As India completes seventy years of independence, it is an opportune moment for a retrospective on how this Asian giant has fared in meeting the expectations of its people and of the world. An ancient civilisation with a vast landmass and population, India has attracted plenty of fascination, praise and criticism from a variety of standpoints.
An ever-expanding industry of India scholars, watchers and commentators within the country and abroad has passed judgement on its strengths and weaknesses. Awe about India not fitting neat parsimonious models of interpretation and explanation is epitomised by the American social scientist Barrington Moore’s observation in 1966 that the country is an outlier which poses “a challenge to and a check upon the theories” of democracy.
The spectacle of robust democratic freedoms despite abject and lingering poverty since the dawn of independence in 1947 made Moore argue that “India belongs to two worlds”, i.e. in a “preindustrial age” as far as economics went but in a “modern world as a political species.”
Seventy years after India broke free from British colonialism, this dichotomy is still relevant. India is an icon among developing countries for firmly established liberal democracy where multiple parties compete for power at the national and state levels, turnover of power from one party to the other is peaceful and frequent, and people’s participation in voting is tremendous.
If one adds non-electoral dimensions of democracy like civil and political rights, social movements, citizen activism and legitimacy of the nation-state in the eyes of most people, India is the leader and trendsetter for the Global South.
The American political scientist Larry Diamond remarked in 2007 while surveying the dismal state of democracy across Asia that “given the circumstances, India stands alone and its democracy is something of a miracle.” The Democracy Index for 2016, produced by The Economist places India at virtually number one position among low-income nations. Presumably, if India turns into a middle-income country in time to come, its democracy will become even more robust and accountable to citizens.
Younger Indians are quite used to taking high economic growth for granted today. That has been the trend since 1991. But if one were to look at the full 70 years that have passed in entirety, India has not delivered the goods on poverty reduction and infrastructure deficit with enough speed. What this means is that hundreds of millions of people have been deprived of a life of dignity due to denial of basic needs.
We have several lost generations that missed the experience of decent living standards, thanks to misguided macroeconomic policies and uneven distribution of the fruits of GDP growth. Although some argue that India’s raucous democracy is an albatross hindering rapid economic transformation, the tragedy of the last 70 years has been a gag on unleashing the talents of ordinary Indians. Despite privatisation, our ‘systems’ have been designed to obstruct and deny the enterprising potential of our people.
Indians are argumentative and their democracy enables fierce debate about which mix of economic policies and governance models suit or ill-fit their national needs. But one undeniable factor is that social hierarchies and absence of social capital (interpersonal trust) have compounded economic underperformance. The correlation between India’s caste discrimination and economic destitution is still strong in spite of a raft of affirmative action policies that have stoked upward mobility among intermediate groups in Indian society.
Another sore spot in India’s journey over the last seventy years has been inadequate empowerment of women. The 2016 Global Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks India at 87 out of 144 countries, with extremely low scores in women’s access to health and participation in the labour force.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that India’s GDP would be boosted by $1 trillion if it narrows the troubling ‘workforce gender gap’ by 25 percent. To attain such a goal, the nagging question of whether India can overcome entrenched patriarchal attitudes and structures has to be answered through a large scale societal value transformation.
A Values Revolution
At 70, India is a young nation-state with very old baggage as a 5000-year-old civilisation. While being justifiably proud of our glorious heritage, we hide behind ossified notions of ‘tradition’ and are bogged down by social attitudes that prevent India from realising its true potential.
Let us dedicate ourselves in the next decade, if not seventy years, to objectives like gender equity, fairer distribution of the fruits of economic growth, and conservation of the environment which is being brutalised due to poor civic consciousness. India’s best time is still ahead of it if it can render its democracy more robust and accountable while reducing the lag between social backwardness and its rising economic and global profile.
To quote our Prime Minister, people have to pledge to work shoulder-to-shoulder “to create the India that our freedom fighters would be proud of”. The first and foremost prerequisite for this great national duty is to shed notions of discrimination, superiority and inferiority which are ingrained in most Indians. Equality in outlook is an attitudinal revolution that is imperative for our democracy to deepen and for our economy to roar. Equality was the foundational ethos of our independence struggle. Let us renew it as our talisman for the future.
(Sreeram Chaulia is a Contributor to Republic TV. He is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs. His latest book is ‘Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister’.)