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August - September 2007

Political News

India’s 60 Years of Independence - No Congratulations Yet.

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee

The Constitution of India – the longest such document ever drafted in the history of mankind – was promulgated 57 years ago on January 26, 1950. It had to be amended many times, which goes to prove that it was not a perfect document. It was the work of a section of the high-minded among India’s intellectual elite who had led one part of India’s great freedom movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. What has not been acknowledged is what was left out of the drafting process in framing the Constitution. It was the thoughts and guidelines of those who belonged to the other and equally important part of the independence struggle led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. There were others too who were left out from contributing to Constitution-making represented by the precursors of the modern-day Bharatiya Janta Party. By definition therefore the Constitution drafted in 1950 has remained incomplete, an unfinished task, stuck in the discarded ideologies of the past. The time may have come to consider redrafting the Constitution and making it relevant to the demands of the modern conditions.

The twin intellectual inspirations that influenced the framers of the Constitution, such as they were, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr B. R. Ambedkar were a) the egalitarian aspects of the Bolshevik Revolution led by Vladimir Ilych Lenin in Russia on the one hand and b) the secular liberal tradition of the British system of parliamentary democracy on the other. The mixture produced an unlikely hybrid of sorts, an amalgam of incompatible ideologies.

The model of economic development that India had to remain content with from 1950 to 1991 imposed by the left leaning Congress politicians of the time was founded on a system of state ownership of the means of production and the rejection of free enterprise. The ideology was borrowed from the communist system of the Soviet Union. The only difference was that a miniscule measure of private sector activity was permitted, which was just nominal. It created what came to be known as an economy of “commanding heights” giving birth to a “Licence & Permit Raj”, which in time corrupted civil society to the core, reinforced by pathetic all round systematic inefficiency. The full weight of the impact fell on the nation’s GDP growth, which remained of little consequence for no less than four and half decades, the much needed fast track economic progress failing to materialise. The inevitable happened. India fell behind China by at least two decades in economic development.

A reality check would be heart breaking. After 60 years of independence, more than 260 million people ie nearly one third of the nation’s entire population, still live below the official poverty line, which in fact means a life of misery and degradation of a kind not much seen in other parts of the world. The socialist economic order produced a three tier social order namely the “haves”, the “have-nots” and the “have-not-enoughs”. There is a characteristic Indianness to this social divide. They are not on talking terms with each other, co-existing in a state of disconnect. Ask a well to do professional Indian about the presence of an underclass in their midst whose numbers add up to the entire population of Europe, it is quite likely that he or she may stoutly deny, albeit with a hint of embarrassment, that such a thing exists in India. Yet the political class make a living out of empty slogans of poverty eradication or “Garibi Hatao” in Hindi, a promise that has remained unfulfilled. In fact in India’s socialist utopia, the poor have become poorer and the rich have grown richer over the years, the gap widening to the size of the Grand Canyon.

There were other fall-outs too. Entirely due to the failure of decisive policy-making, India’s population is growing unchecked at an alarming rate. The country is choking with masses of humanity. This phenomenon is complicated further by falling food production. India will soon overtake China in the population stakes. The country recently imported 16 million tons of sub-standard food grains to fill the depleted strategic food reserves. Millions of poor people still sleep on streets exposed to the elements. Housing shortage is acute. India’s cities and towns are filled with filth amidst widespread squalor and are pockmarked with festering slums. Public hygiene is almost non-existent. Outage of electric supplies or load shedding for three to four hours a day in the cities and towns of India is a daily occurrence. Most of India’s roads are pot-holed and bumpy, lying relegated in conditions of pathetic neglect. There is hardly any footpath worth the name. India’s creaky and overstretched public transport system is a disgrace. The railway system is unsafe and its technology archaic. The Government has not been able to provide safe drinking water to large swaths of the population. Diseases like typhoid, cholera, hepatitis and malaria are rampant. India’s health care system is over-commercialised by greedy doctors, who have out-priced high quality medical care almost beyond the reach of the common man. One third of the people are illiterate and their public behaviour remains a matter of shame. They need quality education on a mass scale, which is not there. Society is deeply divided both horizontally and vertically along caste and religious lines and polarised on political affiliations. On the top of it all, the break down in the law and order is a matter of utmost concern. The list is long. It is a matter of deep disappointment and frustration that there are signs of systemic failure everywhere. The country has no option but to recognise these grim realities and find solutions with utmost urgency, if it is to survive as a nation.

