When does a small town grow up and become a big boy? Does size matter? Geography is a peculiar addiction. Fat makes you large, possibly very large, but it does not make you strong. Some nations have a quarter of their population herded in slums extending in myriad directions because they have not created the capacity to build more cities. America’s strength does not lie in New York and Washington but in the fact that Microsoft can be born in Seattle and the world’s software industry is controlled from a desert in California. India was weak as long as its strength lay in the traditional four great cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. These urban sprawls became sores instead of cities as the poor flocked toward them, driven by unrealistic hopes. It is only logical that all four were British cities. Chennai was seeded by an English adventurer who wanted to live within riding distance of his local girlfriend; Mumbai harbour came as part of the dowry of Charles II and was then rented by the British monarch to the East India Company. Job Charnock founded Kolkata on a marsh because better points to the north along the Hooghly river were taken by European merchants who had arrived earlier. You might think of Delhi as a Mughal city, and so it was; but every bit of Delhi was razed to the ground by a vengeful Company after the uprising of 1857, and modern Delhi is a British invention with only a whiff of its glorious history. The great capitals of Indian India, Lucknow or Mysore or Patna or Jaipur, stagnated or decayed during the British Raj.
Modern India is rebuilding itself along its old centres of economic and political power, even as it lifts unknown one-street inhabitations into industrial hubs that are, to use a well-known phrase, the marvel of our age. Jamshedji Tata provided the template with Jamshedpur; Jawaharlal Nehru used state resources to create more steel cities. It was Dhirubhai Ambani who took the imaginative leap forward into the private sector ecopolis; the economic conglomerate around which Indians could create a new future. Imperceptibly, but indelibly, the map of India is now crowded with dozens of germinal points that make great labour migrations unnecessary. The future is in cities like Kochi or Aurangabad or Barmer: in less than a decade Barmer will rival Jaipur, and within the foreseeable future become the second or third heart of Rajasthan.
It is this India which is crashing through the glass ceilings of our social and economic history. It has turned Marxism on its head; instead of seizing from the rich in order to give to the poor, it is churning out its own cream. It is driven by a passion to improve the individual self, but knows that this is impossible without changing the collective well-being. It is not socialist, and indeed might be suffering from generosity-deficit when it comes to those at the lowest levels of our tragically tiered social order. But it is social-democratic, in a European rather than American fashion, willing to tolerate positive discrimination even if it grumbles relentlessly while doing so. The grumble is human; but tolerance comes from the fact that it has itself benefited from reservation policies.
It is this Indian who has swarmed across the medal podiums of the Commonwealth Games. Sport is a significant route to recognition as well as economic upsurge. The story of the farmer who could not enter the stadium to watch his wrestler son win a medal because of his unfamiliarity with the big city and its projects, and the contempt which police have for the poor, is both saddening and luminous. That unfortunate father will get over his hurt; pride in the son’s glory has changed his life already. These athletes, including the many who did not win medals but learnt to compete, were not manufactured in some state factory machine, as in China; they are champions of free will, as well as champions through free will. China’s achievements will be vulnerable to the contradictions inevitable within a state-dominated matrix; the idealism of Marx and Lenin could not prevent such contradictions from eroding its successes. Individualism makes Indian achievement more chaotic, but it is also the bedrock strength that will carry it further. China irons its dangerous creases once every fifty years; we do so as we go along, perhaps leaving the collar rumpled as we get the rest of the shirt right. The possibility of turmoil is far less in the second model. This is not to make a value judgement; one merely records an ongoing reality. Chroniclers do not always know how the chronicle will end, but we still have to do our reporting.
China makes the Chinese. Indians make India. Give me the second option any day.