The theme of Narendra Modi’s election campaign three years ago was resonant: he was Vikas Purush and would bring much-awaited development to India. “You gave 60 years to the Congress, they gave you nothing but misrule,” he would thunder at public rallies. “Give me 60 months to fix the nation’s ills.”
Modi’s choice of words varied slightly – sometimes using “shasaks”, or rulers, for the Congress and “sevak”, or servant, for himself. But the thrust was always the same. His was an aggressive and frenzied style of campaigning that India had not seen before. Since it was election-time rhetoric against his principal opponent, he could not be faulted.
But Modi was doing more: he was changing the narrative about independent India’s gains, achievements and development to the point where they stood discredited. Modi must genuinely believe in this manufactured narrative because nearly two years after his landmark victory in the 2014 election, he returned to the theme. Speaking in the Parliament in March 2016, he contented: “If the Congress had helped the poor in 60 years, the poor wouldn’t still be facing trouble…We can’t ignore 60 years of misgovernance.”
Incessantly repeated by the popular hero who had captured the nation’s imagination and echoed by his supporters, this assertion struck root. It began to seem as if the story of India as a thriving economic machine, information technology superpower, space explorer, desirable market for the world, and largely secular nation were figments of a fiction writer’s imagination. The idea that nothing significant happened in India after August 1947 has seeped so deep into a section of the population, especially the young and ardent Modi fans, that it has reached the level of received truth.
A cursory glance at online discussion platforms such as Quora shows just how deep this belief runs. In one post, a proud student of the prestigious Doon School claims to demonstrate that Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were utter failures. In Gandhi’s case, even the 1971 war with Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh – the one thing even the Bharatiya Janata Party has commended the former prime minister for – is credited only to her military generals.
It is easy to conflate independent India’s story with that of the Nehru-Gandhi family, whose members held the office of prime ministers for two-thirds of the 60 years Modi harped about. For the rest, though the office was occupied by PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, it was no secret that the levers of power stayed with the family. The BJP’s aversion to the Nehru-Gandhis runs so deep that it would, if it could, obliterate that era from contemporary history. Or discredit it, especially in popular narratives.
Long way to go
It is, of course, not the case that everything was hunky-dory when the Congress governed India. Who can airbrush the horrors of the Emergency or the pain of losing to China in the 1962 war that India was ill-prepared for? How do we reconcile the contradiction that the soaring economy that is the world’s envy also has abject poverty, levels of child malnutrition that put it on a par with sub-Saharan Africa, an agrarian crisis that is wreaking havoc in rural areas, and unending oppression of marginalised groups such as the Adivasis, Dalits and sections of Muslims? The indices for hunger, primary education and healthcare are distressing enough to warrant a revolution. Caste atrocities and communal violence continue to take lives and threaten the country’s secularism, flawed as it is.
Yet, to claim nothing happened in 60 years of the Congress’s rule would be a fanciful rewriting of independent India’s history, and, equally, a whitewashing of the crucial foundational years of a new post-colonial country. As historians have pointed out, those first few years and the leaders who helmed India’s transition from a British colony to an independent, secular, democratic republic despite a bloody and bitter Partition gave the country a chance to earn its place in the world later.
Numbers tell the story of the past 70 years – of greatly improved life expectancy and infant mortality rate (which is still unacceptably high), vastly enhanced and modernised economy, increased food production and per capita income. The events, numbers and indices in India of 1947 would not have inspired confidence, let alone faith, that the country could hold its own in the comity of democratic nations. Those who discredit 60 years of the Congress’s rule would do well to pause, read and absorb the numbers, and ask the question: would the indices have improved to the extent they did without the over-arching socio-politico-economic framework established in the immediate years after independence?
“Modi would not have been the prime minister of the country had it not been for the first leaders of independent India who held the centre against all odds,” said the historian Ramachandra Guha, whose book India After Gandhi traces the early years of independent India and the immense, complex work that went into making of the nation.
“Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, BR Ambedkar for about four years from January 1948 to January 1952 did a truly extraordinary job,” Guha added. “They gave India a fighting chance by determining territorial integrity, uniting the country, resettling refugees, working out an egalitarian Constitution, setting economic growth in process and then conducting the first general election. Think of India as a start-up, not even the most optimistic investor would have put his/her money in 1947 because it looked like it would collapse in a year.”
Picking up the pieces after the British exited, in the aftermath of a wounding Partition when the nation was not yet knit as one, called for moral courage, majestic vision, and immense political skill. Independent India’s leaders clearly rose to the occasion, despite personal shortcomings and inter-personal squabbles, to disprove the prophets of doom who had predicted that India would either break up or come under autocratic rule because her poverty and heterogeneity made democracy impossible.
“The period of Indian history since 1947 might be seen as the adventure of a political idea: democracy,” Sunil Khilnani, scholar of Indian history and politics, wrote in his seminal book The Idea of India. The Indian experiment is the youngest when compared to the American and French revolutions but “its outcome may well turn out to be the most significant of them all, partly because of its sheer human scale and partly because of its location, a substantial bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent”.
That India ought to be “an independent sovereign republic” guaranteeing all its citizens justice, equality, and freedom of thought, expression, belief and action subject to law was laid out laid in the Constituent Assembly’s Objectives Resolution. It was Nehru who moved it in December 1946. The Constitution, which was adopted on January 26, 1950, and Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar’s insistence on adhering to democratic values and institutions, however flawed, made all the difference in the first years of independence. “We would not have seen the reforms of 1991 or spoken about 8% growth in GDP had the country not been united,” Guha said.
Nehru’s administration pushed for planned economic and agrarian growth; public sector spending; setting up of steel and power plants; establishing Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management, among other measures. He spoke endlessly about ensuring progress for all Indians and cultivating a “scientific temper”. His government encouraged space exploration and put the country on the nuclear path – boldly for a new and struggling nation. But it fell short in emphasising primary education and healthcare, planned urbanisation and personal law reform.
The initial thrust made possible economic and political consolidation in the 1960s and ’70s, and further gains. At the same time, these decades unfortunately saw gradual degradation in the institutional framework of the country and breakdown in the political party system as Indira Gandhi took complete control of the Congress and the state. The course correction that should have been effective in the 60s and ’70s wasn’t. Her declaration of the Emergency remains a blot on the nation. Licence-favour raj, cronyism, subversion of the system and corruption became emblematic of her era.
Historians and economists have found fault with Nehru’s government, and indeed all of the Congress’ rule until 1991. However, the process of deepening democracy continued as marginalised groups such as the Dalits and women found their voice; as the communication and information revolution of the 1980s reached unexpected corners; and as new generations of Indians found their lives were better and held more promise than those of their parents and grandparents.
There are still miles to go, but the indices of development show that India has undeniably come a long way since 1947. The country’s relative progress is not a fake story.
This is the first in a two-part series on India’s journey over the past seven decades.
This is the first of a two-part series on the progress India has made since 1947. The second part can be read here.