At 90, when I look back

India faces more problems than it is even aware of. More worryingly, the country is unaware of the deficiencies of mechanisms it has devised to serve its needs.

Written by K. SHANKAR BAJPAI | Updated: March 30, 2018 12:14:46 am
India, indian constituition, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad, india freedom, indian express More and more people now despise reasoned argument — they demonstrate in legislatures or outside them, take violently to the streets. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

We who grew up as Independence approached, midnight’s witnesses, thought it is axiomatic that India would quickly rise as a great power — the country’s size, strategic situation, great civilsational strengths, the talents of our people, all making us stable and prosperous at home, respected and influential abroad, a major force in the shaping of a new, equitable world order. Whatever our achievements, that hasn’t happened. Completing 90, my uppermost thoughts are: Why?

Is the answer in another question: Why did we lose our independence in the first place? No superior force invaded us that time, a few adventurers from oceans away outwitted us — even in intrigue. Instead of blaming conquerors for conquering us, should we not examine where we went wrong? It’s a very different world now — not least, because nobody wants to conquer us. But other threats to national integrity keep increasing, while we lapse as of old. The most decisive weakness remains most ignored: We refused to change with the times, did not learn from new learning and refused to use improved ways to improve ours. We fell to better organisation, better technology and techniques, to sheer professionalism. We keep resisting, if not rejecting, them.

Innately gifted to excel in all these ways, we seemed initially to have learned. Our colonial exploiters brought us the greatest legacy of the Enlightenment — the primacy of reason. They were not more honest, hard-working, decent, or otherwise virtuous or able. They just contrived an aura of impartial, objective and dutiful efficiency; justified or not, that established norms of performance, which appeared to remain. Our subsequent failures, errors, deficiencies are too obvious and numerous to recount, but all stem from discarding those norms. We reverted to nature: Personal is everything, nothing, nobody else matters —or even exists. Personal faults, from sloppiness to greed, have become norms.

It all started on day one. Each leader attracted servitors. We got the court of Sardar Patel, of Maulana Azad, Babus Rajendra Prasad or Jagjivan Ram, and of course, the great court of Panditji; not that they necessarily sought such personal agencies, it was just our way. So too was the circumvention/abandonment of rules. For example, officials had to rotate between Delhi and their states. But no, transferred even to a prize post, as chief secretary of a major state, this gentleman refused to leave Delhi — and succeeded. Little things, but we end up having people’s representatives with no respect for people, behaving like lords while supposed public servants behave like personal servants, more-or-less willingly. Not one institution functions as it should, not one instrument of state. Standards in the private sector are hardly better. Everyone know this, but so what?

It’s not just us: Norms are undermined everywhere as electorates change, destructive and ugly forces grow stronger and particular groups seek total dominance for their ideas and ambitions. The “world’s oldest democracy” manifests the most appalling trends; Europe’s once best exemplars barely fend off comparable pressures. All governments find themselves unable to cope with the complexity of peoples’ problems and aspirations. Democracies suffer the added problem that the system itself — the processes and ideals of democracy —are losing both effectiveness and appeal. Where democracy is fragile, needing careful tending, such trends are more worrying.

Democracy depends on reason, debates between opinions based on reflection, mutual civility. But more and more people now despise reasoned argument — they demonstrate in legislatures or outside them, take violently to the streets. The only “solution” commonly urged is for “strong” government, despite the inevitable risk of its corruption into mindless tyranny, even worse than today’s inane shouting matches. Yeats ( paraphrased) looms : “ When nations are empty up there at the top/When order is weakened and faction is strong/What when there’s nothing left there at the top?/Where be the Captains to govern mankind?”

“To govern is to choose,” said the then French premier, Pierre Mendes-France, in 1953. It is also to deliver. When it comes to us, the whole apparatus of governance — the policy-making and implementation machinery — is simply unable to function seriously. The considerations that go into the decision-making, that shapes people’s lives, no longer address the issues involved. It’s all about what’s in it for me clothed in what’s in it for us — our particular caste, religious or regional group. Such inappropriate purposes are accompanied by inappropriate thinking. We talk about strategic autonomy. How is that conceivable if you can’t produce your basic weapons? The world’s largest arms importer denies its forces vital equipment because nobody decides on that matter, or decides wrongly, or because prejudice, or exclusive advantage, prevails over a rational balancing of objective pros and cons. Worst of all, this is due to sheer ignorance — the inability to understand what really matters.

Nothing illustrates what holds us back more tellingly than what we have done to Delhi. People are supposed to take pride in their nation’s capital and work to make it more vibrant, attractive, exemplary. Has one street come up which is a pleasure to walk? How many buildings are worth looking at? If aesthetics are too “elitist” a criterion, consider our telephone connectivity, potholed roads and the law-and-order conditions that make us the “rape capital”. All this is where the entire government resides. Our traffic is a nightmare because we people are ultimately to blame: Spreading six-abreast on two lanes, sneaking ahead in left- lane to turn right, blithely occupying no-parking zones, street vendors block already-narrow arteries and religious institutions encroach over pavements (though official-political wrongdoing is more deplorable). These are all correctible offences, but then those who could correct them prefer other considerations to public good.

The section in society I am from has failed to produce ideas or programmes that find resonance with today’s electorate. We are irrelevant but that way of thinking is nevertheless essential. No society ever developed without the leadership of elites. Obsessed with egalitarianism (though failing to practise it), we confuse elitism, which is self-serving and unacceptable, with elites or the leadership element in society that competes to set national agendas and norms. People at the top of every heap don’t constitute a national elite. Couple that deficiency with a historic inability to use state power for state (as distinct from personal) purposes, and welcome to the Third World.

“Old men regret.” This may sound like a pointless lament, while my not undistinguished ancestry, quality education and classy profession would today doubtless dump me among the despised elite. But is anyone, elitist or populist, addressing today’s real needs? India faces more dangerous challenges than it is even aware of. I fear it ignores even more dangerously its greatest problem — neither the concepts nor the mechanisms for serving our needs are capable of doing so. Above all, we need to think differently. Mohammed Iqbal’s warning applies: “Na samjho ge tho mitt jao ge, Hindustan walo, tumhari daastan bhi na rahegi daastaon mein” ( roughly translated: If you fail to understand, Indians, you will be erased, even your history will not remain part of history). Having served in the country’s three most demanding international assignments, Pakistan (twice), China and the US, and most instructively for four years in Sikkim, leading to its merger, I venture to claim I know something of what I am talking about. I wish I knew what to do about it. I can only say, damn it, surely it can still be done. Will somebody say how?

The writer is former ambassador to Pakistan, China and the US, and Secretary, External Affairs

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