The leading historian offers seven reasons why it will not. And then, to this objective judgement, he adds the subjective desires of a citizen—that it should not even attempt to become one.
| A specially commissioned essay for Outlook|
Sixty years ago, in the summer of 1948, our nation, then newly born, was struggling for its very survival. In January, Mahatma Gandhi had been murdered by a Hindu fanatic. The act had shocked many Indians, but apparently it had the approval of some. According to one news report, the jailed assassin, Nathuram Godse, received an average of 50 letters a day expressing admiration for his action. This was part of a much wider right-wing, religious, reaction against Partition. Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were calling for retribution against the Muslims who had stayed behind in India. The relations between the two communities were poisoned further by the tribal invasion of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. With the raiders aided and equipped by the Pakistani army, the religious conflict had, inevitably, become a national one. A bloody battle was on in the high mountains of the Himalaya, as the Indian Army sought to rid Kashmir of the intruders.
Six weeks after Godse fired those three shots from a Beretta pistol in New Delhi, the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI met in a secret conclave in Calcutta. At this meeting, the leadership of the CPI was taken away from a gentle and very cultured Kumaoni named P.C. Joshi. Joshi wanted the Communists to collaborate with Jawaharlal Nehru's government in building the new nation. His replacement, an austere Maharashtrian named B.T. Ranadive, believed on the other hand that the transfer of power from British to Indian hands was a sham, and that Nehru and his men were puppets of the Western imperialist powers. He took the Communists towards a new 'people's war' line, which mandated the overthrow of the Indian State through armed struggle, and its replacement by a single-party dictatorship.
In June 1948, the infant Indian State looked very fragile indeed. It was pierced from the left by the Communists, and pinched from the right by the Hindu extremists. And there were other problems aplenty. Eight million refugees had to be resettled; provided with land, homes, employment, and a sense of citizenship. Five hundred princely states had to be integrated, one by one, a process that involved much massaging of egos (for the Maharajas tended to think very highly of themselves), and just a little coercion.
The task of princely integration was in the hands of Vallabhbhai Patel and his outstanding secretary, V.P. Menon. Some rulers were willing to immediately join up with the new Dominion. Others waited in the hope of better terms. And some princes were actively hostile. In this very hot summer of 1948, the ruler giving the most trouble was the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was probably the wealthiest man in the world, and without question the most miserly. He insisted that the independence of his (very large and very badly administered realm) had been guaranteed by the British monarch; and that he would now negotiate a separate treaty with His Majesty's Government, which would assure the State of Hyderabad its political sovereignty.
British politicians, Winston Churchill among them, were egging on the Nizam to declare independence. That was a truly dangerous possibility. For, as Sardar Patel observed, an independent Hyderabad would be "a cancer in the belly of India", cutting off communications between the north and the south of the country. Despite the ruler's ambitions, it was clear that the majority of the people of Hyderabad State wished to be citizens of a free India. After waiting a year for the Nizam to come to terms, Patel sent in the Army and compelled him to join the Union.
Few Indians now alive know how uncertain our future looked in the summer of 1948.The question then being asked everywhere was 'Will India Survive?' Now, 60 years down the road, that fearful query has been replaced by a far more hopeful one, namely, 'Will India Become a Superpower?'
This new, anticipatory, expectant question has been prompted by the extraordinary resilience, in the long term, of India's democratic institutions. When the first general elections were held, in 1952, they were dubbed the 'Biggest Gamble in History'. Never before had universal adult franchise been tried in a poor, divided, and largely illiterate society. Evidently, it is a gamble that has worked. The country has successfully held 14 general elections to the national Parliament, as well as countless polls to different state assemblies. Rates of voter participation are higher than in Western democracies. And after what happened in Florida in 2000, we can add that the conduct of polls is at least as fair.
Back in 1948, doubts were also being cast about the Indian experiment with nationhood. Never before had a new nation not based its unity on a single language, religion, or common enemy (or, preferably, all of the above). However, all Indians did not have to speak Hindi or be Hindus. They did not even have to hate the people who colonised them (in fact, Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, counted an Englishman, the Christian priest Charles Freer Andrews, as his closest friend). As an inclusive, plural and non-adversarial model of nationalism, the idea of India had no precedent or imitator. It set itself apart from European nationalisms, which were based on a common language and, often, a shared faith and common enemy as well. Thus the citizens of England were united by the fact that they all spoke English, that they were mostly Protestant, and that many of them disliked France and the French. Likewise, the citizens of Poland spoke Polish, were almost all Catholic, and often detested Russia and the Russians. (In this respect, the idea of Pakistan is wholly European, based as it is on the privileging of a single religion, Islam; of a single language, Urdu; and, not least, on a collective hatred of the larger nation to its east.)
In the words of the political theorist Sunil Khilnani, India has been "a substantial bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent". As such, it inspires hope that the largely poor, still divided, and formerly colonised countries of Africa can likewise move towards a more democratic political system. Meanwhile, through its collective coexistence of different faiths, languages, cultures and cuisines, India is a better model for world governance than more homogeneous countries such as China, Japan or the United States. Once, the heterogeneity of India was seen as its greatest flaw; now, it may justly be celebrated as its greatest strength.
India was not expected to survive as a democracy; but it has. India was not expected to hold together as a single nation; but it has. These manifest successes, achieved against the odds and against the logic of human history, have compelled a worldwide admiration. If calls are now being heard that India must be made a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations, then these demands are not just legitimate, but also overdue. It is India's long-term record as a stable, multicultural democracy that lies behind its claims for a place on the High Table of Global Affairs. But if politics were all, then we would not be asking whether India will become a superpower. That question is prompted also by the spectacular success, in the short term, of the Indian economy, the impressive growth rates of the past decade, the entrepreneurial drive manifest in such crucial, cutting-edge sectors such as information technology and the creation of an ever larger and ever more confident middle class.
Superficially, the summer of 2008 looks all too different from the summer of 1948.Then, we Indians did not know how long we would hold together as a single nation; whether we would come under a Communist dictatorship of the left or a theocratic regime on the right, or simply balkanise into a dozen or more different parts. Now—despite the dissensions in the borderlands, in Kashmir and the Northeast—we know that we are and will be a single country, whose leaders shall be chosen by (and also replaced by) ourselves. We no longer fear for our existence as a sovereign nation or as a functioning democracy. What we hope for instead is a gradual enhancement of our material and political powers, and the acknowledgement of our nation as one of the most powerful and respected on earth.
