Economic progress achieved over the past three decades has unleashed citizens' aspirations for a better tomorrow. Amidst the current economic and political gloom, the pursuit of these aspirations remains the best hope for propelling the nation forward. But we may be at risk of losing even that engine of growth. As job opportunities have diminished, the nature of aspirations has also changed. Today, many - too many - wish to get ahead by cutting corners. Corruption and mediocrity have become endemic. The sporting arena is a metaphor of our times. At the opening ceremony of the recently concluded Sochi Winter Olympics, Indian participants could not march under the national flag because officials of the Indian Olympic Association were under investigation for corruption. That the world's largest democracy could not carry its own flag at a premier global sporting event should have been a matter of unending shame, but it was briskly dismissed from the media and public consciousness. The nation needed to focus on another sport, one in which we do carry our flag, a sport that has become deeply embedded in our psyche. That game is also the symbol of consummate mediocrity. Cricket demands meagre athleticism, and more decorum than physical endurance. It is a game played by a handful of nations linked by colonial and geographical ties. Yet, cricket mesmerises our collective psyche. Several Indian public intellectuals are experts on cricket. Some compute novel player-performance statistics; others have written learned books on cricket. At the weekly editorial meeting of a leading Indian daily, the conversation customarily begins with a review of the most recent cricket matches. The sophistication of that commentary equals the quality of the political and economic analysis that follows. And, yet, even in that one game - which, by virtue of its supremacy, crowds out funding and spectator interest from other, more physically challenging endeavours - we continue to be second-rate competitors. Mediocre performers in a mediocre sport. Kids are sucked into the game, aspiring, no doubt, to emulate Sachin Tendulkar, now recognised - with the Bharat Ratna - as the greatest Indian of his generation, one of the greatest Indians of the last century. Even as Tendulkar went on to achieve his personal glories, his team struggled to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with. Two successive tours abroad without a single win are typical of a long-standing pattern. New Zealand is a country with more sheep than people; its population of 4.5 million people is less than that of South and Southwest Delhi. And cricket is not New Zealand's primary game. The New Zealand All Blacks are legendary for their utter dominance of international rugby. An Indian team, representing its national game, could not win one match against a tiny country where cricket is just one of many sporting activities. The police in Meerut arrested students on charges of sedition for cheering the Pakistani cricket team in its Asia Cup match against India. After losses to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the newspaper headlines had other victories to cheer. India "humbles Bangladesh" and achieves a "comprehensive win over Afghanistan", they declared. Yes, war-torn Afghanistan, where the miracle is that they play cricket. Must it take a six-year-old to tell the emperor that he has no clothes? At the launch of his scholarly treatise on the Indian economy, I asked a distinguished Indian economist the exact cost cricket imposed on Indian economic growth. He rightly admonished the premise of my question. Cricket creates jobs for the cricketers, who, by virtue of the untold sums they earn, add enormously to national prosperity. The stadiums are filled.
Advertising and endorsements flourish. The time and attention spent glued to the television - and the predictable post-mortem emails that examine in forensic detail each new cricketing loss - would have been wasted on less worthy endeavours. Today, every young cricketer who wants to be the next star also walks into the game's culture of corruption. Cricketing heroes are commonly shamed for match-fixing and the game's association with the underworld hangs over it like a cloud. With trendy politicians and Bollywood celebrities, this potent mix legitimises a lifestyle of unrestrained glamour. Cricket is only a game and, like the movies, it brings relief to dreary lives. But the cricketing symbols of success also set our aspirational standards. Yes, there are real sports heroes like Viswanathan Anand and Prakash Padukone. After brief celebration, they recede into anonymity. The mystery is that such a large nation produces so few world-class sporting achievements. The system is stacked against setting the bar higher. The incentives to aspire are destroyed. The schools of Shanghai produce 15-year-old children who are ahead of their peers anywhere in the world in maths, science and reading. Indian students who took part in the same test some years ago were placed second to last, ahead of only Kyrgyzstan. And yet the mantra is that India has made progress in primary education. Halting progress is judged by our own feeble standards. At the last summer Olympics, New Zealand won 13 medals - six gold, two silver and five bronze. The Indian tally was two silver and four bronze. Many commended India's progress from past medal droughts. But, surely, we must be outraged. Unfulfilled hopes have been killed and cynicism breeds. Let the new government set a goal and work to achieve it. At the next summer Olympics, India will win as many medals as New Zealand did at the last one. Let this goal galvanise a new spirit, and a new sense of mission that elevates in its wake our benchmarks for education and infrastructure. Let it be a mission that stirs our sense of national pride. There is much to aspire to.
The writer is Charles and Marie Robertson visiting professor in international economic policy at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University