New India must shine for all

Our new India must be an India that respects all religions, all faiths, all beliefs, all cultures, all languages, all regions, all castes and all classes

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Shashi Tharoor

During his Independence Day address in 2017 and 2018, the phrase ‘New India’ has been repeatedly invoked by our prime minister. We may hear it again shortly. But what exactly is this ‘New India’ he is urging us to create?

The Prime Minister spoke of an India free from the shackles of casteism and communal tension, an India that successfully solves its endemic problems of corruption, nepotism and terrorism, an India where every woman, man and child would be given an empowered and dignified standard of living, thanks to a society that harnesses India’s entrepreneurial spirit to become an economic powerhouse.

But, as usual, between the rhetoric and the reality there falls a great shadow. For all these statements and ideals (which one can find very little to disagree with), one is struck by the complete lack of any idea of how our country is going to achieve any of this. And on the contrary, plenty of evidence of the opposite: whether it is the ‘Achhe Din’ of 2014 or the ‘New India’ of the present, under the BJP government, these phrases appear to be a mere smokescreen for the real agenda that this government has pursued since coming to power. The road to New India appears littered with the wreckage of all that was good and noble about the old India.

In its place, an ugly distortion of the Indian idea is rising, an India where narrow-minded majoritarianism prevails, an India where incidents of communal violence proliferate, driven by mob-lynching zealots and gau-rakshak vigilantes. In their New India, Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Jai Shri Ram have become rallying cries of bigotry rather than the beautiful slogans Indians are free to use or not as they wish.

Human beings have been assaulted and killed in the name of cow protection. Muslims and Dalits have been particularly victimised: the father of an Air Force havildar, a 15-year-old boy returning from Eid shopping, a dairy farmer transporting cows with a permit, Dalits doing their job of skinning a dead cow, have all been casualties of this New India. In fact, as the scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta fittingly asked: “How did this fantasy of hope, painted in the colours of a nation marching to one tune and one purpose, completely blanket out the actual republic of fear?”.

Under the watch of the present ruling dispensation, dissent is portrayed as seditious, protests are ‘anti-national’ and free speech is censored through economic pressure on media owners and outright political intimidation—all of which are illustrations of the petty intolerance and chauvinism that passes for a ruling ideology in today’s times. If anything, theirs is a new India that we must stand up to and resist at all costs.

Like most democrats, I want a New India too. It will be a New India where you won’t get lynched for the food you eat, marginalised for the faith you hold dear, criminalised for the person you love and imprisoned for making use of fundamental rights guaranteed by your own Constitution.

Instead, this Independence Day, we must look forward to a ‘New India’ that celebrates and welcomes pluralism, an idea vindicated by history itself.

To me, this new India must be fundamentally rooted in the idea of India that our founding fathers believed in. After all, as I’ve asked in a different context, if you don’t know where you are coming from, then how can you know where you are going?

This nebulous ‘Idea of India’—the phrase is Rabindranath Tagore’s—is, in some form or another, arguably as old as antiquity itself. Nehru saw our country as an ‘ancient palimpsest’ on which successive rulers and subjects had inscribed their visions without erasing what had been asserted previously. We not only coexist, but thrive in our diversity which is our strength.

Swami Vivekananda spoke of a Hinduism that not merely tolerates other faiths but accepts them as they are. This acceptance of difference has been key to our country’s survival, making ‘unity in diversity’ the most hallowed of independent India’s self-defining slogans.

India, as I have long argued, has always been more than the sum of its contradictions. The Indian idea is that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree—except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. It is the idea of an ever-ever land—emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy.

India’s democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens: you can be many things and one thing. The Indian idea is the opposite of what Freudians call ‘the narcissism of minor differences’; in India, we celebrate the commonality of major differences. So, the idea of India is of one land embracing many. For New India to succeed and indeed thrive, it will have to embrace this inclusive vision and draw its inspiration from the key tenets of the core ‘Idea of India’. Only by maintaining a commitment towards a democratic and pluralistic ethos can New India be able to fulfil the aspirations of all Indians.

At the same time, we must also be conscious that preserving our ideological commitment to pluralism, acceptance and the freedom provided by our democratic systems is only one half of the battle. Providing a decent standard of living to the people of India, particularly those from economically vulnerable groups, is the second commitment that we must undertake in our blueprint for a ‘New India’.

We may yet be able to address our staggering economic challenges if our leaders develop the capacity to look at the bigger picture. Even during the best phases of our growth in recent years, growth was never only about per capita income figures or enabling businesses. It was always a means to an end. And the ends we cared about were the uplift of the weakest sections of our society, the expansion of possibilities for them, the provision of decent health care and clean drinking water. Those ends remain. Whether we grow by 9 per cent, as we once did, or at the reportedly 5.8% per cent of the present quarter, our fundamental commitment must be to the bottom 25 per cent of our society.

So, what then must be the force that is animating the idea of our New India? It is the idea of one nation made of many different kinds of people. An India where it does not matter what religion you practice, what language you speak, what caste you were born into, what colour your skin is. In our new India it should only matter that you are Indian.

Our new India must be an India that respects all religions, all faiths, all beliefs, all cultures, all languages, all regions, all castes and all classes. That Idea of India is under threat today from those who seek not just to rule India, but to change India’s very heart and soul.

What we want is unity. They want uniformity.

We believe in an India that unites our people. They seek to divide us.

Our ideology binds our people together. Theirs separates one Indian from another.

What we need in a new India is the strengthening of democratic institutions at all levels, with transparency and accountability enforced through the Right to Information Act and an active parliament. They seek to weaken these institutions, hollow out RTI, disregard Parliament and promote one-man rule.

What we require in our new India is a leadership that empowers people and harnesses their collective strength in the pursuit of national objectives. Not someone who sees people as instruments of his own power.

Our new India must derive its support and strength from all sections of our diverse society. Their new India speaks of one faith and reduces others to second-class status.

Their idea of New India is one of exhortation: Make in India, Digital India, Start-Up India, Stand Up India, Sit Down India. Our new India must be one of consultation. We must never speak of ‘India Shining’ without asking who India is shining for. Our new India must follow policies that both promote higher economic growth and also ensures that the benefits of our growth are enjoyed by the poor and disadvantaged sections of our society.

Our choice is clear. We can have a new India that belongs to all of us, led by a government that works for all of us. Or we can have a new India that belongs to some, and serves the interests of a few.

This Independence Day, we can seek a new India that embodies hope, or one that promotes fear; one India united in striving, or an India divided by hatred.

I believe we must build this New India on solutions to our major challenges. But it must remain an open society, a rich and diverse and plural civilisation, one that is open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is India’s greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfil the creative energies of its people.

We must remain faithful to our founding values of the 20th century if we are to conquer the challenges of the 21st.

Our New India will shine. But it must shine for all.

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