What ails India?


back to issue

WHAT after all does ail India? Let us start by surveying the central legislative body, our Parliament. About this I am now increasingly assailed by gnawing doubts about its functioning efficiency, indeed even about the functional relevance of our democratic system. Have empty rituals become substitutes for the percepts of democracy?

Consider only some aspects of our democratic and legislative functioning. Whom actually do our governments, any of them, represent? The national percentage of voting hovers around fifty. If we are 1.2 billion in population and if 60% of that constitutes the electorate, then in effect, roughly around 360 million cast their votes. By this process only the late Rajiv Gandhi’s government, for the first time ever, had slightly under half the support, i.e. 80 million Indians then, or just one-tenth of our population had voted his government to office. This being an aberrant, catharsis induced vote is scarcely the norm.

That is why there is frequent talk of a reform of our systems. But we rarely go beyond suggesting either alternative ways of counting, or of a different apportioning of the seats in the legislatures, or of the actual system of governance (presidential or prime ministerial) through which to translate the people’s will into executive action.

There is a corresponding parliamentary myth that those of us who sit in the Parliament, as representatives of the people, do meaningfully influence the government’s thinking. If, as we all know, the ruling party itself is not able to do so for reasons which are by now obvious enough to the whole of the country, then how on earth is the opposition expected to do that? This is not a cry of frustrated heedlessness; it is, in fact, the asking of a very important question.

For this devaluation of the role of Parliament in our nation’s life, more than any else, it is the government that is to blame. Because its executive head, the prime minister, has reduced parliamentary attendance and consultation to just a perfunctory and empty ritual, a routine obligation, which, too, is observed with a distressing lack of grace.


If we, as Members of Parliament, cannot exercise what is presumed to be ‘power’, over deliberations of our own body, then, of course, our influence in what is called ‘our national life’ is even less; in reality, it has dwindled to near irrelevance. This disturbing thought is not one which you would find adverted to by aspirants to electoral office. You will also seldom find any of us ever declaring that while in theory the Parliament is the custodian of our liberties, a watchdog body over misgovernance, a check over the executive, in reality sadly it is not so. A theoretical system of ‘checks and balances’ has lost all its balance; the only check being unruly conduct, obstructionist behaviour and converting the Parliament (or state assemblies) from being deliberative bodies to publicity platforms for perpetual campaigning. As for the governments, alas, the greatest check upon them is of their own incompetence.

Yet, we all swear by democracy, perhaps rightly so, because all other systems frighten us even more. In the functioning of our kind of representative, participatory form of government, since the late Indira Gandhi’s premiership, a very disturbing trend has come into being. It is the rendering impotent of any kind of alternative, even of any contrary viewpoint or a thought that opposes, indeed, the very concept of opposition. What is even more disturbing is that, to an alarming extent, such a devaluation of the opposition has now become the objective of our democracy. And yet we sing paeans to the virtues of it and demand an unanimous subscription to it.

Our ‘democratic ways’ are being projected not just as yet another human endeavour, and therefore, like all others riddled with virtues and vices, but almost as if it were an irreplaceable faith; not the pure concept and the spirit of demos but our degenerated practice of it. Not unnaturally then, we politicians become the lightning conductors of public discontent. But precisely because we have been rendered superfluous in decision making, we can no longer act as the real conduits for public grievance; so we adopt noisy, grating and superficially busy mannerisms, which through an expression of real helplessness, convey a contrary message: that our politicians are uncaring. No, we are a product of the system, contributing to a perpetuation of its ills, possibly even the major cause of them but not the only one. If we are no longer able to provide you with distraction from the daily wrongs, vexations and anxieties that afflict us, then you should ask of yourselves a simple question: ‘Why did we vote for such representatives?’


So where do we go from here? Let us start by asking about the fundamentals again. Why? Because we have reverted to a situation distressingly akin to the state in which we were during Shah Alam’s reign: chaotic misgovernance, rather no governance.

Delhi currently influences not even Delhi. That is why the states of the Union are often so defiant of the Centre and conduct their affairs almost as autonomous fiefdoms. Do I overstate the case? Perhaps, I do. But it is then to shock us into awareness. What has gone awry?

To identify the causes of this malaise we have to go back to the origins. Were we on the right path when we equated ‘nation’, as commonly understood in the Westphalian sense to our concept of a much more ancient term, ‘Rashtra’? Of course, Bharat is a ‘Rashtra’, but fundamentally it is ‘non-territorial’. That is why even after so many decades of our independent existence we still invite comments like from the late Prof. Amrik Singh that ‘India is a combine of many countries.’ Such observations then raise the query: ‘What, after all, is India?’