Look more closely, however, and perhaps the more things appear to change, the more they are actually the same. For, in the summer of 2008, the Indian State once more faces a challenge from left-wing extremism. The Prime Minister of India, no less, has identified the Communist Party of India (Maoist), known more familiarly as the Naxalites, as the "greatest internal security threat" facing the nation. The Union home ministry lists more than 150 districts as being 'Naxalite-affected'. This is an exaggeration for, with even one single, stray, incident, a state government is moved to get a district listed under that category, so as to garner more funds from the Central treasury. Still, the Naxalites do have a considerable presence in some 40 or 50 districts; these spread out over the central and eastern parts of the country. Their greatest gains have been among tribal communities treated with contempt and condescension by the Indian State and by the formal processes of Indian democracy.
The conventional wisdom is that the erstwhile Untouchables or Dalits, are the social group who are most victimised in India. In fact, the tribals fare even worse. In a recent book, the demographer Arun Maharatna compared the life chances of an average Dalit with that of an average tribal. On all counts the tribals were found to be more disadvantaged. Some 30.1 per cent of Dalits are literate, but only 23.8 per cent of tribals. As many as 41.5 per cent of Dalits live below the official poverty line; however, the proportion of poor tribal households is even higher, at 49.5 per cent. One in six Dalits has no access to doctors or health clinics; as many as one in four tribals suffers from the same disability. 63.6 per cent of Dalits can avail of safe drinking water, but only 43.2 per cent of tribals.
Two summers ago, I visited the districts of Dantewara and Bastar in the state of Chhattisgarh. Here, a civil war is under way, which pits the Naxalites on one side against a vigilante group promoted by the state government on the other. The revolutionaries identify with the tribals in the short term, fighting for better wages for forest work and against their harassment by petty officials. Their long-term goal, however, is the capture of political power by armed struggle. In their bid to plant the Red Flag on the Red Fort in New Delhi, the revolutionaries view tribals merely as a stepping stone, or, one might say, as cannon fodder. The Maoists use violence regularly and recklessly. Policemen are slaughtered in their police stations, civilians killed by land mines set off on main roads. Their treatment of dissenters is especially savage; they are tried in 'people's courts' and then sentenced to amputation or death.
When I was in Bastar, the Nepali Maoists had just declared a ceasefire.Their leader, Prachanda, had gone so far as to say that multi-party democracy was the political system most suited to the 21st century. I put it to a Naxalite ideologue we met that perhaps they could think of emulating their Nepali comrades. He was contemptuous of the suggestion. He insisted that in India bourgeois democracy was a sham; here, the state had to be overthrown through the use of force. Shortly afterwards, I came across a statement on the Internet, issued by Ganapathi, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). This reported the 'successful completion' of a party congress "held deep in the forests of one of the several guerrilla zones in the country...". The party congress "reaffirmed the general line of the new democratic revolution with agrarian revolution as its axis and protracted people's war as the path of the Indian revolution...". The meeting "was completed amongst great euphoria with a call to the world people: Rise up as a tide to smash Imperialism and its running dogs! Advance the Revolutionary war throughout the world!"
Tragically, the vicious and violent methods of the Maoists have been reproduced by the state government of Chhattisgarh. They have set up a vigilante army called Salwa Judum, composed of tribal youths equipped with rifles. Bands of vigilantes now roam the Bastar countryside accompanied by the police and paramilitary, in search of Naxalite sympathisers, alleged or real. They have attacked dozens of villages and burnt hundreds of homes. They have killed many innocent people and terrorised many others. With the Supreme Court, as I write, are some first-hand testimonies of villagers who have suffered at the hand of these state-supported vigilantes. The residents of Pakela village, for example, recorded that 20 of their homes had been burnt by Salwa Judum cadres. "Everything in the homes," reads the English translation of their evidence, "rice, clothes, utensils and money—got reduced to ashes." Other villagers offered more precise accounts of the damage, listing the number of paddy sacks or hens or pigs seized or burnt from individual households. The collective sentiments of those targeted by the Salwa Judum were expressed most poignantly by the residents of Korcholi village. They said:
"The frightened villagers of Gangaloor, Cherpal and Bijapur, seeing the Salwa Judum, have fled into [the] forests. The Salwa Judum burns the food stock, houses and clothes. They also break the cooking utensils. Raping women, slitting people's throat to kill, killing people by drowning them in water, robbing them etc are the main activities of the Salwa Judum leaders. Why is this happening in our country, why is this happening in Chhattisgarh? Why has the Chhattisgarh administration been running this? Has our chief minister been elected only for this?"The creation and consolidation of Salwa Judum has greatly increased the level of violence in Dantewara. Villagers are being forced to choose one side or the other. Those who hesitate to join the vigilantes are savagely set upon. In the past two years, close to a thousand people have died as a consequence of the conflict. Meanwhile, the Salwa Judum and the state government between them have forcibly uprooted some 50,000 villagers and put them in camps along the main roads.
An atmosphere of fear and terror pervades the district. Families, clans, tribes and villages are divided by the civil war. As ever, it is the innocent who suffer most. For, the majority of villagers are not interested in this fight at all. They have been dragged into it, willy-nilly, by the Maoists on the one side and the Salwa Judum on the other.As one tribal in the village of Nelasnar told me: "Hamein donon taraf se dabaav hai aur hum beech mein pis gaye." It sounds far tamer in English—pressured from both sides, here we are, squeezed in the middle.
Salwa Judum is a model of how not to fight left-wing extremism. The menace of Naxalism—and let us be clear about this, it is a menace—can be tamed and tackled in two ways: by prompt and efficient policing, and by providing the tribals a greater share in political power and in the fruits of economic development. Unhappily, even tragically, the tribals have become the main victims of economic globalisation. In the days when the state occupied the commanding heights of the Indian economy, the adivasis lost their lands and livelihoods to hydel power plants and commercial forestry schemes. Now, they lose their lands and livelihoods to mining projects which excavate the vast amounts of iron ore and bauxite found on or under land the tribals live on, but whose ownership (or rights of disposal) are claimed by the state. Non-tribal politicians hand over these resources to large firms, foreign and Indian, in exchange for a share of the proceeds. All that the tribals get, in exchange, is dispossession.
In naming themselves after Mao Zedong, the Naxalites hope to do in this country what that Chinese revolutionary accomplished in his—that is to say, to build a single-party dictatorship that calls itself, in Orwellian fashion, a 'People's Democracy'. This dream is a fantasy, but, since the Maoists are determined to play it out, a bloody war of attrition lies ahead of us. The Indian State will not be able to easily recapture the hearts and minds of the adivasis, nor able either to authoritatively reassert its control, by day and especially by night, in the territories where the extremists are now active. At the same time, if the Maoists try to move into the open country, they will be mowed down by the Indian Army. But in the hills and forests of Central India, the conflict will persist, without any side claiming a decisive victory. In the next decade, thousands of lives will be lost, some of policemen, others of Naxalites, the majority perhaps of adivasis caught in the crossfire.
