The progress of a nation, especially one as large and diverse as ours, is never linear; there are constant ups and downs. At the same time, there are key moments that the nation faces, times of sudden but critical changes, which may be termed inflection points. How the nation responds during such inflection periods determines the future of the country. COVID-19, to my mind, is a major inflection point.
Independent India has in the past faced a few defining moments or inflection points – the agricultural crisis in the 1960s, the imposition of the emergency in 1975, the foreign exchange crisis of 1990. It is creditable that for every such crisis, we found a solution that not just took the country out of trouble but also laid the basis for a more permanent progress.
In the 1960s, India experienced repeated failures of agricultural crops, resulting in hunger and famine on a large scale. The country did not lose hope, relying on high-yielding varieties of seeds and improved cropping practices to usher in the green revolution which ensured sufficient food to feed our burgeoning population.
The imposition of the emergency in 1975 was a setback for the country’s finest traditions of democracy. Less than two years-later the government was voted out in one of the most decisive electoral results possible and our democratic credentials were restored.
In the late-1980s and early-1990s, an acute economic and financial crisis stared us in the face. India was on the verge of defaulting on its debt. To the credit of the government at that time, appropriate steps were taken to meet our commitments and the economy was freed in a series of policy reforms that seemed unthinkable earlier.
The current crisis has thrown up two critical issues. Do we care enough to ensure that democracy in India survives, not just in name but in practice? And, will we change our thinking in a way that is more appropriate to a modern 21st century world or keep clinging on to a mythical past?
Democracy is a privilege, not a God-given right; it needs constant nurturing. It is, in fact, an incredible achievement for a vast, diverse, poor, uneducated nation, surrounded by a hostile environment as India was at the time of Independence, to not only retain its vibrant, democratic character but strengthen it over the years. Not many had given us a chance; we have defied all odds in retaining our representative democracy.
Often, in India, we believe that democracy is confined to voting in elections, which can be termed as electoral democracy. Real democracy goes far beyond; it is a way of life which encourages freedom of views and their expression, freedom to choose one’s livelihood and the rule of law. Primacy of the individual is paramount. It enables people’s participation in and influence of the government policies and accountability of those in the government. Without these attributes, democracy would be incomplete.
It is quite evident that over the past few years we have been moving in a direction that is highly authoritarian. Power is getting increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few and accountability is missing. Neither the bureaucracy nor the members of the legislature feel free to speak their minds.
Media is being muzzled in a systematic manner. Institutions, including those that have the constitutional mandate to check the powers of the government, hesitate to use that power and citizens are left at the mercy of a government totally devoid of compassion. The principle of checks & balances, that is a critical feature of our Constitution, has become a casualty.
The outcome is for all of us to see in the manner the COVID crisis has been handled. No country can claim to have come out smelling of roses in this crisis. India, however, has faltered at each and every stage. Decision-making has been concentrated in the hands of a few, without basing it on science and scientific evidence; communication has been poor; and the focus has been on narrating our superiority in handling the pandemic.
Take our vaccination policy. Most countries had a simple objective, which is to vaccinate as many people as possible in the shortest possible time. They used every available resource in this endeavour.
The Indian government, however, sought to maintain complete control, dictate what can and cannot be done, with the eventual aim of claiming credit. The result is unsurprising. While many countries are at an advanced stage of vaccinating their nationals and returning to normal life, Indian vaccination numbers are extremely poor and lock-downs and restrictions continue to be a part of our normal life.
No one can be certain how long we will have to wait for normalcy to return. We, the citizens, are paying a heavy price for not being demanding enough and accepting whatever is dished out. It is galling to hear people justifying the mess by citing the enormity of the task on hand. As a nation, we are used to substandard service, relying more on jugaad and personal connections to get things done.
It is time for us to wake up to reality. The world, as we know it, is changing. Technology is making it happen. And, it is no ordinary change in technology. We are on the cusp of a fundamental transformation that will usher in what can be termed the third industrial revolution.
Technology in different fields usually develops at its own pace. When progress in these different fields comes together, it creates conditions essential for radical transformation. Those conditions seem to be in place now and when they combine in the near future, the outcome will be as significant as in the first two industrial revolutions.
Why is all this significant? Simply because there is so much scope to do things that will make a real difference to humanity and it would be nice if India could be in the forefront of these developments.
That is unlikely to happen on its own. It requires fundamental changes in values and attitudes. Our thinking must become modern and scientific temper must inform all aspects of our life.
We have already experienced, at great cost to ourselves, the impact of disregarding scientific evidence. The desire for chest thumping led to premature declaration of victory over the virus.
The health minister’s statement of having reached the ‘end game’ in early March 2021 shows a leadership that is as divorced from reality as was Marie-Antoinette, the Queen of France, with her ‘If they don’t have bread, give them eat cake’ statement.
That statement proved a catalyst for the French revolution and established a modern French society. Would it be too much to hope for a similar revolutionary change in Indian society in the 21st century that lays the foundations of a modern and just India?
Would the country be able to shake off its chalta hai attitude to demand nothing but the very best from the government and the people themselves?
Can we ensure that our social and political norms and behaviour are based on values and that respect for the individual transcends everything else?
Can we ensure that the principles enshrined in the Constitution are practised in our day-to-day life and do not remain mere pious hopes?
It is now up to the people of India to show that they care, that they are angry and they will not accept injustice, or lackadaisical and inhuman governance.
There is great suffering amongst people today and they are hurt. The hurt is private; can this personal hurt be turned into public anger to force changes in our society and polity to ensure that the country takes its rightful place in the comity of nations, instead of being increasingly marginalised?
My generation has harboured such hopes and aspirations all our life, frustratingly so. Hopefully, the tragedy that the country is experiencing will jolt all of us into meaningful action rather than engaging in mere platitudes or worse, hurling abuses at one another. If the pandemic-induced suffering does not spur us to the much needed revolutionary thoughts and action, nothing will. Else, as I had mentioned in one of my recent articles, India will continue to pull along as it has in the past, a major underachieving country while the world passes us by.
How we channelise personal suffering to collective public anger will define the future of India. This is a tragedy that India must use to effect a real, revolutionary transformation in the Indian way of life! The question is: ‘Do we care’?
(Sunil Mahajan, a financial consultant and teacher, has over three decades experience in the corporate sector, consultancy and academics.)