Varanasi: Back to the Future of India

Featured & Cover Varanasi Back to the Future of India

If the people of India were asked about their preferred tryst with destiny, what would they say? Hoping to find an uninterrupted connection with ancient India, I arrived in Varanasi last spring and discovered so much more. In the 2nd century BCE Varanasi (and neighboring Sarnath), the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Kashi, attracted and cultivated faith pluralism, multi-disciplinary and open discourse, commerce, and trade rivaling that of a modern metropolis anywhere in the world today. Three hundred years before Pericles and Athenian democracy, ancient Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, surrounded by quiet woodland where deer and peacocks roamed wild, served as the beacon of enlightenment.

Sarnath was embraced by Siddhartha Gautama, and it is where he delivered his first sermon in 6th century BCE. Though weathered by time and disrepair, the Varanasi I witnessed was still scintillating as a microcosm of today’s India and breathtaking in divine inspiration.

A city of temples, enchanted ghats, brightly painted wooden boats plying the sacred Ganges, seven priests lifting in unison fairy lights to Ganga Aarti every day at dawn and at dusk. Yet, all coexisting seamlessly with numerous mosques, churches, and Buddhist temples built by Japan, Thailand, Tibet, and other Buddhist nations. A people living a heightened spirituality among mundane domesticity, the city offers a temple for Mother India that was commissioned by Mahatma Gandhi.

Varanasi’s distinct neighborhoods are mapped according to the diverse heritage of congregants from each Indian State from Bengal to Gujarat to Telangana to Punjab.

Varanasi symbolizes a multi-faith nation thriving in unison and a Hindu way of life that is unadulterated and yet perfectly adept at modernizing. Not included among India’s economic hub cities, Varanasi, the de facto heartland, remains untouched by the hyper-paced modernization that is underway in other parts of India. Unknown to Varanasi is the identity crisis afflicting India’s large cities and their conflict with Westernization.

During my visit to Varanasi, I indulged in conversations that stoked my imagination of what is possible in India’s future. Heartened by the sophisticated and global perspective of those that I met, I came away with an understanding of the average Varanasi resident’s aspirations, which is gainful employment and a modest standard of living in their hometown. This should be the nominal expectation of a free people, but it stands in stark contrast with the heightened expectations of the globetrotting Indian diaspora.

Disconnected from the day-to-day travails of India’s multitude, the diaspora’s shared discourse is India’s preeminence as a global power, while overlooking the investments and market reforms necessary to achieve that. What then, does a road map to prosperity look like that matches the expectations of the people I interacted with in Varanasi?

First, simulating the export-driven Chinese growth narrative of the last thirty years that plowed its profits into domestic mega infrastructure projects and mercantilism abroad is not the best fit for India. Inspired by their tradition, but modern in execution, the average Indian appears to prefer economic growth that is local rather than a nationwide scale up.

Indeed, some Varanasi residents were vexed by the clean-up campaign and the construction of an expressway connecting their airport to the city’s hotel district, which showcased the city to the recent G20 summiteer. Creating few local jobs, the project primarily benefited politically connected out-of-state contractors.

Second, despite the strides made in lifting 500 million poor into a burgeoning middle class and some in the middle class into stratospheric wealth, prosperity remains inaccessible to the vast swath of Indians. This was palpable in Varanasi during my visit. Additionally, key economic indicators reported in 2023, both by the Indian government and by the World Bank, point to the disparities as well as the challenges that lie ahead. The country simply has not produced enough jobs in order for a large cross section of its population to be gainfully employed.

On the other hand, India’s economy has the potential to benefit from a significant “demographic dividend” – the average age of the population being only 25 years. Thus, government policies that impede private sector job growth may stand in the way of realizing this benefit.

Currently only about half of India’s population is employed, which is at a lower percentage than the global labor force participation rate at 65% and a Chinese rate of 76%. Additionally, India’s 10% unemployment rate accounting for those that are in the workforce is significantly higher than most developing countries. To wit, India’s 2023 GDP at $3.7 trillion, the fifth largest in the world, is no reason for celebration, as India also has a population of 1.4 billion, the world’s largest.

Third, propelling the economy at the 9-11% rate experienced by China for three decades will require bolder market reform. Perhaps what is needed is a second phase of the ambitious reforms undertaken by the Indian government in the 1990s and early 2000s, which dramatically expanded the private markets and made modern India possible. Today, there is an uptick in foreign investments into India as global investors flee China’s geopolitical risk; however, the same investors have diversified their relocation to multiple smaller countries instead of just choosing India.

India is unable to prevail in this competition despite its significant domestic market, a growing skilled workforce, and the largest working age population. Nevertheless, the current flux in the global supply chain is an opportunity for India, provided that priority is given to local economies such as Varanasi (not just a few big cities) and small business growth (rather than a few large monopolies), both of which are the economic lifeline for a majority of Indians.

Visiting Varanasi, I have two takeaways. The infectious hopefulness of the people despite the day-to-day difficulties they face and the entrepreneurial spirit of the youth who are not willing to limit their dreams to the legacy of the previous generation. This, in and of itself, builds a nation that has long envisioned.

Its tryst with destiny. Yet, despite the gift of a magnificent heritage, India’s potential has failed to materialize in parity with the enlightenment of its past. But then again, the India of tomorrow is still unfolding and that is something to look forward to.

(Sue (Sutapa) Ghosh Stricklett is an Indian American attorney. She practices national security law and defense technology trade at her Washington, DC law practice. She was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as USAID Assistant Administrator, Asia. Her family has deep roots in Kolkata and in Murshidabad, West Bengal, which she has traced to the sixteenth century.)

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