Seldom in the annals of nations has there been an instance of vast vistas opening up after centuries of gestation, holding out ever-expanding horizons for a newly independent country to find, after long oppression, utterance for its soul, but the opportunity was most wantonly frittered away, as we did after Independence. It was almost literally a case, as the Bard put,
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Indeed, all the shallows and miseries we confront today are entirely our own making.
How will generations to come will look back at the legacy of the first six decades after Independence − a legacy of squandered opportunities to give a meaningful turn to modern India's history and institutions? To one who was a witness − a mute witness − to the goings-on of the last fifty years, the scenario has been, all said, far from cheerful. The Nehru family − Jawaharlal, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi − added its name to the long list of false gods that aroused hopes only to betray them. Jawaharlal’s bequest was the Nehruvian soft state that eroded the foundations of the political structure envisaged by the Founding Fathers of the polity. Indira Gandhi, possessed by consuming self-glorification − a common trait of the Nehrus − completely ruined the Congress Party. She also manipulated the institutions of the State to serve the goal of her own political survival through petty maneuvers and manipulations.
Rajiv Gandhi reluctantly tried his hand at the helm. He made well-intentioned promises to initiate change, only to become a tool in the hands of the power brokers who ensured that he blundered often enough to depend completely on them for his own survival. His overall impact on the system he set out to overhaul was extremely marginal at best.
After over six and a half decades of Independence, the top ten per cent of our society deem themselves full-fledged members of the much-acclaimed global village. They have no qualms about leaving almost half their countrymen behind to wallow in the stagnation of another world and another age. No one has the time to spare a thought for what could be the explosive impact of this gulf which is widening by the day. No society in history has marched forward to brighter vistas by leaving one-third of its members to survive at subhuman levels. We have, as it were, a schizophrenic strategy of development − a queer combination of high profile technology and faint-hearted measures to ward off mass discontentment by subsidizing electricity to farmers and rice to the poor. The much-touted Food Security Bill is a bid to perpetuate the status quo.
Nation within Nation
However daunting the problems, we and we alone have to resolve them. If history teaches one lesson, it is that there are no readymade solutions on offer which can solve any and every set of problems. Each society has to work painstakingly to resolve the problems bequeathed to it by its past.
Backwardness of centuries cannot be wished away by State capitals video-conferencing with district officials. Internet penetration cannot dent the abysmal living conditions of those who have been dumped on the dust-heap of society. Living in a world of massive detachment from reality, some eight crore English-knowing Indians − and the elite among them − constitute a nation within a nation. And this sub-nation inebriated with airs of superiority lives on the fat of the land. They have become, in Macaulay’s phrase, “Indians (only) in blood and color”. And these Indians have acquired some of the worst characteristics of the Western (particularly, American) culture. Instead of playing the role of liberators of the slumbering society, they deem themselves to be the new rulers − rulers without any obligations to the ruled.
Brokerage Collectors of India
Recall the historic statement of Gandhi at his trial before Mr. C. N. Broomfield, I. C. S., District and Sessions Judge, Ahmedabad on 18th March, 1922:
Little do town dwellers know how the semi-starved masses of India are slowly sinking to lifelessness. Little do they know that their miserable comfort represents the brokerage they get for their work they do for the foreign exploiter, that the profits and the brokerage are sucked from the masses. Little do (they) realize that the Government established by law in British India is carried on for this exploitation of the masses. No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye. I have no doubt whatsoever that both England and the town dweller of India will have to answer, if there is a God above, for this crime against humanity, which is perhaps unequalled in history. (Italics added.)
Substitute the term British India with contemporary India and each word of the above is valid even today. Today’s middle class is content with its enhanced brokerage as the masses continue to sink deeper.
Striking a socially acceptable balance between development imperatives and welfare needs is a daunting task. Howsoever intrinsically desirable, modernization and globalization cannot be achieved by turning our backs on widespread poverty and backwardness.
Usually, the momentum of change after a revolutionary transition − and the 1947 transfer of power was one such event in our history − is irresistible. What happened in France after the French Revolution in 1789, in Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and in China after the 1949 Communist take-over, are examples of the cataclysmic changes triggered by revolutionary zest. In France, the ancien regime was swept away. The Czarist order was systematically dismantled in Russia. Similarly, in China, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were attempts to usher in a new order in place of the status quo that these changes sought to supplant in the Chinese society.
What India needed − and needed desperately − after Independence was a transformational change from the pre-1947 state of affairs, particularly in the way institutions affecting the lives of common people, operate. What we needed was what an OD expert, Robert Golembiewski, has identified as Gamma change which represents a radical shift from what was the pre-change state. It is sometimes called transformational change, a radical alteration of the status quo, a quantum leap, or paradigm shift. It involves a complete revolution in “how we do things” or “what results we strive to achieve”.
This is exactly what our society clamored for after Independence. Instead, we clung to the old systems and old institutions. And the blame for frittering away the once-in-a-century opportunity to start a new chapter in our history can be squarely assigned to Jawaharlal Nehru. He lacked the organizational skills to make use of the Congress Party and its grassroots support base as an instrument of change which could herald a new era.
Each country has its quota of problems: some bequeathed by its past and some, of its own making. Added to these in our case are some others − our imperial rulers’ bequest. However daunting these problems, we and we alone have to resolve them. If history teaches one lesson, it is that there are no readymade solutions on offer which can solve any and every set of problems. Each society has to work painstakingly to resolve the problems bequeathed to it by its past.
