India at 75: Can the twain ever meet?
Landmark occasions provide unique opportunities for calm, nonpartisan reflection with a unique blend of nostalgia, pride, hope, fear, and poignance. We have made tremendous progress, but Rabindranath Tagore’s exhortation in the Gitanjali compendium, to value reason above all faculties, must make us ask some existential questions. Where are we going as a nation? Are we inculcating the independence of spirit, thought and scientific enquiry? In a largely atavistic society, are we building basic enablers to reverse an inherent resistance to change, or will the intellectually marginalised continue to be deprived of modern education and subject to constant indoctrination?
Beyond the markets, are we building a sustainable society? Northern Europe’s sustainable initiatives are global benchmarks for building egalitarian societies. Its political and corporate leadership ensures permeation of this core ethic to its smallest units — individuals. Lopsided post-pandemic economic recovery will aggravate the inherent inequities globally — especially in structurally unequal societies such as India, South Africa and Brazil.
A Financial Times article contrasts Zomato founder’s $650 million net worth with its gig workers eking out a living with ₹20 per trip to deliver food, while battling growing unemployment which saw 200 million people slipping into poverty. The concentration of economic power with the migration of unorganised business to corporate entities has been a discernible trend with the likes of Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani leading perhaps what is India’s answer to Russian oligarchs.
Further, social divides based on religion, caste and class create increasing levels of polarisation as does rapidly receding trust in the institutions of governance inherent in a liberal democracy. Such a concoction is lethal to the social order, as was recently witnessed in what has been South Africa’s worst violence since apartheid.
Changing the narrative is critical today. This can happen only if we transcend the mental barrier to differentiate between truth and maya (eternal illusion). There is no way to do this other than building scientific thought and temperament across all levels. The Parliament adopted the Science Policy Resolution in 1958 — the foundational vision of modern India. Sadly, instead of promoting introspection, debate and encouraging innovative thinkers to dispassionately challenge the status quo, we are witnessing a frightening regression into a world built on myths, prejudice, bias, and irrationality.
Examples of the current public leadership enthusiastically promoting cow urine as a cure for cancer, or coronil for Covid are part of our national folklore. Author Yuval Noah Harari postulates that religion is the most enduring story ever told, and till today, is used to determine who we should hate, or our actions based on superstitions propagated in its name.
Going back into the past is easy — the further, the better. As is tapping into cultural sentiments at the cost of rational, scientific thinking. Politicians play this game the world over to consolidate power with the neo-imperialism in Russia and Vladimir Putin — the new Czar — being an obvious example. However, in a complex multicultural, multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society such as India, utilising the direct link between scientific thought and secularism can prove profoundly hermetic.
Their supportive interplay will change the paradigm from dogma and sectarian thinking to critical reasoning and intellectual cosmopolitanism, hence building on our society’s inherent diversity rather than remaining spellbound by the enduring charm of Britain’s parting gift of deep communal hatred in 1947.
At its core is the ability of science to confront the truth and the willingness to acknowledge facts. Regrettably, commencing with creeping data integrity issues in the budget documents from 2011, it has now transmuted to various statistical figures, including underreporting cases and deaths, where floating dead bodies jarred us to the state of data integrity challenges today.
Cognitive dissonance in policymaking displaces the delicacy of reasoned debate in Parliament and adds to the toxicity of doubt and suspicion even for well-intended decisions. Active policy consultation with domain experts is a natural casualty in such an environment with many preferring to resign rather than erode credibility. The resignations of the chief economic adviser, heads of the National Statistical Commission, Niti Aayog and the Covid-19 scientific advisory group, INSACOG are some recent instances.
In a post-truth world, bringing the truth back to politics can change the paradigm. Tagore’s Satyer Abohan examines the relationship between individuals and the nation from this prism of truth. Elected leaders must lead this change. Susan Stebbing’s 1939 classic shows that in politics emotive language is often disguised as scientific language, and then used as slogans. She warns, though, that if well-meaning slogans succumb under scientific scrutiny, they should be discarded in any rational argument.
Given our unparalleled record of missed opportunities for balanced, sustainable economic growth with equitable social development, we face massive problems to solve today. This is achievable only if the leadership enlists the involvement of all. Post-Independence, our founding fathers took on the challenge despite being devoid of the stature and resources we have today. Admittedly, many decisions proved to be wrong in hindsight, but the foundations for a modern India built and nurtured over decades must be acknowledged.
In a naive and unreflective age where we celebrate too early, too much, and frivolously, we must evolve by continuously introspecting and making course corrections. Large scale alienation of citizens led by rising economic inequalities and social inequities cannot be ignored as we celebrate our hard-earned Independence. Nation-building is much more than rising markets benefitting only a handful.
It is time to change the narrative with the singular imperative of making the twain meet. Sustainable progress will follow.
Prabal Basu Roy is a Sloan fellow of the London Business School, non-executive director, and an adviser to chairmen of corporate boards
The views expressed are personal