On the eve of independence, India’s first Prime Minister, the erudite Jawaharlal Nehru, made one of his most eloquent speeches. “At the stroke of the midnight hour India will awake to life and freedom”, he said. He also spoke about his nation “stepping out from the old to the new” and of India’s “tryst with destiny”.
Though hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were massacring each other in an orgy of violence, and millions were being displaced in the biggest forced migration of our times, there was an unmistakable sense of euphoria in the air as independence dawned on India and Pakistan. Two charismatic and modern-minded men, Nehru and Mohamed Ali Jinnah were leading their respective countries into a new era of hope.
India also had the inspirational Mahatma Gandhi, while Pakistan had Liaquat Ali Khan, second only to Jinnah as an astute politician. Sadly for Pakistan, both Jinnah and Khan died soon after their country’s independence, the former from tuberculosis and the latter from an assassin’s bullet, leaving the nation bereft of able civil leadership. This would pave the way for army rule.
Though Gandhi, too, was killed at around the same time, the victim of a Hindu fanatic, Nehru was there to nurture Indian democracy and promote the rule of law from 1947 to 1964, the year he died. He was also completely secular and minorities, mainly Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and tribals, felt secure under him.
The Hindi language zealots were kept at bay and English retained as a unifying official language. This would prove to be a huge asset with the coming of the information/technology age, when knowledge of the English language was all-important.
Democracy, the rule of law, and a secular polity – serious communal riots notwithstanding – were the invaluable legacies left behind by Nehru.
On the economic front, however, it was a mixed bag. Nehru was enamoured by the Soviet Union and suspicious of capitalism. Hence, the public sector was promoted and a socialist economic pattern adopted.
Fortunately, agriculture was left in private hands, allowing India to stage its “Green Revolution”, making it self-sufficient in food and banishing famines for good.
Nevertheless, India’s economic growth averaged a pathetic three to four per cent a year during the Nehru and Indira Gandhi era, mockingly called the “Hindu rate of growth”. Two per cent of even that miserably low growth was eaten up by India’s exploding population, which grew from 350 million in 1947 to 1.2 billion now – a more than tripling of people in just 65 years.
Stabilising the population growth remains a major challenge. The other challenges are increasing literacy and improving healthcare.
India’s literacy rate is only 65 per cent, which means that some 300 million Indians still cannot read or write, the largest number of illiterates of any country in the world. The healthcare and public sanitation systems remain shockingly poor.
However, the past two decades have witnessed a spectacular surge in the Indian economy, with a series of liberalising reforms that have invigorated the private sector. Indian business houses like the Tatas, Ambanis, Birlas and Infosys have become a major presence overseas. As a result, the economic growth rate shot up to nine per cent a year. Though India’s success story has faltered of late, with scams fouling the air, an ever-increasing middle class – 250-million strong – should keep the country on track, even if the ruling Congress Party loses the 2014 general election, as seems likely.
So, has India fulfilled that “tryst with destiny” that Nehru spoke of glowingly 65 years ago? Sadly, not yet.
To gauge how far India has to go, one has to only look at China. In 1947, India was ahead of China in almost every parameter. Even as late as 1980, the gap between the two countries was small.
China started its big push over 30 years ago, a decade before India, when its leader declared that he did not care what the colour of a cat was, as long as it caught mice. The message was clear: Ideology would take the back seat.
China’s economic growth rate has been truly astonishing since then, transforming the entire country. A huge and growing Chinese middle class has been fuelling the economy at an extraordinary pace.
The country is almost fully literate and its healthcare system on a par with the developed world. To be sure, India scores over China as far as democracy and the rule of law goes. But it is only a matter of time before the Chinese government becomes more representative and accountable.
Economic power is usually reflected in the sporting arena. That is where the contrast with India is most glaring. At the just concluded London Olympics, China garnered the largest number of gold medals, almost 40, of any country except the USA. And India’s medal count? Six, not one of them gold! That says it all.
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