Shashi Tharoor: Time to redeem our pledge | india | Hindustan Times
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Shashi Tharoor: Time to redeem our pledge

This is a time in our national evolution when we must rethink the assumptions of our political philosophy and rise to the need to refurbish our institutions with new ideas. Shashi Tharoor writes on the 90th anniversary of Hindustan Times.

india Updated: Sep 29, 2013 10:51 IST

Over the years, the Hindustan Times (HT) has truly been a faithful and passionate chronicle of the evolution of Modern India. As a newspaper that was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, as a newspaper that stopped publishing for four-and-a-half months in 1942, when it refused to accept the British imposition of censorship on all newspapers, and as a newspaper that is now regarded as both a voice of the national consensus and the national conscience, the HT remains one of the finest expressions of Indian journalism.

Just as the HT’s newspaper ink evolved from black and white to colour to digital, India too has evolved. From being a colony to the largest democracy in the world, India’s script is being written anew every day. In 1947, when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru spoke at that midnight moment, he was speaking for a nation that had found its own voice in the world again, and was determined to use it to express a worldview radically different from that which had been articulated by India’s British rulers in previous decades. And he was doing so as a convinced internationalist himself, one who had seen much of the world in his extensive travels and was determined to apply his own understanding of it to his newly-independent nation’s stance in world affairs.

However, we can never afford to forget the condition in which we found our country at the onset of Independence. From a nation that had once been amongst the world’s richest, and which as late as 1820 accounted for 23% of global GDP, we had been reduced by 1947 into one of the poorest, most backward, most illiterate and diseased societies on earth. From 1900 to 1947 the rate of growth of the Indian economy was not even 1%, while population grew steadily at well over 3.5%.

Imperial rule left behind a society with 16% literacy, practically no domestic industry and more than 90% living below what today we would call the poverty line. The systematic impoverishment of India was the starkest reality that India’s nationalist leaders had to face and overcome. It was therefore natural that our domestic transformation should be the overriding priority even in the framing of foreign policy.

This is where non-alignment came in. It is understandably fashionable to scoff at the concept at a time when there is no longer a pair of superpowers to be non-aligned between, but its origins were unexceptionable. At a time of great pressure to join one of the two Cold War alliances, as so many countries had done around us, Nehru chose to stay free of such entanglements in the pursuit of our enlightened self-interest.

We had spent too long with foreigners deciding what was good for us internationally; we were not going to mortgage our freedom of action or decision to any alliance at a time when we had just begun to appreciate the value of our independence. So we stayed out of other countries’ fights, and sought to judge each issue on its merits rather than take sides automatically or due to alliance politics.

The India of the second decade of the 21st century has made significant strides from the newly-Independent India of the 1950s and the under-estimated India of the 1960s. Since 1947, it has raised literacy from 16% to 74%, reduced child mortality and increased life expectancy (from 26 to 72), and raised the rate of growth of the Indian economy from less than 1% to more than 8%, over the last decade, while reducing the percentage of the population living below the poverty line from some 90% to just over 30%.

Foreign direct investment into India is illustrative of our changing orientation to the world: from a cumulative total of $15.4 billion in the entire decade of the 1990s, FDI rose to $37.7 billion in 2009-10 alone (though since then it has dropped).

India’s share of the global gross domestic product (GDP) has doubled, from 2.5% to 5.5% in 2010; its share in world merchandise exports increased from 0.4% in 1980 to 1.5% in 2010 and in world service exports, from 0.7% to 3.3%. While figures do not always tell the complete story, the India that punched above its weight in the 1950s and below its undoubted potential in the 1960s has become the world’s third-largest economy in purchasing-power parity (PPP) terms in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. It is a country whose real and visible weight counts in the world. Impressive as our achievements are, are they enough? No. A lot more needs to be done. Difficult choices lie ahead, choices that will firmly test our national character and capability.

In the six decades since Nehru’s India constituted itself into a sovereign republic, the world has become even more closely knit than he so presciently predicted. Indeed, as the 21st century enters its second decade, even those countries that once felt insulated from external dangers — by wealth or strength or distance — now fully realise that the world is truly knit together as never before, and that the safety of people everywhere depends not only on local security forces, but also on guarding against terrorism, on warding off the global spread of pollution, of diseases, of illegal drugs and of weapons of mass destruction, and on promoting human rights, democracy and development.

As India changes domestically, its changes will have an inevitable impact on the outside world. So if we Indians contemplate the shape of the world over, say, the next 20 or 25 years, we would also have to ask ourselves what sort of role the transformation of India in that timespan would enable our country to play on the global stage and on how we engage with it, and what sort of responsibilities we are prepared to assume.

As a nation with 65% of the population below the age of 35, India is ready to take on the world. Young Indians today — unlike those of my generation — are likely to spend a lot of their adult lives interacting with people who don’t look, sound, dress or eat like them. Unlike their parents, they might well work for an internationally-oriented company, have clients, colleagues or investors from around the globe; increasingly, they are likely to holiday in far-flung destinations. The world into which they will grow will be full of such opportunities.

But along with such opportunities, today’s young Indians may also find themselves vulnerable to threats from beyond India’s borders: terrorism, of course, but also transnational crime syndicates, counterfeiters of currency, drug smugglers, child traffickers, pirates, and — almost as disruptive — internet hackers and spammers, credit-card crooks and even imported illnesses like swine flu.

I believe strongly that we must work to create a world in which Indians can prosper in safety and security, a world in which a transformed India can play a worthy part. This is a time in our national evolution when we must rethink the assumptions of our political philosophy and rise to the need to refurbish our institutions with new ideas.

An India led by rational, humane and open-minded ideas of itself must develop a view of the world that is also broad-minded, accommodative and responsible. That would be in keeping with the aspirations that Nehru launched us on when he spoke of our tryst with destiny. As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the time has indeed come for us to redeem his pledge.

We have come a long way in the last 90 years. As the world converges and comes closer, as a young nation, we have a lot more to achieve to fulfil our national potential. In the years to come, I envision a democratic and pluralist India working for a world order that sustains and defends democracy and pluralism; a ‘multi-aligned’ India serving as one of the principal fulcrums of a networked globe in which countries pursue different interests in different configurations; an India free from poverty, growing and engaging in trade and investment in and with the rest of the world, upholding arrangements that make such trade and investment possible; an increasingly prosperous India, prepared to share the benefits of its prosperity with countries on its periphery and in its extended neighbourhood; and a technologically savvy India, setting its sights on, and lending its expertise to, the management of outer space and cyberspace in the common interests of humanity.

As we overcome the challenges created by past legacies and an uncertain future, one thing is certain: Hindustan Times will be there to record it, report it and thereby continue to play an important role in the evolution of Modern India.

Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram and union minister of state for human resource development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.