In June I made my first trip to India since I was a child. I visited the traditional “Golden Triangle” – Delhi-Agra-Jaipur. The trip was wonderful, as it opened my eyes to the “modern, more confident” India and simultaneously reawakened my south-south connections.
India like the rest of world – mixes modernity with tradition. The honor killings stand side-by-side with a vibrant women’s rights movement. For me, what struck me during this trip were two “new” developments. First was the embrace of technology in India. The image of a banana seller on the roadside in the desert of Rajasthan using his cell phone to connect with his family sticks with me. India is not a country of Luddites. Computers, phones, and other electronic cadets are being embraced and made into their own. Delhi may not be the programming center of Bangalore, but its technological savviness was impressive. The use of technology appeared empowering, aiding communication and addressing some of the prominent social inequalities in the country. The use of the cell phones has become so common that this is helping address the infrastructural deficits. This pattern of using technology to address social inequalities is common in the developing world – and been a cornerstone of the involvement of groups such as the Gates Foundation – but what distinguished India was the attitude toward technology, a willingness to accept and adapt technology as their own.
The second “modern” thing that stood out was the emergence of the middle class. It is a powerful social force that is driving social change. Consumer habits and values are transforming quickly, particularly among the young middle class. India- like China – is a new market that offers promise for any producer. The middle class in India is emerging along the patterns found historically in Europe and the West, not connected to government funds, jobs and contracts (a pattern one finds in many parts of Southeast Asia) but one driven by entrepreneurship and creativity. This bodes well for its development long-term. What was interesting to me, however, was that the middle class had not yet translated into a political force, at least a recognizable one. Politics remains patronage and personality driven, ethnically tied, and largely local. While there are calls for better governance, especially performance in the economy, the connection between the middle class and political parties appeared weak, as “traditional” patterns shaped politics to a large extent. Where the middle class has had its most important political impact is in civil society it seems. Longer term, I expect considerable change here too.
The final issue that sticks with me is the impact of Persian culture on northern India. This was translated during the Mughal period and can be found in the fabulous monuments and buildings, including the stunning Taj Mahal and Amber Fort. It was the screens, the carvings, the architecture and the art work, both in the monuments and in the contemporary markets of Jaipur that illustrated the long-lasting effect of the south-south ties of India to the rest of the world. Personally, the trip to northern India reminded me of the land of my birth and its own magnificent treasures, Iran. Visiting India was like a visit to my earlier home.
Special thanks to Philip Oldenburg, a mentor from Columbia, for showing me around northern India and to the people who welcomed me with their great food, openness and exciting embrace of old and new.