Politics and Protest


Tryst with Destiny*

It was a thrilling moment. On 14 August 1947, on the eve of India’s independence, we glued ourselves to the radio in our little school a hundred miles from Calcutta. It was almost exactly four years after the terrible famine we had seen as young children (with millions dying), which gave many of us, unaffected by the famine, the enduring thought that ‘there, but for the grace of class divisions, go I’. Those were terrible days, but August 1947 was a different and a joyous time. In celebration of independence and in welcoming a democratic India, Jawaharlal Nehru’s voice roared loud and clear over the radio, telling us about India’s ‘tryst with destiny’. The ‘task ahead’ included ‘the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity’. We heard with rapt attention and we felt powerfully inspired.

The Pledge and the Record

Rather more than half a century has passed since then, and it is not too soon to ask what came of that ‘tryst’ with destiny, and of the ‘tasks ahead’. The answer is not altogether simple.1 In line with Nehru’s formulation, we can split the evaluation into three broad fields: (1) practice of democracy, (2) removal of social inequality and backwardness, and (3) achievement of economic progress and equity. We must also ask how the successes and failures in these different fields interconnect and relate to each other.

There are reasons for satisfaction in the first area.* While the correspondent of The Times in 1967 did report, with some sense of absolute certainty, that he had just witnessed ‘the last general elections’ in India (Indian democracy, he confided, could not but end very soon), the doom did not come as anticipated. Systematic elections have continued to happen with regularity and reasonable fairness. Political parties have come into office after winning elections, and have left after losing them. The media have remained largely free, and the press has continued to report, scrutinize and protest. Civil rights have been taken seriously, and the courts have been fairly active in pursuing violations. The military has stayed well inside the barracks.

This is largely a story of success. And yet the achievements of Indian democracy have been far from unblemished. While political movements have been very effective in dealing with some wrongs, other wrongs have not received anything like sufficient redress or even serious engagement. Since democracy is not only a blessing in itself, but can also be the most important means to pursue public ends, it is not enough to make sure that Indian democracy survives. While we must give credit where it is due, Indian democracy has to be judged also by the strength and reach of public reasoning and its actual accomplishments. After discussing the other areas of concentration identified by Nehru, I shall come back to these concerns about democracy which are more complex than the mere survival of democracy.

The second field – that of social progress and equity – has fared much worse than democracy itself: not quite an immeasurable failure, but certainly a measurable underperformance.2 Educational progress has been remarkably uneven. Even though India has many more university-educated persons than China has, China has made remarkable progress towards universal literacy, while India is still far behind. The proportion of literates among adult males is still below 75 per cent in India (in comparison with China’s above 90), and only about half of Indian women are literate (compared with China’s 80 per cent or more). Life expectancy at birth in India has climbed to around 64 years (from being near 30 at the time of independence), but it is still significantly below China’s life expectancy of 71 years.* Further, mortality rates in India sharply differ between different states, and also between classes and between urban and rural areas. Many rural residents, especially the poorer villagers, are still far removed from decent medical attention.Inequalities between women and men in economic and social opportunities, and often even in health care, remain quite large.3

What about the third field – that of economic progress? India’s economic expansion was particularly slow before the 1980s, especially in comparison with the spectacular performance of Asian economies further east, such as South Korea or Taiwan. After the quickening of Indian economic growth from the 1980s, India has done comparatively better, not just in the aggregate movement of the gross national product (GNP) and gross domestic product (GDP), but also in terms of reduction of income poverty. The economic reforms introduced in 1992, led by Manmohan Singh (then the Finance Minister, and now the Prime Minister of India since the spring of 2004), have led to considerable liberalization and freeing of international trade, and to some replacement of what used to be called the ‘licence Raj’ (with pervasive bureaucratic control over private economic initiatives).4 This has greatly added to business opportunities in India and has also helped to consolidate India’s faster economic growth. Liberalization, which still has some distance to go, has helped to free Indian entrepreneurs to seek global trade, and the success has been especially large in specific sectors such as the development and use of information technology.5 The overall performance of the economy may not have matched that of post-reform China (with its sustained growth rate of 8 to 10 per cent a year), but India’s move from the rigid box of a 3 per cent growth rate to the 5 to 8 per cent arena is certainly not a negligible development.

The proportions of the Indian population with incomes below the standard poverty lines seem to have fallen over the 1980s and 1990s, even though there are disputes about the extent of this decline, and some doubts about the social reality that lies behind these statistical figures.6 What is, however, clear enough is that India’s reduction of poverty has been far less rapid than what has occurred in China since the economic reforms.

