The economic liberalisation that I was associated with in 1991-1996 and 2004-2014 was, above all, a process of opening up new opportunities for people born without social and economic privilege. This was for me the guiding vision behind our economic reforms.
While economic growth remains a high priority for the country, there is now a growing concern that the concomitant commitment to ensuring that disparities and inequality do not grow is weakening. This can be a serious potential threat to our democracy. Economists and development experts worldwide are today emphasising the grave danger to sustained growth from growing inequality. They point out that economic inequality and exclusion are threats not only to economic and social wellbeing, but also to a cohesive functioning of the polity as a whole.
It is vitally important for us in India to maintain strong focus on containing the growth of economic inequality, and work actively to reduce it. A range of economic and social policy measures are available to us. What is required is stronger social and political reawakening to the principle of equality — social, economic and political — for the sake of equality and as a mark of our commitment to democracy.
As much as equality, freedom is a pre-requisite for democracy. The freedom of a country is not the freedom of its government. It is the freedom of people, which in turn, is not the freedom only of its privileged and powerful, but the freedom of every Indian. Freedom is the freedom to question, the freedom to express one’s views, howsoever troubling they may be for others. The only constraint to freedom must be the freedom of others — in other words, the freedom of one person or a group should not be used to constrain the freedom of other individuals or groups. Without a firm commitment to this idea of freedom for which many of our forefathers made tremendous sacrifices, our democracy will not survive.
An integral and central component of our freedom is the independence of India. The independence of a country is a collective expression of the independence and freedom of its individual citizens. The loss of the independence of India means that the power to determine the policies of the country has been transferred outside our shores, away from our people. There can be no democracy without national independence. Nor can we be independent without democracy.
A dangerous and false binary is now surfacing in Indian political discourse, which must be firmly rejected. It is that we have to choose between freedom and development. It is not a new binary. The argument was put to Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our Nation, that good governance and development are better than swaraj. The argument was also widely advanced by colonial and pro-colonial forces that India was not ready for freedom, and that continued British raj would be better for us for our development. The choice of the people of India then was, and still is, clear and unambiguous. We will be free and independent. For us freedom is neither merely an instrument for development nor to be subordinated to development. Growth, wealth and development are fruits of democracy, not substitutes.
Democracy is as inseparable from fraternity as is equality and freedom. Only fraternal people can maintain a democracy. And, conversely, only a democratic nation can maintain fraternity. Fraternity is based, as powerfully and eloquently stated in the Preamble of our Constitution, on the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. I need not dwell long on the current deep concern that attempts are being made to divide the Indian people on the basis of religion and caste, language and culture. Atrocities against minorities and dalits are increasing. If unchecked these tendencies can only harm our democracy. As a people, we must strongly reject divisive policies and politics.
India needs no lessons in the importance of fraternity. Who can ever forget the epic tragedy of our own history — when at the time of partition in 1947 the ancient fabric of our deep rooted fraternity — woven from sacred threads of love and affection seasoned over centuries — was sought to be deliberately torn up and destroyed? I bear personal witness to its unspeakable consequences. Hatred should never be allowed to enter our shores ever again.
We are all most proud of our democratic electoral system in which ruling parties have been defeated and power has been transferred peacefully. This is a rare success in today’s world. Our electoral system has succeeded against great odds. It has destroyed feudal systems of government. It has opened up opportunities for the aam aadmi without any social, economic or political privilege whatsoever by birth to occupy the highest positions of power. There is, however, today widespread concern that our electoral system is being undermined by money power and muscle power. Electoral reforms to cleanse elections of money and muscle power and to maintain the integrity of elected officials are another vital area for securing and strengthening of our democracy. Like democratic political parties, the media and the judiciary also need to be strong guardians of the public weal.
Renew our commitment to Democracy
Dr Ambedkar once worried that the day may come when people may prefer government for the people to government by and of the people. He saw that as a great danger. On this 70th anniversary, we must ensure that we do not fall into the trap of choosing government for the people over government by and of the people.
Governance is complex. It is messy. It is slow. Its benefits are long term. It requires great patience. Above all, democracy is a system in which people without privilege have a decisive voice in governance. If this is lost, democracy becomes meaningless.
Edited excerpts from former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s address at the Panjab University, 11 April