The prime ministership of India has to be one of the world’s toughest assignments. Our diversity, complexity and maturity all combine to make us — the PM’s fellow citizens — very, very tough ‘customers’. But it also has to be among the world’s most exciting.
When Jawaharlal Nehru , our first PM, assumed office on August 15, 1947, he was an excited 58. The horrors of Partition notwithstanding, there was a youthfulness about, a zestfulness or what one might call the freshness of Spring.
The Constitution was taking shape under the watch of the Constituent Assembly headed by BR Ambedkar, who was a ‘mere’ 56. We think of those two leaders today as being old men, if not also old and tired. They were anything but. They were at their peak, giving their best to India, responding to the optimism that was in the air then, for new beginnings, great undertakings, a fresh life in freedom.
Today, when free India is 68 years old, the Constitution at age 65 has seen 99 amendments, our president is the country’s 13th, our current PM is our 15th, our Parliament, our Supreme Court and our Governors are all, likewise, very, very ‘senior’, we cannot feel very young or excited.
Here, we should be mindful of the paradox that while India as constituted by the Constitution is no longer young, India as constituted by its people is young, much younger today than it was in 1947. Should this not give us a sense of spring again ? Should we not get excited by “our demographic dividend?”
It should but it does not. Why? Because we have allowed the first principles of our Constitution to be undermined by policies which empower privilege and disempower potential. In our metropolises, cities, towns and villages young India is up against a gradient of techno-commercial power too steep for it to negotiate, a demand for it to produce services or goods at rates it just cannot manage. In urban India, the cost of survival and in rural India, the costs of production are throwing young men and, more tragically, young women and children into impoverishment, nomadism and destitution.
In 1947 Hindus and Muslims fled their homes to safety like human landslides on train tops, bullock carts, on foot. Today, the de-farmed, the dispossessed, many of them tribals ousted from forests or mine-rich land wander the length and breadth of India like refugees. But, irony of ironies, in this crisis of frustrated aspirations, those pre-occupied with the TV-serial type distractions of a Hindu Rashtra are teaming up with the leisure-hours of corporate India, to add insult to injury and danger to deprivation.
Hindu Rashtra advocates and ‘Make in India’ enthusiasts who portray the image of India as a superpower, a space power and a cyber power do not seem to care that their giantist dreams are obliterating the small farmer, the non-trawling fisherman, the self-employed entrepreneur, the craftsperson and the large numbers of pension-less old and infirm into limbo.
And in this India which needs a voice, silence reigns.
A conspiracy, one may call it, of silence. No one in government seems to be stirred by this uprooting, dispossession and disabling. NGOs do, as does the media, fitfully, and individuals and the political opposition. But the echelons of the State do not speak on it.
Their silence reaches its decibel nadir, an utter and irreducible acoustic numbness, when it comes to the PM. Not that he does not speak. He does, to telling effect.
To rock mass audiences is one thing, to move a pulse of feeling quite another. He would if he said whether or not India becomes a ‘super power’, it should be a just nation. He would if he said a Hindu Rashtra is not his government’s overt or covert goal, ‘Ghar Wapsi’ is not a government programme, that he disapproves of the attacks on churches.
There is no excitement in India’s air today, not even for the launch of a Mangalyaan. Perhaps one could live without excitement. But should we live with fears? We must ask of the PM to give reassurances of an equal citizenship to the Muslim Indian; the same sense of security to the Christian Indian; centre stage to the political dissenter; protection to the iconoclast writer; insulation from bullying to the brave journalist; advice to Internet Shakhas to use words, not venom; quittance to his events managers who make him look like his masks; put dread of law in the power-wielding corrupt, the illegal mining lobby, the tobacco lobby, the plastic lobby; and find, from among many deserving persons, a chief information Commissioner. It has been a year, almost. And why, but why, should the lokpal continue to play truant?
I mentioned, at the start of this article, the ‘seniority’ of our leadership. The aged in our young nation number many million. Presidents, vice-presidents, PMs, MPs get pensions when they retire. But the vast majority of our aged are miserably poor, lonely and, very often, disabled. They deserve a pension in order to live with dignity the few years that are left to them. What Professor Prabhat Patnaik and Aruna Roy have said and written on a Universal Old Age Pension scheme needs to be read and heard by all our legislators so that they can pass an Act liberating the elderly and the disabled from the humiliation and agony of dependency.
The prime ministership of India, I said, has to be the world’s toughest assignment. But it is also perhaps the world’s most powerful one. Not because his fingers can touch nuclear buttons or launch craft to the moon and Mars but because they can touch and transform the lives of our benighted millions.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of History and Politics, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal.)