India at sixty
We shall, and we should celebrate the first sixty years of our political independence. It is natural to celebrate. There is much to celebrate. At the same time ,we should also do something that is not so natural to us: to introspect. What have we as a people done with the sixty years that have elapsed? How have we filled them? Could we have done better? Such introspection that we have in mind should be undertaken with humility and objectivity. We should exaggerate neither our failures nor our successes. As Shakespeare put it: This above all :to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Let us illustrate the point about exaggeration. Our GDP grew at the rate of 3.4% a year between 1951 and 1966, corresponding roughly to the years Jawaharlal Nehru headed the government. A smart wordsmith christened it as the ‘Hindu rate of growth', a phrase that gets repeated time and again. The implication is that till the economic reforms started in the mid 1980s and gathered momentum in 1990-91,mainly because of severe foreign exchange shortages, India was not on the right track. The irresistible tide of globalization imposes on us the imperative to open up our economy, invite foreign investment and technology. There is much merit in such an argument. Yet, the argument is wrong and it lacks, above all, historical depth. Those who pejoratively refer to the ‘Hindu growth of rate' do fail to mention that between 1900 and 1947, the annual GDP growth was 0.8%. To put it differently, the growth rate quadrupled during the Nehru years whereas since then, it has grown less than three times, if we take the latest growth figures. As we all know, it takes much more energy to get the engine started than to keep it running. It is not being argued that the ‘permit-license raj' and the exaggerated focus on ‘import-substitution' were perfect policy instruments. The point being made is that we need to have a historical perspective. It was not possible to move straight to 8 or 9 % growth after 50 years of 0.8% growth. We shall understand the progress made since 1947, only if we can see, with an effort of imagination, what India was like at the time of independence. In 1951, life expectancy at birth was 32 years. Literacy was 17%. All that is part of what the economists call the initial conditions. The initial conditions have another dimension to them and that is the global situation, or the initial conditions(global). There was a time when the West was unwilling to part with industrial technology to India. One example will make our point clear: the steel technology. Broadly speaking ,we should review the progress made under three headings: political, economic, and social. We should also bear in mind that the three sectors are not watertight compartments and that they are interconnected. There cannot be sustained progress in one field without corresponding progress in the other two. Politically, we have preserved and deepened the democratic foundations of our polity. Our experiment with universal franchise is unique in history. The United States at the time of its birth did not adopt universal franchise. The black Americans and women got franchise much later. In Switzerland women got full voting rights only by 1990. When we started building a democratic polity based on universal franchise with a literacy rate of 17%, there were many prophets of doom. The recent elections held in U.P. and elsewhere were by and large peaceful and orderly. Elsewhere in the subcontinent the army has taken over more than once in the same country. In India the transfer of power takes place peacefully as it happened even after the Emergency. We can truly say that democracy has taken deep roots on India's soil. In the first general election in 1951 the 62% of the electorate exercised their right to vote. Because of the low level of literacy we introduced symbols. Even now we have a higher level of voter participation in our elections than the Western democracies in general. However, we should admit to ourselves that our democracy needs much improvement. The quality of those who get elected ,at times, leaves much to be desired. There is no excuse whatsoever for the Indian electorate to elect those who are proclaimed criminals and known to be corrupt. Corruption is spreading like cancer into the system. The quality of governance is unacceptably low in many areas. Government schemes for the poverty-stricken do not deliver. The bureaucracy, with some exceptions ,has not proved itself to be capable of carrying out the tasks assigned to it. A democracy that does not deliver good and effective governance to the advantage of those who are at the bottom of the income pyramid has a long way to go. Economically, the progress we have made is writ large and cannot be denied. But, other countries that were at the same level of per capita income as us ,say south Korea, is way ahead of us. Of course, it is possible to point out the special factors for such fast growth. But, we have to admit to ourselves that we could have done much better than we have. Work alone creates wealth, whether it is the work of the worker , of the manager or of the public servant. How many millions of human-days we have wasted in industrial disputes that could have been resolved given common sense and keenness to settle without damaging the nation's growth? GDP growth is, of course, important. But it is not enough unless the growth is inclusive and the sad truth about India is that our economic growth has been far from inclusive. A third of us live on Rs 20 a day. Do they have anything to celebrate? About 400 million workers have no social security. Social progress that we have accumulated cannot be denied. The Dalits are better off today than they were in 1947. It is true that atrocities against them do take place. The Dalits have occupied some of the highest offices, starting from the presidency of the Republic. They have become chief ministers. It will be naïve to dismiss all this as tokenism. At present, one might reasonably expect no large scale atrocity against the Dalits to occur in U.P., or if it happens, one can be certain that the state will take strong action. The Dalits have become more conscious of their rights and at times they do hit back when attacked. One