In almost every conceivable discipline there is an unending tussle between the theorists and the practitioners. The media too has experienced this tug-of-war.
For many decades, India's editors were subjected to sermons from both politicians and pundits about the debilitating effects of highlighting the trivialities of politics at the expense of an elusive commodity called 'development.'
Salivating over the factional intrigues of the leaders, they were told, meant that insufficient attention was paid to the concerns of the Man from Matunga. The new HYV seed introduced in, say, Gurudaspur district, was infinitely more important than marking the latest turn in the perennial bickering involving Parkash Singh Badal and G S Tohra.
Fortunately, the bores were ignored and the media grew and grew to the point that wary politicians now talk of the national agenda being Made in Media. At the same time, a curious inversion has taken place. Increasingly, the media is shifting tack from the bland coverage of Parliament and political parties to drooling over the latest Bentley limousines to hit the National Quadrilateral. The hierarchy of news has been redefined and the consumers seem to love it.
Yet the gripes persist. Now the media is being accused of trivialisation by the same people who were agitated by the over-emphasis on politics two decades ago. Are the latest ringtones that can be downloaded, ask the custodians of taste, more important than the travails of Kerala's fishermen? Are cocktail parties as important as political parties?
These are worthwhile questions. But sanctimoniousness misses the larger point of the new optimism that is the talk of the town. Moreover, it is an optimism that seems to be cutting across generations. Switching on the television last Monday, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the otherwise ascetic deputy prime minister talk of spreading the feel-good factor. 'If it is good news,' he told a gathering at the Economic Times Awards function in Mumbai, 'it must be India 2003.' To roti, kapda and makan, Advani said, and not entirely in jest, has been added the ubiquitous mobile phone.
For a change, development news is connecting with the reservoirs of energy and entrepreneurship in India. But it is development news that is no longer riddled with angst. There is an infectious optimism in the air and a sudden realisation that maybe India can make it and in our lifetime too. It helps that the Sensex has pierced the 5000 barrier, that housing loans are cheaper than ever before, that we don't have to scrounge around for dollars and that we can walk into a shop and get a telephone at an affordable price.
Yes, India has finally moved out of the debilitating orbit of man-made shortages. We have not moved into the stage of super-abundance but we are nearing a point when consumption levels are nearing a stage of respectability, at least for the middle classes. There are critics who alert us to the dangers of moving from family-based consumption to individual hedonism. That may be a possible long-term danger but for the moment arguing that India can do without a surplus of consumer goods sounds rather contrived. We are at a stage when the bicycle owner is dreaming of a scooter, when the scooter owner is
contemplating a second-hand Maruti 800 and the second-hand car owner is seriously thinking of a small, new car with a reasonably-priced loan from a bank. To my mind, that is real progress and something to celebrate.
Last month, the merchant banker Goldman Sachs released a report suggesting that by 2050 Brazil, Russia, India and China -- the BRICs economies in short -- will be in a position to collectively overtake the G-6. The report argues that the BRICs growth rate will be most dramatic in the next 30 years and the currency of these countries may appreciate by as much as 300 per cent against the US dollar in the next 50 years.
India, it says, 'has the potential to show the fastest growth over the next 30 and 50 years.' The Indian economy, it says, could become the third largest in the world, after the US and China, in 30 years. This can only happen 'if things go right.'
That is obvious. The economists at Goldman Sachs have based their projections on things indeed going right. In real life things don't always happen that way. Some things go horribly wrong and others go more right than expected. What the report says can be taken as a reassuring indication of what India is capable of achieving and a measure of its potential.
Fortunately, the political rhetoric of the day seems to be corresponding with the popular mood. When the President of India talks of his vision 2020, he is not at odds with the prime minister and deputy prime minister who propagate the necessity of removing the tag of 'developing country' for India by 2020.
This is why the media's espousal of development as fun need not be decried. Earlier, development consisted of government-dictated road maps that were both dreary and doctrinaire. Now the government shies away from telling us what to do. It encourages us to just do it and, most important, enjoy the experience. It is a heartening shift that puts the onus of development on the individual and society and away from the State.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee's most enduring achievement is that he has brought laughter and hope back into the life of India. The sentiment is not universal but it is the dominant theme in a diverse country. The media is merely mirroring this age of happiness. It is talking up a country that is already on a high.
India still has a long way to go but at least it is on the right track.