India and the Challenges of the twenty first century

30th Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture

13 November 1998
New Delhi, India

As the world awaits the dawn of the next millennium, India is poised for her next historic tryst with destiny. The 21st century means new hopes and fresh aspirations amongst people everywhere. For India, the 20th century was of momentous significance. We took giant strides that released the people and the country from the shackles of colonialism, which had not only squeezed the wealth of India but also fettered our freedom. The spirit of India, the genius of her people, we thought, had been released from subjugation and exploitation and we had assumed control over our destiny. It was a hard-won independence, the 50th year of which we celebrated in 1997.

The promises and commitment that India made to her people over 50 years ago remain unfulfilled and there are incomplete and urgent tasks that we have to finish soon. To identify the challenges of the next millennium, India will have to clear the huge backlog of unredeemed promises. She has to fight hunger, poverty and unemployment and cater to such needs of the people as education, health, potable drinking water, housing and rural electrification. The farmer has to be able to use his land and labour to not merely sustain himself and his family, but to earn the wealth that lies in his land. The working class, especially labour in the factories, should be able to share the prosperity that is now confined to a very thin layer of the population. India will have to meet the challenges of liberating and empowering women, as the country has to release the backward and the exploited from the age-old bonds of caste and conflicts.

I joined the political arena very early in my life. I chose Marxism and scientific socialism as my political philosophy. Throughout my political life I have been practicing these principles. My vision of India for the21st century will largely be influenced by what I perceived, through my personal experiences and the successes and failures of the 20th century to which I have been a witness.

In history, the 20th century will be recorded as a century marked by contradictions. Periods of optimism and hope were followed by despair and despondency. The past hundred years saw tremendous advances in science and technology and witnessed two global wars which caused sufferings of unprecedented proportions to humanity The century welcomed the triumph of liberation struggles in Asia, Africa and Latin America vitiating the process of de-colonisation. We saw the end of social apartheid in South Africa and the awakening of progressive forces demanding the establishment of a democratic order based on the primacy of human values and socio-economic justice. We experienced the establishment of socialist governments and the creation of a socialist bloc, which at one point encompassed one-fifth of the world population. This tide that had swept through the world radiating outwards from the Soviet Union to China, Vietnam and far away Cuba seemed to recede.

Rampant capitalism in the garb of essential economic structural re-engineering took over and plunged the Russian Republic into chaos. From the high point of hope, we witnessed the decline and the break-up of the Soviet Union and the socialist forces in the world received a major setback. I am hopeful that this situation will be altered in the early part of the next century. Fortunately, there still exist some socialist countries including China, the most populous country in the world. We have to closely follow their policies and developments and draw appropriate lessons. There is hope that disquieting trends will be reversed and a new situation will emerge in the next century.

The 20th century has been the story of a dialectical ebb and flow in the tide of human progress. Much of what we are expected to experience in the next millennium would be shaped by the developments of our century. The same paradigm is applicable to India, too. I would like to discuss the prospects of India in the next century and place them in the historical perspective of the present.

Any discourse on political leadership in contemporary India should focus on the role and contribution of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Along with Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and many others, he played a major role in the shaping of modern India. It is, perhaps, appropriate that I touch on some of his contributions at this address organized by the trustees of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund.

Nehru occupies a significant place in our history. Between 1947 and 1964, he, as the first Prime Minister of independent India, guided her destiny. Throughout the nationalist struggle, Nehru symbolised the left and secular forces within the Indian National Congress. His presidential address at the 1936 session, especially, inspired this country's youth. What singled him out was his intellectual ability to combine his commitment to the cause of national liberation with other progressive forces in world politics. His visit to the USSR in 1927 gave him a first hand experience that he cherished. Pandit Nehru condemned, in no uncertain terms, the invasion of China by Japan and took prompt steps to send a medical team to China as a mark of solidarity. He was one of the staunchest critics of fascism and went to Spain to boost the morale of the Republicans fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Nehru also unequivocally disapproved of the Munich Pact of 1938. His vision of India's role in the international order gave birth to the non-aligned movement, which has been a major contribution to the structuring of international affairs in the post-colonial period.

