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The Citizen

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Harvard India Conference at the Kennedy School

By Jaya Bhagat, MC-MPA’13 & Mason Fellow

 “You are sad,” said the White Knight.  “Let me sing you a song to comfort you. ….Everybody that hears me sing it.  Either it brings tears to their eyes, or else.”

“Or else what?” said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

“Or else it doesn’t, you know.”

-from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Harvard India Conference on March 9 attracted quite a few luminaries from India.  Their occasionally dissonant and often anachronistic world-view indicated it had been a struggle for the organizers to find pertinent speakers. 

Perhaps that is why the conference took on a tenor that was akin to the “different branches of arithmetic,” that the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland spoke of:  “Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision.” 

Some amount of ennui is perhaps natural in conferences of this kind.  What was unforgivable, however, was the sweeping of genuine problems facing India under the proverbial durrie. 

Two main themes reverberated: Either India is overflowing with great potential or everything is wrong.  Getting rid of government or allowing for more government preoccupied many a speaker as did their personal struggle to spread the light.

Many speakers declaimed loudly that they had the bug-proof software solution that would jumpstart India’s slow mainframe of progress.  Given the rhetoric, there was not much room for quiet introspection or realistic enquiry.

A panel discussing “politics as a vocation” was tasked with finding pathways for India’s youth to engage in Indian politics.  Usually, as any devotee of the HKS communications program and Marshall Ganz will tell you, everyone loves to hear a good story. Yet, in these panelists’ stories of self there was no story of us. 

“My life is a miracle,” declared one speaker who then proceeded, during the remaining time available, to explain through detailed examples why this was just so. 

Another panelist emphasized that you needed money or powerful friends in politics. Or you should be able to “inspire” people by being a “problem-solver.” I vainly waited for illustrations.  Even more so because the state he hailed from, between 2005 and 2007, had witnessed 1,313 suicides of farmers driven to hopelessness by mounting debt.  Surely the need to make a difference and help prevent such tragedies from recurring was reason enough to enter politics?  But no hapless farmer got a mention. The speaker’s own funding from Indian American supporters, however, did.

The third panelist told us she had given up a cushy international consulting job to enter politics.  Her management-jargon-peppered speech indicated you could not take the consultant out of her.  Her theory of change spoke of handing over the implementation of development programs (and of course funds) to the biggest distribution network in India.  This was neither the government nor an NGO.  Nope.  Nothing so staid would do. 

The biggest distribution network happened to be her party’s cadre of unemployed jobless youth whom she helpfully pointed out just “sat at tea stalls and smoked cigarettes between election cycles.”  The word “distribution” seemed apt now.   Giving party cadres access to development funds ensured distribution, just not to the real beneficiaries. 

The piècede résistance was the keynote speaker, the self-professed messiah of India’s telecom revolution. Sam Pitroda made it clear that while corruption had become a way of life in India, he had never faced it personally.  The reality — that thanks to his connections to the most powerful in India’s political establishment he had probably never struggled with the petty corruption an ordinary Indian citizen faces every day — was glossed over. 

Pitroda failed to address the fact that corruption in India is an omnipresent hydra-headed monster that evokes responses ranging from a pragmatic complicity to a deep-rooted powerlessness. In 2011, India had the dubious distinction of ranking 87 out of 178 on Transparency International’s index of corruption, with the organization noting that “bureaucratic and petty corruption is extreme in India.”  I wondered what a poor farmer, pledging his land to a usurious money lender and hounded by corrupt law enforcement officials and stony-faced local politicians, would’ve made of Pitroda’s assertion. 

Each speaker and panelist faced an enthusiastic and idealistic student audience.  Eager to learn.  Keen to serve and give back.  The audience asked what it could do. 

Yet in the speeches I heard, there was no recognition of the reality that no one leader alone is sufficient and every citizen of India needs to take responsibility to usher in change.

Many eons ago, a small, frail man wearing a simple loin cloth, travelled across the parched, dusty, and harsh landscape of India and showed the world that true power comes from interconnectedness and empathy and popular awakening. 

Mahatma Gandhi did not keynote at the Harvard India Conference, not even in spirit.