Celebrating 60 : Sixty years on, a very mixed bag

Celebrating 60 : Sixty years on, a very mixed bag

Author | Inder Malhotra | Tuesday, Aug 14,2007 9:43 AM

Celebrating 60 : Sixty years on, a very mixed bag

To draw up a balance sheet of India at 60 is a difficult task because of the country's record, bewildering complexities, and even more because the record is rather mixed. Come to think of it, in 1947 many were certain that India would not survive as a single entity. According to them, our survival itself would be a major achievement. But we never had any doubt on this score.

A far more creditable attainment of ours is that all through these 60 years, except during the 19 months of Indira Gandhi's Emergency in the mid-Seventies, India has been a functioning and lively democracy. It will doubtless remain so because the Emergency proved that India would be governed democratically or not at all. Of course, Indian democracy suffers from many flaws, some quite serious. Yet it compares favourably with what American democracy was in 1836, sixty years after the United States became free.

It is also to India's great credit that despite several grim challenges, it has maintained and sustained the secular, inclusive and tolerant character of Indian society in which all citizens have equal rights. It has kept at bay, as best it could, religious and other forms of extremism, and preserved its multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic attribute.

In the 17th and early 18th century, India -- like China -- was a country more advanced economically than Britain and other European nations. At the end of British rule in 1947 it was among the poorest! After Independence too, we have had several ups and downs, for example, the grievous food shortage brought about by the savage drought in the mid-Sixties. We did not have the foreign exchange to buy food. Lyndon Johnson, annoyed with this country because of its policy on the Vietnam War, put American wheat supplies on a very tight leash on deferred rupee payment. Consequently, India lived almost literally from ship to mouth, and with every morsel of food, we swallowed a little humiliation. Within three years, however, we had the Green Revolution.

The foreign exchange crisis of the Sixties was nothing compared with that in 1990 when India had to pawn its gold to save itself from defaulting on loan repayments. Today the foreign exchange reserves have risen to a whopping $ 140 billion and are rising further. This surely has much to do with the liberalization of the Indian economy and integrating it with the global pattern. The unleashing of entrepreneurship and the quantum leap in IT industry have pushed up the annual increase in GDP to 9 per cent or three times what used to be disparagingly called the "Hindu rate of growth".

All this must be applauded. But there is the darker flip side of the picture. While industry is booming, the rural sector has suffered – in many sectors grievously. There has been no reduction in the rural population; despite the high rate of urbanization its contribution to GDP has remained stagnant. Suicides by farmers in several states cannot be overlooked. Worse, inequities across the country have grown exponentially. The prosperous and expanding middle has never had it so good. Yet, at the same time close to 40 per cent of Indians go to sleep hungry.

The list of shattered dreams and unrealized ambitions is long. The first fond notion to collapse was that, with the departure of the British, the Hindu-Mulsim conflict would become a thing of the past. Our confidence that in independent India corruption would be rooted out has met the same fate. Today, bribery and graft have become a galloping cancer without cure. Sadly, the curse of dowry persists and has indeed acquired alarming proportions.

Other blots on India's face include persistence of untouchability, occasional occurrence of sati, and massive exploitation of women, especially widows. Shocking beyond belief is the rising incidence of "female foeticide", the murder of the girl child before birth now that the gender of an unborn baby can be determined easily.

The Mahatma wanted caste to be abolished instantly. Instead, it has become the most potent political force. Because opportunist and populist politicians are united in reserving more and more jobs for backward castes, social groups have started agitating, often violently, demanding that they be moved lower down the social ladder rather than upwards!

The infrastructure of the Republic has begun to decay. No wonder violence and insurgencies of various types are on the increase, and in many areas the writ of the Indian State does not run.

On the other hand, the wide world has taken note of the rising India. Its economic surge and military prowess have made their impact. There is general agreement that India, like China, would soon be a superpower. It is not for nothing that the US has been anxious to make India a "strategic partner" while China has made no bones about its worry on this score. The Indo-Soviet nuclear deal has evoked strong opposition in both countries. But in this noise, let us not forget that the deal means an implicit acceptance of India as a nuclear weapon power.

(The author is among India’s foremost political analysts and commentators.)

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