India’s Diversity a Source of Strength

On the occasion of India’s 75th Independence Day, I cannot but help repeat what sounds like a cliché. That our country’s source of strength is our diversity and we should do everything to preserve it. Last month, my Owleye column was on how our democracy is fraying and that we are letting petty communal issues and politics consume our time and energy, when we should be focusing on more important matters such as creating jobs in the economy and bringing down inflation. Not just that, we are allowing our democratic institutions to be weakened to an extent that they are doing the bidding of the executive, the legislature and even certain unprofessional PR agencies and advertising agencies – who should not be in the corporate world, in my opinion – who meddle and interfere in policymaking and day-to-day operations of the government. The Ministry of Commerce’s website that I mentioned in my blog post on tea, is just one recent example.

On the other hand, let us explore how our cultural and economic diversity can be a source of strength, especially if we nurture ambitions to be a greater player on the international stage. I am not sure we have ever considered this in strategic terms, but let me attempt just such an exercise.

First, to be an important player in the international arena, and to be seen as one by the world, we have to have a strong domestic economy. That means making the right policy decisions that bring greater, and more equitable growth, to all in India. This means focusing on all sectors of the economy and in identifying areas in which we have a competitive advantage, as I have written before. Fortunately, we have a broad-based economy where all sectors perform and contribute to our economic growth, some a little more than others, but that we have a diversified economy is a strength and let us acknowledge it.

It also means focusing on economic development in the hinterland, in terms of investing in better primary education and healthcare. And I mean investing and building the social infrastructure for it, not merely increasing the spending on it via social schemes. In the same previous Owleye column, I had referred to the ease with which this central government has been spending on social schemes and freebies, pivoting to the poor and using it as an electoral tactic to win votes. Unfortunately, that view of mine seems to have been mischievously turned into another political debate altogether in media, regarding Modi’s statement of “rewri” culture (I must admit I did not even know what that meant) mostly against the Kejriwal government and its promise of free power.

Now, we know all governments (centre and state) have followed populist policymaking in India for decades, using various constituencies as vote banks. Some parties in the past wooed farmers and the poor with freebies and sops, others court traders, real estate builders, and powerful corporations to win votes with their policies.

I suggest that the basis for making policies change to what makes economic sense for the long term. That is why we had the Planning Commission in India, begun by Nehru, that would look at policy as a five-year horizon. Now that we have the Niti Aayog in its place, allow it to set policy independently, even though the PM would be its Chair. The Prime Minister himself needs to consult the right people and consult widely before making important decisions. It is my view that had this happened, we would not have had demonetization, nor would we have had the sudden Covid lockdown announcement.

The reason for the Planning Commission at the time, as Sunil Khilnani reminds us in his book, The Idea of India, is to not allow bureaucrats free reign over policy-making, but for them to be guided by the superior rationality of scientists and economists. I would say the same for all the other think-tanks we have, many of which probably predate similar institutions in the west.

In fact, I have always wondered why we have never utilized the expertise that resides in so many of India’s think-tanks. And I mean government-owned think-tanks, such as NCAER (National Council of Applied Economic Research), NIPFP (National Institute of Public Finance and Policy), ICRIER (Indian Council of International Economic Relations), IIFT (Indian Institute of Foreign Trade), and others. These think-tank organisations can conduct focused research studies and provide specialized policy advice. Indeed, that is why they exist. This is where we have lagged our western peers, where think-tanks conduct research and provide assistance to policymaking on a regular basis. We hardly ever hear about these think-tanks’ work in the media, nor about policies based on their research or recommendations, when they are announced as government policy.

To be an important player in the international stage, India also needs to take pride in the country’s diverse social fabric, and rich cultural heritage. We cannot have this north vs south or east vs west hostility within our country, even though different states in India are ruled by different political parties. And different states have differing levels of education, health, industrialization and economic growth. In the recent past, though, we are seeing a saffron wave across India, but we need to ensure that state-level disparities in economic terms are narrowed. The need, for example, to raise the economic growth and potential of states in the east and the north (the sick men of India that used to be referred to, as BIMARU states) to those in the west and the south.

