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Between the line

Uneven progress of India
January 26, 2011


I LOOK back with nostalgia on the days leading to foundation of the Indian Republic 61 years ago. Although the constitution was adopted in the end of November 1949, its operation came into being on January 26, 1950, consecrating India’s declaration some twenty years earlier on the bank of Ravi that its goal was full freedom, not the dominion status. The constitution, as the preamble says, gives people a sovereign democratic republic. The word, secular, was added during the infamous days of the emergency.

We held our first election in 1951, 60 years ago. There was adult franchise, with no educational bar. Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru probably had the disadvantaged people in mind, hoping that some day they may join hands—they are in a majority in the country—and rule over India.

I never imagined this could be possible. But when Mayawati, a dalit, won a majority in the most populated state of UP and became the Chief Minister, I began to believe that Nehru’s hope might come true one day. The disadvantaged and the minorities might get together and form the government at New Delhi.

However, after the first election, the Western correspondents accredited to India predicted doom and wrote that the first election was India’s last one. They mistook the assertion of caste, if not creed, at the polls as a sign of country’s disintegration. Naville Maxwell, The Times, London, representative wrote that the turmoil which was seen at the time of election would tear the country apart. I, a stringer of The Times for 25 years, strongly differed with him. But he maintained the election held was the last one. Today he is eating his words and I stand vindicated.

Another American correspondent of The Washington Post, Salig Harrison, wrote a book, The Dangerous Decade to predict India would disintegrate by the end of the 50s. I joined issue with him as well. He admitted his mistake but not Maxwell. I think the West still does not understand, much less appreciate, the idea of India. It cannot stay united if it is not democratic, secular and open. There is a sense of unity in the country, not based on any dogma. Its diversity is its strength and its spirit of accommodation, reflected in secularism, keeps the people from different regions and religions together.

The point to worry about is that the economic growth is not uniform and dispensation of justice, promised by the constitution, is lacking in social, economic and political fields. A political freedom, without social and economic freedom, has disillusioned the nation. The Maoists with the gun have become relevant, although they are a problem, not the solution.

No doubt, people can exercise their option to elect their rulers freely and regularly. But there is only one opportunity in five years. For the rest of the period it is the say of the classes, the elite. How do we make the legislators answerable for the period between one election and the other? Some countries have given their subjects the right to recall if one third of voters ask for it. But India is too large a country where one parliamentary constituency commands more than one million voters. One third is too big a number.

Then how do we ensure that power stays with the people? Decentralization is the only way out, the transfer of power from Delhi to the state capital and from the state capital to villages. The panchayati raj, one of the few good things that Rajiv Gandhi did, has become a hostage to moneybags. The government has not been able to keep out either political parties or the rich. And as you go to higher tiers—for example, zilla parishad at the district level-- you find that money and politics have reduced elections to a mockery. When the election to parliament costs more than Rs 10 crore and to the panchayat some Rs 50,000, the democratic polity is of the rich, for the rich and by the rich.

I never dreamt that India would be one of the most corrupt countries. Jawaharlal Nehru made his colleague, K.D.Malviya, Pelroleum Minister, resign for accepting money from a businessman in the name of Congress and not rendering any account. At that time, the corrupt, both in public life and the government, could be counted on fingers. Today, it is the other way round—the honest can be counted on fingers.

And the amount of corruption is mindboggling. Even in my wild guess, I could not have estimated in the early fifties that one scam alone, like 2G spectrums relating to mobiles, would reach a whopping figure of Rs.one and a 75 lakh crores. In fact, the sum of corruption of Rs 100 crore is considered peanuts.

In our time the corrupt and the black marketeers were kept at a distance because nobody wanted to spoil one’s reputation by rubbing shoulders with them. Nehru had issued instructions to senior officials not to attend the party given by a diplomat who was not equal in rank or status. Today, the secretaries to the government are seen at the reception by a Third Secretary in the embassy because booze is available in plenty.

What I miss the most is austerity. Now a car has to be big, the house palatial and the dress of foreign brand. Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto at least introduced in Pakistan the awami dress, salwar and kamiz. Not many bureaucrats wear that dress. Western suits are preferred by the officialdom in South Asia. At Mumbai, an industrialist has built a multi-storey house costing some Rs. 2000 crore. Compare this to a small cottage in which Mahatma Gandhi lived all his life and won us independence, not the West-oriented doctors or academicians who were on the side of the British.

Violence has now become an order of the day in India. There is hardly any state which has escaped it. People are today as much a victim of state terrorism as they are of militants. The Maoist gun is reprehensible. So is the gun of the state which suppresses people’s peaceful protest.

In our part of the world, the exploitation by centrifugal forces have always been there as a dangerous probability. They can rip the nation apart. And who knows where and when the violence would end? It is not a debate between means and ends. It is the question of gun versus gun. Any leeway given to the terrorists—for example, the timidity of liberals to speak out—can be suicidal for the country’s thought process, not to speak of developments.

There is still a long journey to cover. I feel lonely in the wilderness of broken promises and the scotched hopes.

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