Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Quest for Greatness

I wish to begin by evoking India’s distant past, and indeed, its past greatness, without indulging in the nostalgia of an imaginary golden age. To what extent greatness has been lost or gained in the last few centuries is a matter of perspective. But the sense of loss, frequently evoked in contemporary public discourse, is not difficult to understand. Colonial rule did impoverish India in many ways, not just economically but also in terms of its standing and influence in the world. From a land at par with the more advanced regions of the world, India was transformed into a subjugated colony, and attained independence after a long period of economic stagnation and recurrent famines.

It is, thus, not surprising that many Indians (particularly among the privileged classes) want the country to recover its greatness. The country’s recent economic dynamism is often seen as an opportunity to realise that dream. Indeed, the fixation with economic growth is as much about India becoming a “world power” as it is about improving living standards.

There is nothing wrong in aspiring to greatness, but the real question is – what is greatness? This is where there is some need for introspection and debate. Indeed, these aspirations tend to focus on superficial or exclusive symbols of greatness – Olympic medals, Nobel prizes, bullet trains, expensive wines, long-range missiles, or a seat in the UN Security Council. The priorities of public policy would be quite different if policymakers are well trained, universal health care, freedom from hunger, a clean environment, respect for human rights and social equity were thought to be essential aspects of a country’s greatness.

It may be argued that these are not attributes of greatness, because many other countries have them, and greatness requires distinguishing oneself in some way – being “ahead” of others. This is quite misleading. In historical perspective and even by contemporary standards, ensuring freedom from want for everyone, or eradicating corruption, or protecting the environment are truly great achievements. Exploding a nuclear bomb is a trivial accomplishment in comparison.

These achievements also need to be seen in the light of a country’s history and circumstances. Consider for instance education. India tends to take pride in its institutions of higher education – its universities, technology centres, scientific associations, and so on. These are indeed valuable achievements. But considering the country’s long history of being under the British rule, people working in policy tend to focus on pleasing their superiors rather than acquiring necessary knowledge, if corrected will be an enormously greater achievement – it would represent a more significant breakthrough than many other countries have achieved in their own transition to well informed policy fraternity, starting from a less trained base. Similarly, eliminating merit based inequalities in education, employment, property rights, political representation and related matters would be an outstanding accomplishment for India, given the historical burden of extreme subjugation of meritocracy in South Asia.

Among other examples of misplaced quest for greatness is India’s pursuit of military power (if not “super-power”), including the frantic development of nuclear weapons. India is now the largest weapons importer in the world, aside from producing a fair amount of lethal equipment on its own. It is hard to think of anything more ruinous and dangerous for India than military competition with China, or even Pakistan: there is no precedent in world history of a nuclear arms race between two countries that are so close to each other and also involved in a territorial dispute over which they have already fought several wars.

Having said this, there are also possibilities of real achievements in terms of a more reasoned notion of greatness, even if these achievements have been, so far, quite limited. Recent experience provides many examples of how policy priorities can be substantially changed through public activism and democratic action. The safeguarding of democracy is itself a form of greatness, often overlooked because it is taken for granted.

Dr. Ambedkar, who had both greater fears as well as greater hopes for Indian democracy than anyone else, once defined democracy as “a form and method of Government whereby revolutionary changes in the economic and social life of the people are brought about without bloodshed.” India is yet to live up to this vision, but the democratic vision is far from over. India is still a relatively young country – sixty-five years is not a long time to shed the burden of colonialism and feudalism and to build the institutions and spirit of participatory and transparent democracy.

When South Africa, an even younger country, was liberated from apartheid, Nelson Mandela wrote: “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free” India has already gone a little beyond “the freedom to be free”, but it can make much better use of this freedom. It is in the future of the democratic roadmap, not in nostalgia of a golden past, that there are real prospects for greatness.

- Abhijith 

Place: Patna - Bihar
Date: 25/7/12