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'Years of meandering gave us a land without direction, a people without purpose'

Ashwin Mahesh takes a closer look at the generation that has guided India through these last 50 years

The 50th anniversary of Independence has brought forth a number of opinions on the viability of the Indian state. From Shashi Tharoor's eloquent musings of a nation that never should be but somehow is, to the damning indictments of a country ravaged by unparalleled corruption, the opinions are a confusing collection of hope and despair, of promise and failure, of vibrant vitality and pallid morbidity.

In our land of contradictions, where castles and sewers mix with the easy familiarity of lifelong friends, a few disparate judgements should hardly be surprising. Somehow, it seems, India has seen it all before. We seem to perennially fly planes over the land with long banners that scream "THIS TOO SHALL PASS".

Strangely, those who have observed this resilience the most are, in the same breath, lamenting its imminent death. Read the opinions and the polls that sometimes go with them. The constant thread that runs through them is that an untenably large population, driven by completely contradictory needs and ambitions, manipulated by scheming politicians and straining under the weight of Hindu resurgence, is bound to collapse.

About a third of the people in the polls are convinced that India is on the brink of implosion. Somewhat more interestingly, almost all the columnists are certain of it. Either the political commentators and interviewees are incredibly clairvoyant or something is amiss. Somehow I don't think the predictions are particularly prescient. Nor do I think that the luminaries of the land, from freedom fighters to prime ministers past and present, to established political observers, are any better.

A little more controversial to swallow, perhaps, but I think that the overdose of pessimism is nothing more than a gnawing sense of failure masquerading as opinionated wisdom. To put it plainly, all these writers and leaders going around with their doomsday convictions are mostly -- old. The polls are split about evenly because they also include the confidence and optimism of the young, something the opinions and interviews clearly lack.

The memory of the movement for Independence, and the horrors of Partition, still live with us. Although the overwhelming majority of us have experienced neither, we continue to be ruled by those whose own lives have been shaped in part by these scars.

Some of them, like the PM, move with dovish inertia towards a dream that they hope will restore the brotherhood of the subcontinent. Others bare the fangs of hatred and division with just as much feeling. Sadly, it seems, we are waiting for the current crop of leaders to die.

A political establishment that lives with the nightmares of its own past can hardly display the eagerness about the future that we so need. We have had only two prime ministers who were not particularly involved with Independence. The Gandhis were too closely tied to the liberation for Rajiv to be unaffected by it. And his all-too-brief forward looking world collapsed in a contortion of shame and mismanagement. And V P Singh perished in trying to address the very issues, that the founders, with proper purpose, should have first tackled.

Our society, deeply rooted in respect for age, has not learned to discriminate the wisdom of the elderly from the senility of the aged. Recently, it was suggested to me that my youthful enthusiasm smacked of silly notions that had all been seen before, and that with time, I too shall become sensible. I hope the day never comes when I become sensible enough to suggest that the way forward for my country lies in implosion and divisive separation. The wisdom of the years seems as nothing more than a heavy shroud, one that I, if I had it, would wear with such burden and shame as to render it meaningless.

Every generation blames the one before it. It is a rite of passage in modern societies to contend that the aging leaders are completely out of touch with the needs of those who form the majority, those who still have their lives mostly ahead of them. I remember a time, a few years ago, when my father wrote me a letter and said that the things he had hoped for me, I had accomplished, and the rest was up to me.

If our leaders had shown half the wisdom that parents show in rearing their sons and daughters, half the confidence that they invest in them, and half the promise to be there when we needed them, we would be a pillar of democracy and prosperity, a justifiable bearer of the mantle of the world's great exception.

Instead, 45 years of meandering gave us a land without direction, a people without purpose. Indeed, wallowing in the shame of their own actions, our political masters, often the very ones that institutionalised the decline of our nation with bureaucratic policies that shackled the will of the people, quietly switched gears and abandoned their long held ideas.

Even the Communists, that most egalitarian of Indian political birds, have now ditched their stated promise of equality in the rush to embrace the free market. Not surprisingly, neither they nor anyone else has accepted any fault for the many years that our nation labored in squalor under misguided policies and outright fraud. Whether this new-found faith in the market works, or remains another chapter in the seemingly endless struggle out of poverty, remains to be seen. But it is clear that the wisdom of the aged, if it exists at all in those who guide our national policies, dawned too late to be of much use.

Some would suggest that in 50 years, we have a come a long way. But it escapes no one that many others have gone farther still. And the task at hand lies in looking forward to the things we can accomplish, to erase the disdainful record of the first 50 years.

We seem to be divided between those who grudgingly accept that these first fifty years could have been better and those who cling to the shrines of past heroes and worship them as towering figures who stitched our national fabric together against incredible odds. Of late, the latter group, caught up in its own exaggerated visions of accomplishment, is beginning to wonder how we shall ever manage without their visionary guidance and leadership.

If we could manage in spite of them, it is certain that we shall do quite well without them, thank you very much. Their accomplishments, if they are a yardstick to measure our own, will soon be surpassed and lie far behind. As for us, let us look forward instead. And if the day shall come to pass where our beloved nation no longer exists as we have known her to, then it shall be in spite of our generation, and not because of it.

Perhaps we lack the stoic affirmation of our fathers, perhaps we have too much materialism to value the things that last, but god forbid that we should ever acquire the defeatism of the generation that failed us. From where I stand, it is hard to see what the founding fathers and their followers have accomplished that we might not far exceed in the years to come. And if that seems like an unfair indictment of the generation that gave the nation shape, I can only counter that it is the truth.