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Announced in 1998 by then Prime Minister Atal B. Vajpayee, who is credited with giving the project its grandiose name, the Golden Quadrilateral is exceeded in scale only by the national railway system built by the British in the 1850s. For decades after its 1947 independence, India practiced a kind of South Asian socialism in keeping with the idealism of its founders, Gandhi and Nehru, and its economy eventually stalled. In the 1990s the country began opening its markets to foreign investment, led by a pro-growth government and staffed by an army of young go-getters who speak excellent English and work for a fraction of the wages paid in the West. Yet India's leaders realized their decrepit highways could hobble the country in its race toward modernization. "Our roads don't have a few potholes," Prime Minister Vajpayee complained to aides in the mid-1990s. "Our potholes have a few roads."

Ten years after Vajpayee's announcement, the GQ is among the most elaborately conceived highway systems in the world, a masterpiece of high-tech ingenuity that is, in many ways, a calling card for India in the 21st century. Seen on a 48-inch flat-screen computer monitor at highway administration headquarters in Delhi, the GQ seems as beautiful as a space capsule. Its designers describe it as an "elegant collection of data points," or a gleaming, "state-of-the-art machine," a technologically advanced conveyor belt moving goods and people around India with seamless precision.

It's easy to be swept up in their enthusiasm for a system so technologically advanced that one day, any rupture in the pavement could be detected by sensors and maintenance crews dispatched; where tolls would be computerized and instantly tabulated against long-term projections; where accidents trigger an instantaneous response from nearby emergency teams. And there is no doubt that the highway and the development it has generated have quickened the pulse of the nation, boosted traffic volume, and brought millions of workers pouring into medium-size and large cities from the countryside. Yet the GQ has also brought old and new India into jarring proximity, challenging the moral and cultural underpinnings of a nation founded on Gandhian principles of austerity, brotherhood, and spirituality. It's sharpened India's appetite for material possessions—especially cars—and many Indians, especially those over 30, have a hard time recognizing the India they see advertised on television and billboards, which comes in a wide choice of designer colors and does zero to sixty in under ten seconds.

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