I went to England to study Law in 1935 and during those days Nehru was a source of inspiration to all of us. My interest in Marxism and leftist politics drew me towards such progressive political forums in England as the India League, the London Majlis and the Student Federation that sought to mobilise public opinion in favour of Indian independence. I was Secretary of the London Majlis, which emerged as one of the foremost political organisations of the Indian left forces in Britain. Nehru lent his support to all these bodies. I remember that Pandit Nehru visited England twice and on both occasions, the London Majlis organised receptions in his honour. While Vijay Lakshmi Pandit was with him during the first visit, Indira accompanied him on the second. Since those days in London, I met Pandit Nehru on many occasions both before and after independence. He had a profound knowledge of history and felt an earnest desire to build a strong India.

Impressed by the erstwhile Soviet Union's achievements through five-year plans, Pandit Nehru adopted centralised planning as the best strategy for India's economic and social development and initiated the process of industrialization. He was an ardent believer in the development of India based on democracy and secularism. As a founding father of non-alignment, he made the country a force to reckon with in international politics. India began her career with much promise but half a century after independence much of what Jawaharlal Nehru had visualized has been belied.

Nehru wanted to put into practice his concept of 'mixed economy' with a view to reducing social and economic distress. In reality, the feudal-capitalistic system continues. Even here, much could have been done if the political will to change had been stronger. But the general scenario today is far from satisfactory. Without land reforms and democratic decentralisation, there persists a high degree of concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. An unwieldy bureaucracy has flourished, while the vast masses are steeped in poverty. Distortions in the functioning of the Constitution have led to inequalities in economic advance, a centralized political structure and regional disparities, which, at times, trigger centrifugal outbursts.

The Indian polity betrays disturbing signs of political centralism. The centrist and authoritarian tendencies of the central government reached its peak during the emergency of 1975 when the people of India were deprived of the fundamental rights that are enshrined in the country's Constitution. Indian federalism, with its strong centralising tendencies, allowed on many occasions the ruling parties in Delhi to not only intervene but also destabilise state governments, which were of a different political hue. India's democratic tradition re-asserted itself by rejecting authoritarianism and the emergency ended in two years.

I asked Mrs. Gandhi later why she had taken such an undemocratic and extreme step. Her answer was that the country was going to pieces and the people were in no mood to listen to the advice of the government. She thought that a shock therapy was necessary to bring back the people on the right track. However, they registered their strong protest when the opportunity came. The Congress as a ruling party enjoyed a virtual monopoly of power for 46 years. Unfortunately it failed to combat the politics of religious sectarianism and fundamentalism.

The need to look at things afresh and to reorient ourselves for the next century is becoming increasingly urgent. The restructuring of Centre-State relations on a healthy note has been hanging fire for a long time. The Sarkaria Commission has not helped to resolve this issue. It is of the view that the nation can be made powerful by making only the centre more powerful. The Commission has recommended, by and large, status quo in the Centre-State relations, especially in the areas, relating to legislative matters, role of Governors, use of Article 356etc.

My differences on major aspects of the Sarkaria Commission's report have been made known to all. Article 6 was misused in the past by different central governments to serve their partisan purposes. Both Article 356 and 357 need to be amended to preclude further possibilities of such misuse. It is, however, necessary to mention that even those recommendations of the Sarkaria commission that have gone in favour of the states are yet to be implemented.

I would like to emphasize the need for across the board decentralization of financial and other powers from the centre to the states. I also believe in democratizing the entire system of government down to the village level. We need to develop a system of government, which is truly federal. In order to build a strong centre, the country needs strong states. There is an urgent necessity for transferring far more powers from the centre to the states and only fundamental realignment can form the basis of a strong nation. If necessary, this should be brought about by enacting further constitutional amendments.

Creating smaller states as proof of federalist commitment is not the answer. This is a political weapon that the BJP is using to create constituencies for itself. By this, it will further encourage disunity and conflict in the country and help reactionary forces. What is required is to adopt the policy of granting greater autonomy within the state wherever necessary. The faltering development of a full-fledged civil society in India has undermined the working of political democracy in the country. Creation of casteist and religious vote-banks, use of money, corruption in high places, muscle-power and the criminal-political nexus are only some of our socio-political ills. The events since the eighties have been causing serious concern to all right-thinking forces.

