To the President of the land, as the First Citizen of this country, goes the unenviable responsibility of channelling the voice of optimism on ceremonial occasions - such as this Republic Day - even when the overriding mood of the nation is one of weariness and despair.
President Pranab Mukherjee endeavoured valiantly, in his address to the nation on Friday, to get us to look at the glass - of India's evolution as a nation in the 60-plus years since it secured independence and became a republic - as half full.
India, he noted, had changed more in the last six decades than in six previous centuries. Our economic growth has more than tripled; literacy rate has increased four-fold and more; from being food importers, we've now become foodgrain exporters... yada yada yada.
Only the churlish would deny the validity of these markers of marginal economic and social advancement. And since statistics can be invoked to back up just about any hypothesis, Mukherjee's proposition that "we have come a long way from 1947" can be established by the invocation of convenient data points.
Yet, a dispassionate and honest account of history must also acknowledge that the plotline of the Great Indian Story has gone horribly awry. For all the feel-good talk of a nation of a billion-plus people setting their shoulder to the wheel in the task of nation-building, and for all the stirring speeches about having given political voice to the socially backward classes, the political leadership in these 60-plus years - across the spectrum and across generations - has only served to reinforce the things that divide us and pander to the lowest common denominator of our caste, communal, regional and linguistic identity. Sadly, it's a project in which much of India's citizenry has been complicit, having been won over by short-termism, freebies - and a general "I, my, myself" culture of selfish self-gratification.
If it served the interest of the political establishment to keep the vast majority of Indians in a state of economic and social dependence, it hasn't held back from holding people back. In his address to the nation, Mukherjee claimed that India had not won freedom from the British "in order to deny freedom to Indians." The Constitution, he said, represented a "second liberation" - from the stranglehold of inequity in gender, caste, community and other fetters.
For all the nobility of that emotion, it fails to acknowledge the reality of India: that the same political class in whom "we, the people of India" had vested the responsibility to preserve and protect the Constitution has ripped the document to shreds through egregious violations of both the letter and spirit of that sterling document.
Mukherjee also spoke of the "driving principle" of the Constitution as a "compact between state and citizen", which, he said, was a "powerful public-private partnership nourished by justice, liberty and equality." Again, those are stirring words, but they mask the reality that the compact has failed and the partnership has broken down, which is why much of India feels disenfranchised and dispossessed and completely out of tune with the ceaseless drama of the political theatre that diverts us from realising our potential.
Even 60-plus years later, economic emancipation remains an elusive dream for much of India. But what's far worse is that the political establishment has, through the unholy mix of 'cronyism' and competitive populism, reinforced the culture of economic dependency that sees the state as the ultimate provider.
The failings on other fronts have been far more stark. What more need we say of the Great Indian Story other than that for all the trappings of awe-inspiring military power that will be showcased on Rajpath today, which are intended to envelop India's citizenry in a reassuring cocoon of security, the state has failed to deliver on the most fundamental of freedoms - the freedom from fear - and the right to life.
President Mukherjee spoke movingly about the recent instance of gang-rape and murder, which hovers over us today like a prickly conscience and overshadows any festive spirit that this milestone moment may otherwise have evoked in us. And he rightly noted that the "sanctity of a woman is a directive principle of that larger edifice called Indian civilization... When we brutalise a woman, we wound the soul of our civilization." The time, he said, "has now come to ensure gender equality for every Indian woman."
For just a moment, forget the 1.2 billion of us. That Presidential message - about gender equality - must first be drilled into Mukherjee's own son, who went public with the most regressive views on women and airily dismissed the angry protests in New Delhi in late December as the exertions of "dented, painted women". Pranab-da, if those are the views that your bhadralok son holds, what chance do your articulations about ensuring gender equality have of convincing anyone else of the earnestness of that sentiment? The "resetting of the moral compass" that you spoke of must begin from your own home.
Yet, in the face of all this weariness and despair, we hold on to the slender thread of hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Precisely where this hope comes from is hard to establish: for all the stirring rhetoric about India as a work-in-progress, the slide down the slippery slope of misgovernance shows no signs of being checked. Perhaps it's just a defence mechanism that we have built for ourselves to evade dealing with the reality of India. Perhaps that's the real Great Indian Story: the Republic of Hope-over-Reality.
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Updated Date: Jan 26, 2013 06:44:52 IST