15th August 1997 - Telegraph
Or here for 14 August 1997
Mind the State


In India anniversaries are turned into rituals. Just as deities are propitiated with the chanting of appropriate mantras so national occasions have their well known conventions, customs and gestures. It will surprise nobody, therefore, if the 50th anniversary of independence is observed along very familiar lines. Pious oaths will be taken and self-righteous speeches delivered. A special session of parliament was convened to commemorate the meeting of the Constituent Assembly on the midnight of August 14, 1947. It is unlikely that the present Parliament will reflect the sobriety of the gathering which met on August 14 half a century ago. All this will only add to the prevailing cynicism. Yet a jubilee need not be an occasion either for meaningless ritual or for despair. Ideally it should invoke introspection about the past and hope for the future. Only by using time, as T.S. Eliot said, can time be conquered.

The hope and enthusiasm in 1947 were generated by a sense of achievement. But that sense of fulfilment contained within it a feeling of inadequacy. The latter grew out of the awareness that India had gained only a truncated independence. This was compounded by the realization among large sections of the people that independence and partition were respectively a gift and a curse of British rule. But pessimism was drowned by the seething excitement of freedom from foreign rule.

The optimism was voiced by the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He held out the promise of making India a vibrant nation whose voice would be heard and respected in international fora. His project entailed making the state the central agency of economic development. In foreign policy, he chose to steer clear of the two camps which had formed with the onset of the Cold War. He wanted India to be a major force in a separate Asian bloc. Socialism and non-alignment became Nehruvian buzzwords. These were the parameters for major policies. They determined the mindset of a generation of politicians, bureaucrats and members of the intelligentsia.

Lost horizons

The wisdom of hindsight gives one the opportunity of comprehending that many of the hopes and promises of those formative years have been belied. State control spawned a sprawling licence-permit raj that stifled entrepreneurship and encouraged corruption. Public sector units became sick and recipients of state largesse. This drain on the exchequer was coupled with mindless and increasing government spending. The deficit in the budget spiralled causing inflation and thwarting growth. This process brought the economy to the brink of disaster in the early Nineties. Yet in the intervening period there was very little by way of a critique of the Nehruvian shibboleths. Fifty years later, it is clear that Asian countries which had looked up to India as the pacesetter have forged ahead with vibrant economies and higher standards of living. In international affairs too, India’s influence and importance have dwindled. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Indian foreign policy high and dry and it also exposed non-alignment to be what it had become under Indira Gandhi: a highfalutin cover for unequivocal support to the then Soviet Union. The Nineties, therefore, opened with the necessity of reviewing and repositioning India’s political and economic agenda. The promise of Nehru’s era had become a chimera. New times needed new priorities.

New priorities, as often happens in history, were imposed by a profound crisis. In 1991 an external debt crisis brought India close to defaulting on international payments obligations. There was accelerating inflation and the balance of payments situation was precarious. International confidence in India’s economy plummeted and credit became impossible to obtain in international markets. To save itself, India fell back on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Blowing in the wind

The offer of help from these two institutions was accompanied by conditions to introduce policies which would ensure macroeconomic stabilization combined with fiscal adjustment and structural reform. The economic reforms package which was introduced by the then prime minister, Mr P. V. Narasimha Rao, and his finance minister, Mr Manmohan Singh, began the process of dismantling the edifice of socialist planning and reducing the scope of state ownership and control. Indian markets were selectively opened up to foreign technology and capital; decision making was to be more transparent and the economy more responsive to global trends. These developments inevitably produced changes in the orientation of foreign policy. Mr Rao took definite steps to correct previous biases and mend relations with the United States.

These initiatives were, however, shackled by the Nehruvian mindset. Mr Rao spoke time and again of the middle path and of reforms with a human face. The failure to take hard decisions which would push through reforms led to a slide to populism. The winds of change which Mr Rao had brought with him died down once India was overtaken by political uncertainty under successive United Front governments. There is the hope that the process of reform once started will be irreversible; that the economy has turned the corner; that individual initiatives once unleashed will not succumb to forms of collectivism. The promise can be realized only if the nation has the will to attain the goal. In a democracy, the people are responsible for the politicians they elect. Politics reflects the priorities of the people. The challenge of the future is to change the mindset of the people. Time was when being determined consciousness. In a changed world, the mindset of the people will establish the state of the nation.    


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