As India celebrates 76th Independence Day, we can certainly look back with pride and pleasure at India as our PM unfolds the National flag from the ramparts of Red fort to complete the festivities called ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’. From 1947 the country has been marching ahead and following first PM’s “Tryst with Destiny”. Pandit Nehru took over a bleeding economy with pervasive illiteracy and grinding poverty. Our country has seen changes in the political and socio economic landscape since then. We gave ourselves a modern constitution in 1950. Moving the adoption of the constitution on 9th Dec. 1946 Dr. Ambedkar said ‘however good a constitution may be it is sure to turn out bad, because those who were called to work it happen to be a bad lot’
GREATEST ASSET- DEMOCRACY
The greatest aspect of free India that stands out is strong electoral system widely respected for the way governments have been changed through the ballot box with the armed forces kept out of the electoral process. We are the only country in Asia that has been steadfast with democratic culture ever since 1947 and despite major incursions to democratic principles and institutions in the recent past. People’s faith and confidence in our elections and judicial mechanism are possibly the biggest asset of the country, notwithstanding the dark chapter of India’s democracy – the Emergency period of 1975 to 1977.
The country was born amidst the partition riots with lakhs slaughtered and the largest migration in the history of the world. The country was thereafter devastated by wars with China and Pakistan. Fundamentalism both religious and linguistic has played havoc but our journey from 1947 to 2021 has been stellar despite inequality, poverty and unemployment. Our first PM was a visionary and a statesman who helped steer the country through the crises. To him goes the credit of being the architect of modern India who piloted the country for the first 17 years after almost two centuries of colonial rule. He believed in scientific temper and viewed science as a source of knowledge that countered religious beliefs. His beliefs in technology, education and industrialisation accelerated the advancement of the country and brought us where we are today. He spoke of providing for the poor at a time when food scarcity was the order of the day. His belief in building institutions to safeguard parliamentary democracy and his belief in bringing about a new socio economic order gets highlighted from a non-constitutional and a non-statutory body called ‘planning commission’.
THE PROGRESS CARD
We started our innings as an independent country importing food grains and our dependence on International food Aid was very high. The Green Revolution in the mid-sixties transformed India into a food surplus country from a food deficit one and from importer to exporter of food grains. Our production of fresh fruits, milk, pulses is incredible. We are possibly second largest producers of wheat, rice, sugarcane, potato and cotton. Our food grain production was 15.8 million tonnes has increased six fold by 2021. The White Revolution brought abundance of milk helping malnourished children. Our literacy rate which was hovering around 16-17% then, has now crossed 80%. Life expectancy at birth in 1947 was 32. That has more than doubled now. The infant mortality rate was 146 for every one thousand live births. It is less than 30 now. We have almost eradicated polio and withstood the Covid-19 pandemic of this century. Our export of vaccines against corona virus has brought has placed us in the advanced nation category in scientific research and Technology.
The telecom revolution brought a new confidence to the people. On the atomic energy front and our peaceful use of nuclear energy has placed India into a new prestigious club. We are not very far behind in space technology. Our roads and bridges network and connectivity is bringing about an infrastructural revolution. At that pace in a few years from now we would be second to none. In the index of ease of doing business, we are ahead of many countries and doing business. Our Gross Domestic Product is far ahead of our expectations in 1947. Our rich and elite are getting richer and our number of billionaires are increasing
Fairness and accountability are the hallmarks of a democratic society. An independent media particularly the TV media had always showed progressive outlook. Making right to education a fundamental right provided a new direction to the way our country’s young shall grow up. Right to Information as a statutory right has helped in providing the required values of transparency in governance. The Election Commission of India and the judicial system headed by the Supreme Court assumed the role of protecting the democratic system and the citizens from all pervasive state. The Supreme Court in particular assumed the powers that went beyond the mandate of interpretation and adjudication.
POVERTY AND UNEMPLOYMENT
But we are still considered a ‘developing’ country. Poverty and unemployment has not left us and the world’s largest hungry population lives in India. The global hunger index 2021 places us at 101 among 116 countries. The index takes into account infant mortality, child stunting child wasting and child undernourishment. Last year our rank was at 94 we have slipped further. On the human development index prepared by UNDP India ranks 131out of 189 countries with an improvement over last year’s ranking. The Global Peace Index report by institute of Economic and Peace India ranks 135 out of 163 countries. As per the ‘World Inequality Report 2022‘, India is among the most unequal countries in the world, with rising poverty and an ‘affluent elite’.
Oxfam report 2021 shows our unequal health story. We spend 4th lowest in the world on health.
IDEA OF INDIA
Despite our no so good economics, The world always looked at us differently. Our forte as a country has always been our democracy, democratic values and democratic institutions despite our diversity of region, languages, culture and religion. The idea of India has always been the India of ‘Unity in Diversity’. The world’s largest democracy was popular because of its secular credentials in a highly religious society. There was hope around the idea of India. Our religious and cultural diversity has always been our defining characteristic. That made us a vibrant society. That was our source of strength which made the world look at us with hope. It is important that a stock taking is done of those issues that made us popular in the world at one time.
