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Independence Day: The Indian dream turns 75

Aug 16, 2022 04:15 AM IST

At Independence, India was bruised. But then, in the past 75 years, it consolidated, it turned, it confronted challenges, it rose, and it changed.

To understand the importance of August 15, 1947, turn back 200 years.

To understand the importance of August 15, 1947, we need to turn back 200 years. (Illustration: Malay Karmakar)

Since the 1757 Battle of Plassey, the British — first the Company, and then, from 1857, the Crown — had used its control over India solely to meet London’s political, military, economic, and imperial objectives. In the process of expanding and then exercising its control, the Empire killed Indians. It drained India’s wealth. It impoverished Indians. It systematically, through a policy of divide and rule, deepened the gulf between Hindus and Muslims. It extracted Indian resources, both human and material, for its imperial objectives, including in the Second World War that preceded freedom.

The brilliance and bravery of Indian nationalists led to the triumph of freedom, but laced with the tragedy of Partition. It was a bleak political and economic landscape that independent India’s leaders inherited as they went about the task of building a new republic on top of a bruised civilisation.

And that is why, in the first phase of Independence, between the years of 1947 and 1962, India had to work on foundations and consolidation.

In the first three years, the Constituent Assembly framed a remarkably visionary and forward-looking document. It institutionalised universal adult franchise; guaranteed fundamental rights and enshrined individual liberty for all citizens; codified the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of religion, region, caste or any primordial identity except to help level the playing field for the truly disadvantaged. It also laid out the framework of periodic elections, parliamentary democracy, independent judiciary and power distribution between the Union and states.

India stands on this political edifice.

But then this text had to be translated into practice. Sardar Patel gave the nation territorial coherence, but after 1950, the political leadership largely rested with Jawaharlal Nehru, the Mahatma’s protege who combined mass charisma with broadly democratic instincts and a sense of India’s place in the world.

Nehru made mistakes. He was sceptical of regional aspirations and only reluctantly came around to the idea of linguistic states. He neglected the importance of primary education. He prioritised State power and curtailed civil liberties with the first amendment. He mishandled Kashmir. He first misread Chinese intentions and then overreached. His attitude to ideological adversaries was harsh.

But Nehru also provided India constitutional stability. By standing up for the spirit of secularism, he fought for the State to be non-discriminatory and created a degree of calm between communities. He showed remarkable respect to Parliament, answering questions and engaging with the Opposition. He gave India a voice way beyond its economic and military capabilities. He pioneered non alignment, which was more about interest-based autonomous decision-making than ideological dogma.

But by early 1960s, Nehru’s instincts and leadership had weakened, most clearly reflected in the rout India faced at the hands of China, a defeat that continues to haunt the nation.

If the first 15 years were about democratic consolidation, in the next 15 years, India turned towards political centralisation and populist Left-wing economics. And the symbol of this change was Indira Gandhi.

Gandhi’s elevation in 1966 was sponsored by the Congress old guard, which saw her as a pliable leader they could control. But the Congress’s first major electoral setbacks in 1967 led to the end of the party’s political hegemony. The “Congress system”, as Rajni Kothari described the party’s broad tent approach of accommodating and mediating various interest groups and social classes, was showing cracks. Tensions between the Gandhi and the Syndicate grew, eventually culminating in a split in India’s grand old party in 1969.

Gandhi gave this split an ideological cover. Aided by key advisers, who largely belonged to the Left, she nationalised banks. She abolished privy purses. She stepped up State control of the economy and squeezed the private sector, except when it was politically lucrative. The license raj system got more entrenched. And economic freedom shrunk.

The 1971 election victory and the Bangladesh victory added to her aura of invincibility. This was indeed her finest moment. West Pakistan’s decision in 1970 to dishonour an electoral verdict triggered civil unrest in east Pakistan, reinforced language-based national identity, and created a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions for India. India stepped in, demolished the two-nation theory, and less than a decade after 1962, emerged into its own as South Asia’s pre-eminent power.

By now, Indira Gandhi had succeeded in establishing herself as the true inheritor of the Congress legacy, sidelining her rivals, planting loyalists in key position and ensuring control over key institutions. But then, in the only formal interruption to India’s democracy, she imposed the Emergency in 1975. Fundamental rights were suspended. The freedom of press was severely curtailed. Opposition leaders were packed into prison in thousands. Parliament was dissolved, and state governments run by the Opposition were dismissed. The Congress amended the Constitution, introducing the terms socialism and secularism in the Preamble. And a State-sponsored coercive approach to population control through forced sterilisations was initiated.

In 1977, Indian citizens decisively rejected this authoritarian turn. For the first time, the Congress lost national elections. The Janata Party came to power, but torn apart by internal contradictions and leadership tussles, the experiment collapsed, leading to Gandhi’s return. More significantly, the 1980s also inaugurated a period of unprecedented challenges to India’s political stability, social harmony and internal security.

In the 1980s, India was hit by a storm of violent identity-based movements, both ethnic and religious, and often fused with territorial aspirations.

The Punjab crisis led to Operation Bluestar, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and anti-Sikh violence with the complicity of at least a section of Congress leadership. The Assam student agitation and the rise of separatism opened an up an insider-outsider debate that isn’t resolved till today. Kashmir saw the fusion of local political discontent, Islamist extremism and Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism — posing the most formidable challenge to the Indian State. The Valley also witnessed an attack on Kashmiri Pandits, leading to deaths and displacement. The Indian State’s flawed approach didn’t help. In a different context, in 1991, an identity conflict from outside India’s borders, in Sri Lanka, saw the killing of Rajiv Gandhi.

