India`s uneven progress - Kuldip Nayar - January 21, 2011

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I LOOK back with nostalgia on the days leading to the foundation of the Indian Republic. Although the constitution was adopted at the end of November 1949, its operation came into being on Jan 26, 1950, consecrating India`s declaration some 20 years earlier that its goal was full freedom, not dominion status.

The constitution, as the preamble says, gives people a sovereign democratic republic. The word `secular` was added during the infamous days of the emergency.

We held our first elections in 1951. There was adult franchise, with no educational bar. The then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, probably had disadvantaged people in mind, hoping that some day they may join hands and rule India. They are in the majority in the country.

I never imagined this could be possible. But when Mayawati, a dalit, won a majority in Uttar Pradesh and became the chief minister, I began to believe that Nehru`s hope might come true one day.

However, after the first elections, western correspondents predicted doom for India and wrote that the first election was India`s last. They mistook the assertion of caste, if not creed, at the polls as a sign of country`s disintegration. Naville Maxwell, representative of The Times , London, wrote that the turmoil seen at the time of election would tear the country apart. I, a stringer of The Times for 25 years, strongly differed. Today, I stand vindicated.

A correspondent of The Washington Post , Selig Harrison, wrote a book, The Dangerous Decade , predicting that India would disintegrate by the end of the 1950s. I joined issue with him as well. He admitted his mistake but not Maxwell. I think the West still does not understand, much less appreciate, the idea of India. It cannot stay united if it is not democratic, secular and open. There is a sense of unity in the country that is not based on any dogma. Its diversity is its strength and its spirit of accommodation, reflected in secularism, keeps people from different regions and religions together.

The point to worry about, however, is that economic growth is not uniform and the dispensation of justice promised by the constitution is lacking in the social and economic fields. Political freedom without social and economic freedom has disillusioned the nation. Maoists have become relevant with the gun, although they are a problem, not the solution.

No doubt, people can exercise their option to elect their rulers freely and regularly. But there is only one opportunity in five years. For the rest of the period it is the say of the classes: the elite. How do we make legislators answerable for the period between one election and another? Some countries have given their citizens the right to recall if one third of the voters ask for it.

But India is too large a country, where one parliamentary constituency commands more than a million voters. One third is too large a number.

So, how do we ensure that power stays with the people? Decentralisation is the only way out, the transfer of power from Delhi to state capitals and from state capitals to villages. The panchayati raj , one of the few good things that Rajiv Gandhi did, has become hostage to money. The government has not been able to keep out either political parties or the rich. And as you go to higher tiers — for example, the zilla parishad at the district level — you find that money and politics have reduced elections to a mockery. When election to parliament costs more than Rs10 crore and to the panchayat some Rs50,000, the democratic polity is of the rich, for the rich and by the rich.

I never dreamed that India would become one of the world`s most corrupt countries. Mr Nehru made his colleague, petroleum minister K. D. Malviya, resign for accepting money from a businessman in the name of the Congress and not rendering any account. At that time, the corrupt could be counted on the fingers. Today, it is the other way round. And, the scale of corruption is mind-boggling.

In our time the corrupt and black marketeers were kept at a distance because nobody wanted to spoil their reputation by rubbing shoulders with them. Mr Nehru issued instructions to senior officials to not attend any party thrown by a diplomat who was unequal in rank or status. Today, secretaries to the government are seen at receptions hosted by a third secretary in the embassy because booze is available.

What I miss the most is austerity. Now a car has to be big, the house palatial and the dress of foreign brands. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at least introduced in Pakistan the awami dress of shalwar and kamiz. Not many bureaucrats wear that. Western suits are preferred by South Asia`s officialdom. In Mumbai, an industrialist has built a multi-storey house costing some Rs2,000 crore. Compare this to the small cottage in which Mahatma Gandhi lived all his life and won us independence.

Violence has become an order of the day in India. Hardly any state has escaped it. People are today as much victims of state terrorism as they are of militants. The Maoist gun is reprehensible but so is the gun of the state which suppresses peaceful protest.

In our part of the world, exploitation by centrifugal forces has always been a dangerous probability. They can rip the nation apart. And who knows where and when the violence will end? It is not a debate between means and ends, it is a question of gun versus gun. Any leeway given to the terrorists — for example, liberals` timidity — can be suicidal for the country.

There is still a long journey to cover. I feel lonely in the wilderness of broken promises and scotched hopes.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

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