Did Nehru do right by a modified adoption of the ‘Government of India Act 1935’, which gave us a near reprint of the British parliamentary system? Why did Gandhi, whom we term as the ‘Father of the Nation’, prefer ‘village republics’? That is why we ask: What is the Indian nation? What is it beyond just territorial identity? What was and is our dream for it, and why is it what is now the reality? Also, what is the face of this ‘India’ and of us ‘Indians’?


With what central idea do we want all to ‘integrate’? And who are this ‘we’? Why are 127 districts in revolt? Is it because India has got fixated as a static concept, or has this India an historical identity and a recognizable wholeness that has evolved over the years and appears to have a future? Are we stuck in the mire of the immobility of our thoughts or is the collectivity of our national identity dynamic, impelled by the force of an ennobling vision? What are the ‘new’ generations of Indians to aspire to? To what great endeavour are the children of today and tomorrow to be drawn? One could well suggest that it is neither possible nor healthy for an entire people to be constantly living at the white-hot pitch of emotional striving. That nations, like individuals, need periods of quiet, near immobile consolidation before they can undertake fresh efforts, reaching beyond themselves. So are we consolidating and if so what? Or are we mistaking our presently manifest cynical apathy as a virtue?

These and many other such questions arise. Not only can all the answers not be found immediately, it is not possible to ask all either. Only an outline of our concerns can be drawn, for which I cannot improve upon the late P.N. Haksar’s articulation of it from Reflections on Our Times:

‘If the post-independence generation in India could somehow come round to having a vision of India as a whole and relate it to a comprehensive view of interrelationship between politics, economics, social structure, cultural pattern and value system, the clouds would begin to disappear. Without such an effort, we can have no future of which we can be proud. India is too large to be moved by short-cuts and over-simplifications. Clay has a tendency to be moulded but it requires a potter’s hand to take shape and form.’

This he voiced in the eighties of the last century.


Our current concept of ‘nationhood’ remains amorphous; it fails to replace ‘Rashtra’, an almost intangible, philosophical, subconscious acceptance, rooted in a hoary past. Whenever an attempt has been made to give it shape, it has invariably been in the imagery of what has been, a recreation and a recapturing. Some indefinable thread of barely recognized consciousness strings all this together. These threads, in the past, were largely the bindings of religious faith and a cultural continuity, which, in itself, had its roots in belief. The strength and the weakness, both, lay precisely in this. Strength, because being an all-pervading, shapeless whole, it defied definition and capture. It, therefore, survived all the many centuries of foreign domination, largely intact but also mainly in an introverted form. The ease with which we were periodically made subject was also because the consciousness of ‘nationhood’ was so loose. This was and continues to be a weakness. Because, when the central idea is cloud-like, the constituent ‘droplets’ of that ‘cloud’ would, for sheer preservation need to have a stronger cellular structure.


Around and inside the national concept of India, Bharat, Hindustan, or what you will, therefore, through history, developed the ‘cells’ of caste, religion, language, region. These cells are strong but they cannot exist outside of a central idea of nationhood. Whenever there has been the presence of a strong, motivating thought at the nucleus, this cellular structure has always given up its own smaller identification and merged with the larger, amorphous whole. When, on the other hand, the nuclear core loses its gravitational pull, the strength of an idea, then these cells of caste and region, invariably, create their own trajectories; not out of any malevolent intent, but purely as a self-preservative measure. On this reality, with British conquest, was superimposed an Occidental activism; the concept of ‘state’, an imperially dictated political articulation of our national consciousness arrived. Naturally, its impress on our minds remained largely superficial. The cells did bind together in form, but only administratively so.

Then came the galvanizing struggle for independence and ‘the very process of struggle for freedom, which increasingly involved wider and wider strata of our society, generated consciousness about the need for a new identity for ourselves which (was) distinct from the way we (had) shaped our identity in the past. The new identity was called nationalism. It was quite distinct from the identity based on "jati".’ (P.N. Haksar, Reflections on Our Times. Lancer, Delhi, 1982, p. 89)

The crucial period was after achieving Independence. Then, as in the past, we lost our way. Not all may agree with V.S. Naipaul, yet there is more than a kernel of truth when he says that ‘Gandhi had given India a new idea about itself. Non-violence (was) made to appear an ancient, many-sided Indian truth, an eternal source of Hindu action. Now of Gandhism, there remain only the emblems and (perhaps some of) the energy; and this (residual) energy has turned malignant.’ When after Independence we needed ‘a new code’ and a new moral basis for our society, we had none but political corruption. ‘Suddenly, once again, we were a nation without any rules.’ India – so often invaded, conquered, plundered – was a people without a ‘country to identify with, only with masters.’ Is it any wonder then that we have become a ‘horribly cruel and violent land?’