The despicable act of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 perpetrated by the fundamentalists, and its communal fall-out tarnished the image of India. The BJP-led Government proclaimed in its National Agenda that it would uphold what it called real secularism, which is in reality a call for changing the accepted concept of secularism. As we all know, secularism connotes equal respect for all religions. But the BJP's actions flagrantly flout the very basic principles of secularism. It is a matter of deep concern that the politics of communalism and sectarianism is threatening to undermine India's long-cherished tradition of eclecticism and tolerance. The Hindu religion is misrepresented by the BJP. Hindu religious preachers have not advocated hatred towards other religions and destruction of their places of worship.

The Sangh Parivar has been venting its wrath on the Muslims for long; in recent times, it has also been directing its ire against the Christian community. Such acts violate the norms of any civilized society. The BJP is now seeking to replace the ideal of 'Unity in Diversity'--extolled by Rabindranath Tagore--by the false concept of Hindu nationalism. This move would surely tear the national fabric to pieces. If India has to survive as a national entity we need to frontally combat sectarian politics. The old equations are rapidly changing and a new consensus is emerging as the political space gets more sharply divided. Now, political parties, be they national or regional, are required to take decisions on major policies and issues in order to ensure political stability at the centre.

While the country is searching for an alternative path for nation building, it needs to look at the model of administration provided by the Left Front Governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Despite limited constitutional powers and acts of glaring injustice by the predominant regimes at the centre, these governments have ensured a popular participation in the implementation of different schemes and programmer to alleviate the hardship of the common people and uplift the economic condition of the poor and the deprived section of society.

We started with comprehensive tenancy reforms, which aimed at combining distributive justice with increased productivity. A decade ago, the late Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, while addressing the Panchayati Raj Sammelan for the Eastern Zone, lauded our efforts in the rural sector. There is no denying the fact that West Bengal has created a new record in the recovery and distribution of surplus land. We have now decentralized our administration through municipalities and panchayats down to the village level. Today 50% of the State's annual outlay is spent through the three-tier Panchayati Raj system.

Administrative decentralization has facilitated the emergence of a new generation of leadership. It has also opened up political opportunities for women who have a 33 per cent reservation in the local government. This provision was later incorporated in the Central Panchayat Act. As an inevitable result of the qualitative transformation of the rural scenario, the purchasing power of the people of West Bengal, especially in the villages, has recorded a significant growth. This has created the requisite social base for a new spirit of industrialization based on a partnership of the public and private sectors, foreign and indigenous capital. The changes in the countryside have been made possible through massive movements of the people against vested interests. It is important to note that by supporting and encouraging healthy cultural movements, we have been able to uphold the democratic and secular tradition of India.

Indian industry and agriculture have many shortcomings owing to wrong priorities in the planning process. Regional disparities have increased with some states remaining unpardonably underdeveloped though they have enough natural resources The regime of controls, licenses and of freight equalisation has taken their toll on states in the eastern region. Bihar and Orissa are a case in point where in spite of an abundance of natural resources, there are abysmal levels of poverty and deprivation, including starvation. The small northeastern states have suffered neglect over the years. The system of controls and Delhi's clout in dispensing favours through licensing have been relaxed due to external and internal pressures.

The old system has been replaced by the new economic programme, which is a mix of liberalization from controls and integration of the Indian economy with global markets. The belief, however, that reforms advocated by the World Bank-IMF for structural adjustment would almost overnight unleash the Indian tiger and usher in prosperity, has not worked in reality. Recently, the World Bank President, Mr. James Wolfensohn observed that stabilization measures alone would not be effective in arresting the current global meltdown.

He stressed the need of longer-term plans for strong institutions, greater equity and social justice in the interest of ensuring political stability without which, he felt, financial stability would remain a distant goal. Poverty reduction should be at the heart of the Bank's mission, he asserted. These views are in conformity with what we have been stating all these years. The IMF, Managing Director, Mr. Michael Camdessus, also admitted to mistakes and asked for introspection on the fund's role in a new world-order with unpredictable capital flows and cautioned the world about the onrush of wide-spread recession.

