I was lucky, and elated, to have been selected to undergo the Staff College course in the US in 1989. I was a 37 years young cocky fighter pilot who had his own perception of India, my country. This perception was built over time through schooling in English medium schools/ convents and having lived in urban surroundings most of the time (even when I was based in small villages, our camps had most facilities like a town). I reached Montgomery, Alabama and was pleasantly surprised to be a part of about 55o students doing this purely academic course (we do have academic courses in the military too), of which about 80 officers were from 55 different nationalities. I was the only Indian officer in this batch of 1990.
Our interactions were generally quite free and frank, considering the nature of the course. During the course of these interactions one theme always emerged and that was, 'India is a poor country'. I would get very hurt and would invariably put up a defence that India was not poor. I could speak English better than most others, I could think logically, I flew the Jaguar aircraft and could talk anyone out of fighter tactics etc. etc. I felt that I was their equal in every which way and yet they continued with their derogatory questions about poverty in India. I had never experienced poverty and was never really concerned about how poor India was. I got what I wanted in India, and was pretty comfortable with my perception of India.
One day when I could not take it any longer, I decided to start reading up on India with an aim of negating my tormentors. The more I read the more I realised how right they were and how wrong was my perception of India. These 10 months in the US staff college, with its very well equipped library, gave me an opportunity to try and understand my own country. The more I read, the more I realised that I was living in my own dream world; the more I read the more I became fascinated, and proud of India, even though I now realised that how backward we were economically. My perceptions of India started to change. I realised that urban areas in India were an aberration in the rural landscape of India. I started to read about our freedom struggle and how and why Gandhiji gave us the khadi dress - a dress used more as a fashion statement these days by our political class.
Why were we poor? I believe, the short answer is, we missed the Industrial revolution while under British rule. We continued to be an agrarian society plagued by disease, malnutrition and the rulers did not have any resources (that were of course ours in the first place) to waste on us. Gandhiji's Dandi march to make a pinch of salt was such a big issue with the British. Imagine we could not even make salt - a basic food item for the poor. We finally achieved independence. We chose socialism and non alignment as our core values following it up with nationalisation of assets. All this was based on our past experiences. We can complain about the political system but the system has not failed us. It has helped us to be self sufficient, grow, and also helped a diverse, plural nation like India stay as one nation-state, despite the pulls and pressures.
We are all very impatient with our progress and want India to reach its destined position in the comity of nations. Well, it is happening - 300 million strong middle class (approximately the size of our population at independence), and growing, will help us reach there. Once we have a majority middle class things would happen much faster, and more to the liking of the urban population. I have seen food shortages and the green revolution; I have seen milk shortages and the white revolution in my lifetime. I have seen India leap frogging from the agricultural era to the information era. We are now building our industrial base that will help provide employment to our rural brethren. Imagine we still have 72.2% of our population living in rural settings, as per the 2001 census. We have 34.3% (1990-2005) of our population surviving on less than $1.00 a day - this is an amount most of us donot even think about - I have paid many times this amount for one meal, at times. We have 28.6% living below the poverty line - defined by minimum calories and bare minimum medical aid for survival - not even roti, kapda aur makaan. Are we still poor?? Yes we are still poor (even though we are the 12th country in this world to cross a Trillion dollar economy mark) but are getting out of poverty much faster since 1991.
We have many challenges in the form of corruption, caste/ religion based politics, criminals in politics, poverty, etc. Who is corrupt. Not the poor. It is the haves who take, and give bribes. We want more - 'thoda hai thode aur ki zaroorat hai' attitude. We are willing to bribe our way to short circuit any system. We are responsible for the present impasse, and ONLY WE have the power to change this state of affairs by changing ourselves, individually and collectively.
As a start, let us be proud of who we are as a people. Let us start by getting to know our country. I have always felt enamoured by the material progress of the West but have been absolutely spellbound by the SOUL of India. Our nation is not perfect but WE have the power to make it one. Are we ready to do our part on this journey to achieve greatness where the pain of any fellow human being feels like one's own - specially the pain of people less fortunate than us. I never used to notice them earlier but with age I have realised that India can only truly prosper when no one is destined to lead a wretched life. How can we help change destinies? Once we reach there, we would be a participatory democracy in the true sense, as desired and thought of by our founding fathers.