India at 60: a remarkable success story

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS

A sepia-coloured newspaper picture underlines, in retrospect, a central feature of India’s success as a nation. It shows groups of men sitting in front of rickety wooden tables, counting tiny slips of paper obviously taken out of a steel box. The occasion was India’s first general election in 1952 and the slips were the ballot papers cast for 18,000 candidates by an electorate of 176 million people. The mammoth exercise marked the first step in India’s remarkable journey to become the world’s largest and, in its pluralistic ethos, the most successful democracy.

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Sixty years after India attained independence on Aug 15, 1947, it has all become routine – elections which resemble a carnival, boisterous parliamentary politics, an independent judiciary before which no one is too high, a thriving economy knitting together a nationwide market, an uninhibited public sphere where activists agitate for various causes, a vibrant media with its 24-hour news channels and sting operations with hidden cameras probing all aspects of life.

The world now expects India to be a major power of the 21st century. But no one knew at the time of independence in 1947 how it would all pan out. Would Winston Churchill’s fear, reflecting an imperialist mindset, that the British were handing over power to “men of straw” prove true? Would the dire prognosis by Neville Maxwell in the The Times of London that the 1967 general election would be India’s fourth and last be fulfilled?

While the communists in India and elsewhere were expecting a proletarian revolution to start any time, sceptics in the West didn’t believe that fledgling Asian democracies had a future. And they were right, at least in relation to countries in India’s neighbourhood.

If it is different in India, the reason is the commonplace scene in that old black-and-white photograph of men from ordinary backgrounds counting ballot papers. It is the successful functioning of autonomous institutions such as the Election Commission, which ensured, first, the survival and then the blossoming of Indian democracy. While autocratic regimes elsewhere routinely subverted such institutions, favouring rigged polls and turning the legal system into one of kangaroo courts, the Indian political class had the wisdom to ensure that the scaffolding of the democratic structure was not disturbed.

Perhaps the most important consideration before the founding fathers of the republic – who drafted the constitution – and their contemporaries and successors who ran the government was to ensure that the country’s multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual heritage was carefully preserved. Evidently, the long years of freedom struggle had instilled the value of this pluralist heritage in the men and women who were involved in the anti-colonial battle under Mahatma Gandhi.

The currency note in India describes its value in as many as 17 languages. Although English and Hindi are the first two, the presence of 15 other languages is an acknowledgment of the country’s multi-lingual status.

India had leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, a disciple of the Mahatma who announced in the wake of anti-Hindi agitations in the south that English would continue to be an official language as long as the non-Hindi speaking people wanted it.

It is the same broadminded attitude, which ruled out theocratic concepts like having an official religion. Drawing inspiration from the Mahatma’s precept of having passages from all religious texts – the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, the Bible, the Guru Granth Sahib and others – read out at his prayer meetings, India, although a predominantly Hindu country, embarked on the path of consolidating its multi-religious heritage, which can be traced to Mauryan emperor Asoka in the pre-Christian era and to Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century AD.

There is little doubt that the good fortune of having leaders of the stature of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru ensured that India could avoid the perilous path of sectarianism, which has been the bane of other countries. But there was more good luck, for not only did India reject a narrow outlook on religion and language, it also ensured that its nascent democracy was not challenged by any adventurer – military or civilian.

Before 1947, the Indian independence movement was an inspiration for all the people living under colonial rule in Asia and Africa. Unfortunately, the history of most of the countries in these continents after their liberation has been one of betrayal of the ideals of freedom that initially guided their leaders. Only India has been an exception along with South Africa, although the latter’s is a different case in that it was not under colonial rule but was under a white supremacist regime.

Six decades after independence, India is still an inspiration because of its success as a multi-cultural democracy, which made well-known musician Yehudi Menuhin compare India with the “fabled and symbolic Garden of Eden”.