When such an inefficient and corrupt economic order was loaded on an adversarial multi-party political system founded on a parliamentary form of government and an electorate without education, the incompatibility of the mixture became starkly evident. The system threw up a whole lot of greedy and illiterate politicians on the back of millions of illiterate and desperately poor voting population. It did not take much time for criminals to get involved in politics and take control of the corridors of power. One corruption fed into the other producing a multiple effect. Corruption is now a way of life in India. Added to that is the criminalisation of politics. It is a lethal mix.

Jawaharlal Nehru had once said that he would not hesitate to hang a corrupt politician, if he could find one, by the next lamp post. The joke in India today is that neither Nehru in his 17 years rule nor his successors in office till this day could find a single lamp post in all these 60 years to hang even one corrupt politician to set an example for others. Encouraged by this sort of state indulgence, corruption has today become all pervasive, a way of life. It is corroding the soul of India.

However, every thing in life has an expiry date, a shelf life beyond which neither a political nor an economic system can sustain itself and must die their natural deaths. Such turning points are almost always historic in nature, sometimes violent too. The Marxist historian E.H.Carr had said in the forties of the last century that India had no revolutionary potential. If he had meant communist revolution, his definition of revolution is obsolete in today’s world. The modern condition is being shaped by political instability, violence and terrorism of various faiths and ideologies, which are refusing to die. The separatist violence that India is facing in Kashmir, the North Eastern States and elsewhere signals anger, alienation, failure and frustration. Without the encouragement and assistance of foreign intelligence agencies such calibrated acts of terror as India is encountering are impossible. India, on its part, is fighting its lone battle against terror with little success.

Economic failure becomes the harbinger of change. As far as India is concerned, the Soviet economic model failed to deliver development and the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy could not produce good governance. The protagonists who milked the systems to aggrandise themselves developed vested interests. It is they who now stand between stagnation and change prolonging the agony. To hasten the demise of the corrupt regime requires not aimless violence but a focussed trigger, a sledgehammer of a push. History tells us that whenever moral confusion and disabling chaos have struck nations gripped by corroding corruption and enveloping inefficiency a new dawn - a brave new world – has always emerged that has changed the lives of ordinary citizens. In the end stagnation gives way to change and progress.

1991 was the seminal year when the socialist economic model had proved itself to be unsuitable to India’s need for a fast track growth and sustainable economic development. The state system sat uncomfortably with the entrepreneurial spirit and the natural business flair of the Indians.

The Nehruvian socialistic pattern of society pushed India to the point of bankruptcy in 1991 when the nation was left with only $1 billion in foreign exchange. When the tipping point arrived, it was not the Indians who heralded change but the World Bank who forced the government of the day in New Delhi to give up on socialism and open the economy to market forces if it was to grow and the people were to prosper. A process of internal liberalisation and external globalisation of the economy began. It doesn’t matter who took the credit, India was at long last placed on a dynamic growth trajectory. Although the country has gradually integrated with the global economy, the pace of reform has been disappointingly sluggish like the march of an elephant. Yet the achievements are there before us to see and appreciate.
It speaks something of the determination of Indians that in the short time of 15 years since the process of globalisation began, the country is now a trillion dollar economy. Its annual rate of GDP growth has soared to 9.4 percent. Its forex reserves have shot up to $ 205 billion and growing fast. Its exports are well above $125 billion and growing at about 24 percent annually. India is already a dialogue partner at the G8 Summits of the most advanced industrialised democracies of the world. It aspires for a place as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. Impressive though they are, these are not enough. India has still a long way to go before it can call itself a fully developed nation.

After the first milestone was crossed, a view began gathering momentum among sections of intellectual class, in business community as well as at the popular level that unless the political system of governance which has corrupted at all levels of the administration undergoes a radical change, both in style and substance, not just a change of direction, the 1991 economic turn round may become unsustainable.
India’s proliferating multi-party system has produced a strange hybrid called “Coalition Politics”. It started with the NDA – National Democratic Alliance – led by the BJP, which came to power in 1999 with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister. The UPA – the United Progressive Alliance – came to power in 2004 led by the Indian National Congress and supported by the Communist Party (Marxist) and others. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi - an Italian by birth and a daughter-in-law of Nehru-Gandhi family - is the Chairperson of the UPA and the power behind the office of the Prime Minister of India. The media has described PM Manmohan Singh as a puppet of UPA Chairperson. He has no voice of his own. Mrs Pratibha Patil hand picked by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi for the post of the President of India is seen as yet another puppet in the making of the UPA Chairperson and the Congress President. Such an unfortunate development violates the spirit the Constitution and is an affront to the nation.