Poverty and Social Opportunity

There is indeed much about the process of economic growth and development that India can learn from the experience of China.* Making good use of global trade opportunities is among the lessons that China offers to India, and the lessons here can be critically important for India’s economic progress. A similar message had already emerged from the economic success of other East Asian economies, including South Korea, but given China’s size and the intensity of its pre-existing poverty, China’s experiences are particularly relevant for India’s economic policy-making. The general lesson that good use can be made of global opportunities of trade and commerce to enhance domestic income and to reduce poverty has emerged very clearly from the success of economies in East and South East Asia – led now by China.

It is, however, important to avoid the much-aired simplification that argues that all India needs to do to achieve fast economic growth and speedy reduction of poverty is greater reliance on the global market and on international trade. This reflects, in fact, a serious misreading of the variety of factors that have contributed to the kind of economic success achieved in China, South Korea, Thailand and other countries in East and South East Asia. These countries did emphasize international trade and made fine use of the global market mechanism. But they also made it possible to have broad-based public participation in economic expansion, through such policies as extensive schooling and high literacy, good health care, widespread land reforms, and some considerable fostering of gender equity (not least through female education and employment).

This is not to doubt that India can achieve reasonably high growth rates of aggregate GNP even with the rather limited social opportunities that exist in India. For one thing, it can continue to do extremely well in industries that make excellent use of India’s accomplishments in higher education and technical training. New centres of technical excellence, like Bangalore and Hyderabad, can prosper and flourish, and India can even accelerate its progress along the lines that it has already established well. This will be a substantial achievement of considerable economic importance.

Yet even a hundred Bangalores and Hyderabads will not, on their own, solve India’s tenacious poverty and deep-seated inequality. The very poor in India get a small – and basically indirect – share of the cake that information technology and related developments generate. The removal of poverty, particularly of extreme poverty, calls for more participatory growth on a wide basis, which is not easy to achieve across the barriers of illiteracy, ill health, uncompleted land reforms and other sources of severe societal inequality. The process of economic advance cannot be divorced from the cultivation and enhancement of social opportunities over a broad front.*

The products that China exports to the outside world include a great many that are made by not particularly highly skilled labour, but schooled and literate labour nevertheless. Their production generates much employment, with a great deal of income going to poorer sections of the community. Utilization of the world market for such exports requires production according to specification, quality control and an informed consciousness of the economic tasks involved. Good school education is central for these tasks. Similarly, good health is extremely important if productive effort and economic schedules are not to be affected by illnesses and intermittent absence.

Basic education, good health and other human attainments are not only directly valuable as constituent elements of human capabilities and quality of life (these are the direct pay-offs of schooling, health care and other social arrangements), but these capabilities can also help in generating economic success of a more standard kind, which in turn can contribute to enhancing the quality of human life even more. If there is something that India can learn from China’s post-reform experience in the 1980s onwards about making skilful use of global markets, there is also much that India can assimilate from China’s pre-reform experience in rapidly expanding the delivery of basic education and elementary health care.

Political Voice and Social Opportunity

If social and economic tasks are so interrelated, what about links with the politics of democracy? While it has frequently been claimed that democracy is inimical to fast economic growth (India itself has been cited often enough to illustrate this specious thesis), there is little statistical evidence to confirm this. Indeed, even the limited success of India in recent years in raising economic growth shows that growth can profit more from a friendly economic climate than from a coercive political environment.*

India has certainly benefited from the protective role of democracy in giving the rulers excellent political incentive to act supportively when disasters threaten and when an immediate change in policy is imperative. India has successfully avoided famines since independence, while China experienced a massive famine during the failure of the Great Leap Forward when faulty policies were not revised for three years while famine mortality took from 23 to 30 million lives. Even today India is, by and large, in a better position than China both to prevent abuse of coercive power and to make quicker emendations if and when policies go badly wrong (this issue is discussed, among other themes, in Essay 8).

Democracy gives an opportunity to the opposition to press for policy change even when the problem is chronic and has had a long history (rather than only when it is acute and sudden, as is the case with famines). The weakness of Indian social policies on education, health care, land reform and gender equity is as much a failure of the opposition parties as of the governments in office. In comparative terms, the political commitment of leaders of some of the less democratic countries has often led to more achievement in these fields than has been produced by the working of democracy in India. The educational and health achievements of Maoist China illustrate this well. Indeed, post-reform China has made excellent use of China’s pre-reform accomplishments (particularly, in raising basic education and health levels across the country) to make its market-based expansion after 1979 draw widely on the capabilities of a better educated and healthier population.

