Independent India @ 75
As we celebrate 75 years of Indian Independence and those famous words spoken by Pandit Nehru in his Tryst with Destiny speech, India has come a long way. Of course one can always look at this as glass half full or glass half empty, but its still important to see where we are today and how has the journey been and also a bit of crystal ball gazing into the next 25 years.
One mustn't forget that at the time of Indian Independence, the colonial experience had left us a destitute country with a whole heap of problems. The partition violence led to a massive influx of refugee population. A look at the 1951 census declared over 7 million Hindu and Sikh refugees made their way into India from Pakistan. The same census also points to the literacy rate in India of just 18%. We also had to deal with the first Kashmir war soon after Independence and divert resources to protect the valley from the invading forces from Pakistan. Yet, in the midst of all this Chaos, India was able to successfully draft itself a constitution and bring it into effect by Jan 1950. So, why is this significant? Well, Pakistan had to wait till 1956, 9 years after its Independence to get its first constitution. Also, India was able to conduct its first general elections in 1951/52 and granted universal suffrage to all its citizens. Today universal franchise might be considered a given in any democracy but back in 1951, it wasn’t so obvious especially given the mass poverty and illiteracy in India. For eg, Australia didn't grant aboriginal Australians the right the vote till 1965, Spain didn't grant women the right to vote till 1977 (partly also because it was a dictatorship under Franco) and other European countries had education pre qualifications, property rights to allow women to vote. After the successful election in 1951/52, we followed this up with another set of general elections in 1957 and 1962. This ensured that elections and democracy were not a one off and were here to stay unlike the experiences of many countries which unfortunately after gaining Independence fell into the hand of dictators or communist revolutionaries. In fact, India is the only country in this entire region having gained its independence post WW2 from colonial rule which has remained an uninterrupted secular democracy without a state religion. I’m sure that is something to be proud about.
The early decades of Independence also saw the establishment a lot of institutes of higher learning and research like the IITs, IIMs, NITs , AIIMS, National Institute of Virology, DRDO, National Aerospace Laboratories, National Institute of Design and many more. However, India would reap the benefits of these institutes fully only after 1991. So, the first 15 years of Indian Independence was about laying the foundations for the great Indian Republic by building institutions and setting in motion electoral democracy which has sustained till today. But our great folly during those early years was probably our economic choices . The decision to mimic the Soviet model of a planned economy didn’t work out as planned and growth slumped. Though, these decisions were not taken with malice intent and did indeed enjoy a great deal of consensus and popular support at the time, we today know better from our experience how it wasn’t the right decision to shut ourselves to the world. So, while we had the great East Asian Tigers like Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea which integrated itself with the world and thus transforming themselves as high income economies, India unfortunately went in the opposite direction with increased protectionism. The watershed moment certainly came in 1991 when we decided to change our economic model and embraced the world economy, India has since been on a growth trajectory only surpassed by China and pulled millions out of poverty. I have written a separate article highlighting the great achievements of the economic liberalization policy of 1991.
We then ask ourselves, where is Indian democracy in 2022 ? Not so long ago, In his now famous book India After Gandhi Ramachandra Guha had described India as a 50:50 democracy, highlighting the good and the bad, though in a recent interview he said we are now a 30:70 democracy for the worse. Well, there are compelling arguments to be made that the health of Indian Democracy is not great. We have seen increasing use of state power using the unholy trinity of the ED, Income tax department & CBI to silence the critics of the government. The normalization of hate speeches and violence, especially those directed towards the minority community are also very disconcerting and disheartening which is followed by complete silence on part of the government can only mean their own tacit approval for this.
Let us be very clear, If India is to grow to become a high middle income country which is progressive and have enough to feed its people we need social cohesion. We cannot be picking internal battles with our own citizens and expect to grow. A deeply polarized society doesn’t bode well for a country with global ambitions. If the country continues to fracture on religious and social lines, I doubt that we will be able to fulfill our potential. The enemy is not within but external. The real challenge is not cultural however economic. Thus, finding a way to balance the different communities and ensuring social harmony should be prioritized.
The agenda for the next 25 years must be ensuring economic growth. Which will require fundamental changes with an increased focus on providing literacy to all, increased spending on healthcare, increased spending in improving the quality of university education. A few islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity will not be enough. A concerted effort in boosting manufacturing is needed as services alone can’t fulfill the massive requirement. However, the manufacturing dream will only be fulfilled through reforms and government support. The PLI is a good step to begin with, however this needs to be coupled with increased spending on R&D to spur innovation. We need to support our MSME’s which are the big employer in the country, firstly by providing them which cheap credit and also technological support which can only be possible with increased Industry Academia collaboration. We need to improve logistics in India, the cost of which is higher in India than peer nations like China and Vietnam. Thus, all investments in building better highways, waterways, ports are all welcome.
India faces a once in a lifetime opportunity. Geo politics and Geo economics coupled India’s demographics are all in India’s favor as we can be poised for the next 25 years of prosperity and growth. However, we certainly can’t miss the bus again by squandering this opportunity as we need to have a clear strategy and play our cards wisely.