Creation stories are fundamental to a nation’s identity. Celebrating them is a necessary reaffirmation of that identity. But India’s 70th Independence Day deserves more than a pro forma celebration. It comes at an inflection point. Globally, economic and cultural nationalism are being redefined after decades of an international consensus that had little time for them. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the liberalization that integrated India with that consensus. It also comes in the midst of an ongoing process of economic and political change that could be as far-reaching as liberalization.
In August 1947, Vallabhbhai Patel had said that the economic regeneration of India would be the government’s primary task. In 1931’s Karachi Resolution, the Congress had accepted the primacy of the fundamental rights that would later be enshrined in the Constitution. The preamble to the Constitution, in “assuring the dignity of the individual”, placed these at the heart of India’s nation-building exercise—as it did the “unity and integrity of the Nation”.
These three core elements of the Indian project—economic renewal, individual rights and the sacrosanct nature of the nation’s integrity—are as interdependent in 2016 as they were in 1947. Individual rights are hollow without economic growth to provide a solid foundation for them; neither is sustainable when the nation’s integrity is uncertain.
The national understanding of how best to deliver economic growth is now being fundamentally reoriented. For all the political upheaval of the past—the Emergency, the Mandal movement, the uncertainty of the mid-to-late 1990s—independent India has never quite seen a paradigm shift to parallel the current situation. With its strong mandate, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has the space to truly offer an alternative perspective for the first time.
Narendra Modi’s emphasis on cooperative federalism and mothballing of the Planning Commission, among other moves, are encouraging signs here. But it is imperative for this alternative perspective to be well-calibrated.
From Brexit to the US presidential race, the year thus far has provided a signal lesson: headline growth is not enough. Inequality and policymaking divorced from ground-level grievances will, at some point, trigger a backlash.
If economic growth is needed to underwrite the individual rights of Indian citizens, however, political will is necessary for guaranteeing them.
India is currently witnessing another shift here. For decades, it has been unfashionable to posit culture and religion as binding elements in a national narrative. But ignoring this reality creates fertile ground for cultural ghettoization and the rise of dangerous far-right politics in response—both witnessed in Europe over the past few years. And in India’s case, a wealth of scholarship has shown—India: A Sacred Geography by Diana L. Eck is a fine example—that culture and religion have historically been integral to the idea of India. Modi’s BJP must now decide how to integrate this reality—part of its ideological DNA—with the liberal ethos of India’s Constitution.
The virulence of the debates on nationalism and the limits of free speech; the hooliganism in the name of the questionable goal of gau raksha—the caste and communal discrimination that has seen Dalits and Muslims targeted in the name of cow protection—show that the BJP has not found the answer yet. And while it is unfair to lay all the ugliness at Modi’s door, the burden of creating a political environment that minimizes space for it rests upon him and his government. They have been lacking here.
These debates and the growth narrative are, in certain ways, both entwined with the question of India’s integrity—that is, Kashmir. It inflames the former and is ill-served by the latter. There are certain factors here that are beyond effective control at the current moment in time such as Pakistan’s policies. But as we have argued in these pages, both central and state governments have failed to engage in the economic uplift and political outreach that is necessary for addressing the Kashmir issue. Now, with yet another cycle of unrest in Kashmir, it is time to begin the necessary course correction.
The India story has become a punchline in some ways—never quite managing to reach the denouement. But 70 years into its Independence, the fastest growing major economy in the world—with an administration that has set aside outdated certitudes—is perhaps better placed to turn the page than it has ever been. Now comes the hard part.