- How the polity manages this challenge will determine if it joins the rank of the top nations or recedes into a squabbling morass.
The Indian state completed 75 years of existence on August 15. A stock-taking reveals much progress but also significant grounds for concern.
Winston Churchill famously said that India was no more a geographic expression than the Equator. While there was a snide undertone to his remark, it nevertheless was true in the 1940s. The artifice called India by the British, and by Europeans before that for two millennia, was a nonentity for most of the people who lived within its boundaries.
The name itself came from the river Sindhu (modern Indus) which was corrupted by the Persians as Hindu and by the Greeks as Indo thereby creating a name for the people and land near said river.
To the people who lived in that region they were subjects of various kingdoms — Magadha, Kalinga, Anga, Chola, Chera, Rashtrakuta etc.
A series of north India-based centralized empires such as the Mughal and later the British created partial political and administrative unity but cultural unity remained elusive in this polyglot, multi-religious land.
Resistance to British rule ignited a semblance of unified nationalism and was led by the Indian National Congress. Other movements were either ideological (communist), communal (Muslim League and the RSS/ Hindu Mahasabha etc.), or regional class interests based (Unionist party Punjab and Krishak Prajatantra Party Bengal).
The Congress welded a narrative of unity into a powerful nationalist argument which found acceptance slowly amongst “Indians.” This was countered with religious nationalism of which the most successful was the Muslim League’s demand for a Muslim majority splinter state of Pakistan.
Post-independence, Indian governments tried to keep the country from being Balkanized and used education, cinema, sport, and propaganda in uniting its diverse peoples. In this they were successful although the desire to be free of superpower influence and control led to a policy of self-reliance rather than trade based growth.
While slow and public sector reliant, this approach yielded benefits from the late 1980s onwards when a sizable scientifically trained labor pool emerged courtesy decades of subsidized education, as well as a technical and entrepreneurial class that was self-taught. Post 1991 this pool of skilled labor allied with an opening of the closed economy and created a growth spurt that jumped from a somnolent 3.5 to a robust 9 per cent per annum.
India has much to congratulate itself for today. Literacy has shot up from an abysmal 12 percent in 1947 to 77 percent in 2022. Its GDP is projected to cross $3 trillion this year. The country is now self-sufficient in food production. Most significantly, India is now considered to be a rising economy that will sit in the top three in the decades to come along with America and China.
However, all is not rosy. India is a highly unequal society and the number of poor stands at 10 or 13 percent by differing measures. That means at least 130 million people exist below the poverty level. And while a middle class existence has become much better with good access to housing, water, power, and disposable income, the poor do not have these and additionally suffer from greater pollution than times past. Agriculture stagnates and farmers’ suicides driven by indebtedness have become a common news item.
The greatest challenge to India comes from the unraveling of its plural national identity and its possible replacement by an exclusivist Hindu identity. This leaves little to no room for people of other faiths who make up a robust 20% of the population and also lower castes who do not share the same vision as upper caste Hindus do.
Coupled with misgovernance this has seen the rise of attacks on people of other faiths, and specifically Muslims. A diverse society like India cannot survive meaningfully, that is without any conflict that tears society apart, with such a majoritarian religious outlook.
It does not help that India’s current opposition parties are weak or have local or regional concerns only. The great Congress party has become a joke, bereft of ideology and corrupt, with its leadership confined to inexperienced people of the Gandhi dynasty. There is no other national level party that can challenge the BJP. The BJP itself has moved from being a right of center party to a much more extreme position which is baffling since it enjoys an electoral majority and does not need to play the religious card.
How the Indian polity manages these challenges will determine if India joins the rank of the top nations or recedes into a squabbling morass.
I wish it the best of luck in the years ahead.
Dr. Milind Thakar is a Professor of International Relations in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Indianapolis.