“Could I have a beer with that?” I ask. “No — it is not possible,” the waiter apologises. I am not legless in London, but dining in Delhi. It is election time in India and the usual debates, posters and other paraphernalia of democracy abound. Nevertheless I have stumbled on one process Britain does not share. As it is the evening before polling this is a “dry day”. Tomorrow beer will be available only after 5pm. The day of the count will also be a dry day. The newspapers report on illicit hauls of alcohol caught in transit between provinces and on young people “making their own arrangements”.
I content myself with water. It is a small and rather touching inconvenience which adds a suitable solemnity, not to say sobriety, to the business of democracy.
Invited to speak in New Delhi, I have leapt at the chance to visit India for the first time. I am guided round the Taj Mahal by a smart young local man. He is interested in politics but worried about innumerable aspects of his country. Like everyone else, it is corruption that is at the top of his mind, although there are some signs of improvement. A cabinet minister recently went to jail for the offence. A year after the horrific Delhi bus gang rape, sexual harassment also remains a dominant issue. Again, a prominent public figure has just been convicted for such a crime. But in a society in which “love marriages” remain both rare and also suspect, societal problems remain which are not going away swiftly.
To some Indians the huge task ahead of them seems to lead to despair. “In India everyone does just what they like,” one says to me. “For instance, in UK if someone defecates in the street they are in trouble. Here nothing happens.” “Broadly speaking,” I say by way of agreement.
The motorway from Delhi to Jaipur is crammed with buses, vans, motorbikes and cars, but also camels, cows, elephants and monkeys. Two men overtake on a motorbike. Filling the space between them is a goat. Schoolchildren in immaculate uniform appear almost miraculously.
While not everyone progresses the same way down the same side of the motorway, there are no crashes. Everyone seems to find their way around each other, the horn a constant reminder you are there. I ask someone about this. “Never any accidents on busy roads,” he says. “Only on empty roads there are accidents.” Which seems to be true.
While visiting the glories of India’s past and admiring much about its improving present it is of course impossible not to notice the poverty: it is horrific, worse than any other I have seen. The old idea of “how lucky we are” is probably slightly patronising, but remains true. To put it another way, the Brits who complain that their human rights are being abused because they aren’t allowed a taxpayer-funded spare bedroom or because they have to use their savings to buy their child an Xbox for Christmas ought to see India.
I am aware that British people reflecting on the possibility that India could do with a bit more Christianity must be careful — but it could. The concept of the sanctity of each individual is not something that the caste system, among competing others, encourages. Before leaving London I was grilled by Joan Bakewell for the BBC series Belief. I tried rather poorly to convey the fact that even religious doubters should fear the decline of certain specifically Judaeo-Christian concepts and seek ways to pass them on. In the West we have become so bloated with “rights” that every desire has transformed into a “right”. Who will tell us when they are not? Perhaps nothing but the shame that while we indulge ourselves there are millions of people sitting in the dust by a stall with no rights system to help them.
This is the year in which the two biggest debates on Britain’s future will be decided. Whether Scotland votes for independence is in the hands of the Scots. The other — whether we might be represented in Europe for the first time by a majority party which wants us out of the EU — is in everyone’s hands. Both these questions are huge, but we seem to be stumbling into them.
Given the gravity of the matter I wonder whether the UK should not institute dry days around the votes. Would it focus the mind or lead to riots and disturbances? How would Scotland react? Whatever the result, a vote for a smaller Britain inside a bigger Europe would be the surest sign of drunkenness.