15 August is just a date, and 75 is just a number, but this year, as India celebrates the diamond jubilee of its freedom from oppressive colonial rule, these numbers focus our minds sharply on what has been gained… and lost.
India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his dreams and hopes in one of the most famous speeches of the English language (Tryst with Destiny) at midnight on 15 August 1947; and for the next 17 years, he endeavoured to strengthen India’s Independence in every sense of the word:
The first priority was to provide self-sufficiency in food – hence the Green Revolution and the foundations of a vast network of irrigation and hydro-electric power stations in rural areas.
Equally important was the consolidation of India’s natural resources through the creation of various Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) in Mining, Energy, Infrastructure, Communication and Transport. Several Public Sector manufacturing units also came up, and were dubbed the temples of New India – industrial and urban India was on the cusp of a great revolution.
Then came an ambitious programme to strengthen human resources through the creation of world class institutions of learning in everything from the Pure Sciences, to Technology, to Business Management and the Liberal Arts, to Medicine and Space Research, to Defence R&D to the Nuclear Sciences.
Internationally, Nehruvian India stood proud and tall as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the country which everyone had expected to disintegrate within a decade of Independence, found its rightful place on the world stage as an arbiter of good common sense, an exemplar of unity in diversity, and a proponent of peace and goodwill among nations.
There was a simultaneous effort to improve the quality of life of the country’s citizens through various poverty alleviation programmes, and the vast improvement in Human Development Indicators in the second half of the last century, are evidence of their success.
However, the world caught up with India and after the oil shock and various wars of the 1970s, came the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, and inevitably, the dawn of an era of globalisation accompanied by liberalisation and privatisation.
Ironically the great economic reforms which were ushered in by Pandit Nehru’s own party were to sound the death knell of the great Nehruvian dream of planned development, and pave the way for a right-wing government under A B Vajpayee, which merrily went on to sell some precious gems from India’s public sector, to private investors. Between 1999 and 2004, the BJP privatized the Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO), Hindustan Zinc (both to Sterlite Industries), Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited (to Reliance Industries) and VSNL (to the Tata group) and various state government establishments as well. While the track record and future of these companies were considered good at the time of sale, they have all failed under the private establishments that they were sold to.
Between 2014 and 2018 the present government divested a total of ₹1,94,646 crore – and as most of these PSUs were literally run into the ground to justify their sale, it led to a loss to the taxpayer of over ₹69,575.64 crores over the past decade.
Ditto with the human resources which have leached away to foreign shores with full support of the government, which has done little or nothing to staunch the brain drain and incentivize investment in India by its expatriates. Studies have found that 23,000 Indian millionaires have left India since 2014 and that nearly 7,000 millionaires left in 2019 alone, costing the country billions in tax revenue. Since 2015, nearly 9 lakh Indians have given up their citizenship.
So much for Indian independence and self-sufficiency in key areas of learning and knowledge.
And the final loss of independence stares us in the face in the arena of foreign relations, as India scuttles embarrassingly from this side to that – swinging from BRICS to QUAD, with no principled reasoning to support either side. And with a world on the verge of moving away from the unipolarity of the last 30 years to a distinctly multipolar order, we are very much in danger of being utterly marginalized in world affairs. Sad but true.
The coming decades will be crucial and here’s hoping we can overcome the growing poverty, the immoral inequality, the increasing divisiveness, and our marginal global profile, so that we can celebrate the Centenary of our Independence as a truly great nation in 2047. Amen!