India@70: A nation that had a lousy start

Seventy years of post-independent India can be clearly divided into two chapters, and the first one (45 years) has been an utter waste

“Socialist policies our leaders have swallowed and imposed on India held our growth down to 3-4%, and it was dubbed — with much glee — as ‘the Hindu rate of growth’.”
— Arun Shourie

Life expectancy in India is 68 years. So, the average Indian born on independence night – say Saleem Sinai of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ – has already been dead for two years. However, 70 years is not that long a period for a nation. Except a few like Singapore, most developed nations are older. So, when India celebrated its 70th anniversary last month, perhaps it may not be so disappointed with its report card. That is, if we don’t contrast the periods before and after 1992, the point of liberalisation. With this comparison, it becomes clear India has wasted its first 45 years of freedom.

It’s easier to move chronologically. In 1947, a brave new nation was born. It never existed in that form before. Before that time, the subcontinent was a collection of independent states at war with each other most of the time. It was too large an expanse for a single ruler’s control. Only Emperor Asoka united it (sans few states); then the British.

When Rabindranath Tagore wrote ‘Janagaỳamana-adhināỳaka jaỳa hē …’ in 1905 (the Hindi version of which was adopted to be the National Anthem 45 years later), he dreamt of an ‘akhand bharat’ (an undivided India) stretching from Punjab to Bengal and Kanyakumari to Kashmir, which was different from the nation that finally became India.

Viscount Louis Mountbatten had a very sharp knife, wrote Salman Rushdie, by which he cut British India into three. This refers to the partition of British India in June 1947 into two countries: India and Pakistan. (West Pakistan, after a bloody war later, became current Bangladesh.) Then came the Indian Independence Act of 1947. On August 15 1947, two minutes after midnight, the British Parliament declared India a sovereign and democratic nation. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became its first Prime Minister.

Indian Independence was by no means smooth. As if the blood shed during the freedom movement was inadequate, violent clashes between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims erupted immediately after partition. More than ten million people were displaced along religious lines, creating overwhelming refugee crises in newly constituted dominions. Nearly 2% of India’s population was refugees, from East and West Pakistan. There was also large-scale open violence, with estimates of the lives lost at over a million. The birth of the new nation was not a reason for celebration.

Then, there were other administrative issues as Patel took responsibility to bring 500 odd princely states, which were not under British rule, into the Indian Union. On another front, Kashmir was on fire. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1947-48, sometimes known as the First Kashmir War, as it was the first of four wars fought between the two newly independent nations, was fought over the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu. Pakistan triggered the war a few weeks after independence in an effort to secure Kashmir, the future of which hung in the balance. The inconclusive outcome of the war even today affects the geopolitics of both countries.

“Socialist policies our leaders have swallowed and imposed on India held our growth down to 3-4%, and it was dubbed — with much glee — as ‘the Hindu rate of growth’.”
— Arun Shourie

Then, on 30 January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi, fondly called the ‘Father of the nation’, was assassinated by a Hindu extremist. While Congress Party won the first general election under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership, two years later, the world’s largest democracy with an estimated 400 million population (then) settled to think of development. In 1962, India won Diu, Daman and Goa from Portuguese India, but three years later, a second war with Pakistan erupted over Kashmir. Prime Minister Nehru had passed by then, and in his place was his daughter with an iron fist, Indira Gandhi. In 1971, she again took India to war against Pakistan, this time over the creation of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. It lasted only 13 days, one of the shortest wars in history, but even that resulted in at least a million deaths in Bangladesh.

The seventies and eighties was the height of political and economic chaos. In June 1975, India’s then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declared a state of Emergency, which would last for 21 long months. It gave the prime minister the authority to rule by decree, allowing elections to be suspended and civil liberties to be curbed. For much of the Emergency, most of Indira Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned and the press was censored. Human rights violations were common, including a forced mass-sterilisation campaign spearheaded by Sanjay Gandhi, the prime minister’s son. The Emergency was one of the most controversial periods of independent India’s history. This saw the breaking up of congress, the first non-congress prime minister, and the re-emergence of caste-based and communal politics. After three years in the opposition, Indira regained power in 1980, but remained the lady with the iron fist. In 1984, she ordered the Indian army to confront followers of the militant Sikh leader Bhindranwale by entering the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. As a result of this act, called Operation Blue Star, the shrine was seriously damaged and many civilians were brutally massacred. Riots broke out in Punjab, and many religious Sikh leaders and devotees were systematically arrested, tortured and killed. This would cost Indira Gandhi her life. She was brutally assassinated by two of her own bodyguards a few months later.

This brought an inexperienced and reluctant Rajiv Gandhi to the forefront. Another failure. One of Rajiv’s biggest mistakes was poking his fingers into Sri Lankan issues instead of assisting to solve them. Just like in the case of his mother, he had to pay for that with his life. This was in 1991. Many things happened afterwards, but let me cease the first part of the narrative here.

It’s interesting how India performed economically in its first 45 years. Nehru formulated and oversaw economic policy during the initial years of the country’s independence. He expected favourable outcomes with rapid development of heavy industry by both public and private sectors, and based on direct and indirect state intervention. As a policy, this was similar to a Soviet-style central command system. State control of the economy was the norm. The need for licenses for every trade act brought about the term ‘License Raj’. The rate of growth was derisively referred to as the Hindu rate of growth by economists, because of the unfavourable comparison with growth rates in other Asian countries. In 1991, India’s per capita GDP was about $300, while even Sri Lanka, as a result of its early liberalization, was ahead with $520. South Korea, a country poorer than India at the latter’s independence, had reached $6,000 per capita GDP by then.

Did India have any achievements within these 45 years? Yes, but very few. Like the 1983 Cricket World Cup. While part of Asia speedily moved from third world to first, India was still in a wheelchair – doing nothing and making matters worse, politically, economically, socially and in every aspect.

In retrospect, India cannot practically treat 1947 as its birth year. The real birth of India came much later, and is perhaps the topic for another article.