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A freedom of our own

August 15, 2003

Each year, as August 15 rolls around, we find ourselves more distant from the colonialism that once shackled the nation, and further along towards a destiny of our own creation. The character of nations changes slowly along this journey, and the events of any one year aren't always momentous. Nonetheless, the annual celebration of freedom's dawn is an appropriate time to pause, and consider the roads already taken. How near are we to the promised tryst, and how much of our nation's course today reflects the aspirations of those who fought and died for our liberties?

The heartening thing about freedom and democracy is that the answers can form quite a spectrum of opinion. I offer these observations, therefore, not as a definitive or complete accounting of the past year, but as a reminder of much more. But first, the observations themselves, in no particular order.

  • The Supreme Court noted that the promises of the Directive Principles of State Policy haven't really been kept, and urged the government to provide a Uniform Civil Code. The court also observed askance that it may be a good idea to connect the nation's rivers in a grand scheme that would assure water security. For these recommendations, we can thank our failed politicians, judicial activism beyond the pale of the courts, and/or selective exhortation by the Lordships whose countless other opinions have been overlooked. After all, while the Supreme Court took its recess, the Narmada Control Authority decided to flood the valley once more without bothering to adhere to the guidelines the court set.
  • Politicians of all stripes -- yes, esteemed and crooked alike, reminding us that the difference is a small one -- fought to pass a law that would effectively deny voters the right to know whether our aspiring representatives have been convicted of any crimes, whether they have amassed great wealth in inexplicable ways, etc. Fortunately, with some help from the courts and one praiseworthy display of integrity from the President, public interest groups fought this off, but other versions of such unconstitutional legislation are in the works. Stay tuned.
  • The celebration of India's technological prowess -- in computing and biotechnology mainly -- continued. In some quarters, it is asked whether this is as significant as it seems, or if India is merely an inexpensive stopover for global companies, and will quickly fade back into economic irrelevance when the next lower rung of cheap human capital can be exploited. Meanwhile, about half the population can't read things on paper, much less a computer screen; the fundamental right to education is neither fundamental nor a right in practice. And some of the vaunted biotechnology has become a murderous tool by which female fetuses and children are killed in ever-increasing numbers.
  • The rupee gained ground on important currencies, which the RBI notes is something of an anomaly! This puts more purchasing power in the hands of millions of families, but drains the reward for some of our export-driven industries, who regularly advise New Delhi to intervene in the markets to keep our currency low. Meanwhile, a steady stream of advice also flows from Washington and Geneva, urging us to trade in those goods and services that we are most competitive at, which loosely translated means 'leave everything else to us!' This isn't just mumbo-jumbo from the Tom Friedman school of globalisation; there are several votaries for this theory -- poverty as a competitive advantage -- in India itself.
  • The line between trade and legislation continued to blur. Economic policy is now set by the IMF; agricultural policy is decided by the Cairns group of nations. Tourism policy is flown in from the Doha ministerial round of the WTO, health policy is forced towards a user-pays system by nations whose own citizens enjoy widespread medical benefits funded by governments. Regulatory agencies in New Delhi -- have turned into handmaidens of the industries they are supposed to monitor. The health minister says asbestos is safe, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee sees no problems with genetic foods that are barred in other nations, the law minister argues in the Supreme Court that the people have no right to an informed choice, ...
  • The disconnect between elections and government reached more lows. The latest from New Delhi is that the general election may be brought forward to February next year, because the difficult decisions that would need to be taken in the coming Budget could simply not be made by the ruling party without a severe backlash from the voters if the election was held after the Budget. This is a strange version of democracy, where politicians set the nation's course to a direction that the people would surely oppose, and thereafter try to figure out how best to remove the people's opposition to such stewardship.

My chronicle can scarcely be regarded as the final or complete word, and I will leave you to an independent understanding of these developments. Here, rather than plunge into arguing the facts and their interpretations, we might instead more appropriately ask how we should judge these times.

By way of answering this, allow me to take you back to one of the events related above -- the campaign for electoral reforms -- and to a letter I received some weeks ago from a regular reader, Praveen Pahwa. Writing in response to 
an earlier article, he had this to say: You, me, we can raise these issues, discuss them and get a debate going, but the power to make these changes rests with those who are affected the most and therefore very reluctant to give up their way. The politicians and the babus thwart every initiative to make the system more people-friendly. How then does one see the system improving?

Considering the many ways in which the people's aspirations are thwarted by the despised babus and politicians, the frustration and anger in the question are understandable. But I suggest to you -- as I did to him -- that the greater emotion surrounding this view isn't despair, but hope!

All the rage we can ever muster at the fallen state around us mustn't blind us to a different element -- namely, that each person behind Praveen's question is someone who still believes in the idea of citizenship, of the public good, and of good government. It is from seeing those ideals thwarted that the despair arises, and that we cannot overlook, but underneath lurks a positive sign as well. We remain far from the day when the economic and social promises of independence will be real in the majority of Indian lives. Nonetheless, the expectation that the day will arrive, and the willingness to seek it, are the real measures of our freedoms. And those we have retained.

Last year's campaign for electoral reforms offered a strong reminder of this. When the Cabinet first moved to override the Supreme Court's ruling on full disclosures of candidates, the Association for Democratic Reforms, the People's Union for Civil Liberties, and most importantly, 
Lok Satta, made a vigorous defence of the people's right to make informed choices at the voting booths. The tremendous energy they brought to this quest for political accountability led to a truly unique development -- the President of India declined to endorse the Cabinet's proposed ordnance. True, the legislators blindly resubmitted the same proposal, whereupon President Kalam was constitutionally obliged to give his consent.

How shall we remember that sequence of events? Did we lose?

Not at all. The people, through associations they have formed, turned to an important office-holder in the machinery of their government, and urged him to consider the honour of his office as well as the stated aspirations of the voters themselves. And he responded splendidly. So who won? The politicians who got the legislation passed anyway, despite President Kalam's objections, or people like you and me who joined in that objection? Further, in fact, Lok Satta and ADR went on to contest the legislation in the Supreme Court, whereupon the wise men shot down some of the more egregious elements of the law. Disclosures are now mandatory.

But even without that eventually sweet victory, the people would still have won. The measure of our liberties is not captured merely in our leaders' willingness to grant them to us. Instead, the progressive society is a limitless ideal, and seeking it is enough assurance of its promise. In confronting the government's stance at each step, the people kept alive the idea of informed citizenship and its possibilities for change. In doing so, we declared our privileges unfettered by the political will of our leaders. Instead, we have our own imaginations for India, and we rightly cherish them.

The unfortunate side-note to this encouraging observation is that our aspirations have taken shape not at the urging of statesman-like or patriotic leaders, but despite them. At every turn, those ideally placed to inspire have instead turned to defeating the people's interests. Finding himself upon the great platform of our giant democracy, the Indian politician has not dared to articulate a vision of liberty or free enterprise beyond the narrow confines of his personal power and the vested interests supporting it. He has substituted his weaknesses for the strength and spirit of the Indian people, all the while proclaiming the glory of a freedom he has denied to millions.

It is a great pity, but no shame to the people themselves; we have endured, and will do better still. Happy 56th.


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