Shankkar Aiyar Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and
This August 15 India celebrates 70 years of Independence, a young nation nestled in an ancient civilisation yet wrestling with old problems in the new millennium. India’s leaders have used the occasion to pledge political power to take India to greater heights. The running theme is the vow to pave the way from penury to promise of prosperity. The question in 2017 is: were words translated into deeds? In 1947, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru evocatively said, “That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges” and underlined “ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.” The lofty ideas found reflection in the Constitution and in the Directive Principles of State Policy.
While Nehru succeeded in sustaining democracy against odds, the promise to end poverty was waylaid. In 1947, nearly seven of 10 Indians lived below the poverty line. Till as late as 1990s, four decades later, five of 10 were below poverty line. Fact is, seven decades later, in 2016, nearly one in five or over 270 million Indians lived below the poverty line (World Bank estimates). The persistence of poverty is located at the intersection of usurious politics and extractive economics. Ideally, India should have addressed agrarian distress—it was a net importer of food since Independence and poverty was located in agrarian distress. Yet investment and technology was denied. The import-and-keep-prices-low theology crippled India’s food security. By 1960s, India couldn’t pay for imports. Lal Bahadur Shastri had to call for Indians to fast once a week even as he brought in C Subramaniam to propel the Green Revolution.
His call to arms, Jai Jawan Jai Kisan, was about redefining national security. He said, “I consider self-sufficiency in food to be no less important than an impregnable defence system for the preservation of our freedom and independence.” India is no longer a ‘ship to mouth economy’, producing over 272 million tonnes. Yet in 2017, agrarian distress is starkly visible in farmer suicides and the demand for job reservations by the land-owning class.Indira Gandhi’s first Independence Day speech from the Red Fort in 1966 was a potent mix of idealism and ideology. She said that economic growth could be better and it can be done, urged farmers and workers alike to do their bit and exhorted Indians to reduce dependence on imports and go swadeshi. Socialism, she said, was the only way to reduce poverty.
The ‘Garibi Hatao’ brand of socialism left India stranded. In the 1960s and 1970s, as other Asian economies grew at 5-plus per cent, Indonesia grew at 7-plus per cent, India was stuck at around 3.5 per cent—for three decades, between 1950 and 1980, India’s per capita income grew at sub 1.5 per cent and slower than Malawi.The flaw lay in the distrust of Indians and misplaced trust in the theory of government knows best. Nehru is blamed for installing state-ism, but it was under Indira Gandhi that the number of PSUs rose from 69 to 121. The mistake was not so much with the adoption but in persisting with licence raj despite obvious failures. India is paying a high price—opportunity, scale, competitiveness—for persisting with a closed economy.
Soon after assuming power in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi made two critical observations—the Congress party was infested with power brokers and that India’s economy needs to be opened up. His first Independence Day generated hope and headlines—he had struck the Assam deal a few hours earlier. He was in a hurry to take India to the 21st Century—a theme song with him. He promoted panchayati raj, recognised the potential of urbanisation, chanted the youth mantra, pushed for reduction in voting age from 21 years to 18, opened up sectors even if not in sync with fiscal conditions, promoted computerisation and access to teleconnectivity. By year three, his credibility dwindled, held to ransom by the very same middlemen he chided in 1985—and by the time he demitted office in 1989, India was hostage to an unprecedented economic crisis.
V P Singh, the challenger, came to power and declared the “coffers are empty”. It took the sagacity of Chandra Shekhar to negotiate a bail out. P V Narasimha Rao surprised India and the world by taking the deal forward, dismantling licence raj to liberate the economy, and declared from the Red Fort: “We have only salvaged the prestige of this country.” Rao and his team, however, let permission raj prevail—visible even in 2017 in the poor rankings in ease of doing business and unending queue of stalled projects. By 1992, the slide to ignominy had begun— the scams, the scandals and abdication took their toll.
Oratory and hope returned to Red Fort after decades in 1998. Atal Bihari Vajpayee—poet, nationalist, statesman and the great conciliator—redefined India’s place on the global stage. Having ensured the success of Pokhran II tests, he said in his first Independence Day speech: “India is a great country and its people are powerful.” It was a message to believers, naysayers and the neighbours.
There is much Vajpayee said and did—connecting Bharat to India, drafting a template for peace, welcoming dissent, setting the tonality of humanism in politics. His review of everything that was right and wrong with India at 51—in a speech spanning over 4,000 words—is valid two decades later. He was tripped from within—by revisionists and the India Shining hyper-bole brigade.
In 2004, the Congress anointed Manmohan Singh to the top job. Typical of the professor, in his first speech at Red Fort he asked Indians: “What is the Bharat that we all wish to build?” and went on to present his vision of India. Reticent, cornered by the civil war in Congress and hamstrung by coalition conditionalities, Singh saw his vision felled by vile politics—by the expansion of political entitlements that brought India back to the brink of an economic crisis.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected as the antidote to everything that was wrong. He has used every Independence Day since 2014 to unveil a slew of programmes and marketed it with force. Translating declared intent into results though needs more decentralisation and dismantling of the cosy ‘power and pelf coalition’.Every issue that confronted India in 1947, continues to haunt it in 2017—be it child malnutrition, poverty, agrarian distress, job creation. Living up to the pledge calls for redesigning the structure of government. It requires enforcement of rule of law. Above all, transformation demands sustaining democracy by preserving the idea of inclusive India
The challenge is the opportunity, to craft a lasting legacy.