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August 14, 2017

Governance & Politics

The Unfinished Tryst

By Nitin Desai


Seventy years ago, on this day, was our tryst with destiny. The hopes, articulated forcefully by Pandit Nehru in that great speech, seemed reasonable and reachable for those of us who grew up in that era. How far have these hopes been met and how far belied?


The consolidation of parliamentary democracy was perhaps the most significant achievement of this era.  The effectiveness of the political process in maintaining national unity was seen in the rapid integration of Princely States by Sardar Patel and the management of the linguistic reorganisation of States by Gobind Ballabh Pant. The legislative achievements of this early phase of independence are substantial and unmatched, not just because of the formulation of the Constitution but also the large body of economic and social legislation that was passed.


We were fortunate that unlike many of our neighbours, a leader from the freedom movement, with mass appeal,  remained at the helm for seventeen years. But not just that. The collegiality of the political leadership, forged by their shared time together, in and out of jail, during the freedom struggle was a major asset in the difficult years immediately after independence. Pandit Nehru was the great mass leader. But men like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel,  Dr.B.C.Roy, Gobind Ballabh Pant, Maulana Azad and C Rajagopalachari did not think of themselves as his subordinates and dealt with him as equals. During this era we were effectively a one-party  polity and the checks and balances within the party were important for preventing one-party rule becoming a one-person rule. The loss of collegiality at the highest political level led later to precisely this and remains a threat even now. 


The other element in the consolidation of democracy was the respect for parliamentary etiquette and  for opposition stalwarts like Hiren Mukherjee, H V Kamath or Nath Pai that Pandit Nehru and his party showed. Once again the contrast with the present state of affairs is disheartening.


One weakness of this early era was that the political leadership came largely from the upper classes and castes reflecting wealth inequalities and the skewed access to education, opportunity that prevailed then. But this changed rapidly with the emergence of region, religion and caste based parties.  The one remaining gap is the absence of the tribal voice in national politics. But though this has given voice to those who were silenced for centuries, parties based on such atavistic loyalties are preventing the emergence of a true broad based national social democratic movement.


When it comes to social progress there are some positives like the advancement of women’s rights, the greater representation of middle and lower castes in positions of power, the reforms in Hindu personal law.  But the continuing violence against Dalits, the persistence of communal tensions, the worsening vigilante violence by gaurakshaks and similar fanatics and the insecurities they create in the minds of Dalits and minorities are a complete negation of what independence promised. The authorities tolerate social violence and the intrusion of  obscurantist ideas and  distorted history in textbooks and curricula. This is not just a hope belied but a hope being destroyed.


The record on economic progress is perhaps less disappointing.  The Nehru era was not quite the missed opportunity which today's commentators suggest. A stagnant economy started to grow at a rate that was quite comparable with that of peers right up to 1964. There is a creditable record on institution building for science and technology, higher education,  development capital, rural credit and community development and the growth of managerial and technical capacity at technology frontiers. Yet one has to admit that we could have done more on the poverty front and for basic education and health. The growth breakthrough comes when the entrepreneurial energies of people were released from the 1980s onwards.  But eliminating poverty and ill-health remains an unfinished agenda.


For those of us who were young then , the most exciting feature of the early Nehruvian era of independence was the promotion of a scientific temper, which looked at issues and challenges with the lens of science, rationality and empirical evidence.  The hope was that if people became rational and objective, ancient prejudices of caste and community would disappear, democracy, equality and social harmony would be promoted and we would find scientific answers to our development challenges. It is a hope enshrined in our constitutional obligation to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. Perhaps the greatest disappointment has been the continuing failure to live up to this.


As far back as July 1981, Shri P N Haksar, Dr Raja Ramanna and Dr P M Bhargava, warned in  “A Statement on Scientific Temper” that “…we are witnessing a phenomenal growth of superstitious beliefs and obscurantist practices. The influence of a variety of godmen and miracle makers is increasing alarmingly. The modern tools of propaganda and communication are being used to give an impression that there exist instant and magical solutions for the problems that confront our people… The ancient period of our history is interpreted to inculcate chauvinism which is false pride; the medieval period is misinterpreted in a way that would fan communalism”.  This concern resonates even more strongly today. That is why the Scientists March on 9 August 2017 called for a stop to the propagation of unscientific, obscurantist ideas and religious intolerance, an  education system that imparts ideas that are supported by science of the day, and for policies to be enacted based on scientific evidence.


And so the question one must ask, seventy years after independence, is when will we step out “from the old to the new”?  When will the promise of 15 August 1947 be redeemed? When will we mature into a democracy that gives everyone a voice, for a society that discards caste, community and religious prejudice, for an economy that lifts our masses out of poverty and places us on the frontiers of technology and for an enlightened mindset imbued with a scientific temper?

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