The Indian nation
The British never believed that the concept of India as a nation is even conceivable. Sir John Strachey, Member of the Governor General’s Council, told a Cambridge audience in 1888 that they should know “the first and most essential thing to learn about India - that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to any European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious.” According to him, it was unimaginable to think “that men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North Western Provinces, and Madras should ever feel that they belong to an Indian nation….You might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe.”
This disbelief in the possibility of India ever emerging as a nation continued for decades thereafter, and even later. Churchill was convinced in the 1930s that if the British left, “India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages.” Ramachandra Guha, in his enlightening book, ‘India after Gandhi’, has, in his usual flowing style, enumerated several instances of how the British scoffed at the very thought that an Indian nation could ever have a place in the sun.
Even when, finally, independence dawned on the countries of India and Pakistan, the prevalent notion was that Pakistan, united by one religion, had a better chance to survive than the conglomeration of peoples that was India. Even as late as 1969, the British journalist, Don Taylor, wrote, “The key question remains: can India remain in one piece or will it fragment? ….When one looks at this vast country and its 524 million people, the 15 major languages in use, the conflicting religions, the many races, it seems incredible that one nation could ever emerge.”
The amazing truth is that, despite its diversity, it was India that stood together as a nation. The governance of multicultural, multi-religious India remained stable and secure, even as Pakistan, supposedly united by a single religion, seesawed between democracy and military rule and ultimately split in two. The eastern wing of Pakistan, now Bangladesh, also had its moments of despair, alternating between democracy and military rule, sometimes hating India, sometimes working in close coordination with its larger neighbour. Indeed, if we look around us at all countries worldwide that have emerged from the thralldom of colonial rule, the Indian polity has remained an oasis of stability.
The main factor underlying this stability has been the Indian Constitution and the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy that it put in place. Presenting the draft document to the Constituent Assembly on 4th November 1948, B. R. Ambedkar said, “It is workable, it is flexible and it is strong enough to hold the country together, both in peacetime and in wartime. If I may say so if things go wrong under the new Constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad Constitution. What we will have to say is that Man is vile.”
Even senior citizens like me were born after those heady days in which the nation was born. Very often, we take the Constitution for granted. We fail to realise that the founding fathers crafted a unique document, which accepted and assimilated the diversity of cultures and practices that prevailed across the length and breadth of India. It did not impose a single, uniform system. Instead, it gave space to all to practise their beliefs in conformity with the tradition of each. It was a celebration of diversity.
Democracy provided the glue that held the country together. It provided mechanisms at each level to defuse tensions and restore harmony. It provided a layer of legislators who could be accessed by the common man to intercede with government functionaries.
As we reach the end of the election campaign, fear has arisen in many minds that this bedrock of stability and unity itself is being shaken. The point is repeatedly made that there is a need for a strong leader and that the election must represent a contest between two strong leaders on either side. The Constitution and the principles of Westminster-style democracy speak a different language. They stress the need for a wise and collective leadership that is flexible enough and broad-minded enough to accommodate differences and to strive to achieve consensus solutions. The framework of the Indian polity provides for dispersal of power, not for the concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals. Indeed, the vastness of the country, disparities within the country and the varying needs of the people call for a diffused, rather than a concentrated, exercise of power.
Related to this point is the argument that there has to be necessarily two sides in an election and that both sides must declare their leaders before the election to enable the people to make an informed choice. In our kind of election, there can be many sides representing different interests, even though there may be broad streams of differing opinion emerging as rallying points for subsequent programmes of action. The history of democratic India itself is replete with instances of failed majority governments and successful coalitions formed post-election. Two governments led by Vajpayee failed in 13 days and 13 months respectively. The Rajiv Gandhi government, formed with a sledgehammer majority, fell into disarray in its last days. On the other hand, the Narasimha Rao government, a coalition with the leader chosen post-election, turned out to be one of our most successful governments, changing the very direction of the Indian economy and ushering in an age of growth and prosperity. The Manmohan Singh government, again, with the leader chosen post-election, was re-elected after a series of decisive actions in its first tenure and lasted a full decade, although it, too, fell into bad days in its last years.
What is most disquieting is the low level of political debate that characterises this election. Hitting below the belt has been the norm rather than the exception in this campaign. Violence, hatred, and divisiveness have permeated and vitiated the political atmosphere. An election in a democracy should be one that is premised on hope and optimism. It must not be built on unfounded fear. There can be differences of opinion, freely expressed, but the entire democratic framework, the inbuilt system of checks and balances, the institutional structure built up brick by brick and the value system that underlies our Constitution— these are the imperatives that must never be in peril. This must not be a Pyrrhic victory for either side, with the election battle won, but the country itself hurtling towards divisiveness. Whoever wins this battle will have a hard task on hand to heal the wounds and lead India into a path of progress in unity. A high level of maturity, courage, and wisdom will have to be displayed by our leaders in the next few weeks.
(The writer is a former bureaucrat who served as the Union Cabinet Secretary.)