India’s capital city – New Delhi – held their state level elections this month. The electoral results raised more questions than answers. The world and India saw the rise of a new political force in the form of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). AAP vowed to implement the missing portion of “government for the people” in the famous quote from Lincoln describing democracy – “Government by the people, of the people and for the people”. Indians viewed this as a change from norm. It now believed in the power of the ballot as a way to combat nepotism, crony capitalism, corruption and non-governance that has plagued the country from the 60’s. This is a real inflection point for India during the 21st century. Can India unite to provide a better governance for themselves?
But the real question is :- What is an united India? This is not a new question and has been asked repeatedly over the ages. But we hear this question being asked with an alarming frequency not only by outsiders but even by Indians themselves. This is not a political question anymore but sometimes a governance question, a marketing question, an economic question, a foreign diplomacy question and sometimes even an identity question. This question continues to baffle everyone. A nation of immense diversity, innumerable contradictions, founder of religions, fragmented to its core and yet is it an united country?
” India is a geographical term. It is no more united nation than the equator. – Winston Churchill in a speech at Royal Albert Hall in 1831. ” I think this adequately expresses this immensely vast country in every notion. India is widely diverse that recognizes all the religions of the world, 32 languages, thousands of dialects. Each part of India is drastically different from its other part. India is comprised of 32 states. Traditions, customs, rituals, way of life vary widely between the people of north, south, west and the east. It also varies widely district to district in the same state. One can say that India is comprised of 32 India’s.
Politically, it has the notion of a federal government at the center followed by state governments. The politics of India is strongly influenced in its local village level, district level and in its cities. But it varies widely between adjacent cities, district, village or state. Successful regimes in India understood the old system of co-opting powerful local entities to rule this loosely tied states. The Mauryans were the first to understand it. Persian and Arab invaders could never establish foothold because they couldn’t change from their rigid tradition of strong central leadership leading the masses. The Mughals – decendants of the Mongols – especially Akbar understood this to establish their empire. The Britishers made it into an art to rule a country of millions from a great distance with only a couple of thousand non-Indians. And today political parties use coalition politics to rule federally.
Though its widely disunited even today, it has united at key inflection points. When India moved to a post-vedic reality, it had powerful figures like Buddha to rile against ritualism to the basic tenets of hinduism. As the Greeks were at the borders of India, having already defeated Porus that formed the border defense, the loosely powerful states reluctantly started uniting with the aid of Chanakya, the author of the greatest political and economic book written in the classical world. Post-Mauryan empire, as the local confederates descended into widespread infighting, civil war and bloodshed, there was Ashoka who united these motley set of people for peace and prosperity. As India accepted Islam to its fold due to foreign invasions and conversions, there was widespread tension between the hindus and muslims that resulted into hate, distrust and persecution. It took Akbar to bring about the thought of tolerance. It took all the local entities like Mangal Pandey / Queen of Jhansi/ Tipu Sultan to make India realize they are already a colony of Britain. It took Gandhi to unite the people to fight for independence from Britain. And yet in the 21st century there is disunity as a country it heads into dealing with a massive mis-governance resulting in India lurching from one crisis to the other.
After independence, India experimented with a new system – define a strong/influential national government and subordinate states. It was an attempt to unite India in ideology, politics, economics and the rule of the law. Nehru coined the term “Unity in Diversity” and this was his attempt in uniting an India that the textbooks of India still proclaim proudly. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The first failure to unite was displayed on the eve of independence – splitting Indian subcontinent into 4 different countries of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh based on religion. The second blow was in the 60s, with the political entities in south divided from the rest of india based on linguistic reasons. The 70s saw the east distancing itself based on both linguistic and political systems. moving towards the left. Then came the 80’s with the divisions in the north based on caste lines. Each of these divisions resulted in the modern equivalent of powerful local entities. However, with each division, it encouraged a politics of appeasement, general degradation of governance and breakdown of law and order.
As powerful local entities emerged, federal government tried to appease them. But, it didn’t start that way. Emergency powers in the 70’s was implemented to show the strong power of the federal government. It failed miserably as it was laced with bad governance. This resulted in the appeasement policy as well as trying to replicate local success stories nationally. The late 70’s to 80’s was nationalization of private industry to move to the left ideology. This saw the decline of the Indian economy. 80’s saw reservations in education and job opportunities to take the affirmative policy to an extreme to appease the voters in the north. This resulted in redistribution of the opportunities rather than growing the pie. As India enters the 90’s with extreme economic hardship amidst growing globalization, economic liberalization ushered in a market based economy. Instead of capitalism, and growth, it has been co-opted quickly by crony capitalism, oligarchy and corruption. This gave way to communal politics in the early 21st century to distribute the wealth with populist measures – like non-implementation of civil union code, appeasement of minority religions, violence against minorities to win over the voters of majority were the norm.
Economically, the 90’s and the first decade of the 21st century accelerated a trend that was going on for quite sometime. Migration of population nationally from one state to the other. Farmers from villages in the north moved to the cities in the north, east and west as laborers. The educated masses moved all around to the high technology hubs around the country. The laborers and blue collar workers moved as the industry consolidated in other parts of the country. Entrepreneurs moving across the country as they setup their trading posts to take advantage of globalization.The tribals were up in arms as they fought the political corruption trying to extract ore from their forests. The Indian sub-continent is now tightly dependent with each other as was the entire continental Europe before World-War 1. Dependent economically, separated politically.
As we come to the present, Indians whole-heartedly appreciated Anna Hazare trying to unite the entire country against corruption. And AAP giving a chance to India to better the governance of India. But the question to ask is – Can India unite again? and can it stay united long enough to realize it potential? Can it ever remember the lessons of its legacy to truly think about its national interests while working at its local interest? While all politics is local, Indians have been experts at that. But that will never result in an India that the world thinks it has potential for unless its thinks national. Does the populace of India have that? or Will they prove Singapore’s founders thought “India is not a real country. Instead it is 32 separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line”
Next Week – India’s Lost Generation