The two highest constitutional offices of the land are under the thumb of a foreign born lady who does not have a formal status under the constitution and is at best an extra-constitutional figure. Such incapacitation of the offices of the President of India and the Prime Minister of India has weakened the authority of the Central Government in India. A weak centre is a recipe for disaster. Historically, India has come under foreign invasions and attacks only when the centre was weak. Empires have been established in India by foreign powers during such moments of weakness. We have once again arrived at such a weak moment in our history. India stands exposed as a result.

Coalition Governments are by definition flawed. They have no electoral legitimacy. A Political Party in a democracy wins or loses at the hustings on the strength of an “Election Manifesto”. The BJP in 1999 and the Congress in 2004 were returned numerically as the largest political entities in Parliament but they did not have the required numbers to rule by themselves. When they formed Coalition Governments taking the help of other political parties, they tore up their Election Manifestos and created instead post-election opportunistic alliances the purpose of which was purely to grab power founded on “Common Minimum Programmes” or the CMPs. The people who voted for these political parties have every right to feel cheated. They never voted for the CMPs. They actually voted for the Election Manifestos. Coalition Governments in India are therefore founded on this fraudulent practice.

The reality however is that there is no alternative to coalition governments in the context of the present phase of the Indian political development unless the parliamentary form of government is replaced by a directly elected Presidential system of government. But this is too much of a radical change. A Presidential system of Government has the potential of providing a strong government at the centre and keeping the instability of Coalitions Governments at bay. Vested interests are, however, too deeply entrenched in the present system to allow such a change to come about easily.

India’s divisive caste-based quota system and reservation politics are increasingly destroying the cohesion of the society at large. Politicians endlessly criticise the British imperial authorities of practicing “Divide and Rule” policies to perpetuate their colonial rule over India but they forget that the greatest culprits and the most impassioned practitioners of “divide and rule” policy are the politicians themselves of modern-day India. Reservation politics is threatening to destroy the quality of higher education in India.

Vote bank politics is another such politically divisive practice that has gained currency founded on the exploitation of the sentiments of the minority communities for electoral gain. It has distorted the very core of democratic practice in India. It is also threatening the territorial integrity and the security of the nation.

However as the economic bandwagon rolls on, it is important that the nation does not forget prioritising what it wants to do first. Cleaning up the cities and towns of the country and landscaping whole swaths of the urban conundrums must constitute the foremost priority. Clean environment will be conducive to improved health of the nation. Massive private-public investments in efficient expressways and roads including footpath construction will be the second most important thing to go for. A series of electricity generation plants and the introduction of an efficient distribution system ending power shortages once for all, cannot wait any longer. Slum clearance and rehabilitation followed by massive investments in the nation’s housing stock needs to be taken up on a war footing. Water Refineries will have to be built all along India’s coastline to provide supplies of bottled drinking water to the rising population. On the social infrastructure front, India needs to abolish the caste system making its practice punishable by law. Education and employment should be made free from reservations and caste-based quota systems and based entirely on meritocracy. There is need for investments in science and technology, research and development. India has much to learn from China about how it moved 300 million people depending on small-scale agriculture from its rural heartland to the urban areas, engaging them in manufacturing, putting them to work in factories. Since 1979, China concentrated its efforts on transforming the country into the manufacturing hub of the world. Its sole purpose was the creation of employment putting purchasing power in the hands of the people because that is the best way to eradicate poverty and make the country prosperous. It is important that India learns from that experience.

India is located in a rough and an unfriendly neighbourhood. This being so, there can be only one destiny for the nation. It will have to transform itself on the fast track, free from petty ideological roadblocks, from a poverty-stricken small-scale subsistence agricultural economy to a giant industrial democracy and a world-class military power. There is no other future for India. This will be India’s 2020 vision.

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