TCS Daily

Transforming India's Mental Landscape

By Amit Varma - August 23, 2006 12:00 AM

India recently celebrated the 59th anniversary of its independence. That a nation with so much regional, ethnic and religious diversity could hold together as a peaceful democracy would have seemed astonishing in 1947, when there was no precedent for an achievement of this nature.

This freedom was achieved partly through a consciously non-violent struggle, which became an inspiration to other freedom fighters, such as Nelson Mandela. And yet, laudable as this achievement is, it is time to question just how deep India's commitment to freedom runs.

India's independence struggle for the first half of the last century was driven by nationalism, the desire to be rid of an empire. India achieved political self-determination. Yet, it didn't score so high when it came to economic and individual freedoms.

Indeed, economic freedom wasn't fashionable when India became independent. It was perfectly natural for Jawaharlal Nehru to opt for Fabian Socialism as the guiding philosophy for the new-born India. But while Nehru did a noteworthy job of building the institutions that safeguarded India's secular democracy, his economic policies, framed with the best intentions, ensured that India remained a third-world country. "Profit is a dirty word," he once said, as he strengthened a state apparatus that throttled private enterprise and created a vast bureaucracy.

The License and Regulation Raj that Nehru put in place became worse under his daughter Indira Gandhi, who became prime minister in 1966. She nationalized the big banks, suffocated industry with Draconian labor laws, clamped down on foreign investment, and imposed currency controls.

India's much-hyped liberalization of 1991 onwards removed some of these economic controls -- but only some. India had been forced to liberalize after a balance-of-payments crisis and once that moment had passed, the reforms slowed down. The bureaucracy was opposed to reforms because they diminished its power, and the political landscape was packed with vested interests.

Considering India's population, its strength should have been in labor-intensive manufacturing, but the remnants of the License Raj and stifling labor laws ensured that China leapt ahead of India. India never had an industrial revolution, and with only its educated elite being able to take part in the outsourcing industry, millions of jobs that would otherwise have sprung up simply do not exist. This is one of the reasons more than 60% of the country's population survives on agriculture, another sector that has not been adequately reformed. (The corresponding figure in the USA is less than 5%.)

Much was expected from the government that rules India today, as its prime minister is Manmohan Singh, who was credited with implementing the reforms of 1991 as India's finance minister. Alas, he is hobbled by the fact that the ruling coalition depends on the support of India's communist parties. They have stopped labor reform, erected barriers to foreign investment, and have frustrated attempts at reform to such an extent that an exasperated Mr. Singh announced a few weeks ago that the government's plans for disinvestment had been indefinitely put on hold.

For a country that describes itself as a liberal democracy, individual freedoms aren't quite enshrined in the constitution. Lip service is paid to freedom of speech, but there are far too many questionable caveats. The government panders to groups that take offense at anything: India was the first country to ban The Satanic Verses, sparking off a series of events that culminated in the Iranian fatwa against its author, Salman Rushdie. It has a long list of banned books, and there is a censorship board for cinema that follows prudish, almost Victorian guidelines on violence and on-screen intimacy. Burning the Indian flag is illegal; as is sex between gay men.

It isn't just the government at fault here: Indians, in general, have never shown much passion for individual rights, looking for ways to bypass the laws that curtailed their freedom instead of questioning the laws themselves. In fact, it has been a default assumption that giving offense is a crime, and every week some group or the other protests something that offends its sensibilities. Protests have sprung up in the last few months against: an art exhibition in Bombay that portrayed sex; the screening of The Da Vinci Code; an actress who said that pre-marital sex was acceptable; and Valentine's Day. As India opens itself up to the world, there is a backlash from traditionalists of different kinds in denial about the changing world, as well as politicians looking to use identity politics to make themselves relevant.

Freedom doesn't come easy. "We need another [Mahatma] Gandhi to yet again transform the mental landscape of India," the popular Indian blogger Gaurav Sabnis once wrote, a thought echoed by another respected political commentator, Nitin Pai, in a post titled, "Waiting for the free-market Mahatma." In the blogosphere more than in the mainstream media, a new generation of Indians is discussing the meaning of freedom. A hundred years ago, as Pai wrote, "the idea of political freedom in India was the matter of debate in the parlours of the educated elite." That idea spread, however, and proved irresistible. So will this one.

Amit Varma is based in Bombay and writes India Uncut, a popular Indian blog.


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