Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Reading India, @ 65

"India will find herself again when freedom opens out new horizons... She will go forward with confidence, rooted in herself and yet eager to learn from others and co-operate with them,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the founding fathers of India, in the epilogue of his book, The Discovery of India, published in 1947.

Nehru described India as “this lady of the past” asserting that she was re-awakening. He saw India, with roots to her own culture, playing part in the global sphere. “Thus we shall remain true Indians and Asiatics, and become at the same time good internationalists and world citizens,” he wrote. Sixty-five years later as India celebrates its independence from Britain, it is worthwhile to ponder on these words. Already, we can see a surge in commentaries by pundits and experts, introspecting on the idea of the Indian republic, her experiments with freedoms, her cultural reformation, as well as her global engagements.

Until a few years back, one strong, irresistible image of India was that of a nation beaming with an alternative narrative that highlighted its emerging IT prowess, its booming economy, its expanding middle-class, and its global power aspirations. For many, this narrative of success came to be graphically symbolized, for example, in the power magnate Mukesh Ambani’s Antilia, the 27-storey, US $1 billion dwelling, reportedly the world’s most expensive.

Gone are the days of snake-charmers, elephants, or myths in India—commentators began to write. Stephen P Cohen, a leading India expert based in the US, wrote in his book India: the Emerging Power (2001) that India’s negative image had become obsolete and the country was “taking its expected place as one of the three major states of Asia.” Cohen, like many other India watchers, attributed the growth to India’s liberalization of economy, its pluralist, secular democracy, and a rising military power. Indian economy at that time grew by six percent annually, reaching up to nine percent in 2007, then sliding again gradually.

The reforms initiated in the early 1990s by the government brought a sea change in the economic order. Subservience to state socialism rooted in Gandhian and Nehruvian autarky began to erode. India started breaking away from its long-held tradition of austerity by entering the global market of competition and consumerism. A liberalization policy, though inconsistent, resulted in the opening of the business sector to multinationals. By 2008, the country’s GDP had crossed the threshold of US $1 trillion. In October of that year, India articulated its global power aspirations by successfully launching its first unmanned lunar mission Chandrayaan.

“All is well”—indeed, in a typical Bollywood musical style, India at one time appeared poised for a great stride. Only that her alternative narrative overshadowed her persisting challenges. What emerges from reading the Independence Day editorials and commentaries is rather a gloomy picture of India.

The Indian republic ensured fundamental freedoms in the constitution, and it was hoped, as Nehru believed, that they would open out new horizons. Unlike China, political freedom did flourish, institutionalized in the form of a democratic parliament and regular elections. The world’s largest democracy in principle has ensured freedom of press and speech. However, in recent years it has been sliding down on the press freedom index. In 2011, it fell to 131 out of 179 on the annual index released by Reporters Without Borders.

The country still has a long way to go in terms of economic and social freedoms on the ground. More than 60 percent of the population lives in poverty. While China, which shared about the same socio-economic status as India in 1947 has almost cent percent literacy rate, more than a quarter of Indians remain illiterate. Social discrimination, steeped in traditions and superstitions remain formidable challenges to social progress. Although women have occasionally held some top positions in power, majority of them continue to be discriminated against on every level. Freedom at the societal level still appears to be a far cry. India is no stranger to terrorism, political and communal violence, separatist movements, etc.

These issues, along with cases of widespread corruption, amplified in recent times by Anna Hazare & team as well as the yoga guru Baba Ramdev, were often cited by editorials and op-ed articles as obstacles on the path of India’s advancement as a fully modernized country. The historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in the Hindustan Times that public institutions in India are increasingly associated with “corruption and incompetence.” “Sixty-five years after the British departed, the Republic of India remains a work in progress,” he observed, adding: India continues to inspire “pride and embarrassment in equal measure.”

The leading newspaper Times of India lashed out at the political propaganda, banning of books, and growing cases of “hostility to dissent” exemplified recently in the censorship of political speeches. It saw the need for “an image makeover” of India to preserve the hard-won freedom.

“India at 65 has lost its way as it sinks deeper into a melancholy middle age,” wrote Pankaj Mishra, one of India’s incisive commentators. Mishra lashed out at the neo-liberal, corporatist free market model that India blindly embraced in recent decades, abandoning the early idea of India that he believed helped to create a moral microclimate of the new nation, the idea that offered ordinary Indians “notions of common good and collective welfare.” Mishra stressed that though the Nehruvian socialism driven by a protectionist economic regime favored a few big businesses, it helped balance justice with economic freedom, and provided a focus to dismantle the cruel hierarchies of caste and class.

Several commentators echo the undertone of Mishra in their comments, bemoaning the “swift and remorseless rejection of India’s founding verities.” Nehru himself wrote in The Discovery of India that there can be no real growth based on imitation. “Such imitation can only be confined to a small number which cuts itself off from the masses and the springs of national life.”

Prosperity among a select few entrepreneurs and a well-to-do class have given birth to the notion of “two Indias”, of the wealthy who are becoming richer and the poor who are becoming poorer, of the educated and illiterate, of the privileged and the underprivileged.

The majority of India at 65 is crying out for freedom from ignorance, from hunger, from fear. Ironically, the recent independence celebrations were overshadowed by the communal fear created by threats over social media triggered by the Assam violence. These were later followed by widespread government censorship and control of social media networks.

Some newspapers, like The Statesmen (published from Kolkata) went deeper in their melancholy. Its editorial read: “A blank space in this column would have been apt ‘no comment’ on the condition of the nation.” It added: “A glance at recent newspaper headlines would confirm that an essay in frustration is inescapable.”

Looking from Kathmandu, I believe India does not appear as gloomy as her natives portray her. It is a far larger and robust economy than we are. We benefit from India’s liberalization of economy. We would like to believe she is still doing well and will continue to prosper further.

However, until India comes out of her own internal troubles and truly enters the “Asiatic” or international arena not for power but for justice, we may continue to have doubts on her global aspirations. As Cohen cautioned, India’s “economic growth will put new strains on Nepal’s political system, and the temptation for India to manipulate different Nepali factions and parties will always remain.”

Published in Republica, Aug 29, 2012.