Later this week, India complete 71 years of its independence. As anniversaries go, in the normal course, this is just another date of record. On the face of it, that is true. But, actually it is much more; in fact a major milestone for a country that was carved out in such exceptional circumstances—not only did the departing British artificially carve out India, they left behind a bankrupt exchequer and, worse, a socioeconomic foundation, which would leave India crippled for decades. Partition also inspired an avoidable social cleavage in the subcontinent, resulting in one of the worst tragedies in human history.
For that matter, Pakistan, which celebrates its Independence Day on 14 August was left even worse off. Pakistani-American historian Ayesha Jalal points out that our neighbour inherited less than a fifth of the revenue base of colonial India and a third of the army—an imbalance, which has forever distorted the country’s course and, of course, that of the subcontinent.
It is, therefore, remarkable, that despite the warts (both, those that were inherited and the ones self-inflicted) and the pulls and pressures, India has survived as a democracy. For this we owe it to our founding fathers who bequeathed the one document, the Indian Constitution, which has survived compelling challenges and still defines the contours of the country’s polity. This is essentially because it vests the ultimate power with the citizens; something we easily forget. Yes, we constantly test its limits, but at the core, it is responsible for India’s federal unity (which has acquired an additional dimension after the implementation of the goods and services tax that economically unified the country a year ago).
As Sunil Khilnani, the history scholar and professor of politics and director of the King’s College London India Institute, put it in his book, The Idea of India: “Like those other great democratic experiments inaugurated in eighteenth-century America and France, India became a democracy without really knowing how, why or what it meant to be one. Yet, the democratic idea has penetrated the Indian political imagination and has begun to corrode the authority of the social order and a paternalistic state. Democracy as a manner of seeing and acting upon the world is changing the relation of Indians to themselves."
Remarkable while this achievement is, the emerging concern is to evolve a new idea of India that would not only survive the next 70 years, but remain wedded to the roots of the Constitution—which guarantees freedom as a fundamental right to every citizen of India regardless of caste or creed. This won’t be easy.
While new challenges have emerged, tragically some of the fundamental socioeconomic concerns, inherited from the British, are still unaddressed—to name a few: severe malnutrition among children less than 5 years, open defecation, inadequate schools (exactly why India comes up all, but last, when compared to other countries) and a non-existent health infrastructure. India does not have time on its side (though it’s pertinent to ask questions about the wasted decades) and the traditional patience of its citizens is wearing thin. The binary discourse dominating the world in general and, India in particular, is only contributing to make this an even more contentious debate. And this at a time when India has to make difficult trade-offs, like say in the case of development versus growth. The recent agitation by locals concerned about pollution spillover from the copper plant located in Tuticorin led to the deaths of several activists, revealed the perils of ignoring or riding rough shod over local concerns, while making the larger choices on development.
For this the stature of institutions, especially the legislature, judiciary and, of course, the media need to be restored. At the moment their credibility, for right or wrong reasons, has been severely undermined, weakening its compact with the general populace. If uncorrected, it will breed cynicism.
Remember the next seven decades will overlap with the lifespan of 65% of India, which at the moment is less than 35 years of age. If not the country, we should worry for them.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.