India: What’s the big attraction?

THE BEST JOURNALISTS are travel writers in stealth mode.

“You get to see what you see,” says my colleague Don Hill. “Not what the powers-that-be want to show you.”

I’m no longer a politician. And I find myself travelling in India (a longer story), in the wake of our prime minister’s costume ball, and lately Jason Kenney’s hi-how-are-you tour. This week, it’s the honourable Andrew Scheer’s turn to enjoy sit down conversations with leadership and business in the world’s largest democracy; they got their photo-ops, for sure. Handshakes.

But that’s not what I saw.


TWO BIG THINGS caught my attention talking to locals in New Delhi, Rajasthan, and Calcutta.

Considering that it’s a huge country with over a billion people, a blend of religions, cultures, all together in one place, how can democracy work when there are over 200 registered political parties?

Consensus building is the way forward, but not necessarily the way consensus is built in the West. “Democracy works in India,” says Don Hill, harkening back to his days as host of Tapestry, CBC Radio One’s religious show, “because Hindus believe it is possible to have many manifestations of a single god.” Therefore, the reasoning goes, there can be many, many, many manifestations of a conservative point of view—many political parties, for instance, bent toward conservative values—where an agreeable consensus can be built to last more than one election cycle.


In 1970s Alberta, Peter Lougheed pretty much did the same, but on a much smaller scale. As premier, he built consensus across a wide political spectrum of ideas in the province ranging from the traditional to the progressive—that’s one of 12 Peter’s Principles.


Precariously wedged between historical foes in Pakistan and rising superpower China, the business of India these days is business. Everyone seems to have a thing going. It’s reminiscent of the Horatio Alger stories of my dad’s generation, where hard work pays dividends and handsome rewards. And if that sounds like the go-go decades in Alberta—the 1970s and 80s—you’ll recall how Lougheed’s progressive and conservative colleagues built attractions to draw investment to Alberta. That’s another one of Peter’s Principles. 


Identity politics (please keep reading) alongside populist nationalism (please continue to the next line) are like a wrecking ball.

In a new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (2018),  Francis Fukuyama explains how ‘we the people’ no longer seem partial to institutions, courts, legislative assemblies, non-partisan bureaucracies and so forth that undermine individual leaders’ personal power.  That the ‘strong man’ politics of today are a growing concern in some quarters translates into a giant yawn in others.

India’s founders—Gandhi and Nehru—designed a nation whose identity is built around the idea that extremely diverse populations can be united under one flag. And certainly not by declaring themselves, as Trudeau (the younger) said about Canada, as the first ‘post-national country‘.

IMG_2665India is a very young country.  As a nation it is ambitious. The generation coming of age is hell-bent on making India great again. And with more than half under 25, hooked into the digital age with smartphones, and leapfrogging into a new 5G network (which puts to shame anything we’ve got on the ground in Alberta), they’re set to disrupt the world’s digital economy.

When I moved to Alberta in the 1980s, this place—this place I call home now—had the same can-do attitude. People were young, vibrant, and extremely optimistic about the future. We were building a better place—together—another one of Peter’s Principles—we were all encouraged to be pragmatic dreamers. 


Political correctness and post-nation-state bafflegab is stifling a much-needed dialogue on how to better integrate immigrants and refugees in Canada.  In India, it’s a luxury that people can’t afford. While people I spoke with in India pragmatically agree marginalized groups need support, they are wary of a focus on tiny sub-categories of ‘victims’; they see it as distraction from the larger issues; building the economy, they agree, is job number one: how to bring more employment to India; how to quash Chinese e-commerce inroads; how to reduce trade barriers within their country. That’s what’s most important. Once that’s done, they say, India can get on with the luxury of attending to the less than less than one per cent.

And the other tool in India’s toolkit? Public confidence in India’s independent judiciary and rule of law. On planes, trains and buses in India, the ordinary people I met—a surgeon in Jodhpur, a naval officer in Calcutta, an entrepreneur from Kashmir—all declared faith in the ability of Indian judges to make secular, practical decisions that reflected the will of the people. Unlike Scheer and Kenney, I wasn’t sitting in on luncheon meetings with politicos or big companies; I had access to the streets of India.

Indian President Modi’s BJP party is undeniably based on a Hindu-version of democracy that embraces national identity. The people seem confident in the independence of their judiciary. Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court, Dipak Misra, retired in early October but not before making a flurry of landmark decisions, all pragmatic: Adultery and homosexuality are no longer criminal offences and females can no longer be denied access to religious temples. 

We can’t just believe in diversity!

Diversity can be a virtue. But Francis Fukuyama cautions: “Diversity can’t be the basis for identity in and of itself.”  

National identity has to be substantive. Explicit. The public education curriculum needs to reinforce the same values. Fukuyama’s advise is to clearly articulate those expectations and deliberately assimilate citizens, especially newcomers, to these identities. 

peter lougheed_profile_AIf 1.3 billion Indians—a populace with extreme religious, ethnic and racial stratification—can make their country work as a nation, then for goodness sake 36 million Canadians and 4 million Albertans should be able to do the same. 

Let’s embrace Peter Lougheed’s decades-old dream—let’s make our home great again, bringing together our diverse strengths & fleshing out a story of our future that everyone can see themselves in.

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5 thoughts on “India: What’s the big attraction?

  1. Hi Donna. I’m one of the folks with whom phlbrwn shared your article. I agree with your observation that political correctness and excessive nationalism are a “wrecking ball.” Both trends have been severely polarizing and slowly “wrecking” America, my home country, for a long while (I’m a liberal-to-moderate Democrat, BTW). It sounds like India can offer a healthy model to Americans (and, evidently, Canadians) about how democracies might remain healthy. We shut our eyes to such global examples at our own peril.

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