If you were born as I was, almost exactly three years after that momentous midnight of August 15, 1947, then your story reflects in some ways the story of India as a modern nation. This is the only reason that this week I bring some of my own story into this column. My first memory of home is of a tall, narrow house called Hasan Manzil in Karnal. It was allotted to my father’s family when they were forced out of Pakistan. There was no running water and only one toilet of the kind that needed a manual scavenger to come and clean it once a day, so the reek of that lavatory permeated every small room in this old-fashioned haveli. It mingled with the stench of cow dung and the open drain that wafted up from the bazaar below. This was my grandmother’s house.
My father was an Army officer, so mercifully this was not our permanent home. We moved with him to military towns like Ambala and Babina. Housing for Army officers was more salubrious and had modern toilets, but the towns were dismal, dirty and depressing. Those of us privileged enough to live in the cantonment were warned to stay far away from ‘civil areas’. Of course, India was in those times also a country of romantic, beautiful towns and jungles full of wildlife. But, before my eyes, the jungles shrank, and the beautiful towns became squalid urban settlements. Then there were the shortages. Everything was in short supply and everyone, even rich people, lived in discreet, socialist poverty.
The first speech from the Red Fort that I covered as a journalist was on August 15, 1975. Indira Gandhi looked scared, twitchy, and frail. It was not just because she suspended democracy weeks before, but because it was in the early hours of that morning that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated along with his whole family. Dictators get nervous when they hear of such things and Mrs Gandhi was unable to conceal her nervousness that day. It was a bad time for India, and it seemed for a while that things would get worse rather than better. Then came that election of 1977 when Mrs Gandhi and her son lost their own seats and it seemed for a moment that India would shake off the shackles of socialism and central planning and really begin a new journey.
This did not happen. It was only in 1991 when P V Narasimha Rao became prime minister that India changed dramatically. He was boring and uncharismatic, and he made boring speeches from the Red Fort, but just by allowing the breath of free markets to start filtering through India’s stagnant, statist economy, he succeeded in bringing magical change. Suddenly an Indian middle class became visible, and it grew and grew and grew.
That was when a ‘new’ India was born, and it was our good fortune that the prime ministers who came after Narasimha Rao like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh, continued with the process of dismantling the stranglehold that the state had over the economy. Then when Dr Manmohan Singh won a second term, Sonia Gandhi made him regent and became de facto prime minister herself. She brought back socialist controls and dynastic democracy. But that is another story.
Tomorrow as India celebrates her 75th birthday as a modern nation state, should we be optimistic? Filled with hope? Or are there evil currents in the air that could drag us towards another long season of bad times? It is hard to say for sure. Liberal democracy and free markets have so far proved to be the recipe for prosperity and progress in more countries than we can list here. And, before Narendra Modi became prime minister, he often said that he believed in these ideas, and that he would ensure ‘minimum government and maximum governance’. It is a promise that he has so far failed to keep. It is not just big business that comes upon an interfering official around every corner, ordinary people do as well. Officials seem even to want to control the kind of films that Bollywood makes. Official interference in the media is no secret.
If the lives of ordinary Indians had improved exponentially in the past eight years, Modi might have only a few disgruntled dissidents to worry about. But the truth is that the lives of ordinary Indians have not really improved. They will not improve unless there is enough economic growth for millions of jobs to get created. They will not improve if government schools remain academies of literacy, not education. They will not improve unless public services like healthcare show significant reform. They will not improve if millions of Indians continue to be compelled to live in shanties and filthy villages.
There is much good that Modi has succeeded in doing as prime minister. This is why he won a second term. This is why an India Today poll last week shows that if a Lok Sabha election was held tomorrow, Modi would bring the BJP a full majority. But there are things that have not changed since those years when the Indian nation had just been born. It is only when those things change, and the average Indian can look forward to seeing real improvement in their lives, that the old shadows will lift. Meanwhile Happy 75th India.