I believe that the public sector, the joint sector and the private sector have a role to play in our economy. Since the state sector and the private sector will co-exist remedial steps should be taken to eliminate the ills of the afflicted public sector units by studying them on a case by case basis. Technological upgradation, modernization and other rehabilitation measures have to be applied to bring them back to health. The public sector units need to be run professionally and made accountable to the people. But, the way-out is not to weaken and close down important units. This disastrous course of action has to be reversed. The private sector, too, should shed its negative features and act with greater social commitment.

While India cannot isolate itself from the global trends, it is undeniable that in 1991, the country went in for liberalization without preparing itself. The failure to provide a safety net to take care of the poor and the vulnerable, including industrial labour, has since extracted a price from the people of India. The country's financial sector reforms which were meant to take advantage of the economic reform agenda have not worked. The financial markets are witnessing a downturn that has been compounded by the problems of the global economy.

One of the symbols of India's financial stability--UTI's Unit '64 Scheme has suffered erosion shaking the confidence of the middle class, in particular, in India's economic management. These are indications of some of the burgeoning problems that India will have to face as we enter the 21st century. The planned development of the country has to continue but priorities have to be redefined based on our experiences. We need to reassess the prescriptive World Bank-IMF blueprint, which has not helped our economy. This is not the forum where I can propose a fresh master plan for our development. I would say that discussions and introspection are necessary to arrive at some consensus. In assessing the performance of the economy, the condition of the vast masses should be the criterion and not that of the tiny few at the top.

I realise that the present system in India will continue. But within that system if the negative facets are eliminated, much better results will follow. We need to welcome investment from abroad and bring technology from the advanced nations. At the same time, India's achievements in the last 50 years, especially in science and technology, cannot be dismissed. We have to create conditions to harness our own resources for productive purposes and to provide adequate opportunities to the country's brilliant scientists, technologists, engineers, doctors and skilled labour so that India can march forward. We should not lose faith in ourselves and must pursue the objective of self-reliance.

A unique feature of India's foreign policy has been its reliance on an underlying domestic political consensus. The Nehruvian foreign policy had its strength in the principles of non-alignment and peace, which formed its corner stone. But this tradition was disrupted by the nuclear explosions conducted by the present central government in May this year. While the invention of the atom bomb by the United States of America was a significant and dangerous feature of the 20th century, the use of the bomb by that country on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan led to a harrowing tragedy. For a long time, we believed that Japan was the first and last country to experience a nuclear holocaust. The revival of the nuclear arms race in the Indian sub-continent and the five super-powers' failure to chalk out a timetable for the elimination of atomic and hydrogen bombs make us afraid for the future. India did undertake a nuclear explosion in 1974, and soon earned the accolade from the peace-loving people all over the world by restraining himself from further tests and advocating elimination of such weapons.

India's stand of using atomic energy for peaceful purposes also evoked wide acclaim. The current tests have triggered a widespread apprehension that they have been motivated not so much by threats to national security as by internal political compulsions of generating jingoism to bolster a dithering coalition regime. Pakistan also appears to have followed the same path on identical perceptions. These explosions would surely provoke an arms race that would be economically disastrous for both India and Pakistan. I would like to see the peoples of both countries jointly working for the common objective of preventing a nuclear war. It is the people who should have the last say.

As India enters the 21st century, dark clouds hover over her political and economic horizons.

After 50 years of independence, we have created a society where only10 to 15 per cent of the population has benefited. This itself in real terms is large and provides a huge market that attracts foreigners. But we have to cater to the need of the remaining 80 to 85 per cent of the masses who have been neglected. Though India has been bruised, battered and threatened over the last 50 years, she has, nevertheless, managed to protect the rich diversities that characterize a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious society, unique in its own way. The newest threat is from a peculiar ideological perversion of attempting a homogenisation of the Hindu society. This concept of the Sangh Parivar of a Hindu Rashtra is meant to demolish the democratic fabric of our society. We must be on our guard.

