Published on 18-3-06
Experts say that if the earth began on 1st January, then it was not until 31st December, 11:40 p.m. that the first modern humans appeared. The Christian era began at 15 seconds to midnight of 31st December. You can observe readily that our perception of time depends on the scale used. In the history of a nation, this perspective is important to bear in mind.
Five hundred years ago when Vasco da Gama arrived in Goa, the areas we now call India and China accounted for about 75 percent of the world’s population as well as global GDP. There were 700 million people in the world, a little over 10 percent of today’s population. Everybody in the world depended on agriculture for a living, and agriculture was practiced in about the same way everywhere. Therefore, national wealth depended on agriculture, and agriculture depended on population.
Even two hundred years ago, before Bahadur Shah Zafar ascended to the Mughal throne, 60 percent of the world’s manufactured output came from what we now know as Asia, Africa and Latin America. By the end of the First World War, the share of these nations had collapsed from 60 to 10 percent! The industrial revolution had changed the world.
At the peak of Mughal power and glory during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, Europe, accounting for 2 percent of the world’s land mass and occupied by 20 percent of the world’s population, embraced the industrial revolution; later America and Japan too embraced it. This re-shaped the world to the way we know it today and shifted the fulcrum of economic power away from Asia.
As we enter the twenty-first century, this fulcrum is about to change again—after a gap of almost three hundred years. Momentous times lie ahead. In a sense, the twenty-first century began in 1990, ten years ahead of time.
First, the Berlin wall fell. Socialism and communism began to be perceived as having been unsuccessful in raising the quality of life for about half of the world’s population. Three billion people entered the world’s consumption market; each nation adopted some sort of market economy, officially or unofficially, slowly or quickly, notably India, China and Russia. Second, the world economy has grown very well in recent years; the growth has been amongst the highest since the oil shock of 1973. This has brought prosperity, or dreams of prosperity, to more people in a shorter time than ever before in human history. Third, the world has shrunk with the advances in computing and telecommunications.
India ‘reincarnated’ in 1990
In a stunning confluence of events as the world was being reshaped, India was also reincarnated in 1990. Such a coincidence happens rarely in the history of a nation or people. This liberated India in three ways: economic, societal, and psychological. I will not speak about the economic liberation of India; it is well-known and has been written about. In essence, the power to decide began to shift from the bureaucrat to the market. It is very much work-in-progress. I will touch upon the less well appreciated ones, the societal and psychological liberations of India.
In 1993, the 73rd amendment to the Constitution of India was enacted. This resulted in local elections being held in several hundred thousand villages and municipalities across the country. A staggering 3 million local law-makers were elected, almost a third of them women. This may well be a record of sorts for democracy in the world! Although imperfect in its delivery and immature in its development, this form of grassroots democracy has begun to shift empowerment to the village. Much earlier during the twentieth century, in the south, the Dravida movement decimated the hegemony of the higher castes and enabled the rise to power of the under-privileged and lower castes in society. During the last twenty years, such a movement has gathered momentum in the north as well. It is most visible in the intense caste politics of the Hindi states. Societal liberation is truly and well on the way.
We have experienced psychological liberation as well since 1990. Indians have for long had a hugely entrepreneurial mindset. India’s three thousand year history is rich with evidence of an aggressive trading tradition. For a century before independence, India had a consistent surplus on foreign trade account. At the end of the First World War, India had the third largest railway network, the world’s largest jute industry, the fourth largest cotton textile industry, the largest canal system, and 2.5 percent of global trade.
Unlike Japan, Korea and China, all of whom had a couple of centuries of isolation from trade and the outside world during their history, India has always been globally connected.
The forty years of inward-looking ness after independence were really an aberration in a centuries-old tradition of vigorous commerce mindedness and entrepreneurship. These forty years were mercifully not long enough or severe enough to suppress the natural gene of entrepreneurship. This gene has survived upheavals, the years of colonization, as well as the socialism years, when it remained a bit dormant, but did not get extinguished.
Entrepreneurial behaviour is contagious; it creates a flocking mentality, like gold prospecting. This is reflected in many aspects; Indian cross-border acquisitions serve as an example. Just a few years ago, Indian companies had very little overseas presence. In 2001, there were 41 overseas acquisitions worth $221 million. In 2005, there have been 143 deals worth $3.38 billion.
In the last fifteen years, India’s entrepreneurial gene has got refreshed, and the vigorous effects are visible all around. There is a spirit of ‘can do’ and a sense of psychological liberation.
There are two virtues I would like to advocate: one is unity and the second is an attitude of exploration.
As a nation, as a society, we need to be united for in that unity lies our strength. How easily a society can forget this simple truth is illustrated through a story from our own history.
Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Greek emperor Alexander came to India after conquering mighty Persia. The streets of Punjab were filled with gossip about the mighty Alexander who had set the great city of Persipolis on fire. Alexander crossed the Indus River and his mighty army stood on the banks of the Jhelum River viewing the kingdom of Taxila across the river. The terrified king of Taxila, Ambhi, chose not to fight. He not only surrendered but he agreed to help Alexander in his conquest of other kingdoms.
Raja Puru ruled the next kingdom, which lay across the River Jhelum. He watched the movements and conquests of Alexander with concern but was not prepared to forsake his people and to submit without a fight. Alexander contemplated how to conquer the valiant king Puru. It was Ambhi who suggested a plan to attack Puru’s kingdom through an unexpected night crossing of the Jhelum River some distance upstream. Alexander was successful and Puru was captured. It is the first record of disunity among Indians that allowed a foreigner to conquer our lands. Alas, subsequent history has seen many more.
What does this mean for you? It means that the world, which you have to navigate, requires you to have the attitude of an explorer. Explorers should be willing to go to places where nobody else has been before. They have to be bold enough to embark on journeys without knowing what exactly will work and what will not. Further, explorers have to be willing to listen and learn. They should seek the best available knowledge; they should study failures as well as successes. Explorers, who win, do not sit on the sidelines. They behave boldly and give fortune a chance to favour them. It is this kind of attitude that you will need in order to succeed.
India is the worlds’ first experiment in which a billion people wish to improve their lives through democracy. Nowhere in the world has this even been attempted. All other societies developed their prosperity through kings or dictators. Of course our society is imperfect, which society is not? But we are involved in a transformational exercise, which is unbelievable. The young of today are poised to use this unique opportunity to improve the lives of more Indians than ever in history. That will bring uncertainties and challenges, both being unavoidable parts of life, especially so for explorers.
Two questions arise in the mind of every youngster ‘What will be my challenges ahead?’ and “What can I do to successfully seize the opportunities?’ These are valid questions from your perspective, but please do not expect neat answers or easy-to-remember tips from me or anybody else. Such a panacea does not exist.
Yours will be the most privileged generation in the history of this country. Your generation’s obligation will be to leave an Indian society in which the next fifty years from 2050 to 2100 may be even more privileged than the fifty years you are about to enjoy.
When you are older, you can and should be different from my generation. Ours is a wonderful country, and realising her true potential in the global arena depends ever so much on the unity and adventurousness of our young people. To borrow from what Nehruji said in 1947, ‘you have a tryst with destiny.’ Such moments come rarely, seize it with both hands, my young friends.
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