Only in some parts of India have the failures of social achievement been adequately politicized. The state of Kerala is perhaps the clearest example, where the need for universal education, basic health care, elementary gender equity and land reforms has received effective political backing. The explanation involves both history and contemporary development: the educational orientation of Kerala’s anti-upper-caste movements (of which the current left-wing politics of Kerala is a successor), the early initiatives of the native kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin (outside the British Raj), missionary activities in the spread of education (not confined only to Christians – a fifth of the population), and also a bigger voice for women in family decisions, partly linked to the presence and prominence of matrilineal property rights for a substantial and influential section – the Nairs – of the Hindu community. Over a very long time Kerala has made good use of political activism and voice to expand the range of social opportunities.

The contribution of modern and radical politics to Kerala’s social progress is sometimes underestimated. At the time of Indian independence, in 1947, the proportion of literate people in Kerala, while higher than in the rest of India, was still quite low. The work for the achievement of literacy for all happened mostly in the second half of the twentieth century. Also, the state of Kerala was formed, on linguistic lines, at the time of independence by putting together two ‘native states’ – Travancore and Cochin – which were formally outside the British Raj and one area – Malabar – from old Madras in the Raj. At that time, Malabar’s level of education was far lower than that of Travancore and Cochin. But today the three regions are very close together, practically indistinguishable from each other in terms of school education. The credit that is due to participatory and vocal politics should not all be given away to favourable past history.*

The Use of Voice

It is hard to escape the general conclusion that economic performance, social opportunity and political voice are deeply interrelated. Despite the political facilities provided by India’s democratic system, the weakness of voices of protest has helped to make the progress of social opportunities unnecessarily slow. That, in turn, has not only been a serious handicap in itself for the quality of life in India, it has also served as a major drag in the process of economic development, including the range and coverage of growth and the alleviation of economic poverty. As was discussed in Essay 2, political voice is extremely important for social equity, and to that recognition we have to add the connection between equitable expansion of social opportunities and the force, range and reach of the process of economic development.

In those fields in which there has recently been a more determined use of political and social voice, there are considerable signs of change. The issue of gender inequality has produced somewhat more political engagement in recent years (often led by women’s movements in different fields), and this has added to determined political efforts at reducing gender asymmetry in social and economic fields. There is a long history in India of women’s prominence in some particular areas, including in the sharing of leadership positions in politics.* While those achievements were themselves linked with the use of women’s voice (helped by the opportunities of participatory politics in recent centuries), their reach was largely confined to relatively small segments of the population (often women members of the urban elite). An important aspect of the strengthening of women’s voice in contemporary Indian public life is the broadening of this social coverage.

There is, however, still a long way to go in removing the unequal position of women in India, but the increasing political involvement about women’s social role has been an important and constructive development.* There is also some achievement through the increased politicization of educational inequalities in general and the neglect of basic health care, especially for the poor. These disparities receive more public attention today than they did earlier, and the effects of that favourable change can, to some extent, be already seen in the relative progress made in spreading medical attention and educational opportunities. Again, there is still a very long way to go, but positive developments demand acknowledgement, if only to overcome the persistent cynicism that often characterizes public perception about what democracy can or cannot do.

The possibilities of public agitation on issues of societal inequality and deprivation are now beginning to be more utilized than before. There has been much more action recently in organized movements based broadly on demands for human rights, such as the right to school education, the right to food (and, in particular, to midday school meals), the entitlement to basic health care, guarantees of environmental preservation, and the right of employment guarantee. These movements serve to focus attention on particular societal failures, partly as supplements to broad public discussions in the media, but they also provide a politically harder edge to socially important demands. The interdependences between economic, social and political freedoms gives a critically important role to the use of democratic opportunities and to the deployment of political voice.

The remedy for many of the central failures of Indian society is closely linked to broadening the force and range of political arguments and social demands. The ‘tryst with destiny’ is thus partly an invitation to further engagement and encounter. What Nehru hoped would happen automatically with the independence of India may continue to be neglected unless it is demanded with an insistence that makes it politically critical in a democratic system. It is not enough to continue to have systematic elections, to safeguard political liberties and civil rights, to guarantee free speech and an open media. Nor is it adequate to eliminate famine, or to reduce the lead of China in longevity and survival. A more vigorous – and vocal – use of democratic participation can do much more in India than it has already achieved.

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