By Ashis Ray

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny,’ proclaimed India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru at a special session of the Indian parliament to mark India’s freedom on 15 August 1947, “and now the time has come when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.”

The India bequeathed back by the British was in terms of education, health, institutions and infrastructure a considerably modernised entity from what they had colonised 190 years earlier. But free India inherited shocking levels of poverty and illiteracy, an unchanged caste structure and newly injected communal tension.

At this critical hour, the country was fortunate to have at its helm an enlightened visionary like Nehru who bestowed to his people an equitable and secular constitution and proceeded to instil a progressive mindset. He created a structure of higher education which laid an emphasis on engineering, science and technology. India’s subsequent rise in the spheres of medicine, pharmaceuticals, space exploration and computer software is a fruition Nehru’s foresight.

But the extent and speed of economic development India might have achieved fell short of expectation as the nation was compelled to increasingly divert resources to defence and internal security. Full-fledged wars with Pakistan broke out in 1947, 1965 and 1971, not to mention another long drawn out battle in 1999. China invaded India in 1962, before withdrawing because of international pressure. The luxury of peace eluded India.

Thus, 75 years after the midnight moment, how far has India redeemed its pledge?

Independent India emerged when the world was in the midst of an intense Cold War between the communist Soviet Union and its allies and the capitalist West marshalled by the United States. In such circumstance, Nehru deliberately crafted non-alignment as the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy. Initially, this position was treated with suspicion by both Moscow and Washington, before the former appreciated the rationale of a fledgling nation remaining detached from superpower rivalries. In due course, the Kremlin’s closeness with New Delhi consolidated as the its ties with communist China began to unravel.

However, while India’s military and nuclear prowess burgeoned by the first half of the 1970s, the same could not be said of the economic headway made by it, although, admittedly, the hostilities thrust upon it had a debilitating impact on its economy. There was food shortage in the 1960s, which US President Lyndon Johnson helped to alleviate. The bureaucratic, corrupt and protective economic framework in fact proved to be a recipe for pedestrian GDP growth coupled with high unemployment.

Realisation of a need for reforms resulted in first steps in this direction under the premierships of Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv in the 1980s. But it was not until a serious shortage of foreign exchange reserve arose in 1991, that a landmark economic liberalisation – opening up the Indian market to foreign exporters and investors, unleashing of animal spirits of the Indian private sector – occurred. It catapulted India into a cosmos of comparative prosperity; one which lasted all of a quarter of a century.

But somewhat unnoticed, dark clouds had begun to gather on the horizon in the late 1980s. Hindu-Muslim disharmony which had torn India apart in the 1940s, in the prelude to freedom, causing the partitioning of the country into an Islamic Pakistan and a predominantly Hindu India, was raising its ugly head.

Given the foundations laid by Nehru’s uncompromising secularism – upheld by successors in his Congress party – communal forces had not merely been kept at bay, but by the mid-1980s the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been reduced to two seats out of 540-odd in the Lok Sabha, the directly elected house of the Indian parliament.

With Hindu businessmen, their traditional supporters, no longer considering it worthwhile to underwrite them, the BJP turned to US and United Kingdom based members and supporters of the Hindu militant Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) for succour, which they successfully obtained.

The Islamic revolution in Iran emboldened a section of Indian Muslims. By pandering to such elements and at the same time opening a Pandora’s Box on a Hindu-Muslim dispute over a mosque, Rajiv Gandhi veritably assisted the BJP to propagate that Hindus – 80 percent of the Indian population – were in peril because of secular parties’ appeasement of Muslims. The ploy succeeded. It inexorably climaxed in a BJP majority in the Lok Sabha for the first time in 2014.

The current Narendra Modi regime, with its one-point agenda of Hindu supremacy, has been devastating for India. It has crippled the economy and generated record joblessness. It has polarised Indian society between Hindu extremists and liberals; and caused an unhealthy divide between Hindus and non-Hindus, especially Muslims, who number some 200 million in India.

After authorising the game-changing economic reforms of 1991, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao tackled the collapse of the Soviet Union with a switch to multi-alignment while maintaining equidistance from big power conflicts. India thereafter experienced a dream decade under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh between 2004 and 2014, with significant accomplishments on the economic front, reduction of poverty and productive relations with the US and China.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index consistently awarded the period of Singh’s stewardship with scores of above seven out of 10, peaking at 7.92 in his final year in government in 2014. In Modi’s dispensation this plummeted to an unprecedented low of 6.61 in 2021.

Washington-based Freedom House, which works to defend human rights and promote democratic change, in its 2022 ‘Freedom in the World’ report downgraded India from being “free” to “partly free”. It explained this was “due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government (of Modi) and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by media, academics, civil society groups and protestors”.

In its 2021 ‘Democracy Report’, Sweden’s Varieties of Democracy or V-Dem stated about India: “The world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy.” In its view “the diminishing of freedom of expression, the media, and civil society have gone the furthest”.

At the time of transfer of power in 1947, it was a desire of the British crown as well as Sir Winston Churchill that India remain a dominion of the United Kingdom, with the British monarch as its head of state. This was rejected outright by Nehru. At the same time, he was party to a solution. The 1949 London Declaration of Commonwealth Prime Ministers converted the organisation into a free association of member nations, thereby enabling India’s eligibility, while accepting King George VI as head of the Commonwealth.

Three years later, when George passed away, Nehru cabled Queen Elizabeth describing her as Head of the Commonwealth, thus finessing her succession to the role even before other heads of government of Commonwealth countries had had a chance to consider the matter.

However, since the high point of Marlborough House spearheading gobal efforts to end apartheid in South Africa three decades ago, India’s interest in the body has dwindled. This is unlikely to witness a reversal in the near future, as Modi attempts to whip up jingoistic sentiments to mark the 75th anniversary of Indian independence. For the people, though, it’s a mixed emotion.

* Ashis Ray is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent, having uninterruptedly worked in this capacity for 45 years, mainly for BBC and CNN, where he was editor-at-large. He has recently spent a year at St Antony’s College Oxford as an academic visitor researching and writing a paper on an aspect of the Indian freedom movement.