ANOTHER Independence Day is behind us. As we look back on our 55th birthday, it is again time to reflect on what kind of country we are. India, I have long argued, is more than the sum of its contradictions. It is a country held together, in the words of Nehru, “by strong but invisible threads … a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive”. That nebulous quality is what the analyst of Indian nationalism is ultimately left with; to borrow a phrase from Amartya Sen, it is an idea — the idea of India. But what is that idea? Jawaharlal Nehru articulated it as pluralism vindicated by history, seeing the country as an “ancient palimpsest” on which successive rulers and subjects had inscribed their visions without erasing what had been asserted previously. A generation of secular nationalists echoed him, making “unity in diversity” the most hallowed of independent India’s self-defining slogans.
How did India preserve and protect a viable idea of itself in the course of the last 55 years, while it grew from 370 million people to 1.2 billion, reorganised its State structures, and sought to defend itself from internal and external dangers, all the while remaining democratic? I have tried to answer this question at length in my India: From Midnight to the Millennium. Certainly the accomplishment is extraordinary, and worthy of celebration. And yet, there are cautionary notes we must not overlook.
In the five and a half decades since Independence, democracy has failed to create a single political community. Instead, we have become more conscious than ever of what divides us: religion, region, caste, language, ethnicity. The political system has become looser and more fragmented. Politicians mobilise support along ever-narrower lines of political identity. It has become more important to be a “backward caste” Yadav, a “tribal” Bodo, or a sectarian Muslim than to be an Indian; worse, to some it is more important to be a “proud” Hindu than to be an Indian. This is particularly ironic because one of the early strengths of Nehruvian India — the survival of the nationalist movement as a political party, the Congress Party serving as an all-embracing, all-inclusive agglomeration of the major political tendencies in the country — stifled the normal process of contention over political principle. Instead, opposition to it (with a few honourable exceptions, like the Swatantra Party between 1959 and 1974) was largely based on the assertion of identities to which the Congress was deemed not to have given full expression — regional, religious, or caste-based. With the increasing weakness of the Congress, politicians have been tempted to organise themselves around identities other than party (or to create parties to reflect a specific identity).
A distinctive feature of the Nehruvian legacy was its visionary rejection of India’s assorted bigotries and particularisms. The Nehrus — displaced Kashmiris — were, by upbringing and conviction, completely secular. Not only did Indira Gandhi marry a Parsi, but her daughters-in-law were an Italian Christian and a Punjabi Sikh. The one strand of political opinion Nehru and his offspring abhorred was that of Hindu religious revivalism. Nehru himself was an avowed agnostic, as was his daughter until she discovered the electoral advantages of public piety. All four generations of Nehrus in public life remained secular in outlook and conduct. Their appeal transcended caste, region, language, and religion, something impossible to say of any other leading Indian politician. There could be no starker indication of the end of Nehruvianism than the fact that, 50 years after Partition and Independence, religion has again become a key determinant of political identity. Since their demolition of the Babri Masjid, Hindu chauvinists, denouncing what they decry as the appeasement of minorities, clamouring for office and power for their “saffron brigades”, have assertively attempted to convert the religion of the “majority” into a badge of Indian identity.
But if the Nehruvian version of secular democracy is besieged, democracy itself is not. Amid India’s myriad problems, it is democracy that has given Indians of every imaginable caste, creed, culture, and cause the chance to break free of their lot. There is social oppression and caste tyranny, particularly in rural India, but Indian democracy offers the victims a means of escape, and often — thanks to the determination with which the poor and oppressed exercise their franchise — of triumph. The significant changes in the social composition of India’s ruling class since Independence, both in politics and in the bureaucracy, are proof of democracy at work, but the poor quality of the country’s democratic polit
Source: The Hindu