India enters its 74th year as an independent country on August 15 in circumstances more challenging than any other it has faced since 1947. Covid-19 has already imposed huge social and economic costs on the country and the pandemic shows no signs of abating.
For the first time in its post-Independence history India also has to reckon with the possibility of a two-front war with China and Pakistan. The country’s smaller northern neighbours, caught between an aggressive China and Indian obduracy, are hedging their bets and getting restive.
Nepal is openly so, claiming a small slice of Indian territory and shrilly inveighing against India on everything. Bangladesh is quietly resetting its relationship with Pakistan. Even Bhutan has kept its lines of communication with China open. India, it would appear, has lost out to the Chinese almost everywhere in its near neighbourhood.
All these seemingly insurmountable challenges suggest that India is floundering and its economy, battered by Covid, is in irreversible decline. Moody’s gloomy forecast for India only reaffirms a widely held perception among overseas investors that India is incapable of undertaking the reforms needed to transform it into the kind of economic power it deserves to be. The latest issue of The Economist, quoting the IMF, predicts that the Indian economy ‘will contract by 4.5 per cent this year,’ pitching millions into poverty.
But look closer and the picture is much more positive. China is now much feared and loathed in many parts of the world. It is only a matter of time before India’s smaller neighbours realise, as countries in South East and East Asia already have, that China is not easily trusted. India also has proved to be far more resilient in the face of the challenges it faces. Its strengths are those that it has acquired over decades.
As the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul observed in his book A Million Mutinies Now, “Many thousands of people had worked…over the years without any sense of a personal drama, many millions: it had added up in the 40 years (Naipaul was writing this in the late 1980s) since independence to an immense national effort. The results of that effort were noticeable now. What looked sudden was long prepared.”
Over the last 73 years India has, almost by stealth, been consolidating as a nation. The fissiparous tendencies the country’s founders feared would fragment their country are far less in evidence today, giving Indians a confidence and resolve to overcome odds that deserve to be noticed but are not.
A huge achievement
That the country, despite lockdowns has been successful in staving off mass hunger and is able to feed itself is arguably one of the greatest miracles of present times. This achievement is in no small measure due to the durable support systems — of which India’s vast public distribution system or PDS, MNREGS and the FCI, with its overflowing granaries, are a part — set up decades back. These kicked in just in time to save millions from hunger and unemployment while staving off mass social unrest.
While governments, both State and Central, have not got everything right in dealing with the Covid pandemic — the ham-handed management of the migrant crisis being an egregious example — they have displayed unexpected and under-appreciated verve in cobbling together fairly robust response systems, to test and isolate the infected and arrest Covid’s spread. Even the Indian economy is showing small but visible signs of recovery.
The last no doubt has been led by a stellar agricultural performance fortuitously aided by a surprisingly strong monsoon. Tractor and motorcycle sales, fair indicators of such recovery, have been robust and the automobile industry is finally showing signs of revival too, giving reasons to hope that an economic upturn is underway. That India, despite the present crisis, is sitting on the cusp of an opportunity to radically reform itself has not gone unnoticed in important and influential circles abroad.
In an unusually positive write-up on India in the Financial Times of May 10, its editorial board observed that “the present is an excellent time to relaunch structural reform. India entered the crisis with a damaged financial sector, an over-leveraged private sector, and much wasteful spending, at both State and Central government levels. India can reduce its fiscal deficit and manage its debt with a combination of economic reform, fiscal reform and fiscal consolidation.”
It is not only the economy that requires fixing if India is to progress and head into its first century of existence as a well-off and confident nation. There is a need to recognise that restoring pluralism and democracy are no less important.
Unfortunately, over the last several years, politics in the country has taken a majoritarian turn, exacerbated by the CAA and the NRC and an across-political-divide endorsement of the controversial move to build a Ram Temple on the site of the demolished Babri Masjid.
Writing in this paper some years ago, this writer observed that “Secularism has served India well. It has done the Hindus no harm while leaving the minorities feeling safe. Learning from what happened to the Pandits in Kashmir, the Hindu majority in the country needs to take on and not be cowed down by the few fanatics in their midst who are striving to fit a religion that neither has a centre nor a periphery, into a fundamentalist bag.”
Modi today is much stronger than the party he leads or the Hindutva ideology that propelled him to office. He has shown strong leadership that India badly needs. He is also more powerful than any other Indian leader in recent memory. In him, the country has a leader who is overwhelmingly popular and one who, as a recent report in the New York Times noted, is ‘widely seen as a mobiliser not a despot.’
With close to four years left of his present tenure, he also has the time and the authority to reverse India’s economic slide and reassert and reaffirm its secular and democratic credentials it has been veering away from for some time now. With no discernible opposition and without any challenge to his leadership, India’s future now is literally in Modi’s hands. It is for him to seize the moment.
The writer is a former visiting Fellow at NIAS, CEU Budapest and CCS-IISc where he has also taught.