Profound transformation and extraordinary stories: India’s incredible journey from independence to modern nation

by Shashi Tharoor

As India turns 70 today, politician and acclaimed author Shashi Tharoor writes about its past and its present.

India at 70. AFP

India at 70. AFP

As Independent India turns 70, it is time to look back and to look forward at where the country found itself at that moment of freedom, and its unlikely journey so far.

British colonial rule ended at the moment of what India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, hailed as its “tryst with destiny”. What had once been one of the richest and most industrialised economies of the world, which together with China accounted for almost 75 per cent of world industrial output in 1750, had been reduced by the depredations of imperial rule to one of the poorest, most backward, illiterate and diseased societies on Earth by the time of independence in 1947.

From 1900 to 1947 the rate of growth of the Indian economy was near zero. Freedom from Britain turned these numbers around for India. Net per capita income growth, which was nil between 1900 and 1950, rose to 1.3 per cent from 1950 to 1980, to 3.5 per cent from 1981 to 1990 and 4.4 per cent from 1991 to 2000, before attaining even higher levels in the following decade, twice crossing 9 per cent and averaging 7.8 per cent from 2001 until 2010.

The British left a society with 16 per cent literacy, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and more than 90 per cent living below what we now call the “poverty line”. Today, the literacy rate is up at 79 per cent, average life expectancy is nearing 70 years of age and 280 million people have been pulled out of poverty in the 21st century.

Britain governed India for five decades beyond the arrival of the first electricity supplies in the 1890s. In those 50 years, while all of Britain, along with the rest of Europe and America, was electrified, the Raj connected merely 1,500 of India’s 640,000 villages to the electrical grid. After Independence, however, from 1947 to 1991, the Indian government brought electricity to roughly 320 times as many villages as British colonialism managed in a similar time span.

Economic progress was given an additional boost by the liberalisation initiated in 1991, which freed the country of many of the socialist-era restrictions that had been instituted, to create the infrastructure the British had neglected. Over time the socialist model as practised in India developed many flaws. But at its core lay Nehru’s conviction that in a land of extreme poverty and inequality, the objective of government policy must be the welfare of the poorest, most deprived and most marginalised of our people.

Whether we grow at 9 per cent, as we once did, or 6 per cent as we do now, our fundamental commitment must be to the bottom 25 per cent of our society. It is a commitment to this that allowed for an updated version of Nehru’s idea of India to develop in the 21st century: one that has widened the scope of our democracy, one that has defended secularism in the face of violent threats to our nation’s diversity, one that has deepened socialism through the creation of a framework of rights and one that has ensured India remains proud and independent in the community of nations.

The Nehruvian state gave India a capacity it did not have when the British left. It built the scientific base for India’s space and engineering triumphs today. The Indian Space Research Organisationhas launched record-setting space probes: India is the first country to successfully place a satellite in orbit around Mars at the first attempt. The Indian Institutes of Technology have given Indians a worldwide reputation for engineering excellence: Indians have helped establish some of the most successful start-ups in Silicon Valley. Today, we are world leaders in information technology.

In the course of 70 years, India has undergone profound transformations across the board. In politics, we have moved from the dominant Congress system to a proliferation of regional parties to the current dominance of the newly ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party. In economics, we have gone from a controlled “socialist” economy to a thriving free-enterprise system. In trade, we have abandoned protectionism for globalisation. In our social relations, we have tried to shake off a rigidly hierarchical caste system through a more egalitarian policy affirming opportunities and outcomes for the “lowest” castes.

Any of these transformations could have been enough to throw another country into a turbulent revolution. But we have had all four in India and yet we have absorbed them, and made all the changes work, because the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India – an India that safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity.

That idea is threatened today by a triumphant majoritarianism, unleashed by the new ruling party and its followers, that marginalises minorities and threatens the pluralist fabric of Indian society. They challenge India’s secular political culture in the name of the Hindu majority. In today’s climate of delirious atavism harking back to the glories, real and imagined, of ancient India, a sectarian shadow is cast on India’s future. Hindus are 80 per cent of the population, but they have traditionally celebrated co-existence; India’s social practices have been marked by the acceptance of difference. But in an India where violent vigilantes run amok in the name of cow-protection and where Hindu communal politics overtly asserts its strength, that culture is under terrible strain.

This is ironically undermining the very narrative that has placed India in the limelight on the global stage. In the information age, it is not the side with the bigger army that wins, but the side which tells the better story. India must remain the “land of the better story”. As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals. It would be calamitous if the India story – of a diverse, tolerant, lively democracy whose people are growing in freedom – were undermined by forces controlled or at least condoned by India’s own government.

There is an ongoing battle for India’s soul. As India celebrates its 70th birthday, seeking employment for its young, decent conditions of life for its poor and prosperity for most, this is a battle that must also be fought. Tourism campaigns justifiably advertise Incredible India; for our country to be a credible India for all, it must also remain an inclusive India.

Dr Shashi Tharoor, a former undersecretary general of the United Nations and author of 16 books, is a member of parliament in India

This article was originally published in The National.