Sarvodaya: the Lode-star of New India
Continued from “Disintegration of Social Contract”
The Languishing Republic – IV
Should one day an Indian counterpart of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace − a novel of many dimensions and epic proportions, be written, the leitmotif of the plot (weaving amidst vortex of wars) will not be the theme of dignity as in case of the Russian epic, but a saga of helplessness. Such has been the fate of Indian people − invariably at the receiving end through most of their chequered history. And yet they were the first to respond to Gandhi’s stirring call when the so-called elite − the traditional brokerage collectors from the rulers of the day − basked in warmth of patronage. It is they who had languished in jails and suffered privations when the upper classes went in cahoots with the foreign rulers.
Bhagwat Purana discusses in detail the legend of Samudra manthan, the churning of the Ocean of Milk. (Several other Puranas too deal with it.) It was indeed an elaborate process. Mount Meru was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents offered himself as the churning rope. The demons (asuras) held the head of the snake, while the devas, on the advice of Vishnu, agreed to hold its tail. Because of their proximity to its head the demons were poisoned by fumes emitted by Vasuki. Despite this, the demigods and demons pulled back and forth on the snake’s body alternately, causing the mountain to rotate, which in turn churned the ocean.
Bas Relief of Samudra Manthan from the Angkor Wat temple (c) Gettyimages.com
The Samudra Manthan process released a number of things from the Milk Ocean. One product was the lethal poison known as Halahala. This terrified the gods and demons because the poison was so powerful that it could contaminate the Milk Ocean and destroy the entire creation. On the advice of Lord Vishnu the gods approached the compassionate Shiva for help and protection. Lord Shiva inhaled the poison in an act to protect the universe. As the legend has it, goddess Parvati pressed Shiva’s neck to stop the poison from spreading. As a result, the color of Lord Shiva’s neck turned blue. For this reason, Shiva is also called Neelakantha − the blue-throated God.
To cut a long story short, finally the heavenly physician, Dhanvantri emerged with a pot containing Amrita − the long-sought nectar of immortality. Fierce fighting ensued between Devas and Asuras for the possession of nectar. To protect it from Asuras, the divine bird Garuda took the pot, and flew away from the battle-scene. While Garuda was in his flight over the planet Earth, it is believed, four drops of nectar fell at four places − Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik This legend is the basis for the belief that these places acquired a certain mystical power of spirituality. A Kumbh Mela is celebrated at the four places every twelve years for this reason.
Manthan of Our Times
The prolonged freedom struggle to free India from the British imperial yoke was the Samudra Manthan of our times. The devas were the supposedly educated, successful middle class − Sir Tej Bahadur Spru, Motilal Nehru et al − and the Asura were the peasantry and common folks that Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai galvanized into action.
And when finally the pot of Amrita – the freedom of India from the British rule – materialized, the deviously clever upper middle class hijacked it. The original contract both in the Purana legend and our freedom struggle was to divide equitably the Amrita – the nectar of immortality. Today’s counterparts of the Asursa of old have been deprived of their share. Hence, the vehement demand to rewrite the social contract.
The fundamental task that clamored for the attention of new rulers after independence was how to restore, after centuries, self-worth and self-esteem to a repeatedly defeated and humiliated people? How do we make them realize that each one owes something to the other?
Regrettably, in the last sixty-five years we lulled ourselves into thinking that after Independence a new social contract would come into being (almost magically) on its own. No, it didn't. Not at all! As a matter of fact, newer versions of social contracts don’t ever come into being on their own. They are brought into being consciously and deliberately. And we miserably failed to discharge this duty that we owed to the people of this country. Never was a deliberate attempt made to bring about a social consciousness of a free people to impart them an acute awareness of their obligations to each other and, far more importantly, create institutions to reinforce that consciousness. Yes, each one of us had been guilty of killing his brother to snatch his share − our neighbor Ram Prasad was the Biblical Abel − whom we killed instead of playing the role of his keeper.
Why did we fail to be our brothers’ keepers? What happened and what lessons can we draw? And most importantly, how to set right the unsustainable social imbalance on account of this grave lapse?
Drawing a balance sheet of the British rule in India, the ICS veteran, Penderal Moon thinks it gave Indians “immense benefits”. These include, according to him, “an efficient administration, the rule of law and liberal traditions”. Indeed the two significant legacies of our British connection were the concept of the rule of law and the institution of elected parliamentary government.
The one person who played a vital role in the transfer of power, in 1947, from the British to the Indian leadership was V P Menon, whose immense contribution hasn’t been publicly recognized. His diplomatic skills and administrative acumen were unparalleled. He was the one whom Sardar Patel chose as his right hand man in the monumental task of integration of 565 Indian states in the Union of India. Menon’s summing up of the British rule in India is succinct:
From 1765, when the East India Company took over the collection of the revenues of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, the British had gradually built up in India an administrative and political system hitherto unknown. They brought about the consolidation and unity of the country; they created an efficient administrative organization on an all-India basis; it was they who for the first time introduced the rule of law; and they left to India that most precious heritage of all, a democratic form of government. As long as there is an India, Britain’s outstanding contributions to this country will continue to abide. (Italics added.)
To what extent have we nurtured these priceless attributes into potent institutional realities is another matter. If ever we discard these we’ll be throwing the baby with the bathwater.
