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Monday, Jan 28, 2002

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R-Day parade, an anachronism?

Ranabir Ray Choudhury

IT was extremely appropriate that on Saturday morning; that is, the morning of Republic Day — the newspapers were filled with reports of the successful test-firing of a variant of the Agni missile. The appropriateness stemmed from the fact that the development fitted in smoothly with the "military madness" that has been sweeping through the subcontinent, the focal point of which has been the state of high alert that has been governing the armed forces of India and Pakistan in recent months.

While the successful test-firing of the new Indian missile has, no doubt, underscored the technical proficiency of those entrusted with the job of strengthening the missile arm of the Indian armed forces — which is a matter of unalloyed pride for the nation — the fact remains that the timing of the test (and its success) has also added substantially to the image of a militarily strong India.

There is, of course, nothing wrong in this contribution because every citizen of every nation wants to see his or her State emerge as a militarily strong nation, and (more important) be considered as such by the world at large. There is little doubt that the Agni test on January 25 is a positive development in this respect. But, having said this, the point must also be made that the test has also added to the tension currently existing between India and Pakistan which, seen from any perspective, is not a desirable development at this particular juncture.

From this premise, it can be argued with some reason that it would, perhaps, have been better from every point of view if the test had been undertaken either before or after the day on which it was in fact held, leaving January 26 blessedly free of any added jingoistic flavour which, come to think of it, is quite divorced from all that the Indian republic (and the nation's culture) stands for.

Indeed, it is an anachronism of sorts that, at the beginning of the 21st Century, India should be continuing to observe Republic Day with a military parade which, fundamentally, transmits the message to the people of the country and the world that India is a militarily powerful country. There is no doubt that such a message should be transmitted to all concerned from time to time because of the fact that the world is full of people who will not hesitate to try to fool around with the Republic specially if they have reason to believe that it is militarily toothless.

The problem is that while this presumption was extremely crucial immediately after 1947 (and, perhaps, for the duration of the Cold War), today it has become weak if only because the nation's enemies, real and potential, have means of gauging the military strength of a nation other than relying solely on ceremonial military spectacles.

To say this is not to suggest that the traditional Republic Day Parade, as we know it, should be summarily done away with. After all, there is some value in ceremony, especially in a poor country such as India where the vast majority of the people live outside big cities and towns — people who, despite the progress made particularly in the sphere of communications (the media generally), still attach a lot of importance to the images of pomp and splendour, the enhancement of which, it will be accepted, is the chief target of the Republic Day Parade.

Clearly, therefore, there is no question of putting a stop to the practice of staging the Parade becasue, to repeat, it has a useful national purpose to serve.

But the fact remains that the world has moved on from the aftermath of the Second World War, and the subsequent Cold War, the inference being that the pendulum of international affairs has begun to swing decisively towards Trade and Economic Development and away from Guns and Missiles (qualitatively speaking). In other words, the place of the Indian Republic in the comity of nations is today governed more by the economic factor instead of military prowess which, in turn, means that if Republic Day (in the contemporary world) is to be observed appropriately, there should be an effective economic complement to the traditional military display, which should be aimed not only at the domestic audience but also at the outside world. In practical terms, what this envisages is the holding of a national "Development and Growth" exhibition in New Delhi (perhaps, for a week beginning from January 26) and similar events in the State capitals (which, in fact, also hold their own Republic Day Parades). These could be described as Republic Day Exhibitions just as the military spectacles are termed the Republic Day Parades. It may be argued that such exhibitions are held in New Delhi at other times of the year and that, therefore, it may be quite impossible to organise an additional economic show at the end of January. Quite so, but surely an effort can be made to shift the most important events of this nature to January-end, which would let the exhibition calendar remain undisturbed to the maximum extent possible and also enable Republic Day to reflect more fully the many-faceted strengths of the Republic.

Indeed, in this context, one cannot help but refer to the persisting habit of Indian politicians of all hues to flaunt the flag of "national security" whenever (in their judgment) they feel the need to garner popular support and attention, the focus always being on the military aspect of perceived external threats, the overriding assumption being that, faced with such a situation, the electorate will vote for a strong Centre. (Many analysts feel that this is precisely what is being done by the BJP vis--vis the upcoming UP Assembly elections.) The question is: Since a strong economy also helps to bolster "national security", why is the "internal threat" posed by slow economic growth never catapulted by politicians on to the national scene in the same way that the threat from Pakistan and terrorists usually is?

The Republic has come of age. So has its citizens. Everyone knows that the business of framing and effectively implementing good economic policies is much more difficult than trying to point to a military threat from outside the country to get the support of the electorate.

And yet, there is no alternative but to focus on the economic aspect of the nation's life if India is to find its rightful place in the comity of nations.

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