of our major failures is the disinclination to develop broad national consensus on some major issues. Imagine a family starting from Delhi to go to Agra; after moving towards Agra for 50 kms, the family changes its mind and goes back towards Delhi as the new destination is Chandigarh; after driving 60 kms in the direction of Chandigarh, the family changes its mind once again and reverses direction and moves in the direction of Kolkota. Such a family will be permanently on the road without reaching any of its various destinations. As a people we seem to be addicted to endless debate. Debate is part of democracy, but debating for the sake of debating, without conceding the interlocutor's point even when she is right, is not part of a mature democracy. Whether it is about secularism or affirmative action (reservations) the debate never stops nor does it get enriched. Take secularism. Is it not clear that India has to be secular? Can we seriously consider building an India based on a single religion and reducing those Indians who follow other religions to second class citizenship? How do we make India strong if by practising religious fundamentalism we weaken her? Take reservations in jobs and educational institutions. It is beyond debate that a reservations policy based on reason and pragmatism will empower the weak, oppressed for centuries. But, such a policy cannot be based on vote bank politics. It has to keep the creamy layer out. Again, the reservations should not exceed a reasonable limit. Is it possible to shortlist a few major areas where we can start developing national consensus? It is possible, if we choose not to over-politicize ourselves. India's place in the comity of nations is determined partly by her foreign policy. It is good that there is so much debate going on foreign policy questions, but the debate has to be constructive. Every debate should move us towards a consensus. Take the case of nonalignment. Can we not arrive at a reasoned consensus on this ? It is clear that with the collapse of the bipolar world our foreign policy has to change. Yet, it does not follow that it is in our interest to fortify the unipolar features of the international system. It does not follow that the sole purpose of our foreign policy should be to get closer and closer to any single power. Nor does it follow that we should reject America and all that a close and cordial relationship with that big power has to offer to us. Can we not agree on a policy that takes care of our national interests and build up a consensus? One of the enduring images etched in our national memory is that of Mahatma Gandhi, far away from Delhi where UK's Union Jack was being replaced by India's Tricolor on the 15th of August,1947, exerting his moral authority to put down the vicious flames of communal hatred and violence , in Beliaghata, Calcutta. He had reached there on 13th August. The Mahatma's magic worked. Sanity returned. The morning of the day of India's independence, the Father of the Nation woke up in a Muslim's house. A grateful Gandhi wrote: In their thousands they began to embrace one another and they began to pass freely through places which were considered to be points of danger by one party or the other. Indeed, Hindus were taken to their masjids by their Muslim brethren and the latter were taken by their Hindu brethren to the mandirs. Both with one voice shouted ‘Jai Hind' or ‘Hindus-Muslims ! Be one.' We may not accept Gandhi's economics, but surely there is no good reason to reject his passionate advocacy of an India where followers of different religions are equal citizens. What a horrendous atrocity was Gujarat 2002?As one grows up one will realize more and more that there is much that is valuable and relevant in his teaching. Indira Gandhi once said one's understanding of Gandhi is a function of one's maturity. The Mahatmas talisman for those in charge of public policy is eternally relevant: "I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away. We started with referring to ‘political independence.' Independence has three dimensions to it: political, economic, and intellectual. We are yet to gain our economic independence. We can truly say that we are economically free only when no Indian goes to sleep hungry; when every Indian can lead a life of dignity free from poverty, ignorance, and ill health. Intellectual independence is even more difficult to gain than economic independence. Take the case of Purchasing Power Parity(PPP). It is clear that PPP applies to consumption only and that using it to compare the relative size or strength of the economies does not make much sense. Yet, a good part of our media and our urban elite get so excited when told that by 2001 India had emerged as the 4th largest economy in PPP terms. Do they realize that one of the motivations for promoting the PPP idea was to make out a case for reducing concessional World Bank aid to India? We live in an age dominated by the West. We speak of an interconnected, interdependent, shrinking world. But, there is a distressing asymmetry about the interdependence we are talking about. The North is able to dominate and shape the course of the countries in the South whereas the latter have hardly any power or means to influence the North. Much of what goes under the name of interdependence is dependence in one direction and domination in the opposite direction. We shall give only one example of intellectual dependence. Take the concept of purchasing power parity(PPP). We all know that it is a useful concept to figure out the true living standard in a country. We also know that it does not make sense to use PPP to measure the comparative economic importance and strength of the different countries. Yet, when Goldman Sachs says that by 2050, India in PPP terms will be bigger than US, some of us get elated. The challenge before us is to build a twenty first century India. As Rajiv Gandhi put it: When I started talking of the twenty first century, of building India for the twenty first century, I did not have pictures of computers popping out of every village shop or every home .I was really thinking of how we were going to change mental attitudes in the twenty first century.
March 18, 2012
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