance. There's Medicaid for the poor. There's Medicare for the elderly.

The bottom-line is that people are not hanging on an edge of a cliff.

What the economic slowdown means is that graduates are apparently not getting jobs so easily and are having to move back in with their parents. That is not such a calamity, is it? Definitely not from the perspective of developing India.

Others are having to postpone their house purchases or car purchases or going on cruise liner vacations or Italy or Paris vacations, etc.

Effectively, the tragedy that has befallen Americans is that some of them are realizing that they ain't going to be millionaires as soon as they had planned to be. So that private jet fractional ownership plan needs to be put on hold.

Some husbands are unemployed and feeling some hurt to their pride as they survive on their wives' paychecks.

Perhaps some ladies are having to curtail their shoe shopping sprees and other clothes shopping at Bergdorf Goodman and Saks and Neiman Marcus.

So these are some of the calamities that have befallen Americans in this weak economy.

What relevance does that have in the Indian context?

Well in India the poor numbering in the 100s of millions are surviving on very little. They feel lucky if they don't go hungry. They are happy to sleep on the roadsides or plastic tent houses.

The poor do not aspire to become millionaires.

Imagine if India had inspirational young leaders given to making exorbitant promises.

If people started believing those promises and electing politicians based on those promises, the politicians will then fail to deliver of course.

What then?

What will happen to the country if we have 100 million disaffected youth who were promises the moon and got nothing. Will they be restless? You bet.

The youth are emotive and easy to get excited. Remember the jingoism during the tiny kerfuffle over Kargil? Everyone apparently was willing to join the Army and fight for the country !!

It is easy to imagine the pent up energy of the youth not getting a proper outlet and then unleashing it in an unproductive manner, say, through destroying public property.

It's this pent up energy and the immaturity of youth which explains the popularity both of Bollywood movies such as Rang de Basanti or Chak de India and also of the Anna Hazare movement against corruption.

People want short cuts and easy answers and are willing to latch on to those who offer them. Hence you find Bollywood stars performing miraculous stunts in Hindi movies and the public worshiping them for that rather than laughing at them.

Do we want the young beneficiaries of dynastic politics in India being inspirational and rousing the youth too much? I would argue not.

It's better that we have the usual bunch of dried in the wool politicians who make simple promises related to roti, kapada aur makaan.

Of course, to keep up with the joneses and the times, even Indian politicians have upgraded their campaign freebies to include free TVs and laptops.

But mostly politicians talk about cheap food and irrigation and electricity.

As the economy grows, some of the benefits of this growth are happily trickling down.

As the millionaires buy swanky houses or go on Parisian vacations, the poor are upgrading from bullock carts to motorbikes. This is of course a huge advancement in a nation as old as ours with elephantine memories.

If you go visit villages, I'm sure you'll find many older folk sneering at the newly rich saying -- "that guy was working in my home earlier, he was my servant and now he thinks he has become a big shot ... what with motorcycles."

But those village level bickerings and rivalries are eternal and people eventually learn to live with others' achievements and personal disappointments.

We do need revolutionary thinkers and revolutionary thinking. The Russian and Chinese revolutions and subsequent events have seen millions of deaths. We need not repeat them.

We do not need to reenact The American Revolution or the French Revolution as we already benefit from the knowledge gained from them. We in India already are a Republic have democracy.

We only need to make our society more democratic and equitable. We need to create more wealth and hopefully find a way to distribute the wealth in an equitable manner.

Somehow free market economics seems to create these huge disparities in levels of affluence and this exists in all manner of developed and developing nations with diverse political systems.

There are billionaires and paupers everywhere from America to China to Japan and Saudi Arabia.

We in India won't find a solution to these conundrums. So we have our Ambani building the tallest personal residence in the world.

The positive side to that being that he probably employs 500 or 1,000 people in the maintenance of that building -- thus providing employment to that many people.

So, we wish to have more Ambanis -- who will hopefully not try to sell off India to outsiders.

And let the poor rise ever so slowly. Let refrigerators continue to be aspirational products and not necessities of life. Let Indians slowly come to appreciate the joy of riding two wheelers and watching LCD TVs.

I am astounded by the numbers of 2 and 4 wheelers sold in this country already. The future will bring more vehicles onto the roads and more gridlocks and traffic jams in the cacophonic madhouses that we call megacities.

Let India build more roads and metros on top of those roads and perhaps more roads on top of those metros and then high speed bullet trains too -- either on top of the road-on-top-of-the-metro-on-top-of-the-road or beneath the ground.

People will become ever more materialistic like it has happened in every other nation until we hit some sort of natural resource constraints or may be science & technology will help us find innovative ways to counter those constraints.

May be we'll build 100 nuclear power plants or may be fusion power plants. Who knows what wonders will be created by nanotechnology. The blinding pace of the development of cellphones, processors, computers, wireless and wired internet, EVERYTHING, continues ...

May be the Singularity is just round the corner. May be it's not.

Who knows.

May be we'll make contact with the aliens in the next few years. Or may be not.

Some of us will be around to witness some of the possibilities come to fruition.

Others will be dead.

And so be it. Nobody said life is fair.


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