There is then this serious threat posed by left-wing Communist extremism. And—as in 1948—there is also a serious threat offered by right-wing religious fundamentalism. However, while the Naxalites are implacably opposed to the Indian Constitution, the religious bigots work within the democratic process, seeking to divert and distort it. The word 'Hindutva' was coined by the revolutionary-turned-reactionary Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The most effective work in pursuing the political philosophy that bears this name was undertaken by his younger colleague Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. Golwalkar was head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in the first, formative decades of Indian independence. He was preceptor and mentor to, among other men, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, as well as countless other political activists who have occupied positions of influence and importance in different states of India.
Golwalkar's core philosophy is contained in a book entitled A Bunch of Thoughts. Published in 1966, this is a collection of addresses delivered in RSS shakhas across the land. The book consistently elevates Hindus to a superior place in the history of humankind. Hindus had once ruled the world; and they would do so again in the future. Their science was once superior to Western science (Golwalkar sneered that the Europeans were eating raw, uncooked meat while we Hindus were composing the Vedas); and so it would be again.In sum, the Hindus were a Chosen People, favoured by destiny and the Divine Spirit to rule over other lands and other religions.
If Hindutva merely promoted a nostalgia for the alleged achievements of the Hindus in the past, one need not have worried very much. But it also assures them victory in the present; and insists that this victory can come about only by trampling upon the rights of Indians who have the misfortune to be born in homes owing allegiance to faiths other than theirs. Golwalkar once went so far as to say that "in this land Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christians the dacoits. Then do all these have the same right over the country?"
Golwalkar disliked Indian Christians, and positively detested Indian Muslims. He saw them as a fifth column always and invariably working against the interests of the Motherland. Towards the end of Bunch of Thoughts occurs this very chilling passage: "[W]hatever we believed in, the Muslim was wholly hostile to it. If we worship in the temple, he would desecrate it.... If we worship cow, he would like to eat it. If we glorify woman as a symbol of sacred motherhood, he would like to molest her. He was tooth and nail opposed to our way of life in all aspects—religious, cultural, social etc. He had imbibed that hostility to the very core."
This demonising of the Muslims had a political purpose. In the 1950s, and again in the 1960s, Golwalkar promoted a campaign to protect the cow, which he hoped would create a unified Hindu votebank; this naturally opposed to those Muslims who "like to eat cow while we worship it". Then, a decade after his death, the same themes and oppositions were resurrected via the dispute over the Babri Masjid. This dispute allowed Golwalkar's followers to succeed where he himself had failed. The campaign to construct a Ram temple brought together a large number of believers and bigots spread across the country, these by no means representing the majority of the Hindu public opinion, but still large enough to provoke a series of communal riots (in which, inevitably, the main victims were Muslims), and to bring the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in many states and, eventually, at the Centre.
One reason that Hindutva has been so successful is that it speaks in different voices. Mr Vajpayee can be trotted out to calm the liberals; Mr Advani to appeal to the hardliners. (Now, with Mr Vajpayee's retirement from active politics, Mr Advani has recast himself as the benign face while Narendra Modi has taken over as the unsmiling fanatic). The BJP can distance itself from the RSS when it suits them, but at other times can claim to be tied by an umbilical cord to it. The RSS in turn can opportunistically own or disown the trishul-waving goondas of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal.
Back in 1968, the scholar-statesman C. Rajagopalachari observed that the Jana Sangh (the predecessor of today's BJP) was a party which "has quite a few good leaders". Then he added: "What is needed however is a broadmindedness that not just practices toleration but looks upon Mussalmans, Christians, Parsis and others as politically and culturally as good as Hindus." Forty years later, Indians still wait for that broadening of Hindutva minds. Perhaps the wait has been in vain. For, in its origins and core beliefs, the Sangh parivar is motivated by values and ideals that are antithetical to those of modern, secular, liberal democracy.
I forget who it was who called Atal Behari Vajpayee a mukhauta, a mere mask. Some younger leaders of the BJP have followed him in concealing a chauvinistic hard-core underneath an apparently modernist, cosmopolitan exterior.As chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje has cultivated technocrats and multinational executives; but in the election that won her the job, she publicly supported the distribution of trishuls by that most bigoted of Hindu bigots, Praveen Togadia (don't rule out, either, similarly cynical tactics when elections in Rajasthan next come around). The most ardent defender of Narendra Modi's indefensible conduct during the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat was the urbane, cricket-loving lawyer, Arun Jaitley. To cultivate the urban voter during the recent assembly elections in Karnataka, the BJP omitted any mention in their manifesto of their long-standing desire to convert a multi-faith shrine in the hills of Chikmagalur into an exclusively Hindu temple. That was merely a mask, however; their real sentiments and prejudices were revealed by the fact that not one of the 224 BJP candidates was a Muslim.
Some commentators use the term 'Hindu nationalists' to characterise the members and leaders of the Sangh parivar. It is a label that we must reject. How can they be called 'nationalists' when they would withhold full citizenship from those Indians who are Muslims or Christians or Parsis or atheists? One major Hindutva ideologue, Ashok Singhal, has long argued that India should emulate Pakistan by denying the top jobs to the minorities and by making them vote in separate electorates. The Hinduvta cadres take this kind of thinking to the streets, as in their notorious slogan, shouted during communal riots, of Pakistan ya Kabristan (Pakistan or the graveyard).
In fact, the Hindutvawadis treat as enemies even those Hindus, such as myself, who do not subscribe to their vision of what makes a true or faithful Indian. (My Inbox is filled with the most vicious abuse from RSS types. A sample: "Cowards like you shd get lost from India too. And take your crappy book with you- to wipe your dirty ass." And another: "You are busy r[e]ading literature glorifying Mr. Nehru and engaged with thoughts how to please and serve the shameless muslims of India whose forefathers have had br[u]talized the natives of India the hindus for about eight hund[r]ed years or how to please the British so that you can retain your job or m[i]grate either England or America and work there as a coolie.")
For all their talk of the past and future greatness of India, the philosophy of Hindutva is, in fact, a form of petty and at times vindictive chauvinism.
The Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy, adds an interesting caveat to this argument. He says that we should not call the Sangh parivar the 'saffron brigade' either. For, saffron is a beautiful colour, the colour of wisdom and renunciation, with so many rich resonances in our myths and our history. Why should we then cede it to the hard, humourless men on the right? Let them not usurp the lovely colour 'saffron', nor indeed, the inclusive term 'nationalist'. The correct characterisation of the ideology of the Sangh parivar, therefore, is 'Hindu chauvinist'.
That the politics of the Sangh parivar is exclusive and divisive has been demonstrated in the hundreds of reports published by civil liberties groups, extending over four decades and covering at least a dozen states, that document their hand in communal riots, big and small. Although they work within the Indian Constitution, they are, in effect, as opposed to its underlying ideals as are the Naxalites.
The real hate figure for the Sangh parivar is the Muslim. But, as my late teacher, the historian Dharma Kumar, once pointed out, they actually secretly admire and even wish to emulate their historic enemies. What the BJP wanted for India, she said, was to construct "an Islamic State—for Hindus". In medieval Muslim states, there was a category known as dhimmi, consisting of Jews and Christians who, as people of the book, were treated somewhat more leniently than the kaffirs, the unbelievers.The dhimmi were barred from the top positions in the state and in the army. However, so long as they paid their taxes and did not challenge the ruler, they could live in peace and security. The kaffirs, on the other hand, were seen always and invariably as adversaries. In the same manner, if the RSS were to get its way, the Muslims and Christians in modern India would live undisturbed, so long as they acknowledged their theological and political inferiority to the dominant Hindus. But if they sought equal rights of citizenship, they would be punished as the kaffirs had once been.
To be fair, there are also other kinds of religious fundamentalisms lurking around in India. Some Christian and Muslim groups in India are as convinced of their theological superiority, as sure of their victory at the altar of history as any bigot of the Sangh parivar. The hold of the Muslim orthodoxy over the community is so strong that even liberal Muslim intellectuals are cowed down by them. As a Hindu, I do not need to refer to any religious text to attack Untouchability—I can merely point out that it is an inhuman practice impermissible in a civilised society. Regardless of what the Shastras might or might not say on the subject, the fact that the Indian Constitution abolishes Untouchability is good enough for me. But a Muslim asking for equal rights for women finds it far more difficult to argue from first principles. He takes refuge instead in one or the other verse from the Quran, read or interpreted in a way most congenial to his argument. He tends to suppress or ignore the contrary evidence in other verses or sections.
There is, indeed, a reassertion of religious orthodoxy in all faiths in modern India—among Muslims and Christians as well as Sikhs and Hindus (and even, as it happens, among Jains). It is the illiberal tendencies in all these religions that, at the present juncture, are in the ascendant. The mullahs who abuse Sania Mirza or Taslima Nasreen, and the Sikh hardliners who terrorise the Dera Sacha Sauda, are also wholly opposed to the spirit of the Indian Constitution. But simply by virtue of numbers—Hindus are, after all, more than 80 per cent of India's population—and their much wider political influence, Hindu bigotry is indisputably the most dangerous of them all.
The political history of the modern world can be written in terms of a three-way contest. On the left, there are varieties of socialist or communist extremism. On the right, there are varieties of national or religious fanaticism. Placed in the middle are the forces of liberal, constitutional democracy. When the centre is fragile, as in Russia in 1917 or in Germany in 1933, one or the other form of extremism will triumph. When the centre is resolute, as in India in 1948, liberal democracy can consolidate itself.
Indians less than 70 years of age—that is to say, 98 Indians out of 100—are insufficiently aware of, and possibly insufficiently grateful to, the great democracts and patriots who, back in the late 1940s, successfully stood their ground against the challenges of revolutionary communism and religious fundamentalism. Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, Rajagopalachari and others, working together, made sure that the centre held, that the princely states were integrated, that the refugees were resettled, that the Hindu extremists and the Communist insurrectionists were tamed and conquered. They united a diverse and fragmented country, and then gave it a democratic, plural, federal and republican Constitution.
Who, now, are the Indians who shall hold the centre against the challenges from left and right? Here lies a fundamental difference between the India of 1948 and the India of 2008.Then, the government was run by men and women of proven intelligence and integrity, who were deeply committed to the values and procedures of democracy, and wholly aware of the threats posed to these values and procedures by men such as M.S. Golwalkar and B.T. Ranadive. Now, the Government of India is run by men and women of limited intelligence and dubious integrity, who know little about and care less for the ideals on which the Republic was founded. (As the late Pramod Mahajan once candidly confessed, the first time most Members of Parliament see the Indian Constitution is when, after being elected, they are made to take an oath on it.)
The current state of Indian politics is exemplified above all by the state of the Indian National Congress, which was once the vehicle of a great, countrywide freedom struggle, but is now merely a vehicle for the ambitions of a single family. I am just about old enough to remember a Congress party which had vigorous district and state units, who chose their leaders regardless of the wishes of the High Commmand in New Delhi. I can remember, too, a Congress whose leaders were genuinely committed to inter-faith harmony, and deeply concerned with mitigating social inequalities. But then, in the 1970s, Mrs Indira Gandhi destroyed the Congress organisation. Her successors have since rid the party of any vestiges of liberal or progressive thought. The terms that came to mind in characterising an earlier generation of Congress leaders were: patriotic, efficient, social democratic, incorruptible. The terms that come to mind now are: selfish, nepotistic, sycophantic, on the make.
However, the decline and degradation of the Congress is symptomatic of the decline and degradation of public life in general. Other, lesser parties have taken inspiration—if that is the word!—from the Congress, and likewise converted their parties into family firms. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam once stood for social reform; now, it exists only in order that M.K. Stalin becomes the next chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The Shiv Sena was once the party of Maharashtrian pride; now, it hopes only that the son of its founder will one day become chief minister of the state (or, better still, the remote control directing a puppet chief minister). The Janata Dal in Karnataka once claimed, with some reason, to stand for the interests of the farmers against those of the city-dwellers; now, its main purpose is to ensure that two sons of a former farmer named H.D. Deve Gowda themselves become the most privileged of city-dwellers.
In the year 1948 or thereabouts, it was not just the politicians who were patriotic and incorruptible—the civil servants were, too. Without the work, for example, of Sardar Tarlok Singh in resettling refugees, or of Sukumar Sen in organising our first, definitive general elections, or of V.P. Menon in integrating the princely states, there would be no India, still less a united and democratic one. The example they set was carried forward down the line—much as the example set by Nehru and company was deepened by provincial Congress leaders, most of whom were likewise capable and efficient. Now, however, the unelected officials at times exceed the elected politicians in the scale and ambition of their corruption.
