Erstwhile Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, and Hindu scholar, finds that India has some problems, but will prosper.
If one date marks the ending of the age of colonialism that dominated the world polity for five centuries, it is the 15th of August 1947, the day India got her independence. The sheer scope, size, and momentum of the Indian freedom movement make this date unique. It marked the breaching of the citadel of colonialism and its ultimate collapse. Within a decade or so, dozens of countries in Asia and Africa became free and a new, post-colonial era dawned. There is another reason for the date´s significance. For India, shaking off the colonial yoke was only half of the story; the other half was that India chose democracy. Many countries liberated themselves from colonialism, but not necessarily with their people becoming free and securing democratic rights. But, for India, with its legacy of a mass-based freedom movement, the choice of democracy was only natural.
Since that day 50 years ago, we have had a vibrant democracy and are probably unique, in the developing world, in having maintained a fully democratic system with a free press and an independent judiciary. The fact that one-sixth of the human race lives in a democratic system is in itself a major accomplishment.
One of the achievements of independent India has been the democratisation of its political psyche. Before Independence, vast sections of India´s people were submerged and excluded from the political process. Today, people are aware both of their rights and that their vote can make a difference. In these 50 years, a process of ´inclusion´ has been in progress. Today there is the positive feeling that every legitimate political party, i.e. a party that accepts the primacy of our Constitution and is prepared to work within its ambit, can share power. In the last 50 years, almost every such political party has shared power, either at the centre or in the states.
On the negative side, however, there has been no majority government since 1989. It is becoming increasingly clear that the era of the one-party government is in eclipse and that the age of the coalition is coming into its own. We have had six minority governments in a row. Not only has the majority eluded us, the coalitions that have been formed are minority coalitions. Coalition of political parties represents a well-established political strategy and may be good for a pluralistic society like India since it ensures representation of different views in civil polity.
A coalition is formed to attain a majority, whereas in India, a system of minority coalition governments with “support from outside” has evolved. This uniquely Indian contribution to the system of political governance is a contradiction in terms and inevitably results in disaster. One way out of it is the formation of principled pre-electoral coalitions that seek the people´s mandate during election for their combine. That appears to be the pattern towards which we are moving. However, it may take an election or two before its contours become more firmly established.
Meanwhile, the process of electoral reforms, already begun, has to continue. Most importantly, the functioning of political parties has to come within the pale of a certain degree of regulation. At the same time, a system of compulsory voting should also be introduced. There is no reason why, in a democratic polity, the people should not be obliged to vote. At present, only 40 to 50 percent of the electorate turns out on election day. With the fragmentation among political parties and the low voter turn-out, people are getting elected with as low as 15-20 percent of votes. If voting were made obligatory, as in Australia, a clearer and more accurate profile of what people want would emerge. The right to vote should have the corresponding obligation to vote at election time.
When we began our journey as a free nation half a century ago, Jawaharlal Nehru´s model of economic development gave government the commanding heights of our economy. This enabled us to invest in heavy industry and lay the foundation for the economic breakthrough that is now in progress. In time, however, the whole system ran into serious difficulties because government control of economy degenerated into statism, red-tapism, proliferating bureaucracy, unaccountability, inefficiency and corruption. But, with the emerging changes in free-market economy and economic globalisation, our policies are also undergoing a sea change.
We are now dismantling many of the controls, licensing systems and other regulatory measures that had become sources of corruption and were impediments to our economic development. The substantial changes in our economic policies have shown that we have flexibility and resilience to keep pace with the changing world environment. But, it is regrettable that while our economic policies may appear very liberal on the surface, deep down the decision-making structures the same old bureaucratic mindset is still at play. The lower levels of bureaucracy are yet to realise that an economic revolution is on.
What is even more important is that as the economy undergoes liberalisation, we must find ways to safeguard the vulnerable sections of our society. They are the ones to feel its impact first, and we do not have a safety net for them. The view of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that transformation of economic system inevitably involves a temporary dip in living standards is not acceptable. Millions of our people live at subsistence level and a temporary dip will mean that the most vulnerable sections, the poorest of the poor, will get submerged. We cannot accept such a situation.
