By Swapan Dasgupta
Earlier this month, a body called Reputation Institute published a poll of how some countries perceived themselves in terms of “overall respect, trust, esteem, admiration and good feelings”, and how these countries were in turn viewed by others. Predictably, the perception gap was the least for countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Japan and even UK. In the case of India, it was as high as 32 points, around the same as the US.
It was reassuring that 82 per cent of Indians are basking in self-esteem—the corresponding figures were 79 per cent for China, 77 per cent for the US and a measly 57 per cent for Japan. In 1997, a poll had suggested that some 60 per cent of Indians thought they were better off under British rule.
Opinion polls are never conclusive but the Reputation Institute exercise does point to a phenomenon that has often been corroborated by anecdotal evidence: Indians feel that the 21st century is theirs.
The headiness that marks 60 years of the Indian Republic is a departure from the gloomy pessimism of earlier decades. Amid this high, it’s easy to forget that not very long ago the haunting face of a hungry Indian child was used to guilt-trip the West into parting with loose change. My parents used to talk about the unspeakable horrors of the 1943 Bengal famine; I recall the grim shortages that marked the mid-1960s; my son, a product of the market economy, takes material comforts for granted.
Nationalist history has stressed the starry-eyed idealism of an India that heard Jawaharlal Nehru making a “tryst with destiny” and witnessed Rajendra Prasad sign the Constitution 60 years ago. But that was half the story. India was intoxicated by the sweet air of freedom after centuries of servitude but its exuberance wasn’t universally shared.
On the far-Right of this ‘perception gap’ stood Winston Churchill who viewed Indian independence as the betrayal of a sacred trust. Using Gibbon’s imagery, he even prepared a speech prophesying that “to India it may well be the age of Antonines”; he never delivered it. Still, he fell back on the horrors of Partition to lament “one of the most melancholy tragedies Asia has ever known”—the end of Empire.
On the far-Left of the brigade of sceptics stood the Communists, determined to turn human tragedy into political advantage. After a Moscow-dictated shift in the party line saw the elevation of B.T. Ranadive as general secretary, the Comrades took to the streets chanting ‘ye azadi jhooti hai’. The insurrection against a ‘spurious’ independence saw grotesque acts of political adventurism: an ultra-Left group stormed the Jessop factory in Calcutta and threw an European manager into the boiler. Mercifully, this delinquency ended in 1951.
Nor was India alone affected by the turbulence; the neighbourhood proved equally volatile. In Pakistan, the murder of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 triggered a wave of sectarian discord, regional tensions and political instability and paved the way for a military coup in 1958. In Burma, soldiers barged into Parliament in July 1947 and gunned down Aung San, the leader of the nationalist movement, and six of his ministers. The tragedy paralysed democracy and eventually led to General Ne Win’s eccentric socialism. Only Ceylon, ironically the only country that never had a mass-based nationalist movement, proved an island of democratic stability — at least till 1956 when Sinhala nationalism brought in ethnic complications, frequent changes of Constitution and, finally, a deeply damaging 25-year civil war.
In hindsight, India seems to have come out of decolonisation least damaged. A commitment to bad ideology meant it had to wait till 1991 for sensible economics to prevail and entrepreneurial opportunities to return. Yet, for 60 years the political edifice created by the founding fathers of the Republic held — barring an 18-month aberration during the Emergency. India conducted 15 democratic elections and witnessed peaceful transitions of government. The military remained outside politics, the judiciary stayed independent and civil liberties were preserved and even extended. There were bouts of political turbulence and civil unrest but these didn’t jeopardise the Constitution.
This awesome 60-year record must seem inexplicable to those who tore their hair for 30 years trying to work out viable and acceptable institutions of self-government for India. Constitution-making for India didn’t begin in 1947; its origins go back to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919. Thereafter, it went through a bumpy and treacherous ride — the Simon Commission Report, the three Round Table conferences, the Cripps Mission and the Cabinet Mission — which left many convinced that independent India would be violently ungovernable. But these abstruse and fractious exercises actually helped clear up the clutter for the inheritors of the Raj.
Prior to 1947, there were four major concerns. First, would India be governed by an overriding Centre or be a loose federation, a United States of India? Second, how would religious minorities be given a stake in the new dispensation? Third, how would the internal differentiations within Hindus be tackled to prevent, as many feared, Brahmin domination? Finally, how would democracy square with mass poverty and
Partition resolved the seemingly intractable strong-Centre versus federal debate. The biggest votaries of a weak Centre walked away into Pakistan. Partition also ensured that the role of minorities wouldn’t become an instrument of permanent political blackmail. India’s multi-religious character could be preserved within the parameters of a liberal Constitution that followed the spirit of the Queen’s Proclamation to not override faith and custom. The only difference was that while the British after 1858 tried to steer clear of all Indian social customs, free India confined its prohibitions to minority sensitivities. As for iniquities within Hindu communities, the Poona Pact of 1932 was carried over and extended to affirmative action in government employment. Mandal took it a step further. The formation of linguistic states cemented another possible area of discord. Today, however, there is a danger of some ghosts from the past reappearing.
The final issue was the evolution of political consciousness and the creation of a democratic culture. This proved a long time coming but the process was helped by the remarkable political self-assurance of the Congress Party. Till 1967, the party leadership didn’t have adequate incentives to attempt a derailment of democracy. Only Indira Gandhi had other ideas. Fortunately, the brief Emergency interlude ended up making Indians fanatically committed to the system. After 1977 India imposed a moratorium on quick-fix, radicalism. Demands for a “committed” bureaucracy and judiciary and a presidential system have become politically unacceptable.
Yet, India’s success with democracy wouldn’t have happened without the presence of a middle class that had imbibed a measure of European Enlightenment and combined it with patriotic selflessness. It was the relative irrelevance of this class in Pakistan that gave feudal landlords and soldiers the upper hand in that country. Lord Macaulay may be a swear word for those untainted by cosmopolitanism but contemporary India has reason to appreciate the prescience of his 1835 mission statement: “Come what may, self-knowledge will lead to self-rule.”
India’s thriving Republic is an Indian achievement but it’s also an outcome of inheritance.