Seven decades ago, when India secured independence, many were sceptical. Winston Churchill was one of them. Churchill had vociferously opposed granting independence to India. His argument was that Indians were not equipped to handle it. “If independence is granted to India, power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre…They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India,” he is said to have famously commented.
We do find several of those things in our country; but they happen as much in the UK or any other democracy. We are not “rascals, rogues, freebooters”; neither are the people of UK. We opted for the Westminster system of democracy after independence. Democracy by its very nature is prone to noisy politics. Even Mahatma Gandhi felt that the democracy we were inheriting had the danger of becoming a mobocracy.
He used to warn that without a few prerequisites — education, discipline, equal respect of law by all and priority to social will over the individual will — democracy won’t succeed. Mobs “have no mind, no premeditation. They act in frenzy,” Gandhiji used to warn.
Gandhiji would always talk about Ram Rajya. By Ram Rajya he meant a society where people are learned and behave in an orderly manner; everyone, from the king to the commoner, obeys the law and the larger social good dictates policies — not the whims and fancies of a chosen few.
In the past seven decades, we have experienced most of these things. We left our people poor, ill-educated and backward and ran an aristocracy in the name of democracy. Even a quintessential democrat like the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, used to call democracy the “second best available system”. The best? “Yet to be invented,” he would say. “Democracy is good. I say this because other systems are worse. So we are forced to accept democracy. It has good points and also bad. But merely saying that democracy will solve all problems is utterly wrong. Problems are solved by intelligence and hard work,” Nehru wrote. Contrary to Gandhiji, who wanted society to be equipped with values, Nehru believed the intelligence of a few people would make democracy work.
In seven decades, Indian society has matured. It took seven decades for us, no doubt, to understand and set the basics right in many aspects. The first thing that was set right was Aristotelian. Aristotle said, “democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers”. Indigent, in this context, should be understood as someone who has seen and lived the humble life of an ordinary Indian. It took 70 years for India to have a leadership that was not born with a silver spoon.
The leadership of today thinks differently. Reform is not its agenda, its vision pertains to transformation. Reform is tinkering with the existing system. Transformation is about matters at the grassroots. Reform is government’s job. But transformation requires people’s participation. Hitherto, people were told that their role was limited to voting every five years. But the new leadership believes in people-led development.
It took 70 years and a transformative agenda to think that we have to be clean.
One thing that went against our country, despite being one of the best places in the world, was lack of hygiene. Today, thanks to the transformative agenda of the government, Swachh Bharat has become a people’s movement.
For 70 years we struggled to curb ill treatment of women. The PM, in his first speech from the Red Fort, exhorted people to respect and accord freedom to women. Building toilets was not about hygiene alone. It was about providing women self-respect, protecting them from violence, allowing them to rise educationally and empowering them. The high rates of school dropouts among girls are attributed, partly, to lack of toilet facilities in schools. Today building toilets has become a national movement.
It took 70 years for us to bring the last man on the street into the economic net through the Jan Dhan Yojana. Today the citizen of the country, who lives in a slum, on a railway platform or under a flyover is secure; he has an insurance cover. After seven decades of politics over SC/ST identities, we now realise that the real urge is not about reservations alone, but about respect; it is not just about a few extra jobs but about participation in decision-making. Today we are talking about “youth-led development”. We no longer think only about employment for our youth. Many have been encouraged to become employers themselves by the government’s new schemes.
But even after seven decades of independence, certain issues remain unresolved. The intolerance debate, the secular-communal debate and the nationalism debate are some such issues. They are causing irreparable damage to our national cohesion and impacting our national potential. In most cases, the discourse on both sides is deeply flawed. Those who complain about intolerance betray their own intolerance by resigning from institutions because their views were not accommodated. While we have largely eliminated the evil practice of untouchability at the level of society, we find a new and unwelcome practice of ideological untouchability. We have become fond of tags like communal, anti-national etc.
The measure of a mature society is in admitting that different opinions exist. The tradition, since the distant past in this country, has been to not only tolerate but also celebrate diversity of thoughts and practices. At the recently concluded young thinkers meet I said: “Remain open-minded; co-opt rather than confront; be confident about your own thoughts but allow space for other thoughts too; confront intellectually rather than condemn every other thought as communal or anti-national and most importantly remember that diversity of thoughts and ideas is the reality and beauty of life”. And, remember what Gandhiji had said: “Democracy cannot be worked by 20 men sitting at the centre”.