Curated by Prof. Rahul Mukherji

Imagining India: Where are we headed?

What we really need is not so much reimagining politics, what we need instead is effective rededication to commitments already made in our Constitution with great care.

Deb Mukharji | August 29, 2020

Imagining India: Where are we headed?

  Picture Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal

I will confine my brief comments to India, subdivided in two sections: The nature of politics itself and Indian policies towards its neighbourhood.

The question of Equality

To use a hackneyed phrase, India is today on the cusp of history. For some it is a moment of celebration when real or perceived insults and injuries over the past thousand years are being avenged. Others are fearful and have a disconnect with the India that seems to be emerging, an India disconnected with the dreams and aspirations of our founding fathers and those who laid down their lives. We do not know what the silent majority thinks about the debate, or what the future may hold. But unlike any other debate in the years since independence, this debate is not essentially about power and control, though that surely forms a part of it, but a contest for the soul of India. This is well understood both by those intoxicated with triumphant ultra-nationalism as also by those who are fearful of it. And which way the dice may fall could decide our future in multiple ways.

At this critical moment in our national life it becomes all the more important to take a re-look at some foundational issues, if an alternative vision of India is to be made acceptable to our people. This vision needs to be one of equality. The rot in our social and political fabric predates the rise of BJP.

The weeks following the declaration of the nationwide lockdown focused with unforgiving harshness on the indifference of the elected establishment, and the presumed last resort for all of us, the judiciary, to the migrant labourers, representing the lowest strata of society. The saga of the hopelessness of the millions trying to go home, often barefoot, hungry and without shelter, is a reflection of the non-egalitarian system we have nurtured over decades. It is an indictment of our society as a whole. It is true that the electoral democracy we have pursued has made it possible for sections to be heard who have been muted in the past. But our laws and practices have not brought benefits to people at the lowest rungs. To be sure, our challenges at independence were huge and we had to deal with a society where, depending on one’s caste, a child would be unequal from birth. Hence, the Preamble to the Constitution promised to secure to all citizens of India: JUSTICE social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY.

But if we are to ask ourselves with any degree of honesty, these stirring words have been observed more in breach than in observance. The underlying motivation of all political parties, with at most a handful of exceptions, has been to use and manipulate caste and religion for political ends. While this may be useful for electoral arithmetic, it does not erase the deep divisions and inequalities we have inherited over millennia. Manipulation does not ensure corrective steps. Today’s concern at the incitement to communal divisions, valid as they are, must not blind us to the other fissures that exist. Our past had condemned us to institutional inequality, but the past fifty years or so has seen at least as much compromise with a regressive past as working towards a brighter future for all. The only example of people working with faith and commitment for the betterment of the lives of the disadvantaged, unmindful of religion or caste, would be many NGOs. Not surprisingly, they become targets of unfeeling autocratic governments.

Today, there is understandable consciousness of the attempted infractions of the Preamble by the state. This outrage is valid. But it is visible today because the infractions are entering our cloistered lives. For the lives of the ‘others’, the commitments of the Preamble have always remained a chimera.

If the existential challenge of today is to be successfully faced, it is important to find an alternative vision of India which the people might find acceptable. Against defining our nationhood through arousing hatred against the ‘other’, what needs is a serious and unflinching commitment to real equality, in education, in health, transport and all aspects of life and governance for all our people, irrespective of religion, caste, race or gender. And our people have to believe that this time around, our political classes are truly committed. An egalitarian ethos is the only lifeline to lift us from the quagmire of violence and majoritarian intolerance in which we find ourselves today.

A friend suggested that what we really need is not so much reimagining politics, what we need instead is effective rededication to commitments already made in our Constitution with great care.

Approaching Neighbours

In recent months, India’s relations with its neighbours have come under stress. Chinese incursion into Indian territory in Ladakh and Pakistan’s continuing support to terrorism are only a continuation of past attitudes and actions. But what has caused surprise is the sharp downturn in India’s relations with Nepal and a certain diminishing of warmth in Indo-Bangladesh relations. Without going into the issues involved or perceived in each instance, some broad generalizations can be made.

The South Asian heritage is a common heritage. India is fortunate in inheriting the name and thus having, so to say, first call on our past. But it would be well worth remembering that some of the greatest names of those earlier times, Gautam Buddha, Padmasambhava, Atish Dipankar, Panini, gharib nawaz Moinuddin Chisti, were not born within the geographical limits of what is India today. We must, however also recall that while civilisational ties may provide a welcome foundation, they do not always translate into political ties which are based on a different set of calculations and perceptions of national interest. In fact careless assertion of cultural supremacy may have the opposite effect.

From roughly two decades ago there was visible a new self-assurance in India. There could have been several reasons for this: an assertive and increasingly affluent middle class; growing global acceptance as an important power as exemplified in the nuclear agreement with the US and the waiver of sanctions on the supply of nuclear fuel; successful controlling of the effects of the financial crisis of 2008 etc.

In the neighbourhood, Nepal saw the end of the insurgency with some quiet involvement of India. Bangladesh which had been seen to be encouraging religious extremism to its own detriment and providing support to groups like the ULFA in India, saw a change of guard and a firm reversal of policies. Relations with India was imbued with optimism as displayed in the remarkable joint statement after Bangladesh prime minister’s visit in January 2010. That sufficient energy was not invested in the relationship is proved by the Delhi’s inability to deliver on the promised Teesta agreement during the Indian prime minister’s visit to Bangladesh in September 2011.

India has a sense of its destiny and this has been greatly emphasized by the present government. Unfortunately, though we speak on occasions of the importance of the neighbourhood, I think our energies are largely devoted to pursuing recognition in larger global fora like seeking a permanent seat in the Security Council or membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The reality is, of course, that unless we can be seen as a mentor or significant force in our own neighbourhood, we are unlikely to be taken too seriously further afield. There can be a fine dividing line between self-esteem and hubris.

I think India needs to understand that with possibly one exception, none of the other countries of South Asia wishes her ill. There shall always be concern about a far bigger neighbor ( I remember my counterpart in the Sri Lankan foreign office telling me in the early 80s that his country was no more than a teardrop below the vast expanse of India) and there is historical baggage which some of us carry. But they also take pride in India’s success. They are most comfortable with a centrist government in Delhi, and deeply concerned if there are aberrations in governance, out of concern that this may be taken as a standard by their own. Phrases casually uttered in deference to our internal politics such as ‘roti beti ka rishta’ with regard to Nepal could have implications beyond the stated word, which we do not seem to have the sensitivity to appreciate. The campaign, week after week last year, justifying the Constitution Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens to our internal audience, had direct relevance for Bangladesh. Description of the alleged illegal immigrants as termites, could only have the most negative impact on the people and inevitably, in turn, on the government.

Unless India can cultivate the sensitivity and the humility to see ourselves from the perspective of others, respect and cooperation will not be forthcoming. Above all, our internal political calculations must not be allowed to vitiate our relations with neighbours.

Ambassador Deb Mukharji is a senior retired diplomat who served as India’s High Commissioner to Bangladesh and as Ambassador to Nepal.