Another cruel fact that we need to recognize is that ‘integration’ is not possible without ‘integrity’, and post-independence India, after the heady early years, has lacked conviction about a central ‘integrity’. Our quest for swarajya had given us the needed vision. The impulse was in the idea. The quest was worthwhile and the near unity of thought and action that the nation then displayed, submerging most of the obvious differences, was only because both the strength of the concept and the challenge of the endeavour were overwhelmingly unifying. A definable, near absolute of nationhood was, for a short while, in our grasp in those stirring days. Soon thereafter, rather even in the process of achieving Independence, we lost the soul of this vision.

To my mind, the great failing of the struggle for Independence was in the acceptance of a two-nation theory. All subsequent thematic confusion about the concept of nationhood flows from that original sin. If religion was to be the basis of nationhood, then the residual land would perforce be a kind of an arithmetically reactive ‘Hindu’ India. And yet, this could not be, for both the aspiration and the all accommodative reality of Sanatan thought ran counter to it. (No, this is not at all a rejection or a denial of the reality of Pakistan). The essence of the concept having been lost, our subsequent difficulties had to follow almost as a matter of course. When our vision got blurred, the face of India became unrecognizable. When that with which we wish to ‘integrate’ is itself not recognizable, then all the invocations about national integration etc., cannot but become just ‘such other words’.


After Independence, politics became the national activity and politicians arrogantly gave to themselves a kind of sole proprietary right over India. Political leaders identified their person with the country and spoke as if they alone represented it. Political parties cloaked their partisan, narrow interests in the national flag. The face of the Indian politician is ugly. Increasingly, thus, over the years, the face of India too began to acquire the same contours. Gandhi’s quest for swarajya had thrown up a whole array of Indians ready to sacrifice all. But now?

The transformation of the freedom movement into a loosely-knit political party, solely for governance of a newly independent, yet nascent nation, was perhaps an inevitability, but now in retrospect, a clear blunder. When touched by the corrupting reality of power, this movement failed to throw up the needed protective wall of a sense of destiny (and duty). It is perhaps unjust to put so much blame because they were after all the likes of you and I. Yet the observation is unavoidable because it is as a consequence of their failure that we are today afflicted by our ills.

As soon as the struggle for freedom was replaced by that for ‘chair’, the unifying aspiration which had kept the molecules gravitating towards the nuclear core, started moving, yet again, towards the cellular reality of jati and region. The imprint of the ‘municipal mind’ of our political leadership came to assert itself. Devoid of a vision, of ideas, of a concept of India, even (and however damning it may sound) a geographical understanding of the great sweep of this nation, leave alone an historical grasp of the forces that have moved and will continue to move the peoples of this land, the nation was attempted to be moulded in the shape of their narrow prejudices.

The face of India has thus become that of tinpot political tyrants. The sirens of police cars and their cordons, the paramilitary forces, the official helicopters, the blinding in jails, the press bills, the officially sponsored corruption of heads of governments, the moral decay, the perpetual and unctuously insincere aping of the leader for immediate gain of political office, have now become the norms of behaviour. In no other land do people immediately adopt the ways of the ‘rulers’ as in India. Only we have an explain-all aphorism like ‘Yatha raja tatha praja.’


The dream of swarajya had led us to believe that with it will come a solving of all our problems. Little did we realize that in addition to all our existing difficulties, we would also have to contend with an impenetrable barrier of the deification of poverty. In our way stands ‘Daridra Narayan’. So with which India are 400 million poverty-stricken country men and women of ours to identify? Somewhere along the way also lies the impediment of the ‘Varnashrama Dharma’. Even after all temple doors have been opened to 200 million of those who have not been ‘twice born’, which India are they to recognize? To them, the face of India remains what it has always been: a face of prejudice, disparity, absence of natural order and elementary justice. It is the face of the village patwari or police constable, of even the petty clerk in the post office.

The feudal chieftains of old have been replaced by a new, equally (if not more) mindless hierarchy. In this system, as in the early days, these petty tyrants ape the ways of their immediate superiors, who, in a pyramidical fashion, ape those of theirs, leading to the self-destructive imagery of the face of India being that of its ugly politician. If, therefore, we find difficulty with our quest for integration, is it something to be wondered at? After all, you can only integrate with that which carries the conviction of ‘integrity’.


Every society has to have a moral basis. When, therefore, a meiosis was needed in the cellular structure of our society after independence, what was instead given to it by our political leadership was an orgy of destruction. Of course, the existing was diseased and had to be replaced. For that, both thought and a sense of history was necessary. Inheriting the mantle of the freedom movement, the politicians arrogated to themselves the sole responsibility for a social transformation of India as well. This was a task well beyond their capacity and was thus doomed to failure.

