The idea of India awaits a renewal. Sixty seven years after this idea began an audacious and nearly impossible journey, it is ready to take a step forward. In contemporary lingo you could say India 1.0 is ready now to give way to India 2.0.
The trouble, of course, is that those in charge of the destiny of India are not up to this historic task. The tired advertisement by the incumbent PM and the shrill rhetoric of the PM-in-hoping once again brought this sad realisation home. Herein, lie an extraordinary challenge and an unusual opportunity.
What is this idea of India? This idea is not just another description for a piece of land defined by a boundary that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. Nor is it a script borrowed from outside and enacted in this country, an “American Dream” fulfilled on this soil. The idea called India is a combination of ideas picked up from all over the world but transformed by India’s very desi genius.
Each of these ideas appeared improbable, if not audacious, in 1947. They have still not sunk into our consciousness. Yet they have shaped our past and present and can shape the future within and outside the boundaries of our country. Let me mention three of these key ideas that constitute India.
First of all, India stands for the possibility that democracy can be established in a poor and illiterate society. When we held our first general elections in 1952, India was one of the most improbable candidates for a stable democracy. Global record since then has reinforced the idea that a poor country is unlikely to become or stay a democracy.
India is the biggest single exception to this global rule. The ritual of electoral democracy is now the ‘only game in town’ here. By opening the doors of democracy for everyone, India has helped democratise the idea of democracy.
Second, India put to rest the European superstition that a nation needs cultural homogeneity. The French nation-state model required one nation, one language, one culture and one civilisational tradition. India possessed none of these.
Yet, the founders of the Indian republic dared to imagine political unity across deep cultural divisions of language, culture, religion and caste. India’s model of political unity in cultural diversity, best described as ‘State-nation’ rather than nation-state, holds promise for the rapidly diversifying world. Let us not forget that while USSR and Yugoslavia disintegrated, India continues to be a single political unit.
Finally, the idea of India stood for simultaneous pursuit of economic growth and just distribution in a poor and highly unequal society.
Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have recently reminded us of the long way we still have to travel to achieve even minimum levels of well-being for Indians. Yet, India has held on to the idea that there may be an alternative to the dominant models of our time which promise either growth or equality and which are simply not sustainable.
The idea of India demands a renewal in all these three respects.
While electoral democracy in a minimal sense has been achieved, the challenge now is to deepen democracy and take it to the last person. The challenge now is to move from ‘loktantra’ to ‘swaraj’ — to restore decision-making powers, now concentrated in a few centres, back to the citizen living in our towns and the villages. This would require restructuring our polity. On the second front, while India has remained one political unit, national integration is far from complete.
It is not just the vexed problem of Kashmir or insurgency in some of the North-Eastern hill states, the Naxalite challenge and the condition of the Muslims represent different aspects of the challenge of integration. The challenge is to go beyond the ‘law-and-order’ approach and to work out unique solutions for each community that respects their differences.
Finally, we are still a long way from meeting the challenge of creating an alternative model of development that offers sustainable well-being for everyone.
India is ready for a renewal. The new generation of Indians is desperate for this renewal. But our political leaders are simply not there. The dominant options drag us back to the challenges we surmounted long ago.
Instead of thinking of creative ways of deepening our engagement with democracy, we are offered a choice between political dynasties on the one hand and strong, sub-democratic leadership on the other. Instead of extending our state-nation model of integration further, we are being dragged back either to majoritarianism that threatens to undo the gains of unity in diversity or vote-bank politics that keeps minorities a hostage. Instead of finding an alternative path of development, we are again being asked to choose between a blind faith in aggregate growth or distribution of poverty.
The two most noticed speeches on August 15 demonstrated the unwillingness of India’s rulers to embrace India 2.0. The problem in these speeches was not just poor form — absence of propriety in one and lack of conviction in another. The real problem was lack of substance in both of these. If there was one thing that characterised both these, it was a lack of imagination.
Indians cannot leave the task of renewal of India to its rulers. They must do it themselves.
The author is a Senior Fellow of CSDS and a National Executive member of the Aam Aadmi Party