The Millennium Special

The Past

The Present

Shashi Tharoor

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Seven distinct trends that could imperil the future of India as a State and of Indians as a nation

Shashi Tharoor combines many roles special executive assistant to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, novelist, and India-watcher. In India on a whistle-stop tour to attend the usual rounds of seminars, he took time off his busy schedule to look at seven distinct trends that he believes could imperil the future of India as a state and of Indians as a nation.

1. The threat to India's Pluralism.

This is something that I have often written about in the past, the need to preserve India's pluralism. Everyone in India must feel that he or she has a stake in the country, that they can reach the highest office of the land regardless of which ethnic or religious or linguistic background they hail from. The fact that the President of India hailed from a poor scheduled caste family in Kerala speaks volumes for India's pluralism. But it remains imperative that this pluralism not be threatened, that certain people be denied top offices in India only because of they hail from specific minority backgrounds.

It is important to remember that one can be a good Muslim and a good Keralite and a good Indian all at the same time. Let us not forget that India is a pluralist state because Indians are a pluralist people, hailing from different backgrounds and cultures, different languages and religions, yet all of who are Indians.

2. The threat to India's Democracy.

This is the other side of pluralism. Democracy allows people to give vent to their aspirations and to rise through the hierarchy based on their effort. Non-democratic societies often stiffle the voice of minorities and others not in the mainstream. There can be no gainsaying that democracy has been one of the pillars of India's strength, and it must be strengthened, not weakened. Democracy ensures a liberal, pluralist state.

3. Poverty.

This is a real threat to India's future. By poverty I don't simply mean the kind of poverty that economists refer to, that of a lack of sufficient food, though, of course, it is perhaps the most important. Here I also refer to the lack of opportunities that the poor suffer from, often caused by illiteracy, the lack of healthcare that causes the poor to not be totally fit.

Such lack of opportunities prevent the complete participation of huge masses of Indians in the nation's democracy, the country's governance. And linked to poverty are the problems of illiteracy and lack of healthcare, both of which create their own sets of problems.

4. Population.

Certainly population growth is a problem, but it is linked acutely to poverty. I have often argued that people are not poor because they have too many children, but that they have many children because they are poor. For the poor, children are a guarantor of their future, the social security net, someone who will provide for them and look after them in their old age. You cannot tackle population unless you tackle poverty first. Remove or curtail the poverty, and once people are sure about their future, they will have less children.

5. Demographic imbalance.

It has been said that the unbalanced growth of population, that is more in north and less elsewhere is a threat. To me, it is not too much of a threat. If India has to delimit its constituencies for representation to Parliament, the north will gain many more seats while the south may actually lose a few. But the positive aspect here is that we are beginning to see ourselves more as Indians rather than just as north or south Indians, hence the believed divide of the past is much less now. And even if north Indians have the numbers, it is south India that is fuelling economic growth. Thus there is balance of sorts.

6. Federalism.

I seriously believe that total federalism is a must for India's long-term benefit. And here I don't just mean transferring powers from the Centre to the states, but also from the states down to the panchayats (village councils). Let the people be able to guide their own destinies, be responsible for their lives. The centralism of the past has benefitted no one.

7. Economic reforms and employment.

I seriously believe that for the sake of India's future, there can be no going back to the era of socialism. As I said earlier, all we did in those decades was stifle growth and distribute poverty. Economic reforms are needed to ensure that the Indian economy grows at a healthy rate of at least seven per cent per annum.

Linked to this economic growth is employing all those millions of Indians who remain without jobs. Every year, millions become eligible for the workplace, and it is important that the economy grows at a pace that can absorb all the job seekers. Those frustrated in their attempts to get employed and a decent livelihood often become terrorists. Hence, liberalisation and market reforms are a must.

Shashi Tharoor spoke to Amberish K Diwanji.

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