A number of critical problems bedevil contemporary India. Together they threaten the very foundations of what remains of a united country, which in fact began its journey in a truncated form at independence. India'spolitical unity has usually been exceptional historically, a transient phenomenon under firm rulers, culminating in its most successful political expression under British colonialism. The British combined unusual political chicanery to manipulate the foolish natives and military primacy to repress them when necessary. And the would-be rulers of independent India faltered at the very first hurdle though the problems they encountered were formidable enough. However, their miserable political skills and modest personal qualities proved unequal to the task in any case.
Nevertheless, one wonders what would have happened to a united India in which a third of the population was Muslim. The mere 13 per cent they comprise now bring India to a standstill if it seeks to manoeuvre without their consent. Akhand Bharat in which Muslims constituted a third of the population would have entailed craven Hindu submission. And the secularists currently preening themselves in smug self-satisfaction on behalf of the 13 per cent would have been unceremoniously consigned to a more servile role. Christians, as well, currently exhibiting vaulting ambition and gratuitous arrogance, would have been confined to an appropriately respectful reticence. The inheritors of the tradition of an unyielding Islamic Ghazi state would have had Hindus on the run in no time. The latter have mainly shown adeptness at fighting over meagre scraps among themselves and swooning like demented peacocks in competitive displays of casteism than resisting their own impending slavery.
The security challenge facing the rump of the Indian State is both external and internal. The external one is the likelihood of a pincer movement against India at an appropriate moment by the Sino-Pak alliance. They are the moral equivalent of European Axis powers that brought civilisation to its knees during the 1940s though perhaps neither have the cultural prowess of Italy. The solution for India is to signal an early resort to battlefield nuclear weapons against any invading Chinese forces by curtailing its conventional defences along the northern border. Once India'snorthern borders are lightly defended the Chinese would get the message that India is expecting to deploy nuclear weaponry early, though initially within its own evacuated territory. China will draw the appropriate conclusions. The Pakistanis can be subjected to a sustained conventional bludgeoning that would put them firmly in their place. India also needs to engage seriously with countries in the region that fear China and would not wish an Indian setback, chief among them Japan and Vietnam. The Muslim countries of Southeast Asia are a lost cause.
The internal threat that India faces is much more serious and immediate. The fragmentation of the Indian polity with the rise of powerful regional parties threatens a political vacuum at the Centre by default. The regional parties are basically venal, with priorities that truly endanger the political and territorial integrity of India. Of the three main ones, one is the subsidiary of the Chinese Communist party, the second, representing a hate-filled constituency, is prepared to destroy everything in sight because they cannot compete with the upper castes, however underprivileged and dis-empowered the latter, in public service exams. This was a movement sponsored by British imperialism with the express purpose of dismembering India and is now in the thrall of foreign missionaries from both east and west. The emerging third regional political group is still an unknown quantity, but seems to possess little national vision and is apparently moving in a similar direction to the second political movement from the south. They too nurture puerile fantasies about why they are disadvantaged.
The urgent task is to socialise regional parties so that they aspire to an intact national legacy in its entirety instead of allowing foreign imperialists to take advantage of Indian disarray. If India indeed fragments politically their self-destructive rage will reduce them to a form of quasi-slavery that the West imposes on much of the third world. But who will perform the task of initiating in them this much greater ambition to rule over India as a whole is hard to imagine. Lesser Indian regional political parties are likely to quickly make deals with the victors in the event of a successful foreign assault on it, which has been the historical pattern for time immemorial. The likelihood of revived national parties that could dominate the federal centre also seems remote. They are at the mercy of regional groupings and do not demonstrate leadership qualities either. India'simmediate future is mortgaged to a single family seeking quasi-royal permanency and leaders of the other major political party seemingly willing to impose any sacrifice on India for the sake of high office.
In addition to the two crucial political problems highlighted, resolution of a number of social and economic issues is vital if India is to have any future as a politically independent and culturally vibrant nation. The slow growth of employment, especially in the organised sector and manufacturing is a time bomb because disaffected youth will become a catalyst for disrupting the Indian polity comprehensively. Much of the anti-outsider regionalism, whether in Maharashtra or Assam, is fuelled by the failure of employment to grow at a pace that reflects India'soverall economic advance. There are many reasons for this serious economic failure, the principal factor being policy-induced distortions that reduce the attractiveness of hiring labour. India'srestrictive labour laws are of course a corollary of this major impasse.
Encouraging the growth of mass retailing consolidation is one change that has potentially revolutionary economic implications for India'sfuture. Once mass retailing is combined with the corporatisation of agriculture, which will eventually imply changes in land ownership, backward economic linkages for adequate, consistent and homogenous supplies will spur massive increases in agricultural productivity. Farmers producing for the organised large-scale market that supermarket buyers represent will be compelled to organise as well to achieve scale economies. There is no need for foreign investment in this sector since hiring expertise globally will suffice because foreign investment will merely siphon off easy profits abroad.
The monstrosity of state control over economic infrastructure has been another disaster that has resulted in numerous bottlenecks, not least in power generation and transport. Providing such services successfully is not rocket science and a modicum of decent regulation and market-led reform should be adopted for rapid change. But there are no takers for rational policy in this area of the economy because large infrastructure projects are a huge source of corrupt income for political parties and bureaucrats. Something similar might be said of the utter failures in primary and secondary education, especially in northern and eastern India.
A loosening of state control over schooling is therefore imperative because the state does not possess the capacity to offer urgently required change. The same is true of higher education, which is the victim of the absurdity of policy-induced shortages in supply. Yet the state continues to regulate appallingly and interfere stupidly in higher education, with geriatric ministers engaged in divisive caste politics in the pursuit of imagined political mileage. It will only guarantee deep resentments and dwindling national economic performance once merit ceases to be a criterion for evaluating educational achievement. Allowing private players in both the school and higher education sectors is the only way to increase good quality capacity although the state unavoidably needs to supervise, if somewhat lightly.
Among the emerging changes in India, its urbanisation offers the potential for attaining national cohesion. Urban Indians are less obsessed by their parochial identity though politicians conspire to ensure that they remain locked in a time warp. As a corollary, they are more conscious of themselves as Indians and this greater patriotism combines with a desire for better governance. In a rural setting, which is more self-sufficient for families and communities the unavoidably enhanced interdependence between people and communities of an urban setting is less pronounced. In urban India, good governance and a measure of decency are important for leading one'sdaily life and generate so-called middle class values.
Unfortunately, it also reinforces materialism and the selfishness that arises from competition to outdo others, but it still occurs in the context of greater mutual dependence to live a decent life. However, the exclusion from the public sphere of religious sensibility and the moral values of Sanatan Dharma, which advocate circumspection about material aspirations, among other things, creates a nihilistic society. Moral awareness is an essential attribute for a tolerably harmonious society that its leaders need to propagate by personal example. This is why Russia encountered widespread criminality, drug and alcohol abuse and gross sexual licentiousness once the harsh disciplines of the communist era retreated in the 1990s and a moral vacuum became apparent. Such a spectre of a value-neuter society in which many misdeeds escape moral sanction is also haunting India.
(The writer taught at the London School of Economics and Political Science until 2004.)