The Dawn sans Light
How did we use the profoundly significant opportunity that the Independence of India offered to bring into being a transformation of our society? Had we earnestly embarked upon it, we could have brought about a transformation of our society that had wallowed for centuries in poverty and stagnation. How a country like Japan transformed itself in half a century after Meiji Restoration and once again after its defeat in the World War II, are testimonies to the potential that came our way and we failed to tap. Even the Chinese after their blundering experiments like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution showed to the world what was achievable with political will and pragmatic policy of a visionary leadership. We let things drift and opportunities slip.
One salient feature of the second half of the twentieth century that was available to us was its breathtakingly rapid rate of technological advancement. Howsoever disruptive it may be in certain respects, it offered unique opportunities to those who were vigilant and chose to avail of dramatic openings for growth. In the early 1980s the developed economies (like the American and the Japanese) moved on to the highlands of Information Technology which hold the key to the next stage of industrial revolution. This crucial development led to their vacating the lower and middle level technology applications. The area of products and services thus left open was grasped with alacrity by the Chinese, under Deng’s visionary leadership, to be used as a launching pad for the post-Maoist liberalization phase of their economic development. Consequently, the first world markets, today, are flooded with Chinese goods − exports which have helped China build a most sizeable surplus balance of trade, which is the envy of China’s trading partners. (China recorded a trade surplus of 286.10 USD Hundred Million in August of 2013.)
We in India let this vastly significant opportunity go by default. While the Chinese were making headway in the American market with their well-conceived export thrust, we were busy offering our pampered babus a five-day week and imported TV sets to watch Asian games during the Prime Ministership of Rajiv Gandhi. When the world was fast moving to fiber optics, we were debating whether jelly-filled cables for telecommunication applications should be kept reserved only for the public sector. The result is that we are stuck where we were, while others have forged ahead. No wonder, at least one-third of our people are still living below a deplorable poverty line.
In his euphoria over having achieved Independence, Nehru waxed eloquent about the “economic freedom for the vast masses of our country...” Yes, a meaningful start was possible − to put “an end, in stages ... to gross differences in wealth and opportunities”. But no such beginning was made. Nehru could have initiated this, but he stopped short at declaration of good intentions. Such declaration cannot, alas, solve a country’s problems nor can long, windy speeches. Strong political will informed by an acute sense of sound vision backed by hard-headed administrative action and follow-up, alone can. All these Nehru lacked. The man whom destiny willed to give India a head start over others in Asia after the retreat of Western colonialism, failed miserably. And that has been India’s great misfortune. The result is the profound cynicism that, today, engulfs the polity much to the remorse of those who care for their country and its future. And all this happened because of a series of egregious mistakes.
In April 1953 Nehru had declared:
I shall not rest content unless every man, woman and child in the country has fair deal and has a minimum standard of living … Five or six years is too short a time for judging a nation. Wait for another ten years and you will see that our Plans will change the entire picture of the country so completely that the world will be amazed.
But a decade after he breathed his last breath, this optimism had proved to be an illusion. The basic inadequacy in Nehruvian style of governance lay not in a faulty vision, but in an inability to create new institutions to implement the program of national development and social change. Nehru did not have the political skills to operate in this fast-changing environment. Notwithstanding a continuing debate, the question remains: why did Nehru fail to create the correct instruments of governance?
This dysfunctionality, I believe, was linked to a structural factor, connected as it was, to an imperfect Transfer of Power on the 15th of August 1947. What occurred on that day was, to borrow a phrase from the Italian Marxist sociologist Antonio Gramsci, ‘a passive revolution’, where the political transfer of power was divorced from socio-economic transformation. There was, in August 1947, no telescoping of political and socio-economic revolutions.
After delivering his much-applauded “tryst with destiny” address, Nehru forgot all about it. He thought it was important for the Congress Party to ensure the continuity of all existing institutions to serve the new set-up.
In an entirely different context, Comrade Jyoti Basu coined the phrase “historical blunder”. He couldn’t, all his life, forget or forgive his colleagues in the Politbureau for the “historical blunder” of not letting him lead the United Front in 1996 and don the mantle of the first elected Communist Prime Minister of India. (Thank the Good Lord, the Politbureau blundered or else Jyoti Babu would have ruined India the way he did this to his own State.)
However, the real historical blunder of our polity was not to ask ourselves the hard question: now that we have the opportunity to bring into being a new order, which of our existing institutions and laws must be scrapped lock stock and barrel; which ones must be substantially modified and which ones must be carried forward. For example, we must prize for ever one legacy of the British rule, namely, the concept of the rule of law. Under no circumstances, must we let that welt or wither. Acceptance in their entirety of the law-enforcing agencies and their style of functioning that the British created − the police system and the way it works, for instance − has been (and continues to be) an egregious mistake. The British had created these agencies to rule and not to serve the people. After sixty five years of independence, these agencies still deem themselves as rulers. (Have you ever been treated by a policeman with the dignity due to a citizen?)
As a matter of fact each and every institution that came into being during the British rule was specifically designed to rule and instill a sense of fear and awe amongst the ruled. Our failure to examine the working of institutions that citizens interact with and give a new orientation to their functioning to serve, rather than to rule over, people is our greatest failing in the last 50 years − the real historical blunder.
Continued to “Stepsons of Soil Awaiting Their Due”