We have to evolve a liberalisation policy with a human face. Not a theoretical liberalisation, not merely financial or fiscal liberalisation, but one which recognises the fact that we are still one of the poorest nations of the world. The challenge before the Indian political leadership is to see how we can combine economic liberalisation, which is inevitable, with the welfare of the most vulnerable sections of our society. Can it be done? My answer is that it has to be done. Every Indian citizen is precious and none can be sacrificed at the altar of liberalisation.
New Social Equilibrium
India is a land of multiple religions where nine of the world´s 12 major religions flourish: the four Indic religions that were born here – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism, and the five that came from West Asia – Baha´i, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. And while Hinduism may be the dominant religion in India, and though India was partitioned on the basis of religion, the architects of our Constitution not only did not react by setting up a theocratic state, they also took special care to establish a state where all religions would be treated equally. If anything, special provisions were made for minority religions.
This is something that is without parallel anywhere in the world; a country, partitioned on the basis of religion, adopts and strives to maintain a pluralistic and secular society. We still have inter-religious tensions. But, by and large, during the last 50 years, we have been able to grow out of many of the phobias and hang-ups of Partition.
At the moment, we are going through a process of social turmoil. The old social hierarchical structures within Hinduism are slowly disintegrating and new ones are emerging. The extended joint family system is giving way to the nuclear family. There are still many unhappy features, like casteism and violence in the name of caste. But, in India today, a tremendous transformation is underway, and an entirely new kind of society is evolving. This is difficult to view, however, as we are too close to the event to get a proper perspective, and it may take another decade or two for the new social equilibrium to fully emerge and be readily visible.
Soon after our independence, the Cold War began in earnest and India was at the forefront of structuring what came to be known as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Having just emerged from the yoke of colonialism, we saw no reason to take sides in a modern-day Mahabharata, of joining either the Kauravas or the Pandavas. Our view was that developing nations should not necessarily be influenced by either of the two major powers and should be able to decide their future on their own and safeguard their interests.
With the implosion of the Soviet Union, the old bipolar paradigm is no longer operative. But developing nations continue to have common interests in the present bipolar world of North and South. If anything, we require a new momentum towards a more effective South-South co-operation. But the need to energise regional groupings is even more important.
We have to think much more in terms of SAARC. Regardless of their religious persuasions, South Asians are essentially a part of the same civilisation. And yet, we have our differences. If France, Germany and England, who battled each other for 500 years, could sink their differences, we, who have had differences only for 50 years, should not find it impossible to overcome them. Some of the recent developments within the SAARC region have been very hopeful, such as the Mahakali Treaty with Nepal and the Indo-Bangladesh Agreement. We need to further strengthen regional co-operation as well as bilateral relations within the SAARC region.
For the moment India and Pakistan are both opening their economies. But they are opening them to the rest of the world, not to each other. If we are to liberalise our economies, we must start the process within our region. That is the path that we should take for the next decade or so. If we focus our energies and psychic powers on the SAARC experiment and make it succeed, it will be a major contribution to the welfare of the people of South Asia.
No Soft Options
India, by its very geopolitical position and size, will have to take the lead. But what kind of lead should that be? Sri Aurobindo once said that India will rise not when she rises to trample upon the weak but to share the light of the eternal dharma for humanity. Here dharma does not refer to any particular religion, it is the intellectual and the spiritual base upon which a civilisation evolves and flourishes. Our civilisation has to blaze the trail, that is our next “tryst with destiny”.
The challenge is to develop holistic philosophies that stress complementarity instead of competition, and convergence in place of conflict. There are no soft options left, either for individuals or for nations or civilisations. The path ahead is difficult, beset with dangers from within us and from outside, and sharp as the razor´s edge. There is no other way.
The Katha Upanishad exhorts us to move forward, individually and collectively, across this perilous path with confidence, determination and an indomitable will to succeed in our goal of building a regenerated human being, a new consciousness for the age that is dawning, and a new civilisation that would ensure a harmonious future for the human race:
Uttishathata, jagrata, prapyavaran nebodhata
Khurasya dhara nishita durattaya
Durgam pathastat kavayo vadanti.