50 Years of Lost Morality
IN 1947, we believed that India had been impoverished by the British, and that when the British departed, poverty would go too. We believed the export-orientation and capitalism fostered by the Raj were disastrous, and so switched to socialism. We jeered at supposed neo-colonial puppets (Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) that followed market-friendly, export-oriented policies. Today, India remains miserably poor, while the supposed puppets have become rich. Around 320 million Indians today are below the poverty line, almost as many as the entire population of India at independence. Anyone who predicted this in 1947 would have been condemned as a British agent.
Our per capita income today is just $ 340. That of Singapore is $26,730, of Hong Kong $ 23,000, of Taiwan $ 13,000, of Korea $ 9,700 and Thailand $ 2,740. Our great swadeshi experiment in self-sufficiency yielded poverty, and those we once sneered at have ended up sneering at us.
The netas, babus and leftist intellectuals who forged the failed socialist experiment were convinced that may knew best, and had nothing to learn either from western free-marketers or the puppets in Asia. These people were intelligent, well-intentioned, and fashioned a truly indigenous model of development. But their concepts were flawed, and so their recipe for progress yielded continued poverty. Worse, they stubbornly refused to admit failure even when it stared them in the face.
Some intellectuals claim that other countries grew faster because they were unashamedly capitalist, whereas we in India paid attention to social justice. The argument is bogus. India has failed not only in terms of GNP but all social indicators. Its literacy rate today is a pathetic 52 per cent. This is not only lower than in tiger economies like Singapore (91 per cent) Korea (almost 100 per cent) and Thailand (94 per cent), it is even lower than in African disaster economies like Zambia (78 per cent), Uganda (62 per cent), Tanzania (68 per cent) and Kenya (78 per cent). From Nehru to the communists, our political class failed to grasp the key importance of primary education. Infant mortality in India is around 70 per” 1,000 against four per 1,000 in Singapore, 10 per thousand in Korea, 21 per thousand in Jamaica, 58 per thousand in Kenya. So much for the theory that India bravely sacrificed economic growth for social justice. In fact, it sacrificed both at the altar of swadeshi socialism.
There is only one thing we can boast of after 50 years of independence. Despite a thousand travails and flaws, India remains a democracy. Nehru may have failed to make India an economic success, but he certainly laid the foundations of a democratic success. For that we can all raise one cheer on the 50th anniversary.
But I am unable to raise three cheers. Our democracy is getting so flawed and eroded that it is a cause for anxiety more than celebration. Public contempt for politicians has reached an all-time high. They are regarded as inefficient crooks out to line their pockets and hoodwink citizens.
This was not the case at independence. At that time, the politician was seen a noble figure who endured years of suffering and sacrifice for the public good. Fifty years on, the politician is seen as one who inflicts suffering and sacrifice on others. This is not the outcome that democracy is supposed to deliver.
The recipe for political success today is a mixture of money, muscle and influence. The criminalisation of politics has spread to all parties. Former Home Secretary Madhav Godbole claims that in recent local elections in Maharashtra, 72 criminals contested in Nagpur, 50 in Pune and 150 in Murnbai. The tale in other states is as bad. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party claims that over 100 of its activists have been murdered since Ms Mayawati assumed office. In Kerala at least 15 BJP workers have been killed since the CPM returned to power. This is not exactly democracy in action.
In Mumbai, Mr Arun Gawli, long described as the most notorious gangster in the city, has floated a new political party. At his latest rally he attracted more people than the Congress or BJP normally can. Why? Because when all politicians are viewed as crooks, what the public is most concerned with is not your supposed principles but your effectiveness. Mr Gawli is reputed to be most effective.
We inherited from the British Raj an efficient administration and high standards in public morality. During the Raj, the police caught criminals, the courts convicted them, the civil service was both civil and rendered service. Alas, those days are gone. The police now seem incapable of catching influential criminals and the courts of convicting them. The civil service seems incapable of either civility or service.
Political loot has reached such a stage that routine inspection of treasuries has ceased, the comptroller and auditor general in many states complains that papers and files are simply not available. State public sector undertakings have not submitted audited accounts for years on end. According to a senior bureaucrat, politicians now just dip their hand into the treasury and take out whatever they want, and no civil servant or policeman dares intervene.
A year ago I was asked to sum up our years of independence. I replied that it was a saga of lost opportunities and lost morality. On the economic side the opportunities lost are immense, but at least we can claim to have moved forward in absolute terms, even if we have slipped in relative terms. On the moral side, however, our decline has been absolute. If people are asked what they are most ashamed of after 50 years of independence, many will point td the political class.
What a difference from the heady days of 1947. At that time we were justly proudly of our politicians. We had won independence after a principled struggle based on nonviolence. We had triumphed over the might of the British Empire not through armed force but moral force. It mattered little that we were poor in material terms. We felt rich in moral terms. And so we held our heads high and were proud to be Indians.
Today, that pride is gone. We stand exposed as poor in material terms and even poorer in moral terms. In 1947 we could claim to be fighting an epic battle to improve global morality. Today, according to Transparency International, India is the eighth most corrupt country in the world.
Some will say this is progress of sorts. Last year India was only the ninth-most corrupt nation. This year it has moved up to eighth position. With some patriotic effort, we can surely get to the number one position by our 100th anniversary of independence.
In 1947 we looked forward to a new dawn. In 1997 we have got a new don (Arun Gawli). A new dawn for a new don, what a theme for the 50th anniversary of independence!