As we will be celebrating our 75th year of Independence (Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav), it seems fit to take a look back and assess our journey until now, the hits and misses and the way forward. The Indian democratic experiment, from its hard-fought struggle for independence to eventually an independent republic in 1947 and over the years establishing itself as a major power on the international stage is nothing short of incredible. A nation which incorporated people of such diverse religions, cultures, languages and opinions into a single workable democratic system is what I define as the ‘idea of India.’ I deliberately use the word ‘religion’ first because that seems to be the principal identity to which we latch on in today’s extremely polarized political environment. This same idea was discarded as an impossible by a senior British official Sir John Strachey in 1880 at Cambridge saying, “There is not, and there never was an India.”
This global emerging power tag feels good to have. In the last few years (preceding the COVID-19 pandemic) India has been the fastest growing major economy in the world with a growth rate of approximately 7.5-8 %, whereas other major economies like US and China have stagnated. But, the triple blows of demonetisation, hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and finally the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a severe blow to the ambitious project of liberating millions from the menace of poverty, which was started after the 1991 economic reforms. It rather pushed some over the edge and below the poverty line.
I would like to focus on some key pillars upon which rests India’s future and how we can address those issues to pave the way for a bright economic and political future.
First: Neighbourhood. India occupies a geographically important strategic location on the world map. Its shape is like that of an aircraft carrier projecting out of the Asian mainland into the Indian Ocean, serving as a central landing point of trade and transit between East-West. But, due to legacy as well as structural issues it hasn’t been able to tap into its potential accruing it due to its size and location. The failure of South Asian Association for Regional Co-Operation (SAARC), largely due to long standing Indo-Pak rivalry and India’s hegemonic attitude towards its other smaller neighbours (Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) has hindered regional economic integration in South Asia, where India is the major player. This leads to menial issues like the boundary not being resolved (with the exception of Bangladesh in 2015). Applying the Gujral Doctrine (concessions to neighbours without expecting anything in return), but with our core strategic interests in mind, can be a solution going forward. This could be in the form of demarcating the boundary with Nepal and the maritime boundary with Sri Lanka as soon as possible which have proven as irritants in an otherwise strong bilateral relationship. Having serious talks with Pakistan on the boundary and Jammu and Kashmir, ignoring the political rhetoric that surrounds it should be the policy going forward. This would pave the way to anchor our neighbours’ economies to India, serving as one single economic unit somewhat similar to the EU model. The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is an important route for cargo ships and trade containers to pass through and around 12% of the world’s merchant ship fleet passes through the IOR. This gives India an opportunity to take advantage of this situation and control trade routes in this region. The Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) policy implemented since 2015 has been a step in the right direction and taking Indian Ocean rimland states into confidence to enhance our economic interests and build strategic depth in the IOR as well., which serves the purpose of balancing Chinese designs in the IOR and ensure maritime dominance in the IOR. Frequent summit meetings and increasing co-operation in all aspects should be the next step, to build confidence in relations. The ‘Sagarmala’ Initiative launched in 2015, which envisions development of major ports and inland waterways has been facing delays in release of funds. It should be speeded up as soon as possible, to reduce turn around time at Indian ports and transform the Indian logistics sector into a world class system.
Second: Population. The population factor has long been touted as an advantage that would work in India’s favour. Although, India has a ‘booming’ population of around 1.3 billion people, approximately 50% of the population is under the age of 24 which makes for a youthful and energetic workforce, unlike Japan or Germany which suffer from an ageing population. But, this advantage of ‘demographic dividend’ as we proudly claim it, can very quickly translate to demographic disaster unless we provide meaningful job opportunities to the almost 4.75 million that are added to the labour force every year and urgently work on increasing the female labour force participation rate to 50% (OECD levels) from a dismal average of 20% despite several policy interventions. Discussions concerning women empowerment have been subjected to civil society debates and regular protest marches here and there, largely remaining an elitist concept. Acceptance of women occupying the higher echelons of power does not still seem to have wider acceptance among the political elite. A proof of this is the Women’s Reservation Bill (108th Constitutional Amendment Bill) which proposes to reserve 1/3rd seats in Parliament had been passed by the Rajya Sabha, but never voted upon in the Lok Sabha. Although 1/3rd reservation has been provided at the local levels (73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, 1992), this eludes us at Parliament even after 75 years or Independence. This should concern all of us as ‘active citizens’ marching towards 100 years of independence.
Third: Urbanisation. The lifelines of any modern economy are its cities. Megapolises like New Delhi, Mumbai, Gurgaon, Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata to name a few have been turbocharging the Indian economy since it picked up pace post-1991 but they suffer from chronic problems of dilapidated infrastructure which is inadequate for the millions flocking to these cities for employment every year. The flagship ‘Smart Cities’ project, prima facie provides a semblance of development in major cities but their interiors are lined with illegal shanties and slums, breeding illegal activities like gambling, alcoholism, petty crimes which ultimately have an adverse effect on the brand image of the city as well as the country in the form of reduced tourism footfalls and large-scale migration to already overburdened metropolises. Liveable and breathable cities should be the target rather than copying Western models of urban design (high rise glass buildings) and development. Urban planning which suits our needs (considering our tropical climate), should be done and implemented. Urgent reforms in municipal governance are required, ensuring direct elections for the mayor’s post and greater financial independence to Urban Local Body Institutions (ULBs) to ensure efficient urban governance.
Fourth: Defence. In the rising tide of hyper nationalism that we see see not just in India but across the globe (Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, Russia, Philippines), there has been a lot of debate and discussion around the military and its projection for petty political gains. But the real problems ailing the Indian Armed Forces have been neglected for long. Excessive reliance on imports for defence equipment and not being able to build sufficient domestic capabilities for continuous supply has affected not just our hard power projections in our neighbourhood but also around the world. Although India’s arms imports fell 33% between 2011-15 and 2016-20 according to a SIPRI report, it still remained among the top 5 largest importers of arms leading the list of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Australia and China. The ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ Initiative is particularly needed for defence where Indian domestic companies which have the wherewithal to supply the required equipment. Rationalising the numbers of military personnel (currently 1.3 million standing) and pruning it gradually to be a technology-enabled force of approximately half a million should be the ultimate destination in the trajectory of military reforms. Ironing out issues with the post of newly created Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), enforcing joint procurement for all the three wings of the forces (Army, Navy and Air Force) and developing indigenous defence production capabilities should be the way forward.
Finally: Society. The social fabric of the Indian society which has so far been preserved delicately is being increasingly subjected to attempts of destruction and sabotage by fringe religious elements. Menial issues regarding places of worship (earlier Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute and now Gyanvyapi Masjid dispute) are being raked up, amplified by large sections of the television media, further polarizing society and diverting attention from debates concerning core issues plaguing the country and its development. The basic premise of a country’s development is peace (law and order), which requires a certain amount of social integration and harmony between peoples of different religions, cultures, languages about which I talked initially. Politicians from all sides of the ideological spectrum should refrain from making any kind of communal or casteist comments which could have an adverse polarizing effect on their supporters, as well as on the larger audiences. Civil society and the judiciary need to play a larger role in the absence of a credible opposition. The level of political discourse needs to be connected to real issues rather than petty issues. This can only happen when the common man transforms into an ‘active citizen’, who is critical and demanding of whichever government is in power.
Despite all its problems discussed in the background, I feel India will certainly occupy its rightful place among the comity of nations. The citizens of this country have endured every type of problem to build the country into what it is today. India’s progress is important not just for itself, but for the world also and fitting in its philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’. As former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri once said, “We believe in peace and peaceful development not only for ourselves but for people all over the world.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.