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Mainstream, VOL LII No 5, January 25, 2014 - Republic Day Special

2014 — Prospects for India in the New Year

Tuesday 28 January 2014, by N V K Murthy

India has started its sixtyseventh year of freedom from British rule. Much has happened in India and the world over these past sixty-six years. India faces a general election in 2014. It seems to be at the cross-roads of history. Which way will it go? That is a million dollar question troubling every Indian. History, they say, is of value because it provides us with lessons to learn. At the dawn of India’s freedom, the world was a very different place. Two devastating world wars had been fought in a span of less than half-a-century. After the First World War, the Western world was divided into two camps, one inspired by Adam Smith and the other by Karl Marx. But they seemed to come together, a little unwillingly perhaps, compelled by circumstances. After the Second World War they again found themselves in opposite camps, and waging a Cold War.

It was in this period, at the height of the Cold War, that free India was born, as were some other countries in the developing world. The founders of free India tried to combine the best of both the worlds in fashioning a new country. Fortunately for India, the founding fathers had faith in the Indian, and set up a democracy with universal adult suffrage. There were many vested interests which were against this and wanted to prescribe minimum qualifications of education and property. When it came to the economic system, they wanted a socialistic one, not as a replica of the Soviet system but broadly following the same principles. This seemed necessary considering that there was not the same degree of industrialisation in India as in the West. In fact, there were rudiments of industrialisation including rail transport, only to a limited extent, as were set up by the colonial British power to suit its imperial designs. The Indian leaders thought that they could build upon the existing rudimentary structure and bring about rapid industrialisation. This was one of the points of difference between Gandhi and Nehru in the early days of planning development. While the foundations for a sound industrial country were laid down during the early years in the shape of gigantic irrigation and power projects, a steel plant, and a heavy engineering works project, in later years this planned economy deteriorated into a state-run centralised capitalist system. Added to this was a nexus of corruption between politicians and businessmen. This led to what one of the stalwarts of the freedom movement and the first Indian Governor General, C. Rajagopalachari, described famously as a Permit-Licence Raj. He raised the banner of revolt against this policy and set up the Swatantra Party. Finally, this Permit-Licence system brought the country to near disaster by the 1990s. Foreign reserves had melted away.

But the country seemed to reel back to life by a 180 degree change in the economic policy —liberalisation and integration with the world economy was the new slogan. Even so, certain fiscal and monetary regulations were kept in place. This, in hindsight, seemed very valuable and saved the country to a large extent from the economic disaster that overcame the Western world in the first decade of 2000.

When in the 1980s the Soviet Union collapsed and broke up into sovereign states, many in the Western world rejoiced and celebrated the death of communism and the victory of capitalism. There were of course sober voices which cautioned against such foolishness. One was the voice of the well-known economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, who came to be known as the saint of Cambridge, MA. He said that neither communism nor capitalism was dead but that both had undergone a sea-change. The world now seems to be realising that free enterprise with no social controls whatsoever could lead to enormous differences of economic status, from the very rich on the one side to the grossly poor on the other. Even Pope Francis has warned the world against the dangers of unregulated capitalism. So, while Adam Smith seems to have contributed to the ideas of free enterprise, Karl Marx seems to have added the need to consider equal opportunity and social and economic justice. These are valuable lessons for India’s future.

The other great change of the post-War period has been the rise of fundamentalism leading to ideas of nationhood based on religion and ethnic identity. When the state of Israel was formed as a Jewish state, there was a wave of protest in the Muslim world. Even the greatest Jew of the time, Albert Einstein, counselled that any new state set up in that region should be a secular one which could be home to the Jew, Christian, and Muslim alike. To this day the conflict has not been resolved. On the other hand, the flame of fundamentalism seems to be ravaging not only the Middle East but parts of Africa and other continents.

In 1947 when India became free, Gandhiji, who was still alive then, tried his very best to persuade Jinnah not to insist on a separate Muslim state being carved out, and to remain a part of India, where every minority—Muslim, Christian or Buddhist—would have equal rights. But this was not to be. The world has since seen enough death and destruction because of fundamentalism in the last half-a-century. Events in former Yugoslavia in Europe; the Middle-Eastern countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; Chechnya in Russia; Sudan, Nigeria, and CAR in Africa; Pakistan, India, Myanmar, China, and Sri Lanka in Asia have only proved the futility of violence and war as a means of settling differences in the affairs of men. Fortunately when India was partitioned, the founding fathers resolutely refused to set up a Hindu state in India as a backlash, and insisted on the country being a secular and plural society. This is one of the most valuable heritages of India. But recent events in India are threatening to undermine this great heritage. Will India succumb to these forces? This is the big, million dollar question.

Considering all this, the next general election in 2014 seems to become a watershed in the history of modern India. India has been acclaimed by the world as a promising country with a great future. It can still fulfil this promise if it continues to be a democratic, secular, and plural society. The Indian electorate has a very great responsibility. Will it live up to these expectations of the world?

The author, now retired, was the First Registrar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Subsequently he functioned for sometime as the Director of the Film and TV Institute of India, Pune. Later he was appointed the Director of the Nehru Centre, Mumbai.