In 1948, the men and women who ran the Indian administration were patriotic and very focused indeed. In 2008, the centre is corrupt, corroded. Fortunately, the sense of Indian nationhood cultivated over six decades has struck deep roots. We are not about to become a Hindu Rashtra. Nor are we about to become a one-party Maoist state either. It is striking that the Naxalites have tried hard, but wholly without success, to impose a poll boycott in areas where they have influence.The habit, once acquired, of voting freely to choose one's representatives is impossible to shake off.
We still remain a single nation. We continue to hold regular elections, permit the free movement of citizens, and encourage a moderately free press (of which more anon). But with a corrupt and corroded centre, Indian democracy will not be able to win an authoritative victory over extremists of left or right. Since the tribals will continue to be dispossessed and discriminated against, the Naxalites will still find a sympathetic voice among them. Since the Congress party will continue to be staffed by time-servers and sycophants, who shall veer between acting as a 'Hindutva B team' and cultivating the most reactionary sections of the Muslim leadership, the BJP will still win many state elections and the odd general election.
The utter paralysis of the centre is manifested also in its inability to take on chauvinisms of other kinds. Raj Thackeray should long ago have been put in jail for his incitements to hatred and violence. The pusillanimity of the democratic centre in the face of petty chauvinism acts only to embolden the more dangerous extremists, whose incitements to hatred and violence are conducted in the name of Hindutva and Maoism.
The decline in the quality and capability of our politicians and public officials has been compensated, in part, by the rise of a vigorous and very active civil society. Back in the 1950s, there were a few dedicated social workers working in the Gandhian tradition, such as Thakurdas Bang, Baba Amte and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. However, hopes for reform and uplift then mostly devolved on the state. The Government of India was expected to provide education and healthcare for all its citizens, and dignified employment for the able-bodied adults among them.
By the early 1970s, it became clear that the state was unwilling or unable to take on these larger responsbilities. In 1972, a Gujarati woman named Ela Bhatt started the Self-Employed Women's Association. The next year a Garhwali man of peasant extraction who shared her surname started the Chipko movement. These two Bhatts, Ela and Chandi Prasad, were in the vanguard of a much larger wave of voluntary action on behalf of the poor and marginalised of India. Through the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of citizens' groups came into being, which sought to open schools and clinics for the rural and urban poor; to run cooperatives for farmers and craftspeople; to plant trees, revive village tanks and otherwise restore a ravaged environment.
The proliferation of non-governmental organisations has been satirised in a series of abbreviations: PINGO (for Personally-Inclined NGO), GONGO (for Government-Organised NGO), FONGO (for Foreign-Oriented ngo), etc. Admittedly, many NGOs are mere paper entities; many others, vehicles for personal aggrandisement or enrichment. That said, the flowering of so many good, committed, focused civil society initiatives has contributed immensely to the nurturing of a democratic ethos in India. The space vacated by the State has at least been partially filled by individuals and groups motivated by a fine kind of disinterested idealism.
Ispoke earlier of a brutal side to globalisation, as manifest in the intensification of mining operations. But there is also a benign side to globalisation, this manifest most dramatically in the city I live in. In the tribal districts of Orissa, the opening of the Indian economy has encouraged short-term speculation via forms of resource extraction that are socially damaging as well as environmentally polluting. On the other hand, in cities with a skilled workforce, such as Bangalore or Hyderabad, economic liberalisation has generated huge amounts of wealth through the provision of high-end, high-value services such as software and biotechnology.The proceeds from mining go to a privileged few; the proceeds from service industries to very many more. At the same time, the software boom has generated a new wave of philanthropy, with the promoters of companies like Wipro and Infosys contributing handsomely to ngos working on enhancing the quality and reach of education and healthcare in rural India.
For too long were the creative energies of the Indian entrepreneur suppressed by what C. Rajagopalachari memorably called the 'license-permit-quota-raj'. In the early years of Independence, Indian industry perhaps needed protection—it certainly demanded it. The Bombay Plan of 1944, endorsed by G.D. Birla and J.R.D. Tata among others, asked both for curbs on foreign investment and for an enhanced role for the state. India had once been colonised by a Western multinational corporation—having, at last, gained its freedom, it intended to keep it. At the same time, Indian capitalists lacked the capital and knowhow to invest in sectors such as steel, power, roads and ports. They were thus content to focus on the manufacture and distribution of consumer goods, leaving capital goods and infrastructure to the State.
The time to liberalise the Indian economy was the late 1960s. A manufacturing base was now in place; so, too, was a steady supply of skilled technicians and engineering graduates. However, for reasons of political expediency, the prime minister of the day, Mrs Indira Gandhi, chose instead to strengthen the stranglehold of the State over the economy. Key sectors such as coal and petroleum were nationalised. The licensing procedure in sectors still open to the private sector was at once made more arbitrary and more stringent. Those industrialists who knew how to massage political egos or hand over bribes had an advantage over those who trusted their entrepreneurial abilities alone.
The 1970s was verily the lost decade, in a political as well as economic sense (this was also the decade of the Emergency, of the nurturing of committed judges and bureaucrats, and, on the non-Congress side, of the elevation of street protest over the procedures of democratic deliberation). Government policies became somewhat more business-friendly in the 1980s; and, at last, more market-friendly in the 1990s. The surge in economic growth is a direct consequence of this greater (if also greatly belated) trust placed in the capabilities of the Indian entrepreneur. Along with software, other sectors such as telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, motorised vehicles and air transport have also made impressive strides in recent years.
The growth in investment and productive capacity has generated many jobs, and, through them, a substantial and rapidly expanding middle class. The term 'middle class' is very elastic, of course. Defined more capaciously, it may embrace some 200 million Indians; defined more rigorously, perhaps half that number. At any rate, there has been a distinct embourgeoisement of Indian society, with millions of previously working-class families now qualifying as belonging to the middle class.
There remain, of course, very many more Indians who still count as poor. Here, again, the estimates vary widely—roughly 300 million if one goes by official figures, perhaps twice that number if one adopts more stringent criteria. There are thus two nations, living side by side. In the words of Amartya Sen, the first India lives a lot like California, the second (and more populous) India a lot like sub-Saharan Africa.
