Independence Day observations are usually marked by nostalgia and patriotism-invoking noble thoughts. Mahatma Gandhi’s desire to “wipe every tear from every eye”, Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tryst with destiny”, Sardar Patel’s claim that “no one would die of starvation in independent India”, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s exhortations for Hindu-Muslim unity as the basis for humanity’s future and Nehru’s invocation of the ancient palimpsest in his Discovery of India to describe India as the churning crucible of human civilisation have all found their usual place. Though there are references to B.R. Ambedkar, what’s missing is the warning he gave when he presented the draft of our Constitution. I shall return to this subsequently. However, with more than six decades down the line, the need to introspect on how far we have reached the aspirations that fed our freedom struggle cannot be escaped. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, addressing the nation from the Red Fort this Independence Day, concluded by saying: “The day when our dreams will come true is not far off.”
Does this reflect the reality? Our modern republic is founded on secular democracy, federalism, social justice and economic self-reliance. Where do we stand today on each one of these foundational pillars?
It is impossible to cover all aspects. Let’s take the salient ones. Our agricultural sector is still predominantly dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon. The last two decades saw public investment in agriculture dropping to an abysmal less than 2 per cent of the GDP annually. The agrarian crisis continues to intensify with distress suicides by our farmers not abating. The huge stock of foodgrain in central government godowns does not reflect excessive production. It tells the story of the bulk of our people not having enough money to buy this foodgrain.
It is, indeed, a matter of shame for our country that the Supreme Court had to repeatedly urge the Centre to distribute foodgrains that are rotting in the open free to the people. It has been shown that in 2008-09, the per capita availability of food for direct consumption had dropped to around 136 kg per annum. Way back in 1989, this figure stood at 193 kg. Are we moving in the direction of self-reliance as Sardar Patel envisioned?
Even after six decades, the condition of the SC/STs (despite the continuation of reservations) has not improved to the desired levels. The quotas are never fulfilled with respect to government jobs, reaching only 17 as against 22.5 per cent. More than two-thirds of SC and three-fourths of ST children drop out of school before they reach Class 10. Their levels of poverty are nearly double than the rest.
One can go on in this vein, but the moot question is: are we, as a nation, incapable of doing any better? Of course not. One illustration would suffice. The developed world is very apprehensive of the fact that India today produces more skilled manpower annually than all the countries of the European Union put together. This is happening only when less than 10 per cent of our eligible youth are able to reach the portals of higher education. If we are able to raise this to even 30 per cent, then India, truly, will rise to lead the global knowledge society. This is our potential. What we need are policies that will make us realise this potential.
On the contrary, though we have legislated the Right to Education, the required financial resources to ensure this right is lacking. It has been estimated that in order to realise this right, R170,000 crore would be required over the next five years. While the central government raises the spectre of resource crunch, it unhesitatingly doles out tax concessions to corporates and the rich. These admitted concessions in the budget papers of the last two years is much more than what would have been necessary for realising universal education and, thus, allowing India to realise its potential. Likewise, the reforms proposed for higher education will only encourage further privatisation and commercialisation, making education more of a privilege than a right.
The need for a radical shift in the policy direction reflects the continued battle between the three visions that emerged during the course of our freedom struggle. The Congress envisioned a secular democratic republic. The Left goes beyond this to convert the political independence of our country into the economic independence of our people, i.e. socialism. Completely antagonistic is the third vision that seeks to define the character of India on the basis of the religious denomination of its people. This found a twin expression with the RSS advocating a Hindu Rashtra and the Muslim League having, unfortunately, succeeded in the partition of the country to establish an Islamic republic. Clearly, if India has to realise its potential, then in this ideological battle — the vision that economically empowers our people — has to establish its dominance.
The continuing Maoist violence and the unfortunate developments in Kashmir reinforce Ambedkar’s warning. “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure continue to deny the principle of one man-one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed by the author are personal