Monday, 25 August 2014

On gender and development

This is something I think a good deal about, and have done some work on. Pending any new writing I can find the time to do, here are two pieces on the subject published in Pragati Mag

Monday, 18 August 2014


I attended the PM's flag hoisting and speech at the Red Fort for the first time this year. There were some vague rumours about non-attendance being penalised, but I simply HAD to be there anyway. I hadn't seen the PM yet except on TV, and I was desperate to hear his mind, to understand who exactly I was working for now. 

It was a truly beautiful morning, with mild sunshine and a cool breeze. My dad's sudden reminder, just as I was going out the door, to carry an umbrella, was fruitless- scatty me had no clue where her umbrella was- but then it wasn't needed. No clouds in the sky.  

When I seated myself and squinted into the sun looking at the podium, I wondered, where will he speak from? Where's the glass enclosure? 

Then he came, visible to us at our distance mainly because of his jaunty turban, and as we all stood up, quietly murmuring the Jana Gana Mana, I thought- he really made it! He really is addressing the nation from the Red Fort! What a dream to come true! What an inspiration for anyone hoping to achieve something that looks beyond reach! 

And then I realised, he is going to speak from right there.. no enclosure! I tried to get a good photo but it was too far away. Fortunately my mum had taken great screen grabs from the TV at home- and grabs of the housefull, humongous crowd, which I couldn't make out from the middle of it. An Indonesian tourist couple in matching batik dresses were sitting behind me, totally excited to be there. We were shading our eyes from the sun with the brochures handed out at the entrance, including one with a list of new schemes being launched. 

And he started speaking. This wasn't a bombastic orator's election speech. This was a man who had something to say and he was saying it- just talking to us, to all the people of the nation, and of course to all the people of the world, because which country's leaders wouldn't be eager to hear this man who his country had believed in so completely? 

We have all heard his speech, or read about it. We know about the girl's' toilets, the model villages, the free insurance, the skill development, the Digital India and Make in India themes. We all noted his generous acceptance of the work done by leaders who came before him, his mention of only three great men- who are undisputedly the greatest Indians of the last century- Gandhi, Patel and Vivekananda, his leg-pulling of us bureaucrats which had us all guffawing though a little embarrassed. His straightforward admission that he was an outsider to Delhi disarmed us. 

The speech left us all happy and fuzzy. We were hoping to hear our leader's mind, and he had fulfilled our hopes. When the Jana Gana Mana played this time, everyone around sang it with full gusto. Everyone made sure to get a photo or a selfie in front of the big LED screen in the parking with the ramparts in the backdrop which was playing footage of the PM among the kids. 

There has been a lot of media coverage and in general a lot of praise for the speech. But somehow, I feel, due to the man's straightforwardness and simplicity, no one has quite grasped the truly historic significance of what he said and how he said it. 

He spoke in the first person, as Narendra Modi, not as the Prime Minister. He really wasn't speaking on behalf of anybody but himself, the man who today is the Prime Minister. 

He made not the remotest attempt to show his greatness or his past achievements. He did not make a single mention if the work he has done in Gujarat. He didn't even mention anything about his incredible victory in the elections. No, he was completely in the present, in the moment; it was almost a stream-of-consciousness speech. 

He was brutally frank about his struggle to learn and understand the world of the Government of India, and made it clear that he was still learning. He shared his observations- such as departments of a single government fighting each other in the Supreme Court- with bemusement, the way any outsider who hear of such ridiculous things for the first time would react. 

He hit the most fundamental issues before the country in their natural order of priority- the sex ratio- which leader last mentioned the sex ratio, and what can be more fundamental?- the dignity of women- half the country, half the voters!- how delighted it made me and the fellow lady bureaucrat sitting next to me to hear him on the subject! And to upbraid parents for not pulling up errant boys and controlling girls instead! 

Cleanliness and toilets! What is more obvious to any foreign visitor than these basic things? Who last discussed them? And really can a government do it all by itself without the people pitching in?

Skills and manufacturing; everyone knows they are necessary but has anyone dared to put them front and center? Schools are bad, there's no power water or roads, I heard people around me grumble that day and later. But if you don't articulate a vision, how can you achieve it? Everyone knows what goes into making a country skills and manufacturing- led. Why isn't enough happening on either front then? Not due to a lack of money nor due to a lack of knowledge or talent. 

Getting rid of the Planning Commission- which leader anywhere would have had the guts to announce it and admit that he had no clear idea of what would replace it? And yet, he could convince us that he would be able to create the right institution in its place. The jubilation with which bureaucrats of all seniority have received this news, as they mourned their best development schemes having never taken off because they got caught in Yojana Bhavan red tape, has to be seen to be believed. 

The simple vision of sava sau crore Indians stepping forward together- what more potent symbol can there be of unity, harmony and development? And yet I saw cribbing in the media later that this wouldn't be quite right due to the multiplicity of cultures in India. 

And all of it looked like completely achievable things- no super grand dreams, no bleeding hearts about poverty- only a clear set of steps which had to be taken. 

No, the media and the bureaucracy hasn't quite grasped what the country has got. 

It has got a man who actually cares about the country. A man who actually believes in what he is saying. A man who as an outsider and therefore can see clearly what is wrong with the way things have been going on, and dare to declare when the emperor has no clothes. A man who knows where he has come from and where he wants to go- and has the power and the capability to take the country with him. A man with the moral courage to scold the people instead of coddling them. A man who understands the need of a leader to provide social leadership more than anything else. A man who respects the capacity of Indians to raise themselves from poverty and backwardness instead of promising that the government will provide the sun and the moon. When did we last have a leader like this, at any level of government? 

The country couldn't ask for more from its leader at this moment in time.