An essential reality of the Indian nation is of ‘faith’. No other nation on earth derives its moral, social sustenance as much from faith as the Indian people do, no matter of what persuasion and colouring that belief may be. Ever so often, therefore, in its history this vast land has seen reformist movements. They have almost always originated as a self-cleansing process to rid society of the accumulated ills of religious obscurantism, congealed into self-interest. This, however, was a task undertaken, not by political leadership or even by the then rulers, but by extraordinary Indians, who were fired by their faith and by their calling.

The political leadership of independent India attempted just such a transformation without being essentially ‘qualified’ for it. Perhaps not all, but certainly the large generality of them had no ability for this task. And those that did have and were inspired by an ennobling idealism, were unable to create an enlightened following. Our Constituent Assembly gave to our people the goal of a ‘secular democracy’. But we confused the word ‘secular’ because, except in the minds of a very few who then led us, all the rest of the political leadership suffered from the narrow bigotry of the municipal mind. Secularism thus came to be a political convenience, not a scientific rejection of the superstitious and a total separation of the government from religion. Politically motivated ad-hocism and eye and vote catching gestures replaced the spirit of the concept. So hollow has even the form now become that what the leadership thinks are masterful gestures (a Sikh or a Muslim as President; ‘balanced’ public holidays for various faiths), are greeted by cynical derision. If, therefore, the nation now encounters the difficulties it does, the responsibility for it lies unquestionably with the past and the present political leadership.


I carry a conviction that the single greatest factor of damage to the integrity of the Indian nation has been the Indian politician. The next and a derived factor is the methods adopted by our politicians to achieve their so-called ‘representative nature’. The process of electioneering, as ‘refined’ by us, with its all pervading corruption, short cuts, no-holds-barred-winner-takes-all prize, accounts for the fact that representative democracy, as we have today corrupted it to, has become divisive in the extreme. The ‘song’ is not to blame; the ‘singer’ is the cause, disliking the inbuilt restraint and discipline of the melody. The present leadership has perfected the malevolent art of exploiting fear by first creating it.


Every domestic consideration is reduced to that of electoral interests. Hindus versus Muslims; Muslims and Harijans and Christians and endless such sickening permutations and combinations. ‘The minorities are in danger, only we can protect them.’ If there is no actual danger, create a fear of it. How many votes from which language; from which religious sub-community, from which caste. In Punjab, the Hindu is alienated from the Sikh and the problems of that state are not resolved in time because what predominates is the electoral consideration. In Assam, when a movement for stopping and identifying aliens ingressing into India takes place, official encouragement is given to the creation of a counter to it, based purely on religion. The whole of Assam and the North East today stands fragmented into narrow, fear-ridden sectarian groups, all seeking a resolution of their fears through political protection. Electoral rhetoric is carried by the top leadership to the extent of equating political dissent with disloyalty to the nation. Consensus to them is what is achieved by conforming mindlessly, not by arriving at a reasoned middle ground. Of course, politics is not an arena of morals but rather of interests, but it is also not the playground of these self-interests masquerading as principles. If, as in the past, the whole effort is constantly directed towards ‘dividing and then ruling’, then with whom shall we integrate?

On the other hand, the central leadership, consumed by the absurdities of reducing the Indian nation to identification with an individual or a family, continues to mouth hollow inanities about national integration. It is drunk with power, impatient with democratic constraints, the victim of insincere eulogies, which the ruling party members with practiced but despicable servility mouth on every occasion. These sycophantic mouthings are misread as hero worship. But then, in actions which are so characteristic of feudal arbitrariness, the fount head of all power turns this very adulation against the hero worshippers themselves.


Our central leadership is both incapable and profoundly bored with the great domestic issues of the day. It lets them drift into anarchy, thus imparting velocity to the trajectories of the cellular molecules of our society. We have grandiose visions of our international importance; yet with cruel irony, we are unable to impress in any meaningful form, any idea upon the international scene. First, because we no longer have anything worthwhile to say, and also because the domestic strength to back up that which we might have to say is just not there. That is on account of an absence of vision in our concept of India. It is vision alone that could give us an integrated wholeness.

What then do we need? I cannot pretend to know all the answers. Yet, I do think a beginning of our endeavour lies in reducing the importance of the politician and politics as such in our nation’s life. If the present political leadership has demonstrably failed us, then, as a matter of utmost urgency and importance, we must change it. We need a new mental generation of leaders in all walks of the nation’s life. I am also of the view that we need wholesale electoral reforms so that the corrupt and divisive elements in it are removed and democracy enabled to function. Only then, out of the cloud of our existing confusion, will perhaps emerge the vision of a true India.