Those who have watched Dev Anand's legendary Johnny Mera Naam, a film that acquired cult status in the early 1970s, can hardly forget the international smugglers meet scene. Blending stereotypes with a completely outrageous 'boss' humour, it corresponded to the prevailing disdain for what the socialist propaganda machinery dubbed hoarders, black marketers and smugglers-in short, the leeches of society.
There has been a considerable amount of black humour generated on the occasion of last week's World Social Forum in Mumbai. Initially billed as an international anti-globalisation meet, it ended up as an assembly of the entire range of ridiculous fringe groups -- a 21st century version of the disreputable gathering of bloodsuckers portrayed so farcically by Dev Anand.
The generously-subsidised radical tourists were against civilisation as we know it. They were, of course, against George Bush and the Iraq war, they were also against Israel, the WTO, the multinationals, the Narmada project, the Gujarat government, the outsourcing of jobs from the West to India and they were even against the tiny kingdom of Bhutan because it is against the intrusion of these busybodies.
Some of the activists were, predictably, also against each other and I have heard delightful stories of the hateful competition between rival claimants for the mantle of Gujarat's agony.
If it hadn't been for the so-called rape of a South African activist by a judge from that country, it is likely that the proclaimed alternative to Davos would have, at best, merited a few casual lines in the media. After all, there is nothing spectacularly original in Arundhati Roy declaring war on the US or in Pakistan's Asma Jehangir informing us that India is a more disagreeable place now. Members of a European Union delegation visiting Delhi for trade talks observed that the Mumbai jamboree got better coverage in Europe than it did within India.
The imbalance in popular interest is not surprising. Our middle classes may rightly believe that globalisation has increased opportunities for Indians and helped the country get over a crippling regime of shortages. However, this visible increase in India's self-confidence, a process that began with the Pokhran blasts of May 1998, goes against an ingrained stereotype.
For international NGOs and the clutch of Christian evangelists, a developed India involves both irrelevance and joblessness for themselves. A resurgent and fiercely competitive India capable of ensuring its citizens a decent standard of living constitutes the worst nightmare for the poverty brokers who assembled in Mumbai. It denies them a powerful raison d'etre -- the right to speak on behalf of oppressed peoples. It also denies them another very powerful weapon of righteousness -- the right to patronise the natives and view them with utmost condescension.
But it is not merely the jholawalas who descended on Mumbai that look upon an unshackled India rearing to go with trepidation. Over the past fortnight, there has been a concerted campaign to puncture the government's feel-good rhetoric. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has told us that India is gripped by a 'fail good' phenomenon. She landed up at an unauthorised colony in Delhi inhabited mainly by illegal Bangladeshi migrants who vote blindly for the Congress and declared that this is no Shining India. Of course it isn't.
If you look in the gutter you are only going to discover sewage.
At his coming out party in Amethi, an unsure, primary member-by-birth Rahul Gandhi pronounced that he too didn't find anything to feel good about.
Taking their cue from the dynasty, the courtiers chipped in with their own pin pricks to deflate the Indian balloon. The feel-good, we are told, is only for the top three per cent. There has been a rise in joblessness and, it is also suggested that India is in the throes of an agrarian crisis. One ultra-secularist has gone to the extent of arguing that India's food insecurity is monumental and worse than the days of the 1943 Bengal famine when three million people perished.
The assault on the feel-good factor goes beyond the general election campaign. What binds the activists in Mumbai and the slavish upholders of dynasty is a belief that India can best be served by the direct intervention of an enlightened few. The people cannot be left to develop an entrepreneurial culture and take advantage of opportunities; they must be guided and spoon-fed by a state which is presided over by a Gandhi. The dynasty or the NGO know what is good for people more than what people think are good for themselves.
It was this sordid culture of statist paternalism that held India back for 50 years. It is this culture the do-gooders want to resurrect. This election is not merely an India-Italy tussle, it is about the future course of development in India. India is shining in patches and the extent of feel-good is undeniably uneven. But that is not the real issue. What is crucial is for people to decide the key question: Are we on the right track?