Marxist ideologues claim that one is the consequence of the other—that many Indians have recently become prosperous only because many other Indians are still poor. This is a gross simplification.Economic growth is not a zero-sum game. A more nuanced and more accurate way to understand these difference in income and status is to interpret them through the lens of culture and geography. A certain kind of Indian, with a certain kind of social or caste background, living in a certain kind of concentrated settlement, and in certain states of India, is likely to be better off than Indians of other social backgrounds and other residential locations in other states. As the economist T.N. Srinivasan writes:
"if one is poor in India...one is more likely to live in rural areas, more likely to be a member of the Scheduled Caste or Tribe or other discriminated group, more likely to be malnourished, sick and in poor health, more likely to be illiterate or poorly educated and with low skills, more likely to live in certain states (such as...Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and also Orissa) than in others..."One consequence of market-led economic growth shall be to accentuate these differences. Since upper castes tend to have higher levels of education and greater mobility across India, they are likely to garner the most profitable jobs. Since well developed regions have a reputation for being rich in skills and open to innovation, the bigger investors will flock to them. Since cities have more resources and better infrastructure as compared to small towns and villages, they will continue to get the bulk of new investment. In this manner, the already substantial gap between Bangalore and rural Karnataka, South India and eastern India, city-dwellers and country-folk will grow even larger.
These inequalities of income and status are made more striking by their magnification by the media, with its breathless worship of wealth and success. A leading newspaper routinely speaks of the India that wants to march ahead allegedly being kept back by the other India that refuses to come with them. There is a kind of Social Darwinism abroad, where the new rich promiscuously parade their wealth, while insinuating that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. The exhibitionism of the rich has reached its apogee in the construction of a 27-storey building in downtown Bombay. Costing two billion dollars, and covering 4,00,000 square feet of interior space, this structure is meant for the exclusive use of a single nuclear family.
Rising inequalities have historically been part of the growth process all across the world. In the early phase of industrialisation, the gap between the rich and the poor widens. Over time, however, these inequalities tend to come down. That, at any rate, was the experience of Europe and America. Will later industrialisers such as China and India also follow the same route? I cannot speak for China, but in India one cannot be unduly optimistic. One reason that inequalities tapered off in the West was because their governments worked effectively towards providing equality of opportunity. The contributions of the European Welfare State in providing decent healthcare and education to its citizens are well known. Less acknowledged, perhaps, is the part played in levelling inequalities by the outstanding system of public schools and publicly funded universities in the United States.
The situation in India is all too different. The inequalities in access to good education and healthcare are immense. The school my children go to in Bangalore is world-class; the school run by the state a few yards down the road is worse than third-rate. I can avail of top-quality healthcare, by paying (admittedly, through my nose); my house help must go to the local quack instead. To address these disparities, outstanding work has been done by social workers in the fields of primary education and healthcare.Brave, selfless, utterly patriotic Indians have worked 24 by 7 to get slum and low caste children into school, and to provide them protection against dangerous diseases. Ultimately, though, the scale of the problem is so immense that their work, heroic as it is, can only very partially make up for the apathy and corruption of the state. For only a properly functioning state can equalise the life chances of all Indians, whether men or women, high, middle or low caste, Hindus or Muslims, northerners or southerners.
In the West, the bulk of the population resides in the middle class. Will this ever happen in India? Can the vast majority of Indians come to enjoy the creature comforts of the average Outlook reader? The prospect is uncertain, for two reasons. The first has been alluded to, the palpable failure of the State to provide education and healthcare to all its citizens. The second is the environmental constraint. Eighty years ago, Mahatma Gandhi had pointed to the unsustainability, at the global level, of the Western model of economic development. "God forbid," he wrote, "that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."
These words come from an article published in the journal Young India in December 1928. Two years earlier, Gandhi had claimed that to "make India like England and America is to find some other races and places of the earth for exploitation". As it appeared that the Western nations had already "divided all the known races outside Europe for exploitation and there are no new worlds to discover", he pointedly asked: "What can be the fate of India trying to ape the West?"
With India, China too is trying to ape the West, attempting to create a mass consumer society whose members can all drive their own cars, live in their own air-conditioned homes, eat in fancy restaurants and travel to the ends of the earth for their family holidays. Will these Chinese and Indian consumers collectively strip the world bare like locusts? Between them, they have set off a new scramble for Africa, stripping or at least strip-mining that unhappy continent to fuel their ever-growing appetite for resources. Between them, they have also consolidated the control of a brutal military junta in Myanmar, putting their own selfish interests in minerals and energy well ahead of the elementary human rights of the Burmese people.
The environmental challenges posed by the economic rise of China and India are of three kinds. First, at the global level, is the threat of rapid and irreversible climate change due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases. As the early industrialisers, the West were the original culprits here; that said, the two Asian giants are rapidly making up for lost time. Second, at the regional or continental level, are the environmental (and social) costs of the ecological footprint of China and India outside their own national borders. The West has for some time worked to relocate its dirty industries to the Third World, passing on the costs to the poor and the powerless. In the same manner, the externalities of Indian and Chinese consumers will be increasingly borne by the people of other lands.
The third challenge is that posed to the environments of these countries themselves. Chinese cities have the highest rates of air pollution in the world. Rivers such as the Ganga and the Jamuna are effectively, dead. India and China both have unacceptably high levels of air and water pollution.They have also witnessed, in recent years, the large-scale depletion of groundwater aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the destruction of forests and the decimation of fish-stocks.
There are two stock responses to the environmental crisis in India. One is to hope, or pray, that in time and with greater prosperity, we will have the money to clean up our surroundings. The other is to see ecological degradation as symptomatic of the larger failure of modernity itself. The first response is characteristic of the consuming classes; the second, that of the agrarian romantic, who believes that India must live only in its villages, that, indeed, the majority of Indians are happy enough to live on in their villages. Both responses are deeply wrong-headed. Contra the rural romantic, life among the peasantry can be nasty, brutish and short. Most Indian villagers would cheerfully exchange a mud hut for a solid stone house, well water for clean piped water, kerosene lanterns for steady and bright tube lights. The living standards of the majority of Indians can and must be enchanced. At the same time, the living standards of the most wealthy Indians must be moderated.
The demands placed on the earth by the poor and excluded are disproportionately low; the demands placed by those with cars and credit cards excessively high. A rational, long-range, sustainable strategy of development has to find ways of enhancing the resource access of those at the bottom of the heap while checking the resource demands of those in positions of power and advantage. This strategy has then to be broken down into specific sectors; so that, for example, we can design suitable policies for transport, energy, housing, forests, pollution control, water management, and so on.
