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India, a report card

Do you ever ask yourself why, after 63 years of independence, we, as a country, have not fared better? No doubt life today is an improvement on what it was in 1947 (although I have uncles who seriously question that), writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: May 29, 2010 23:52 IST
Karan Thapar

Do you ever ask yourself why, after 63 years of independence, we, as a country, have not fared better? No doubt life today is an improvement on what it was in 1947 (although I have uncles who seriously question that). But have we fulfilled our potential? Could we not have done better? In TV studios, such searing questions are a regular staple of discussion on Independence and Republic Days. After the initial anniversary plaudits have been expressed, the answers are plentiful but never fully convincing. I have heard them all, but never been able to say ‘Bingo, that’s spot on!’

This week I’ve found a more compelling set (although they’re still not complete) in Jagat Mehta’s autobiography The Tryst Betrayed. Like my parents, the author grew up in British India. He was 25 in 1947 — old enough to appreciate what had been, young enough to be ambitious for what could be and, now, mature enough to judge why it’s not been achieved.

Uncle Jagat — forgive me, but that’s how I have always known him — has three answers I more or less concur with and a fourth that tantalises me but I’m unsure if I fully comprehend. So let’s start with the easy three.

The first is Partition. It not only split the subcontinent but, more importantly, it divided the unities of our geography, our culture and the response to our common challenges. Despite this, if India and Pakistan had emerged as friends, the debilitating effects of Partition could have been held in check. But they became enemies. We aimed to cut each other’s throats but often ended up slitting our own necks.

The second answer, in a sense, builds on the first. India’s poor relations with its neighbours precluded the emergence of a subcontinental power that India could, and did, aspire to be. As Uncle Jagat puts it, “India’s relations with its neighbours is its greatest failure in foreign policy.” We judged them by “the nature of their domestic regimes,” whereas we should have instead reposed “trust in their nationalism”. The most telling example of this error was Indira Gandhi’s decision to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 on the grounds that “the CIA had been active in the soft belly of the USSR”.

The third answer is Nehru. “Panditji”, the author writes, “was the greatest democratic dictator in history, but 12 years of his prime ministership were largely wasted.” India remained a prisoner of his policies long after their utility ended. As Uncle Jagat puts it: “The concept of the Soviet Union as a time-tested friend was based on the presumption of the permanence of the Cold War,” and not seizing the opportunity Zhou-en Lai’s 1956 offer to sort out the border maps, which “was a professional failure”.

Now, the answer I find beguiling and want to know more of is a mere hint at the end of the book. “The one overriding weakness has been of us civil servants abdicating the obligation to volunteer advice in the long-term interests of the country.” This opens the door to discussion of the way our babus have pandered to their political masters in return for governorships and ambassadorial assignments. And it points the finger at a culprit who has been ignored for six decades.

By the way, in case you don’t know, Uncle Jagat retired as foreign secretary. Therefore, this is also mea culpa.

The views expressed by the author are personal