By K shankar Bajpai
Will 2017 prove to be only an anniversary of 1947, or almost as significant a turning point in our evolution? Its 70th year finds India significantly different, in values, pressures, functioning, both from what it was and what most founding fathers envisaged . The Constitution they gave us, effective Republic Day 1950, suited their vision, but has changed comparably. Will it witness a 70th anniversary, or be shorter-lived de jure, as it has been de facto?
Not only India attracts such questions. All governments find the complexity of contemporary challenges and their people’s expectations intractable. Democracies face the greater problem of threats to the very beliefs, principles and practices long considered Democracy’s essence. The worst horror is intolerance: no “decent respect ” for difference -of person, opinion or private habit; brute force suppressing reasoned discussion; law discarded with contempt; unbridled bigotry spurred by demagoguery – such ugly forces rise everywhere, not least in Western countries long claiming exemplarity of openness. When the “world’s oldest democracy” succumbs, the whole system’s vulnerabilities show alarmingly.
Authoritarianism fares no better, but its appeal increases everywhere. How to make democracy work should be today’s prime concern. Not caring a damn, most people start preferring anything that delivers. Threats to our democracy are more destabilizing because the essential foundations never firmly settled. Balfour said the British Parliamentary system worked because, despite deep differences, “ there is a fundamental agreement among all to make it work”. Some mutual respect and accommodation also helped. Disappearing everywhere, these conditions never took root amongst us. The spirit essential for the 1947 system doesn’t exist.
Such situations have also developed worldwide. The Trump phenomenon is substantially due to decades of bitter gridlock from poisonous party relations. Eight and four years ago, America impressed us all by the self-improving maturity of choosing a black President. That it changed so startlingly so fast needs studying, but our first worry must be ourselves. Not one institution or instrument of state functions properly. Legislatures meet minimally, shout unbearably, provide no laws-or oversight; judiciaries fumble along, often addressing what should not be their business (a Supreme Court running cricket?) doing some good but the wait for justice skyrockets; the executive, both political and permanent reinforce each-other’s failings, in disarray; while the fourth estate, so vital to Democracy, blithely undermines it. Government-Opposition relations are practically non-existent, the party that led us into independence, the only nation-wide alternative, now devoid of ideas, leadership and prospects, offers no vision. Our problems grow huge as our apparatus for handling them degenerates. Things go no better outside government: in all professions, schools, hospitals, businesses, sloppiness grows-and nothing is done
This was not so 70 years ago, though the germs started work straightaway. We were the most advanced of decolonized states, respected for efficiency, seemingly imminent promise, above all as a democratic model. Others sent soldiers, diplomats, doctors, engineers etc. to us for training, now we need them. We produce –still- outstanding professionals, thinkers, experts: put an Indian anywhere abroad, (s)he excels - but at home is stifled, leaving India a “teaming womb” of talent- for export. Is debasing quality inescapable in extending entitlement? Or have we gone about things the wrong way?
The fashion is to blame colonization for everything. Colonialism was an obscenity, whatever good it left can never excuse its sins. But blaming conquerors for conquering is self-indulgence. Why did we succumb?? No great Armadas, no thundering hordes, invaded us, a handful of adventurers bested us-even in intrigue. Our faults defeated us: arbitrary fiat and obsolete, cocksure obscurantism succumbed to the colonisers’ discipline, organisation, systematic attention to duty, objective assessment, above all their use of new knowledge. Far from more intelligent or more virtuous, and despite fortune-making, they managed to subordinate the personal, using state power for state purposes. The state, leave alone national purpose or progress, means nothing to us, the personal is paramount. A few among us did realise this must change, initiating the 1947 effort to make India modern. Rejecting that, we have steadily reverted to old ways: recidivism triumphs over modernity.
Modernity here means openness to using advances in knowledge to improve society and the conditions of life. With us, obscurantism preempts any such driving-force. This Prime Minister manifests a vision for India to be great and powerful, but the modernity required- of thinking, attitudes, behavior- seems alien, if not abhorrent, to his constituency and associates. Can they articulate any vision of our future- or realization of present challenges? Worse, the considerations determining the decisions shaping our daily lives are unworthy of the issues involved – petty, selfish, myopic. Similar defects infect all governments, but serious ones let some broad, reforming, forward-looking vision have play. The most destructive backwardness in Third World states, separating them most ( till recently) from advanced countries is the absence of sense of national purpose, as distinct from personal or group benefit. The witticism about our economic sluggishness attributed it to “ the Hindu rate of growth.” There must be a Hindu rate of decline also: we have taken decades to reduce ourselves from First-World objectives- or capabilities- to Third World practices.
India was once well-called the Asian bridgehead of the Enlightenment: Respect for Reason, the ideas of the great progenitors of liberal democracy, informed our aims, practices, public discourse as in no Afro-Asian country. Japan has been unique- not least in deliberately choosing modernity ever since Commodore Perry’s ships shocked it out of its old ways (while retaining its distinctive culture). China also now rises all the faster for having opted for modernity, albeit authoritarian. We meanwhile relapse into the failings responsible for our colonisation: internal squabbling, personal/clan interest superseding nation or society, sloppiness, unprofessionalism. Just consider UP: politics conducted as family feuds, without any issue of public interest.
And then corruption. Economists disagree whether ‘demonetisation’ is good or bad; time will soon tell, but the corruption supposedly attacked will keep flourishing. All misuse of position for illegal personal gain is disgraceful, but countries can survive, even advance, under corruption that gets things done: it is the bribery inescapable from meeting ordinary, daily needs that is the metastasising cancer. Try getting, without paying, your driver’s license, house-plans passed, property-transfer registered, school admission- the list is endless. We who pay are also guilty, but the way we run our affairs makes honest-living nightmarish. Previously, redress was possible by appealing to senior officials, now they too are no better, or helpless. Everyone knows what is wrong, not one hope of cure is discernible. And if what you have doesn’t work, either something has to replace it or you fall ever behind.
One greater alternative could do it: get together to make it work. Since that is a dream, what reality will replace the dream of 1947?