Once, the media played a catalytic role in promoting environmental awareness. Through the 1970s and 1980s, journalists like Anil Agarwal, Darryl D'Monte, Usha Rai and Nagesh Hegde wrote extensively on issues such as deforestation, species loss, water abuse and sustainable energy policies. They drew in part on their own field investigations, and in part on the work of a whole array of Indian ecological scientists. However, when liberalisation got underway and the economy began to show higher rates of growth, there was an anti-environmental backlash. Now, environmentalists began to be portrayed as party-poopers, as spoilers who did not want India to join the ranks of the Great Powers of the world. In response to these criticisms, and sensible also of the pressures of commercial advertisers, most newspapers laid off their environment correspondents or perhaps sent them to cover the stockmarket instead. Anil Agarwal once wrote of the environmental debate as being "beyond pretty trees and tigers". In India, at least, the state and fate of the natural environment is intimately linked to livelihood and survival. Without sustainable irrigation practices, Indian farmers cannot assure themselves a long-term future. Without decent public transport and energy conservation, India will be beholden to the whims and fancies of countries with more oil than ourselves. Without clean air and safe drinking water, our children will be far less healthy than we want them to be.
However, in the eyes of the new, excessively market-friendly media, the environment is only about pretty trees and tigers. They wish their readers to have their cake and eat it too; to live resource-intensive lifestyles and yet be able to glory in the beauties of the wild. They cannot, or will not, see that the one imperils the other. Nor will they acknowledge the persistence and significance of more local, less glamorous environmental issues—such as the state of the air and the water, the conservation of energy, the provision of safe and affordable housing.These issues affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians. However, by succumbing so readily to the cult of wealth and celebrity, the media can find no space for them.
The market is good at producing consumer goods efficiently and cheaply, and at distributing them quickly and widely. But the market cannot provide fair access to education or healthcare. And the operations of the market can actually promote environmental destruction. It makes perfect sense for a privately owned firm to pollute the environment, so long as the costs of this pollution are being borne by someone else.
The value of clean air and species diversity cannot be assessed in monetary terms. Energy and transport policies that are suitable from the point of view of a city, a state, or a nation, cannot be designed by a single private enterprise. A sustainable path of economic development thus depends crucially on a far-seeing state as well as a vigilant media. Tragically, we in India have neither.
For very many years, the Indian experiment with nationhood and democracy was written off by very many Western observers. We were informed, through a series of premature obituaries, that our country was too diverse to be a single nation, and too poor to be run on democratic lines. In every secessionist movement was seen the prospect of balkanisation, in every death of a prime minister the imminent threat of military takeover. To be sure, the nation was scarcely stable or secure—it lurched, as it were, from crisis to crisis, from riot to assassination to border conflict to open war. But somehow, India survived; somehow (and despite the Emergency) it even stayed democratic.
When did these prophecies stop coming? When, finally, did foreign scholars and travellers concede that the Republic of India was here to stay? I think it was the year 1997 that marked the end of Western scepticism about the fate of India. That year, this unnatural nation and unlikely democracy officially marked five full decades of its existence.
Now, of course, we hear a different kind of tune being sung. We are told, not that we are going down the tube, but that, with China, we are one of the rising superpowers of the century. This newer, more hopeful kind of prophecy is eagerly seized upon by two kinds of Indians: those who enjoy political power, and those who own vast amounts of wealth. Both see the bestowing of superstardom as not very much more than their due.
This new, self-confident, even arrogant India is on display most prominently in two cities—the city I live in, and the city I visit most frequently for research. New Delhi is, for me, the place where the archives are; but for most others, it is the political capital of India. Bangalore is, from my narrow perspective, merely my home town, but in the eyes of the world it is the centre of a rising Asian giant's showpiece software industry. Not unexpectedly, the power elite of both cities are marked by a very high sense of self-regard. In the case of the Delhi politicians, this self-praise is essentially unearned. If India is now given respect in the councils of the world for its successes in nurturing nationhood amidst diversity, and democracy despite illiteracy, the credit should really go to the first generation of political leaders. The netas who now occupy the largest offices of the Government of India are, in this connection, merely free riders.
The self-esteem of the new generation of Indian entrepreneurs is based on their own hard work and achievement. Given an opening, they have seized it; by building world-class companies on Indian soil with Indian capital and Indian workers. But here, too, there is a tendency for self-regard to shade into hubris.Having so successfully nurtured a private company, they see no reason why they cannot be part of a very successful nation-state, without quite understanding that the leap from one to the other involves agencies and processes of which they sometimes have little understanding and over which they often have no control.
The imagination of the Indian elite is constructed around these twin poles: one political, the other economic. But to fly from Bangalore to Delhi, and back, is literally to fly over a serious challenge to the emergence of India as a global superpower. Obscured from the bird in the sky is the Naxalite insurgency in central India, which covers at least one-tenth of the country's surface, and which has at its core the sufferings and discontent of tens of millions of tribal people.
For the middle class, the threat from the left is wholly hidden. They do not see or confront it in their daily lives. They can go to work or college or shop or play without ever seeing a single Naxalite, or a single adivasi either. On the other hand, they do know of the threat from the right. Yet, they tend to disregard it. Some middle-class Indians are converted Hindutvawadis anyway. Many others naively hope that the mask will in time become the real face, and that with economic modernisation the BJP will be able to successfully distance itself from the RSS. In the case of the dumbing down of the media, the middle class has been an active collaborator. So, too, with the degradation of the environment, whose links to their own lifestyles are scarcely understood or commented upon. The disparity between the rich and the poor is too obvious to be ignored; still, the hope is that with an even freer play of market forces, those presently at the bottom of the pyramid will come to occupy its middle ranks. The one challenge to superstardom that is most clear to the consuming classes is the corruption and corrosion of the democratic centre. They are witness to the shocking amoralism of our political class; and subject in their daily lives to its consequences. The market, and their own ability to pay, can in part insulate them from the breakdown of public services. They can trust the courier service instead of the post office, get themselves a mobile phone and forget about the land line, and have a stand-by generator in case the lights suddenly go on the blink. And yet, every now and then, they are served a powerful reminder that they remain at the mercy of the malfunctioning state. Time is money, never more so when one is caught for hours in a traffic jam caused either by the precedence given to a politician's convoy or by the fact that the surface of a major road has suddenly caved in.
In the short term, at any rate, the Indian political class can only get more corrupt, and the Indian State more inefficient. Multi-party coalition governments are already the norm in the centre; they will become increasingly common in the states. As the price of joining a coalition led by one of the major parties, the smaller formations demand the most lucrative ministries. When, in my home state of Karnataka, a coalition government fell within a week of its taking office, the press offered the neutral comment that the dispute was over the allotment of the mining and urban development ministries. In the current fragmented political scenario, short-term rent-seeking will take precedence over long-term policy formulation.This shall be true of governments in the states, as well as at the centre.