When the Chinese adopted the Soviet-style communism, they wisely adapted it to the needs of their society − often to the chagrin of the know-all Kremlin leadership. Again, in the post-Maoist phase, Deng was bold enough to radically alter the traditional Communist economic model to China’s then specific socio-economic needs. The heavy dose of economic liberalization that he injected into the Communist political monolith was as unthinkable then as the Pontiff endorsing the birth control pill.
We have, in our society, grievously failed to think in specific Indian terms while adopting institutions from abroad. Take, for example, the various models of democratic polity that obtain in the West. Each West European country has its own nuances and emphases which embody their historical experience and specific needs.
The German adapted parliamentary system to their needs of ensuring stability. A no-confidence motion against the Government of the day can be moved only if the opposition can stake the claim of an alternative Chancellor, and not for sake of political drama which we enact every now and then. The post-1958 constitution of the Fifth Republic in France provided for built-in safeguards to ward off the demon of political instability. (For example, a re-election is ordered if any candidate fails to get over 50% of votes cast.) Australia has compulsory voting. Non-voters are fined.
A Swedish publication − Electoral System Design: the new International IDEA hand book outlines various systems that obtain in different countries that modified the British model to their specific needs.
And all this was affected without compromising the fundamental premise of democracy, namely, the accountability of those who wield political power to those on whose behalf it is exercised. We, on the other hand, were content with transplanting the Westminster model lock, stock and barrel. The model fails to deliver simply because many socio-political characteristics of the British polity (for example the long-established two-party system supported by adult franchise that developed in phases between 1832 and 1928 does not obtain in our milieu nor is it likely to emerge in the near future. We have to remember that tulips can’t grow in Tamil Nadu (even if the bulbs were available gratis from the Netherlands).
All said and done, institutions reflect the values that a given society upholds and lives by. We need a thorough review of how our parliamentary institutions are functioning and how to devise such changes as to make them deliver the results that the Founding Fathers had envisaged. The present deplorable state of affairs breeds deep cynicism as much about the present as about the future.
Almighty Runs our Affairs
Let me narrate an apocryphal story. A Soviet envoy − in the good old days of the bipolar world when there was a Soviet Union − was asked at the end of his term in India, about his most significant impressions of the world’s largest democracy. With frankness uncharacteristic of a diplomat, the Russian ambassador replied: “When I came to India I was, as a good Communist, a confirmed atheist. I go back to my country fully convinced that there is God after all.” The questioner was impressed. He thought how pervasive was the spiritual influence of India that it had dispelled even a Communist’s doubts about the Almighty.
“What brought about this metamorphosis, your Excellency”? The questioner probed further.
“Well, if there wasn’t a God (or something to that effect), how would the Government of India be functioning. Surely, there’s a divine hand that stops it from collapsing”. Indeed! Finishing his diplomatic assignment in India, John Kenneth Galbraith too, expressed very similar thoughts. He described our polity as “functioning anarchy”. That was when the Nehru era which was supposed to usher a new phase of our history, was drawing to a close.
What happened to reduce our polity to such a chaotic state? What explains the depressing drift? What has brought about this abysmal state of affairs?
A young scientist went over to consult Swami Ranganathananda, then Secretary of the renowned celebrity-visited Delhi Branch of Ramakrishna Mission and later President of the Mission at the Mission’s Belur HQ. She wished to quit her job to dedicate herself to the Vivekananda Ashram at Kanya Kumari. He dissuaded her from doing so, explaining as quoted in The Monk Without Frontiers: “Our society is like a leper’s body, full of wounds with puss and blood oozing out. There is hardly any healthy tissue from which new regeneration can start” She, in his profound estimation, was one the healthy tissues from which possibly could begin some regeneration.
If anything, Vedanta holds out great hopes for human salvation. And Vedantists ipso facto are incorrigible optimists. Imagine the frustrating disillusionment of his experiences around that made the Swami call the Indian society as a leper’s body.
And the disease took its time to spread its vice grip. Many a warning had been sounded but who cared?
Sir Mohammed Iqbal was a man of all variegated seasons and a poet of many swinging moods (as most poets are.) He was once an intense nationalist with burning passion to awaken a slumbering nation. He also metamorphosed himself into a narrow sectarian giving a call to divide a centuries-old joint family.
It is during the first phase of his rather prolific poetic career that he issued to Indians of his generation the warning quoted below which, in fact, hasn’t, over time, lost a bit either its relevance or its bite.
Watan Ki Fikar Kar Nadan!
Watan Ki Fikar Kar Nadan! Musibat Ane Wali Hai
Teri Barbadiyon Ke Mashware Hain Asmanon Mein
Think of the homeland, O ignorant one! Hard times are coming
Conspiracies for your destruction are afoot in the heavens
Zara Dekh Uss Ko Jo Kuch Ho Raha Hai, Hone Wala Hai
Dhara Kya Hai Bhala Ehd-e-Kuhan Ki Dastnon Mein
Pay attention to what is happening and what is going to happen
What good there is in repeating the tales of the old glories?
Ye Khamoshi Kahan Tak? Lazzat-e-Faryad Paida Kar
Zameen Par Tu Ho Aur Teri Sada Ho Asmanon Mein
How long will you remain silent? Inculcate the taste for protest!
Even Your assertive plains on the earth should echo in the heavens!
Na Samjho Ge To Mit Jao Ge Ae Hindustanon Walo !
Tumhari Dastan Tak Bhi Na Ho Gi Daston Mein
You will be finished if you do not care to understand, O ye people of India!
Even the mention of your being will disappear from the world’s chronicles
To be continued