This does not mean that all states of India must grow or modernize the same way; as I have written before, that is precisely the problem Modi would have faced with replicating his Gujarat model of development across India. Each state has to find its own path to economic growth based on its local conditions, its natural and human resources, and its competitive advantages, always aspiring to achieve uniform growth in education and healthcare, equal to or better than the national average. This would at least sustain economic growth for the longer term.

In the same vein, cultural and social diversity also ought to be maintained and encouraged. For our own country’s sake and for our place in the world. Our population, comprising people of so many diverse religions, castes, languages, and social customs can actually be a source of strength in a world that is terribly divided along religious and cultural lines. The ruling party, the BJP, led by its cultural wing, the RSS, must realise that their vision of a Hindu Rashtra (which we already are, when you consider Hindus are 80% majority) is a negation of everything this land has stood for in the past, and will only lead to ruin in the future. For they do not mean Hindu Rashtra in the abstract, they mean a country where religion becomes part of the state and its laws, systems of governance, etc. Their flawed thinking will lead to tukde-tukde (in pieces, an expression used by leaders of the ruling BJP when referring to liberal elites), when on the contrary, India could be a peninsula of stability, peace and economic growth in all of Asia.

India lost out on the economic growth that East and South-east Asia achieved decades ago, precisely because we didn’t build a strong enough base in education and healthcare. One of the flaws in Nehru’s and Congress’ policies, which economists like Amartya Sen never fail to point out. Now that we have managed to achieve a rate of growth above the paltry 3%-5% Hindu rate of growth, as it was called then, it is time to ensure that the benefits of economic growth reach everyone. More, and better quality, jobs have to be created, and this ought to be accorded the highest priority. We also ought to trade much more with the region, and we can do this without necessarily becoming an export-oriented economy.

West of Afghanistan, we have the oil-rich gulf countries as well as their poor, war-torn neighbours. Our trade ties with this region are mostly in oil and gas, as you’d expect as well as financial investments, which are mostly in real estate. We also have millions of Indians working in these countries, and it is important to maintain good relations with them.

We ought to remember that even before the Portuguese arrived in India in the 15th century, India and Indian ships used to trade with Arab countries, and we have welcomed Parsis, Jews and Tibetans who wanted to make India their home in later years. Our engagement with East Asia was both religious as well as cultural. Influences of both Hinduism and Buddhism can be found in South-east Asia, as well as trade and cultural ties from the time that the Chola empire from south India used to trade with these lands. Up north in Kashmir, we have to tread carefully, not so much because of Kashmiri Muslims, but because of the strong influence that China and Russia wield in Central Asia. Below us, we have the navigation and trade channels of the vast Indian ocean, from Africa in the west to Australia and New Zealand in the east. Trade and engage more, both with east and west Asia, and look at the north as strategically as possible, not ideologically.

We could use our expertise in the knowledge-based industries to trade and invest more with our partner countries both in east Asia and the west, while using our cultural heritage and our softer power when engaging with countries in west Asia, even those that are not part of the Arab world. We could help them rebuild their countries, as they try to recover from years of war and terrorism. As we have indeed been doing to some extent in Afghanistan.

What we need to invoke is the spirit of India, of the Indus, the highest of India’s many perennial rivers that gave birth to the Indus Valley Civilization. If we can manage this without considering ourselves to be a purely civilizational culture, but one that also assimilated influences from all other cultures that touched us over centuries, we would be justifying our place in the modern world. As the scholar and architect of our constitution, BR Ambedkar reminded us, it was the Mohammedans who gave us Hindus our name and identity – to mean east of the Indus. Let us accept it with grace and live up to its highest ideals. There is none that is loftier or more worth living up to, than the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, a Sanskrit concept that considers the entire world to be one big family. Let India be that mosaic of cultures that accepts plurality and diversity, but together forms one consistent whole.

Happy 75th Independence Day to everyone in India.

The animated owl gif that forms the featured image and title of the Owleye column is by animatedimages.org and I am thankful to them.

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