A New Dynamism In World’s Largest Democracy

At midnight, August 14, 1947, the British Union Jack was lowered and the Indian tricolor went up all over India. Fifty years of independence. What has it meant?

Commentators and scholars and just plain ordinary folk will be trying hard to say something coherent about the country -- from the stereotypical descriptions of the crowded and cow-inhabited cities of India, to the descriptions of elephant-headed gods being worshipped by dusky and dark-skinned men and women in exotic temples, to deep ruminations on the Indian mind and spirit.

Everything you say about India has its opposite. Still, many will try to make definitive remarks. Here are some that are not so definitive:

Unlike many of the other countries that broke the shackles of colonialism after WWII and are mired in dysfunctional or authoritarian dispensations, India continues to be a democracy -- the largest in the world. A functioning anarchy, maybe, as Galbraith once pithily described it after his tenure as US ambassador to India, or a lumbering giant that at last count ranked fifth in the world in terms of gross domestic product (after the US, China, Japan and Germany) and the second most populous country in the world with about 975 million people crowding an area about one-third the size of the United States.

As I write this, I have in front of me several recent news items headlined "India's 'Untouchable' President," "Lowest Caste Hindu Takes Office as India's President," as well as some other news items headlined "Prominent India Politician Resigns," "Maverick in India Creates Dynasty of His Own." These are headlines from US newspapers and wire services. The first two items are about K.R. Narayanan, former Vice President and ambassador to the US and China, who was elected President of India.

If you are not an Indophile, you would not know that the election of Mr. Narayanan was a foregone conclusion; that the office of president is mostly symbolic in a country that most often chooses symbols over action; that no Indian newspaper would use the word "untouchable".

None of the US reports mentions the name of the only other candidate for the post of president -- T. N. Seshan, the former Chief Election Commissioner and a recent winner of the prestigious Magsaysay Award (given to accomplished Asians by a Manila-based Foundation), who had brought about sea changes in Indian electioneering almost single handedly and whose election as president would have meant some real (as opposed to symbolic) changes in Indian politics and society.

Seshan, an erudite as well as a dynamic administrator (an officer who belonged to the Indian Administrative Service), who pushed through some tough but basic reforms in electioneering, introduced voter identity cards (to minimize the rampant voter fraud that had become part of the Indian election scene) and who had said that he would, as president, look into the possibility of bringing major changes in the Indian political system, including changing from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential form of government.

The majority of politicians, whatever their hue and whatever their differences, were clear about one thing: they would not countenance the election of Seshan as president. And since the presidential election is indirect (with 4, 800 members of the electoral college, members of both houses of Parliament and elected members of all state assemblies being the eligible voters) the people really did not have a direct voice in who got to occupy the highest chair.

Narayanan was a perfect symbol for the celebrations this year. He is a “gentleman” administrator from Kerala who had never stirred any controversy over anything. He is a Dalit (a term that is used to label those who occupy the lowest position on the totem pole of castes in India. Gandhi had named them Harijans, God’s people, but like almost anything Gandhian, even the term Harijan has become anachronistic in India). India had done it once again. It has had a Muslim president, a Sikh, a world-renowned philosopher and now a Dalit.

Fifty years of independence has also meant vast changes. India is self-sufficient in food. It has the second largest standing army. It has been a leader of the Non-Aligned Group of countries that played a pivotal role during the Cold-war. It has the largest group of trained engineers and doctors.

The one million plus people of Indian origin in the US have a median household income of $44,696 -- above that of people from any other region in the world who have settled in the US, except Russians (who have a median household income of $45,778). Indian food, while not as popular as Chinese, can now be enjoyed in most major cities of the US, as well as in cities around the world.

Indian writing in English, if not taking the world by storm, is creating wonderful ripples -- from Salman Rushdie to Arundhati Roy we have writers, born in post-independence India, who are telling marvellous tales and winning million dollar book advances.

I was born in 1956. India had been independent for nine years then. When I was nine, India went to war with Pakistan (the second of three it has fought with this neighbor/fraternal twin since 1947). I was staying with my paternal grandparents in Bangalore and going to school there because my father, a civil engineer, usually was posted at some little village or small town nearby which a dam was being constructed, canals were being laid, or roads were being built.

I remember reading the local English daily, Deccan Herald, out loud to my grandmother and translating the news items into Kannada, the language she understood. She used to shed tears, of sorrow and of joy. Pained when I told her that a brave Indian Air Force pilot had so skillfully piloted his Gnat and shot down a number of Pakistani Sabrejets (supplied by the US) but had been in turn shot down somewhere over the bleak Thar desert on the border between Pakistan and India; happy and proud because her grandson could read English and effectively translate into Kannada.

She was nationalistic, I now think. I don't know what India meant to her. She had not studied past fourth or fifth grade. India, as an idea, as a modern country, is a new creation. For people of my grandmother's generation, nationalism translated into getting the British out and praising the deeds and words of people like Gandhi. It meant making a long, arduous pilgrimage to Benares and bathing in the Ganges.

My mother told me how, as a young girl of eight or nine, she accompanied her brother, two years older than her, and his friends carrying the Indian tricolor and shouting "Quit India" and "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" (praise be to Mother India) during the 1942 Quit India movement led by Gandhi.

My parents' investment in India was emotionally and intellectually different from my grandparents'. They wanted India to be a brave, shining star in the firmament of nations. They followed closely all the debates about five year plans and nation building. They believed in the leaders of the day, even though they might have disagreed about some of the plans and projections those leaders put forward.

Now, people of my generation and those that have followed mine, think of and feel for India differently. Politicians are despised, mocked, feared, or barely tolerated. Regionalism, language conflicts, religious disagreements, have a different feel and tinge.

But there is also a new dynamism. In all the chaos and mess of Indian politics, the younger generation seems to have hitched their wagons to ideas and projects beyond the national. More Indians are travelling for pleasure and business to more distant and different places than ever. And when I visit home these days, I am amazed at the advances (as I am aghast at how we continue to perpetuate old ills).

India could do with fewer people (to put it euphemistically) and Indians could do with better roads, proper sanitation, clean drinking water, basic education for all, primary health care and fewer politicians.

When people, however, think or say India is an underdeveloped country, I am reminded of the opening passage of Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel. It goes like this and is supposed to be the ruminations of Vyasa, the man who dictated the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, to his amanuensis Ganapathi, the elephant-headed God:

"They tell me India is an underdeveloped country. They attend seminars, appear on television, even come to see me, creasing their eight-hundred-rupee suits and clutching their moulded plastic briefcases, to announce in tones of infinite understanding that India has yet to develop. Stuff and nonsense, of course…

“I tell them they have no knowledge of history and even less of their own heritage. I tell them that if they would only read the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, study the Golden Ages of the Mauryas and the Guptas and even of those Muslim chaps the Mughals, they would realize that India is not an underdeveloped country but a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay."

On the nation’s 50th anniversary of independence I, like many of Indian heritage, know that decay doesn't mean death but a new beginning, renewal, resurgence for a country richer in contradictions and color than any other place in the world.

(Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

#Politics #Narayanan

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