If the Indian State fought these challenges to territorial integrity and sovereignty, it also had to contend with identity-based political movements within the democratic context.

Rajiv Gandhi’s win in 1984 was based on a sympathy wave, but also had an element of anti-Sikh Hindu majoritarianism. By going back on gender justice and the very idea of equality on Shah Bano, he aimed to appease Muslim conservatives and orthodoxy, but it lost him the Indian middle class, strengthened Hindutva, and dealt a death blow to secularism. His tacit nod on opening the locks at the disputed site in Ayodhya was aimed to please Hindu religious conservatives, but it gave a fresh lease of life to the Bharatiya Janata Party, inaugurated a period of communal polarisation, and destroyed the Congress in the heartland.

If Mandir was about consolidating Hindu religious identity, Mandal was about consolidating backward caste based identity and cementing their electoral alliance with Muslims. The VP Singh government implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and provided reservations to other backward classes in government jobs. This reflected the rise of OBCs in national politics, but also inaugurated a period of their assertion in the heartland — most visible in the Lalu Prasad-Mulayam Singh dominance — and brought the “forward backward battle” to the fore. It would take a Narendra Modi to fuse Mandir and Mandal two-and-a-half decades later.

All of this was also happening at a time of a political transition. Rajiv Gandhi may have won the biggest majority ever enjoyed by a party in the Lok Sabha, but corruption allegations and a lack of political experience saw him squandering it away. The rise of the National Front marked the beginning of a fluid era in politics — no party would get a majority from 1989 to 2014. The VP Singh coalition collapsed due to internal contradictions but regional parties had announced their arrival in Delhi. And on the policy front, by the late 1980s, India was confronting an unprecedented balance of payments crisis, triggered by rising import costs. Meanwhile, its friend in the international system, Soviet Union, was about to collapse.

But like in each chapter of its journey, from this crisis, too, India emerged stronger in the next phase, over two decades of the 1990s and 2000s.

The economic crisis gave way to the 1991 reforms, with the PV Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo enhancing economic freedom and unleashing the spirit of Indian entrepreneurship. India’s middle class boomed. The Indian market became deeply attractive. Indian corporates grew. Aviation and telecom became lessons in the benefits of opening up the economy; information technology made India a global player and an object of aspiration for the young. It did deepen inequality and left many behind, but there was also a recognition, by the mid-2000s, of the need to make growth inclusive. This led to the introduction of the employment guarantee legislation.

The foreign policy crisis led to India’s enhanced engagement with the US — which despite its ebbs and flows, eventually led to the civil nuclear deal. India expanded its outreach to Israel, pushed ahead the Act East Policy, and its concentrated campaign to expose Pakistan’s terror-exporting ways began paying dividends in the post-9/11 word. India still faced internal security crises, especially with Pakistan-sponsored terror, but by then, had succeeded in establishing authority over Kashmir. The worst days of the 1990s were over.

The coalition era first produced instability, with the Janata and National Front experience playing out again during the United Front years. The second Atal Bihari Vajpayee government of 1998 lasted 13 months. But from that instability emerged a political culture that rested on having a central core in the form of a national party (BJP till 2004, the Congress till 2014) with a range of regional parties providing support but extracting their share of the slice in return. No one wanted frequent elections, political transactions were common, and coalitions became the norm.

But some leaders were able to rein in allies and impose redlines; others allowed allies to behave like sovereign republics. The years of the United Progressive Alliance were often seen in that light, eroding its political credibility.

India had consolidated under Nehru. Indira changed India. The country faced its most severe security and identity challenges in the 1980s. It rose in the 1990s and beyond. But now it was getting impatient. And in walked Narendra Modi.

Modi was a product of changes and fulfilled a certain desire within the Indian electorate — for a strong leader, a Hindu leader, a clean leader, a pan-India leader, and a leader who was all for stronger national security.

He projected himself as all of this, enabled by shrewd and innovative use of social media and a return to mass rallies as a form of political campaigning. And into his tenure, he added the image of being a pro-poor leader, which is now arguably his biggest strength.

In the past eight years, Modi has also been an engineer of changes.

Politically, he has made the BJP the central pole of Indian politics, and transformed the party into a more inclusive Hindu formation. Administratively, the State has become more centralised in terms of decision-making, without adequate checks and balances, but also more efficient in terms of delivery mechanisms. Ideologically, the State has become more Hindu, in its representation patterns, ideological beliefs, and governing norms. And institutionally, an extraordinarily powerful executive has cast a shadow on other pillars of the State.

But irrespective of one’s political or ideological beliefs, there is little doubt that Modi has changed India.

As India moves towards its 100th Independence Day in 2047, it has the task of preserving its democratic institutions. It has the task of maintaining internal social harmony through political inclusion. It has the task of providing millions with jobs every month. It has the task of ensuring gender justice, especially by bringing women back into the workforce and creating a supportive structure for care. It has the task of securing itself, in the midst of an uncertain international environment and two belligerent neighbours, one of which is the world’s second most powerful country. It has the task of battling the climate crisis.

And it has the continued task of fulfilling the vision of those who won this precious freedom for the nation — of a united, independent, just, democratic, inclusive India.

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