The results of the recent state elections have unleashed a sense of anticipation, even excitement, about the prospects of change and renewal that the forthcoming general elections may bring. The practice of electoral democracy creates opportunities for political, social and economic reform, but, as India's recent record shows, it is not always the case that these opportunities are gainfully utilised. Electoral rewards could be garnered from better performance in the delivery of public services, for example, in education and health. There may be gains for leaders who display humility and accessibility. This may be evident in several of the states that went to the polls. At the national level, however, there is an absence of an overarching national vision and a compelling national narrative that cuts across India's rich and multiple diversities. It is not that these diversities need to be suppressed by the national cause. What is required is the articulation of a template that transcends, even as it celebrates, India's plurality.
The sad reality is that as yet no party or leader has been able to spell out a vision of what India and Indians should aspire to as this new century unfolds with all its unfamiliar challenges. What is the kind of society we wish to become and what are the values that must drive it? What is the nature of prosperity that our economic strategies should aim for? The pursuit of material abundance bereft of a moral and ethical compass may endanger democracy itself. The mere exercise of electoral democracy is not an end in itself; it must take place within the larger political and social context.
Formulating and elaborating a national vision in an extraordinarily diverse country like India will be a complex endeavour, further complicated by the need to break down complexity into simple, persuasive strategic messaging that people across our vast land can readily relate to and be inspired by. India's first prime minister, while advocating a non-aligned foreign policy for a newly independent India, said that it was simple enough for even a tonga-wallah to understand despite the complex geopolitical calculations behind it. Leaders need to not only put choices before people but also guide them to the right decisions about shaping their future.
For example, should we become a society that continues to carve out numerous islands of entitlements for different communities based on narrow identities? Or should we aim, over a period of time, for a society that seeks to provide equality of opportunity to all its members, one that ensures the most talented and best qualified are called upon to provide the best possible services to the citizens of our country?
Coping with modern challenges requires human resources , knowledge and skills of the highest order. The entitlement-based model that is becoming entrenched in our society cannot be up to the task that confronts us. Even though India is at an early stage of economic development, the choice before it is whether it should aspire to benchmark its efforts to global standards - perhaps even set new and higher global standards - or whether the country should continue to be engaged in a perennial struggle with its international partners to safeguard its inefficiencies and perpetuate its inadequacies. There is also the issue of the role of business and industry. Do we recognise and leverage the global reputation of Indian entrepreneurship and support its ability to create wealth for the country, or do we encourage suspicions of its predatory proclivities for narrow political reasons?
Much of urban India today is transfixed by the emergence of China, and there is a keen sense of rivalry with our Asian neighbour. Yet there is little or no debate as to what India needs to do to catch up with China or whether it is even necessary to try and do so. There will be difficult choices to make if we wish to traverse the path China has taken. For example, to what extent is India willing to limit the practice of democracy to enable a singular, top-down focus on material growth and accumulation? Do we wish to embark on a trajectory that will sacrifice ecological sustainability for rapid industrialisation? Is there an alternative path to relative affluence that preserves our democratic freedoms even while banishing poverty and deprivation from our land? Political leaders have to engage the people of India in a comprehensive and continuing debate on these dilemmas.
Leaders not only need to be receptive to the voice of the people, but they also need to educate, persuade and, most importantly, inspire people to create a vibrant, forward-looking and modern society that respects the cultural particularities and spiritual values that give India its distinctive identity. Above all, India needs to create a society that is based on a sense of fraternity and compassion, not on the fear of the other, which is unfortunately becoming the hallmark of Western democracies in the aftermath of 9/11. We must resist the tendency to limit individual freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution on the plea that we must respect the sensitivities and differing views of religious, communal or social groups. Liberal values cannot survive in an environment in which freedom of expression is circumscribed in deference to such prejudices. The role of leadership is to confront and demolish such prejudice, not pander to it.
The forthcoming general elections must go beyond electoral democracy. They should become an occasion for projecting a vision of the kind of society and the kind of country we wish to become. I believe that India has a civilisational ethos and inherited values that make it possible to articulate a future that seeks to learn and assimilate knowledge from others and yet is distinctively Indian. A political leadership that can accomplish this task will be the winner not just in elections but also in leading India to a destiny its people rightly deserve.
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is currently chairman, National Security Advisory Board and Research and Information System for Developing Countries, and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research (New Delhi)