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India as an idea, as a great exception with a purpose that preceded our existence as a free country, has long held us agog across deep divides of ideology. Today, much of our public life pivots Left or Right on the basis of what that idea actually is, with the contours of its conception in contest. Yet, what unites us counts for more. It assures us not just our unity, but integrity. The end of this week marks 75 years since an aim was set forth in Parliament that we all approve of, surely, as an Indian axiom. “The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe ‘every tear from every eye’," said Nehru in his Tryst with Destiny speech. “That may be beyond us, but so long as there are tears and suffering… our work will not be over." Mahatma Gandhi’s appeal of eyes has endured across generations of Indians. And it is such unifying values—upheld and edified by democracy—that have kept us both striving and steady, arguably, by making space for openly-popular if noisy shifts in power as the decades rolled by.

The ideological path taken by our elected leaders since that August midnight of 1947 can be seen as an arc from Left to Right, even as the plot-line of an economic take-off. But that’s too snappy to be true. We began on a somewhat socialist path alright, nudged along not just by Fabianesque idealism, but also by India Inc’s Bombay Plan of 1944 which asked for a “mixed economy". Though state-led modernization was our best catch-up option back then, and mass poverty called for a fairer share for everyone, the mix grew more statist over the years. Tax-and-invest turned wasteful, controls began to stifle incentives and our economy got entangled in a jumble of distortions. It took concrete evidence of market forces doing a better job of resource allocation for an India led by a leftish party to ease clamps, dump autarky, drop barriers, expose business to real rivalry, and go for other such market-oriented reforms that would catapult our prospects. This was not capitalist shock-therapy, however, as much as a policy remix, justified by its promise of faster output growth coupled with quicker poverty relief—as in Gandhi’s doctrine. Our newly opened economy saw many a monopoly crack up. So too in the bustling arena of Indian politics. With Ayodhya as its epicentre, Hindutva arose as a social ideology backed by a critique of Nehruvian policies. Since Narendra Modi’s 2014 ascent to power, political hegemony has clearly tilted rightwards. In 2018, our Prime Minister had this to say: “At a time when inequalities are not uncommon, Bapu’s emphasis on equal and inclusive growth can herald an era of prosperity for millions on the margins." Our Father of the Nation, we call him. Bapu, in affection.

Modi’s policy remix has sought to combine welfarist outlays and central initiatives with startup fanning and a financial reform thrust. An inflation target, exit path for businesses that go bust, a credit clean-up and a tax rejig favour our economy. So do with-it digital and infra projects. Yet, reform rhetoric sits rather uneasily with rising trade barriers, stiffened rules and sundry pathologies of central control, not just in commercial but our social spaces as well. “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom; so is prosperity now," Nehru said, “and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments." It echoes Tagore, but it is Bapu’s purpose that we must basically strive for—as proudly, bravely and wisely as we can.

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