What does a compass do? It orients us towards a definite direction. It reveals the path ahead. A nation embarked on a journey through history, too, needs a compass. This helps confirm whether it is on the right track. It spells a warning if, somewhere, it has lost its way. The ordinary compass always points to north, but a national compass has to be set and reset by each generation in a direction aligned to its deepest aspirations and articulated by an enlightened elite, driven by a sense of commitment that transcends the private self and narrow identities. This is the inspiring “tryst with destiny” that Pandit Nehru spoke of so eloquently at India’s Independence.
When India decided to launch wide-ranging economic reforms at the end of the Cold War in 1990, the national compass was reset with the needle pointing firmly to the goal of accelerated growth of GDP, through liberalisation and rapid globalisation of the Indian economy. The dynamic growth of the past two decades and the rising profile of India in the global economy are testimony to the wisdom and farsightedness of that decision. In taking this momentous turn at the crossroads, we had to jettison much of the policy baggage and ideological deadwood associated with the “Hindu rate of growth”. Some of this was accomplished through bold and open departures; others by artful stealth. But its political legitimisation soon became anchored in a single, compelling benchmark, the needle of the compass pointing, at all times, to an ever-rising GDP growth rate. As long as the GDP graph showed an ascending trajectory and our national energies focused on crossing the magic threshold of double-digit growth, we could be certain we are on the right track. The rest of the world, particularly our western peers, seemed to judge success or failure of our national endeavours by the same yardstick. China’s growing might seemed embedded in its ability to notch up three decades of double-digit growth. How could anyone doubt that this was the way for us to go?
But as we celebrate sixty-three years of our Independence, there are unmistakable signs that somewhere along the way, our Republic may have taken a wrong turn. The overpowering focus on a numerical target has engendered a tunnel vision among our elite, which discards and discounts disturbing political, social and economic tendencies, secure in the illusion that the GDP sweepstakes will trump every other race, overcome every other challenge confronting the country. It is true that the national cake must grow to provide a bigger slice to each citizen. It is wealth which must be distributed, not poverty. But what if the bigger cake is cornered by a privileged minority, while deprivation afflicts vast swathes of our population? It is conceded that government should be pro-enterprise, should encourage entrepreneurship and promote Indian business in a fiercely competitive global marketplace. But is creative entrepreneurship encouraged when the instruments of governance are subverted to serve the interests of a section of our business elite for whom a place in Fortune 500 and conspicuous affluence have become coveted status symbols rather than a reputation for probity, professionalism and excellence? We have launched innovative pro-poor schemes like the NREGS, promised food security to the poorest of our citizens and legislated on giving every citizen a right to education. But what about the continuing reality on the ground, where only a fraction of the benefits flow to those who are entitled because they are not yet empowered? There is a powerful network of middlemen and political brokers which still corners the bulk of public resources. We support universal education but a segment of middle class parents do not want poor, underprivileged children to be educated alongside their more fortunate offspring. These are danger signs we ignore at our peril. No nation has ever achieved greatness when governed by a self-centred, self-absorbed and grasping elite, communist or democratic. We need a broader, more encompassing vision in which all citizens of this country are equal stakeholders, entitled to dignity, self-respect and opportunity for advancement as guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. Otherwise, this Independence anniversary will be a celebration for a few and a day of misery, like any other, for many.
So, what needs to be done? India must embrace a pattern of development that harnesses the talents and skills of its entrepreneurs, managers, professionals, activists and, above all, the latent energies of its people to deliver the difference that the ordinary citizen can see, touch and feel in the fabric of her daily life. This will require a change in values and the benchmarking of success through yardsticks other than wealth alone. Above all, it will require a thorough cleansing of our politics, the draining of the cesspools of corruption and the creation of space for wise and committed leadership in the institutions of governance.
In 1985, celebrating the centenary of the Indian National Congress, a young Rajiv Gandhi made an impassioned call for ridding his party of the “brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy” and for a return to India’s civilisational values. He did not, or could not, follow through on his quest. We, as a nation, have another opportunity to do so today. The crisis in the market economies, the depletion of resources and the ravaging of the planet’s environment have coincided with a more searching questioning of old orthodoxies, including the fetish of GDP growth. Unlike China, we are not irretrievably locked into a trajectory of unsustainable and unbalanced growth. We still have choices available to us. These will need intelligent and honest public debate, but may enable us to reset the national compass to chart a new path ahead, where India will lead rather than uncritically follow milestones set by others.
The author is a former foreign secretary and currently senior fellow at CPR and vice-chairman, RIS