Winston Churchill once famously said that to say that India is a nation is to say the Equator is one! For people like him, who projected the deliberately misguided hubris that the British created India, and that but for their continued presence, India would not survive, the completion of 69 years of the republic is a fitting riposte. Our young republic has not only survived but has proved long ago that its survival is beyond doubt. We may be a young republic, but we are an ancient culture. When nationhood is underpinned by a strong and verifiable civilisational unity, the result is usually invincible.
Nation building is a long and arduous process. That is why, milestones of success, should be followed by a stretch of introspection. There is much that we have achieved, but much more also needs to be done. As a vigilant nation, we should, even in such moments of legitimate celebration, draw up balance sheets that audit successes against failure, hits versus misses, achievement versus inadequacy.
The list of our successes is impressive. Unlike most countries that gained independence in the last century, we began as a democracy, and have managed to remain the largest democracy in the world. Given the incorrigibly hierarchical and unequal social system we inherited — and still grapple with — this is no mean achievement, and has provided a new sense of empowerment to the hitherto marginalised. We have also reinforced the territorial unity and integrity of the state. It may surprise many that since 1947, although there have been many insurgencies against the republic, not a single one has succeeded. Our scientists, doctors and engineers have done us proud. Our armed forces have enabled us to hold our head high. And, in many sectors of the economy, we have made real breakthroughs, such as the green and white revolutions, and the major expansion of the IT sector.
As against these achievements — and many more can be listed — there still remain very major areas of concern. The first is rampant inequality. India may be the world’s largest democracy, but we still have the largest number of the abjectly poor in the world. We also still have the largest number of those who cannot read or write, and even worse, more malnutritioned children than sub-Saharan Africa. It is true that over the last several decades large numbers have been redeemed from below the poverty line, but those condemned to unspeakable poverty are still far too many to sustain the claim that India is a rising economic superpower.
The pervasive persistence of poverty has institutional reasons. Agriculture still employs over 60 per cent of our people. But, after the initial Green Revolution, the agricultural sector has largely languished. This is reflected in the lopsided nature of our GDP basket, where the service sector — employing the least number of people — contributes the most, with manufacturing a distant second, and agriculture at the very bottom. If agricultural productivity and incomes do not rise, the vast majority of our people will remain locked in a cycle of poverty, especially since labour-intensive manufacturing industries that can provide jobs outside agriculture have also grown far below expectation.
The standards of public health and education need urgent attention. Government deliverables in these two areas are abysmal. The public school system is in shambles, leading to a mushrooming of sub-standard private schools, and an overall structure where apart from some miniscule pockets of excellence, the young are being educated with far below average levels of skills and training. Jobs are woefully scarce, and those that are there are faced with an army of the “educated” young who, given their skill levels, are essentially unemployable.
Our democracy is vibrant but in need of urgent reform. The biggest malaise is the continued nexus between unaccounted money and politics. Indeed, this is the beej, the very seed of corruption in the country. For decades now the Election Commission has proposed a series of reforms — and more powers to proceed against offenders — but the political class has sat on these proposals and done nothing. The recent attempt to allow anonymous donors to contribute to political parties through bonds is hardly the answer to the need for foundational reform in this vital area, where every rupee collected by a party must be accounted for.
New dangers have also emerged. The first is the emergence of ultra-right forces of exclusion that are threatening the plural and composite fabric of our nation. There is every reason to be proud of being a Hindu, but there is no reason to assert that India is exclusively a Hindu nation. Such an assertion deliberately ignores the fact that many faiths have always lived and prospered in India, and while appeasement of any one is wrong, each of the great religions that exist in our country need to be given respect. Allied to this religious aggression, is a virulent form of ultra-nationalism that looks upon all dissent as anti-national and is willing to resort to violence to enforce such a brittle point of view. In fact, the impunity with which certain groups, like the Karni Sena, have taken the law in their own hands — even stoning a bus full of school children in Gurgaon — cannot happen without the complicity at some level of the state authorities. The resultant social instability that such forces are creating militates directly against our economic ambitions, because internal peace and harmony are essential, not only for India to be an attractive global investment destination, but for the development agenda that we hope to implement.
This balance sheet between the plusses and minuses can be much longer. But, as we celebrate the completion of 69 years as a republic, there is enough reason to celebrate, just as there is enough cause to introspect. Nations that endure and prosper cannot become victims of only euphoria. They must be also willing to see what is wrong, even as they pay tribute to so much in our history as a young nation that is right.