A report card on a billion people over 60 years is a daft thing to attempt but if you think of it as a kind of stocktaking, it begins to seem more sensible. In India’s case, the need to take stock is connected to our anxieties about the country’s future. Those of us who aren’t stockbrokers or economists and can’t write sagely about bears and bulls and bubbles should still make an effort to assess the republic’s past. Can Do Better isn’t enough: we know India can. The question is, has it done well enough through these 60 years for us to hope that it Will Do Better?
One of the advantages of being a citizen of a “developing” country is that optimism, unfashionable in the uber-developed West (because progress from a high baseline is hard to discern), is a feasible state of mind here. There are two things that the Indian state has handled exceptionally badly, which I shall come to, but those apart, the short history of the republic has gone better than anyone could have imagined in 1947.
Among the taken-for-granted achievements of the republican state is that it presides over a country that is unified and stable, and whose stability is founded on a time-tested addiction to voting. Indian democracy has so often been used as an alibi for the country’s failures by India’s boosters that people tend to roll their eyes when this claim to political virtue is entered, but you only have to look at Indonesia (the secession of East Timor), Pakistan (the corruption of military rule) and Sri Lanka (majoritarianism and civil war) to know that a stable democracy is a good reason to touch wood and celebrate.
When the members of India’s Constituent Assembly insisted on universal adult franchise for the world’s poorest electorate, they bet the house on democracy against very long odds…and won. We, their descendants, should celebrate their high-risk gamble without apology or self-consciousness. Add to this the endorsement of affirmative action and the relatively peaceful integration of princely India’s kingdoms, and you have political foresight and achievement on an epochal scale.
But the political achievement of the republic doesn’t stop here. The Nehruvian state’s claim to democratic originality is based upon the pluralism that it made integral to the country’s political culture. After Partition, Indian secularism started life as a kind of chivalry, with the country’s Muslim minority cast as the damsel in distress. This republican determination to reassure Indian Muslims that they were full citizens of the new nation, despite the land of the pure that their co-religionists had established next door, was challenged by majoritarian parties and majoritarian violence, but it survived.
It survived not as chivalry but as pragmatism, as the only way of doing political business and surviving as a nation in a dizzyingly varied subcontinent. If we think of politics as retail trade, the secularism made by the Nehruvian Congress was stocked by Harrods while the canny coalition-building that won UP for Mayawati was mass-market pluralism sold by Wal-Mart. The two are related: The political ground for Mayawati’s alliances was prepared by the Nehruvian Congress’s rhetorical but deeply felt commitment to a pluralist politics. What this illustrates is the important fact that there is no ideological blueprint for being secular in India; to be secular in India basically means extemporizing ways of keeping Indian politics pluralist.
It is customary to celebrate Indian democracy while simultaneously lamenting the decline in its political culture and institutions. It’s important to argue back against this nostalgic position. Most of the institutions that keep India’s democracy ticking have NOT decayed. They’ve become better. The Election Commission is now an institution that enjoys enormous credibility. It is feared by political hucksters and evildoers in the way in which the IRS is feared by tax-dodgers in America. It conducts elections with creativity and independence and is widely regarded in the world of electoral democracies as an exemplary organization that conducts first-rate elections.
That the Election Commission should enjoy this reputation after a period in the republic’s life where elections were discredited by malpractice is proof of the fact that things in India can get worse and then get radically better.
Culturally, there isn’t (thank god) a “national culture” in place, but there’s a confidence amongst the citizens of the republic that being “Indian” is easy. The film industries that dot every part of the country are vulgarly healthy, our upmarket discos play bhangra, our haute couture is hideous but popular, our art has invented a market for itself, our television industry proliferates and Indian audiences remain relatively indifferent to foreign programming.
Our newspapers continue to expand and prosper and compete: Unlike America, where the newspaper readership of whole cities is virtually owned by single papers—The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, etc. Our writers are better paid now, their books better produced and their publishing houses more entrepreneurial. Which Indian writer would be nostalgic for the bad old days when being published meant Hind Pocket Books or Jaico?
Intellectually and academically, India has a sense of self that Pakistan or Malaysia or Indonesia don’t. Academic publishing for an Indian market has struck roots and while its quality is variable, it has the great merit of creating a body of work that examines aspects of Indian society and history that might be of little interest to foreign readers but are vitally important for us.
This is more important than it seems. Places, whether cities or countries, aren’t rich or interesting in themselves: They are made rich and interesting when they are chronicled, described, analysed and put into stories. It’s the old thing about a tree falling in a forest and no one noticing. When Pradeep Krishen writes a book on the trees of New Delhi, the trees of New Delhi become available to the intelligent lay reader. When Time Out sets up shop in Mumbai and New Delhi and begins to systematically list and survey and sample its cultural life, that life becomes real to the reading public who otherwise wouldn’t have had the information to be a part of it.
So our successes give us reason for optimism. Our failures point the way to what needs to be done. For the purposes of precis, the republic’s largest failures can be boiled down to a) poverty and b) Kashmir. Under the head of poverty, we can group the state’s near-criminal default in the areas of primary education and public health.
Arguably, one of the preconditions for alleviating poverty, economic growth, has been met by the economic expansion of the past 15 years, but this market-driven boom has brought no corresponding commitment from the state to use the tax revenues from a growing economy to fund a welfare net for the country’s poorest. The statist dogmatism that, for decades, crippled the country’s economy seems to have been replaced by another derivative orthodoxy: A near-religious belief in the wisdom of unregulated market forces.
Kashmir isn’t just an unreconciled borderland: It challenges the credibility of India’s pluralism, which is its reason for being. We can argue about the rights and wrongs of Kashmir, point to Pakistani provocation and jehadist violence, but the violence the state has used to crush insurgent Kashmiri Muslims and the death toll that has mounted over the years does the republic no credit.
Still, we’ve got to the new century, bruised at the borders, but still a secular democracy, getting better rather than getting worse. That we’ve travelled this road with a billion people on board has to be cause for modest celebration.
Mukul Kesavan is an author and professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His latest book is Men in White: A Book on Cricket