The challenge of the Naxalites; the insidious presence of the Hindutvawadis; the degradation of the once liberal and upright centre; the increasing gap between the rich and the poor; the trivialisation of the media; the unsustainability, in an environmental sense, of present patterns of resource consumption; the instability and policy incoherence caused by multi-party coalition governments—these are the seven reasons why India will not become a superpower. To this, so to say objective judgement of the historian, I will now add the subjective desires of a citizen—which is that India should not even attempt to become a superpower.
In my view, International Relations cannot be made analogous to a competitive examination. The question is not who comes first or second or third, whether judged in terms of Gross National Product, number of billionaires in the Forbes or Fortune lists, number of Olympic gold medals won, size of largest aircraft carrier operated, or power of most deadly nuclear weapon owned. This kind of ranking, to which regrettably the Indian elite and especially the English language media is increasingly prone, may be caricatured as the "My penis is bigger than yours" way of thinking about one's place in the world.
We should judge ourselves not against the achievements, real or imagined, of other countries, but in the light of our own norms and ideals. The jurist Nani Palkhivala once remarked that "India is a third-class democracy with a first-class Constitution". Both parts of the equation remain as he stated them. In conception, we are a unique nation, unique for refusing to reduce Indian-ness to a single language, religion or ideology, unique in affirming and celebrating the staggering diversity found within our borders (and beyond them). The Constitution defied the Laws of Manu by giving women equal rights with men. It violated thousands of years of social practice by abolishing untouchability. It refused, despite the provocations of bigots of both religions, to make India into a 'Hindu Pakistan'. And it challenged the evidence and logic of history by giving even unlettered adults the power to choose those who would represent them in legislatures and in Parliament.
That is the ideal, still first-class; and then there is the practice, mostly third-class. The equality of women and low castes is denied in homes and villages across the land. There are chauvinists who privilege one language, setting upon those Indians who choose to speak another. There are religious fundamentalists who likewise harass and persecute those whose Gods are different from theirs. There are allegedly 'democratic' politicians who abuse their oath of office and work only to enrich themselves; as well as self-described 'revolutionaries' who seek to settle arguments by the point of the gun.
It was, I think, Jawaharlal Nehru who pointed out that India was home to all that is truly disgusting as well as truly noble in the human condition. The nobility and the disgustingness were abundantly on display in his day, as they are in ours. Contemporary India is home to pluralists and democrats as well as to fanatics and sectarians; to selfless social workers as well as to greedy politicians; to honest and upright officials as well as to officials who are time-servers; to capitalists who distribute their wealth quietly and widely as well as to those who seek only to publicly and provocatively display it. To redeem the Republic, to bring the practice of Indian democracy closer to the ideals of Indian nationhood, is to valorise and support the first kind of Indian rather than the second.
Six months after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, my teacher, Dharma Kumar, wrote a short essay entitled 'India as a Nation-State'.Here, she took issue both with left-wing activists who thought the Indian State too strong, and with Hindu chauvinists who thought it too weak. One saw the State as an "oppressive monopolist of power"; the other believed it lacked the will and the strength to stand up to the West or put its own minorities in their place. One seemed to welcome the possible disintegration of the country, in the belief that "twenty countries, say, instead of one would leave the people of India less oppressed"; the other was "terrified of the break-up of India", thinking that "India has still not recovered from partition and any further secessions would lead to...balkanisation.... This line of analysis leads to the perception of Muslims as the cause of national weakness".
Dharma Kumar rejected both positions by affirming the inclusive and democratic idea of India upheld by its founders. As she put it, "instead of deploring our lack of homogeneity we should glory in it. Instead of regarding India as a failed or deformed nation-state, we should see it as a new political form, perhaps even as a forerunner of the future. We are in some ways where Europe wants to be, but we have a tremendous job of reform, of repairing our damaged institutions, and of inventing new ones."
I have myself been fortunate in being witness to the work of many Indians who have sought to repair or redeem our institutions. I think of groups like the Association of Democratic Reform, which succeeded in making the criminal records and assets of politicians public; or like Pratham, which works closely with the state governments in improving our public education system. I think of Ela Bhatt and Chandi Prasad Bhatt, respectively the grandmother and grandfather of modern social activism in India. Elabehn has challenged the State to be more alert to the rights of working women; Bhattji has forced it to move towards a more community-oriented (and ecologically-sensitive) forest policy. I think of the scientists Obaid Siddiqui and Padmanabhan Balaram, who have nurtured world-class, non-hierarchical research laboratories in a funds-scarce, anti-intellectual and deeply inegalitarian society. I think, too, of my exact contemporaries and fellow PhDs, Jean Dreze and Mihir Shah, who could have enjoyed comfortable careers as teachers and writers, but who chose instead to become full-time activists, and bent their expertise to making the Government of India more responsive to the lives and interests of the rural poor. And, since I have myself contributed in this essay to the growing cynicism about public officials, I think, finally, of the outstanding Governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, whose understanding of and empathy with the citizens of his state has been, in all senses of the word, exemplary.
The groups and individuals mentioned in the preceding paragraph are, of course, merely illustrative. The work that they and others like them undertake is rarely reported in the mainstream media. For the task of reform, of incremental and evolutionary change, is as unglamorous as it is necessary. It is far easier to speak of a wholesale, structural transformation to identify one single variable that, if acted upon, will take India up and into the straight high road to superstardom.Among the one-size-fits-all solutions on offer are those promoted by the Naxalites, whose project is to make India into a purer, that is to say more regimented, version of Communist China; by the Sangh parivar, which assures the Hindus that if they rediscover their religion they will (again) rule the world; and by the free-market ideologues, who seek to make India into an even more hedonistic version of the United States of America.
To follow the Naxalites is to plunge India into decades of civil war; to follow the Hindu right is to persecute and demonise large numbers of one's own countrymen; to follow the market fundamentalists is to intensify the divisions between the consuming and the surviving classes (and to destroy the global environment in the process). Rather than nurture or act upon these utopian fantasies, the Indian patriot must focus instead on the tasks of gradual and piecemeal reform. We need to repair, one by one, the institutions that have safeguarded our unity amidst diversity, and to forge, also one by one, the new institutions that can help us meet the fresh challenges of the 21st century. It will be hard, patient, slow work—that is to say, the only kind of work that is ever worth it.
Ramachandra Guha was recently named as one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world. He is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy.
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