For many of my generation born immediately after the formation of the Indian republic 72 years ago this is a moment for reflection and stocktaking. We grew up in the republic, spent all our working lives in it and retired to live our lives out in it. Our reaction is a mixed bag -- of opportunities missed and foundations laid.
My generation is acutely aware of the frustration and anger among the young who constitute the bulk of the country’s population today. India has not moved forward as fast as it ought to have or matched China’s growth or the speed at which it eliminated poverty.
Ignoring the young
There are real failures of the Indian state that one cannot wish away. The gross underfunding of primary education- something which has continued to this day -- has left India under-educated and grossly underskilled -- a tragic outcome for a country with more young people than any other in the world and likely to remain so over the next couple of decades even as birth rates drop.
The Economist called India out for neglecting its young in a sharp piece titled “India’s demographic challenge - Wasting time,” in its May 11, 2013 issue. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen devote a whole chapter on the importance of education and India’s failure to ensure it in their book ‘An Uncertain Glory - India and Its Contradictions.’
India’s healthcare system is abysmal, making Indians one of the most unhealthy in the world. Corruption continues to diminish the state. India’s cities are as mired in filth as John Galbraith tells us he found Calcutta in, decades back, in his memoirs ‘A Life In Our Times.” All this, as the journalist , M Rajshekhar trenchantly observes in his book ‘”Despite the State’, has “left most Indians trapped in poorly realised lives.” However there is a strong case to be more optimistic and view the Indian republic as a glass half full and filling.
It was never a given that India would emerge as a democratic secular republic in less than three years after gaining independence in 1947. But it did. The Indian republic at creation was heart-wrenchingly poor and shockingly illiterate. It produced too little food to feed itself. With memories of 1943 still fresh in everyone's mind, famine was an ever-present threat. The wounds of partition were still raw, and the chances of a recurrence of communal violence, which marred the first years of independence, were very high.
That in such unpromising circumstances India could emerge as a republic based on a visionary Constitution was truly an extraordinary achievement that’s served India well ever since and how! Almost every decade since 1950 has been better than its preceding one for India.
Food security came with the Green Revolution and India’s insatiable thirst for milk was quenched by Operation Flood. A public distribution system set up in the fifties has evolved since then and if anything, has become more transparent. Indians live longer today than at any other time, infrastructure has improved dramatically while poverty continues to decline though the ongoing pandemic has briefly reversed the trend.
The country built almost all its steel mills and big dams since it became a republic. Almost all its most modern institutes of science, technology , medicine and management -- IITs, AIIMS and IIMs came up in that period too. Much to everyone’s surprise India’s atomic energy and space programmes have taken off -- the latter acclaimed globally for its innovative and frugal ways.
That all this could happen can be attributed to the fact that the Indian republic has never had to undergo the kind of social and political upheavals other countries were forced to endure. The Soviet Union visibly weakened as it aged and failed to reach 70 before imploding in 1991.
China suffered depredations of an extreme kind -- among them a terrible famine which the Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng catalogues in grim detail how over 30 million Chinese starved to death in his book, Tombstone The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962. The Chinese people are forced to 'deremember' that tragic phase by diktat. Nothing comparably happened in India.
Power of the ballot
Executive power in India , however imperfectly, continues to flow from the ballot box. At no time has a party or coalition which has lost at the polls attempted to seize power or -- in case it already had it -- sought to retain it by might. This is more than what can be said of so many countries around the world, most recently -- and astonishingly -- the United States.
An India which started off as a Union of States with a powerful Centre is looking more and more federal. While State governments were easily and frequently dismissed right up to the 1980s, today that almost never happens. Protest still is a potent force in India. Public opinion matters.
Despite enjoying a crushing majority in Parliament the NDA government led by the BJP has had to go easy on the CAA and beat a retreat on the farm bills which stand repealed today. How sharply this contrasts with the tragic happenings at Tiananmen square in 1989 and more recently in Hong Kong.
India today is far wealthier than at any time in the last two centuries. It now has the means to correct its most egregious shortcomings and it will , if the government exudes faith in all its people, not just some of them.
It is their combined faith and hard work that’s brought the Indian republic thus far. VS Naipaul makes the point brilliantly in his book, ”India A Million Mutinies Now,’ “Many thousands of people had worked like that over the years,” he tells us, “without any sense of a personal drama, many millions. It added up in the 40 years since independence to an immense national effort. The results of that effort were now noticeable.”
This is even more noticeable today than when he wrote this more than 30 ago.
The writer teaches at IISc Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal
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