Becoming One With the World

Speech given at the HT Leadership Summit
Delhi, November 21, 2008
© Chetan Bhagat

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for the opportunity to speak at the leadership summit – the first of its kind for me.

I am no leader. At best, I am a dreamer with  perseverance to make dreams come true. As I have made my own dreams come true already, I am tempted to think we can make my country’s dreams come true. And that is why I am here.

Before we become one with the world we have to become one with ourselves. If we get our own house in order we don’t have to make an effort to be one with the world. The world will want to be one with us. Everyone wants to be friends with happy, rich, thriving neighbors. Nobody wants a family festered with disputes.

A lot is wrong in my country. There are too many differences. The question is not who we blame for this. The question is how do we fix it? Because to do anything great, you have to become one first. Two generations ago, our forefathers came together to win us Independence. It isn’t like we didn’t have disputes then. Religion, caste, community have existed for centuries. But Gandhi brought them all together for a greater cause – to get the country free.
Today, we have another greater cause. To get India its rightful place in the world. To see India the way the younger generation wants to see it. To make India a prosperous, developed country, where not only the spirit of patriotism, but also the standard of living is high. Where anyone with the talent, drive and hard work alone has the ability to make it. Where people don’t ask where you come from, but where you are going. We all know that India, as we have all dreamt of that India.
There is a lot required to be done for this, and it doesn’t just start and end  by blaming politicians. For in a democracy, we elect the politicians. If our thinking changes, our voting will change and the politicians will change. And since I have made a nation that didn’t read, read, do I believe people’s thinking can be changed.

To me there are 3 main areas where I think we need to change our thinking – leaders included. And I’m not just saying we need to do it because it is morally right/ ethically correct/ or because it sounds nice at a conference. We need to do it as it make sense from an incentives point of view. These three areas are changing the politics of differences to the politics of similarity, looking down on elitism and the role of English.

The first mindset change required is to change the politics of differences to the politics of similarity. I’ve been studying young people in India, not just in big cities but across India for the last five years.
They are the bulk of the population – the bulk of our voter bank. Yet, what they are looking for is not what politicians are pitching. It is not too different from the old school Bollywood where they think item numbers, big budgets and tested formulas work while the biggest hits of the year could be Rock On and Jaane Tu. Yes, times have changed.
Here is what the politicians are pitching – old fashioned patriotism, defending traditions, being the torchbearer of communities, caste and religion. Here is what the youth wants – better colleges, better jobs, better role models. Compared to the talent pool, the number of good college seats are very limited. Same for good jobs. These wants are the biggest similarity that we all share. We all want the same things – progress. I see a huge disconnect in the political strategies of existing politicians vs. what could work for the new voters.
I think broad based infrastructure and economic development will satisfy the young generation’s needs. It isn’t an easy goal to attain – but it is the great cause that can unite us. Today a dynamic politician who takes this cause can achieve a far greater success than any regional politician. And the slot is waiting to be taken.
Another aspect required to convert the politics of differences to the politics of similarities is a  strong moderate voice. When someone tries to divide us, people from the same community as the divider have to stand up against him. If person A is saying Non-Marathis should be attacked, then some Marathis need to stand up and say person A is talking nonsense. If a Muslim commits terrorist attack, other Muslims should stand up and condemn it, as Hindus are going to condemn it anyway. This moderate voice is sorely missing but is critical in keeping the country together. And the youth want to keep it together, as we want to be remembered as the generation who took India forward, not the one that cut India into two dozen pieces.
I hate telling people what to do, but the media does have a role in this. I agree that media is a business and TRPs matter above anything else. However, there are ethics in every business. Doctors make money off sick people, but it doesn’t mean they keep people sick and not heal them. If you find a moderate voice, highlight it as soon as a divisive voice appears. And don’t take sides, argue or debate it. Don’t validate the ridiculous. Focus on the greater cause.

The second mindset we need to change is that of elitism. From my early childhood days, to college, to professional and business life, and now in the publishing and entertainment circles, I have noticed a peculiar Indian habit of elitism. Maybe it is hard to achieve anything in India. But the moment any person becomes even moderately successful, educated, rich, famous, talented or even develops a fine taste, they consider themselves different from the rest. They begin to move in circles where the common people and their tastes are looked down upon. This means a large chunk of our most qualified,  experienced, connected and influential people prefer to live air-conditioned lives in their bubble of like minded people. Naive people  who elect stupid politicians – that is the bottomline for all Indian problems, and they want nothing to do with it. But tell me, if the thinking of the common people has to be changed, who is going to change it? What is the point of discussing solutions to Indian problems if there is no buy-in from the common man? Just because it feels good to be around like-minded, intelligent people? What is the use of this intelligence?
If you switch on the TV, seventy percent of the time you will see Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. The reason is the media is centered in these cities. However, ninety percent of India is not this. Unless we represent these people properly, how will these people ever come with us?
Again, I am not making these points as a moral appeal. I think understanding India and being inclusive makes massive business sense. And trust me, it doesn’t take any coolness or trendiness away from you if you do it right. Look at me, I am the mass-iest English author ever invented in India. My books sell on railway stations and next to atta in Big Bazaar. I have an Indian publisher who operates from the bylanes of Darya Ganj. And yet, on orkut the most common words associated with my name are coolness and awesomeness – tags given by my wonderful readers. I think it is cooler to know how people think in the streets of Indore and Raipur than who’s walking the ramp in South Mumbai. You may have planned your next vacation abroad, but have you visited a small town lately? Have you shown your kids what the real India is like? Don’t you think they will need to know that as they grow up and enter the workforce. Yes, I want people to look down on elitism and develop a culture of inclusiveness. If you are educated, educate others. If you have good taste, improve others taste rather than calling theirs bad.

The last aspect where we need to change our thinking is our attitude to  English. We have to embrace English like never before. Not England, but English. This point may sound contradictory to my previous one, but I am not talking about confining English to the classes, but really taking it to the grassroot level. English and Hindi can co-exist. Hindi is the mother and English is the wife. It is possible to love them both. In small towns, districts and even villages – we need to spread English. India already has a headstart as so many Indians speak English and we don’t have to get expat teachers like China does. But we must not confuse patriotism with the skills one needs to compete in the real world. If you are making an effort to start a school where none existed, why not give the people what will help them most. I can teach a villager geometry and physics in Hindi, but frankly when he goes to look for a job he is going to find that education useless. English will get him a job. Yes, I know some may say what will happen to Hindi and our traditional cultures. I want to ask these people to pull their kids out of English medium  schools and then talk. If you go to small towns, English teaching classes are the biggest draw. There is massive demand for something that will improve people’s lives. I have no special soft spot for this language, but the fact is it works in the world of today. And if more English helps spread prosperity evenly across the country, trust me we will preserve our culture a lot better than a nation that can barely feed its people.

We are all passionate about making India better, so we can discuss this forever. But today I wanted to leave you with just three thoughts – politics of similarities, less elitism and more English that we need to build consensus on. If you agree with me, please do whatever you can in your capacity to make the consensus happen. It could be just a discussion with all your friends, or spreading these thoughts in a broader manner, if you have the means and power to do so. For the fact that we are sitting in this wonderful venue means our country has been kind to us. Let’s see what we can give back to our nation.

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