A few days back Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramnana expressed disappointment that both India and United States are known for their diversity which needs to honoured and cherished everywhere in the world. He was extremely critical of our intolerance in society stating that United States attracts the best elements due to its respect for diversity and inclusive nature. That is the damning attack on our current state of affairs. Why had the Chief Justice of India to react in the manner he did.
It is worth noting how international bodies which follow democracy and freedom had been looking at India of late.
The Economist Intelligence Unit in its Democracy Index 2021 published in February 2022 has ranked us at 46th position on a global index and dubbed India a ‘flawed democracy’. We score lowest on political culture but highest in Electrol processes and pluralism. The failure to crack down on the prosecution of religious and other minorities by Hindu nationalists pulls us down in the democratic ladder.
Freedom in the world report by freedom House – a US government founded organization in Washington which has been conducting research and advocacy on democracy political freedom and human rights since 1941 declared India to be ‘partly free’.
On May 13th 2022 V-Dem, an institute at Sweden university Gothenburg which conceptualizes and measures democracy round the world has declared India to be a ‘electoral autocracy’ ranking 93rd in liberal democracy index and placed us in top 10 autocracies in the world. As a part of broader global trend of an autocratic party driving country’s autoractization – ranking India below Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan.
Our media had been the product of the freedom movement and our media was seen and fairly independent and progressive but of late there is a free fall of that progressive media from the rank of 133 in 1916 to 150 in 2022 out of 180 countries as per Press freedom index report by Reporters Without Borders published in 2022. Violence against journalists, politically parties and media and concentration of media ownership has placed the fourth estate in the state of crises. Media faces pressure from ‘increasingly authoritarian and/or nationalist government a transformation seen since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over the rank of the country in 2014. Dissent is no longer the flavour of our democracy. It is silenced in the name of nationalism.
Mobilising Hindu national sentiment in the conservative civil society brought about the rise of the current political ruling dispensation. The Ram Jamn Bhoomi movement which brought about a polarised polity reached its pinnacle in 1992 when Hindu activists violently destroyed the Babri masjid, despite a order from the highest court to protect it, leading to bloody communal riots which left more than 2000 dead. Prime Minister Vajpayee adopted a deft approach of moderating the polarised polity with a mix of economic development but the promise of the Gujarat model with a mix of Hindu nationalism catapulted Narendra Modi into Hindu Hriday Samrat with historic victories in 2014 and 2019. The massive mandates of 2014 and 2019 have created the cult of Narendra Modi resulting in the weakening of democratic institutions. The parliament seen as a debating chamber and the cabinet as the policy framing body almost have become irrelevant and the power got concentrated in the PM and his chosen number two. The beef ban laws, Love Jihad laws, have led to shrill killer attacks on the minority community. The anti conversion laws have further vitiated the atmosphere. The abrogation of article 370 of the constitution and doing away with special provision for a Muslim dominated Jammu & Kashmir, criminalising triple talak and enacting the Citizenship Amendment Act have all seriously eroded the hope around the idea of India that made our country popular. Muslims have no representation in the central government. The ruling party does not give tickets to Muslims at election time. The hateful rhetoric against the minority communities particularly the largest minority is the order of the day. The stigmatisation of Tablighi Jamaat in covid times is a case in point. The demonising of the minorities has only lead to total polarisation of the polity with the opposition nowhere in sight to take on the ruling establishment. The opposition itself finds it difficult to stand up against the communal poison for the fear of being dubbed as promoting minorities. We have about 200 million Muslims. They are getting reduced to second class citizens. The discrimination is leading to tension and riots and there is retaliatory violence. The framers of the constitution knew that these fault lines cannot be controlled through suppression of diversity, but through celebration of diversity and common citizenship.
As the personality cult consolidates, institutions built to safeguard democracy and the economy appear week. The Election Commission of India, the Reserve Bank of India, the Central Information Commission, Controller and Auditor General of India and even the Highest Court of the land is being seen as having failed to stand up to the powerful executive. The Supreme Court has not been quick in dealing with the habeas corpus cases and Sedition in the matter of J & K and anti CAA protests. Not taking up for hearing the challenge to abrogation of article 370 and the electoral bonds have seriously dented the image the highest court of law as protector of citizen and democracy. The enforcement directorate, tax authorities and the police are seen as agents of the government in silencing all opposition. The progressive section of the society no longer trust the government. This is serious consequence.
Where did we go wrong and why our major showpiece -democracy and its institutions are seen as withering away in the land of elections. The independent country of 1947 became republic in 1950 but it was still divided by caste and religion. Divisive groups are bound to create mistrust in society. The leadership has to play a reconciliation role. Intensification of mistrust may help in the short run at election time. The goal of politics is certainly to get power but can’t be immediate capture of power at any cost. Citizens cannot be converted into voters. At democracy requires constant vigilance by citizens. Our problem is we mistaken elections for democracy, and made India an electoral society rather than a democratic society. When citizens are not in the state of constant vigilance, democracy can never survive.
The freedom movement led to the constitution and the concept of liberty, equality and fraternity. History has never been easy for anybody. Our unity in diversity must be protected. We require another ‘Nehru’ who respects diverse opinions and listen to the people irrespective of caste and religion. We have to reclaim the idea of India. India is a land worth fighting for. The vision of the constitution is the only way of hope. The anti- farm laws movement and the anti- CAA agitation has rekindled that hope.