The situation, however, is not irretrievable. What is imperative is to cleanse our socio-political environment of polluting influences. Morality in public life has become a casualty and politicians are primarily responsible for this situation. The people's consciousness has to be raised in order to confront this trend. All responsible political parties should come forward to play a leading role to stop this rot. Pay-offs and corruption scandals should not have any place in this system. Stern measures will have to be adopted to deal with the black-money operations, which have now assumed colossal proportions. Even within the existing socio-political milieu, significant changes can be brought about, if the necessary political will is there.

 Our policies must be so directed that India can achieve freedom from want and hunger. Conditions will have to be made conducive to channelise the fruits of modern science and technology for the benefit of the common man. Stress will have to be placed on pursuing a development strategy that encompasses growth with equity and social justice to meet the basic needs of our people, such as food, clothing, shelter, education, jobs and safe drinking water. It is a sad fact that India, standing on the brink of the new millennium, has a population, 40 per cent of whom live below the poverty line.

Here, I would like to touch upon some of the issues that have been highlighted by the Nobel Laureate, Dr. Amartya Sen. The award conferred on him is a belated recognition of the position taken by him to swim against the currents of mainstream economics and to focus on improving the quality of life and prioritizing distributive justice. Dr. Sen upholds the need for developing societies like India to direct far more resources to education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, programmes for reduction of gender disparities and a cleaner environment. He rightly points out that economic take-off requires an educated, healthy and socially secure population. Without investments in human capital, investments in every other form of capital fail to yield optimal results. Human capital is the link with the future and so is central to growth and development, and also the very heart of the typical modern economy.

The country, with its history of 'Unity in Diversity', has been able to maintain its democratic apparatus, despite many challenges. What we now need is to mobilise the broad left, democratic and secular forces to expose the bankruptcy of the present regime in Delhi. With optimism, we also notice healthy political developments in this context. The fact that the organisers have invited me to deliver this address, knowing very well that my views may not be in line with theirs, is encouraging.

As we turn our attention to the world-scene, it is evident that the catchwords of today's economic reorganisation are liberalization and globalization. But globalization, as the Human Development Report of 1997, published by the UN, states, "is proceeding largely for the benefit of the dynamic and powerful countries. While in international commerce, it has increased the subordination of the developing to the developed world in the internal functioning of nation-states, globalisation has led to shrinkage in state involvement in national life which has exposed the poor to sudden shocks especially in the third world countries".

The report further states: "Since the publication of last year's Human Development Report the recorded number of billionaires in the world has increased from358 to 447, with the value of their combined assets now exceeding the combined incomes for the poorest 50% of the world's people, up from 45% of the year before. These are obscenities of excesses in a world where 160 million children are malnourished, 840 million people live without secure sources of water and 1.2 billion lack access to safe drinking water."

I am sure that as we approach the next century, the world will become more and more aware of the negative effects of globalization. However, in an increasingly multi-polar world, we shall have to ultimately adjust to the New World order of globalisation and mutual inter-dependence of economies. The nation-states, particularly in the developing world, need more time for preparation so that local industries, commerce and the financial markets can meet the challenges in the face of unequal competition that has suddenly been thrust on them. Competition must be there, but among equals.

As a Marxist, I am interested not merely in interpreting the world but also in changing it. Karl Marx has aptly reminded us in 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte':
"Men make their own history but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past."

It is no use my taking a subjective view of our country's development. In the background of the reality and objective conditions prevailing in the 20th century, I have to view our entry into the next millennium. But, I, as a Marxist, would like to add that capitalism is not the ultimate system of human civilization. In the 21st century, we look forward to the emergence of a socialist, non-exploitative and humane society, the first stage of a communist society. The socialist society which we envisage will not only ensure changes in the economic and social spheres but also create a new man and establish a higher civilization where love, sympathy and altruism for fellow human beings reign supreme.

We have to raise the people's consciousness to work for such a society, while endeavouring to complete the unfulfilled tasks. Let us hope for a world-situation where wars, big or small, will have no place, where disputes will be resolved through negotiations and where peaceful co-existence among nations will prevail.

Thank you.