The recent discourse on India’s post-independence history seems to be papering over the work done by Indians of the Ambassador car vintage—the original 1955 version and not the 1990s model which had power steering and air conditioning. The Amby carried the nation’s load as India steered itself from the impoverished 1947 hand‑to‑mouth existence, to the semi-modern avatar that we are now in. Owning an Ambassador was a symbol of having arrived socially till the modern glitzies hit the roads in the ’80s. It is now a collector’s item, but despite all its flaws, its ability to traverse the potholed, dusty, unmetalled strips of land that passed off as roads is still admired by the people of that era. Just like the Ambassador did its work in those trying times, we ‘oldies’ of that era also did our bit in the growth of our nation. The leadership had been elected by us, the people of India, and hence their decisions carried the stamp of the populace.
Increasingly, there is now a tendency to disregard, or see with blinkered vision, that turbulent phase of India’s journey from relative antiquity to the present stage of comparative modernism; to ascribe many ills, if not a majority of them, that plague us now to the decisions taken then; to see India’s high economic growth over the past three decades as somehow having been achieved magically and to view the unsettled issue of our borders, especially with Pakistan, to short-sightedness—disregarding the fact that in 1947 India had no money to speak of, there were millions to settle (and an equal number to feed) due the bloody Partition upheaval and a violent social strife to manage. The military was emasculated because of bifurcation of resources between India and Pakistan. The view that decisions could have been taken differently or could have been better is the ‘wisdom’ that comes with hindsight, which is 20/20.
Hindsight is an asset that needs careful handling; in recent times, it has also given birth to innumerable ‘experts’ in the strategic and defence field, who now seem omnipresent in the media, especially on television debates. If lessons are drawn, while acknowledging and evaluating the pressures and limitations that the then leadership faced, then future decision making would be contextually apt; if the context in which decisions were made is disregarded (wilfully or innocently), then the ‘wisdom’ of such hindsight is flawed. History gets seen as something to be despised (and hence disowned), the erstwhile polity as enervated and achievements undermined as being inconsequential. For us kids of those times, the Heavy Electricals factories were inspiring establishments and Bhakra Nangal was truly a temple of modern India.
The IITs, BITS Pilani and IIM Ahmedabad were world class institutions and the National Defence Academy was something born of visionary thinking for the fledgling armed forces—and there were numerous other such gems that set us on our path. This, despite the fact that India could not feed itself and was in the ‘ship-to-mouth’ stage—yes, wheat gifted under American Public Law 480 was what was sustaining the populace, though it was reddish and did not make good rotis. Lal Bahadur Shastri, the second prime minister of independent India, gave the clarion call to save food by skipping one meal every week and my parents, as most Indians, did that every Monday night. After the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the nation did not have foreign exchange to fund purchase of armament, so the leadership requested the citizenry to donate gold for the national cause; gold bonds too were floated to tide over the acute foreign exchange crisis and I distinctly remember photos of Mrs Lalita Shastri donating her personal ornaments and exhorting ladies to do so likewise.
Is this fiction? The youth of today may be a bit surprised that this was India in the mid-1960s, just 50 years back, but we got around feeding ourselves and now export food—all due the green revolution ushered in by planners of those times! And now that Chandrayaan-2 almost made history, nay, did make history as the achievements of our scientists involved with the mission are just exceptional, it must be remembered that its foundation is intermeshed with the growth of ISRO from that Amby era! Each one of us, as we grew up, contributed to the progress in our respective fields to create a bigger whole of what we see now as a modern and self-confident India.
Folks, it would be wrong to say that India’s early years were turbulent; they were very turbulent, what with four wars also thrown in. No doubt many decisions could have been taken differently, but was there inefficiency all around? Was malfeasance omnipresent? Was the common Indian not doing his bit? If yes, then our nation wouldn’t be where it is now. If a tree represents a nation, then its history (including recent experiences) is the nourishment that is assimilated by the roots and fed to its branches and leaves—these two represent its institutions and people. A true and contextual appreciation of history is imperative if the nation (the tree) is to prosper, as only then would hindsight be correct and aid future decision-making. The Indians of the Amby era of all hues and strata, with all their short comings, constitute the falling leaves that have nourished the nation to its present status of a regional power; let faulty hindsight, due to incorrectly drawn lessons from history, not impede our march to a better future. The Ambys of India deserve due credit!
Retired Air Vice Marshal who is an Ambassador-era Indian.
Views are personal