Comment

An overhaul at seventy

We must choose national security as our overriding priority to sustain our position in a troubled world

After 70 years, how capable have we made ourselves to handle our nation’s challenges? One needs an apparatus for arousing awareness of what requires attention, for deciding what ought to be done, and the instruments for doing it. We have run down dangerously in all these respects. A handful of people at the top, elected or professional, are keeping our country going somehow, but the machinery for attending to our affairs is simply inadequate.

Governments everywhere nowadays find existing institutions and processes unable to cope with people’s needs, much less their expectations or the complexity of modern problems. Democracies face the greater difficulty that their very essence, the concepts, ideas and practices that engendered and developed democracy, are shaken and endangered. Looking at the world’s oldest today is enough to justify worries about all, not least our own.

Old civilisation, new battles

India is an exceptional state, inevitably with exceptional problems. Never in history have so many diversities — and in such huge numbers — constituted that self-governing system called a democracy. For nearly seven decades, the theory of a plural society obtained obeisance, not always practised or believed in, but somehow bowed to, howsoever perfunctorily. It is no longer being attempted, with consequences yet unknown.

One statistical fact reflects our greatest change: in our first elections (1951-52), our electorate was 173 million, the turnout was 110 million; last time (2014) 815 million could vote, 540 million did. Numbers apart, today’s Indians are not the same in what or how they think, in what matters to them. Howsoever everlasting Eternal India’s culture, its putative heirs behave very differently now than at Independence. Two current manifestations hardly fit our traditions: violence and intolerance. Perhaps we are more prone to violence than supposed: Gandhiji called off his civil disobedience movement because we erupted. But we used to live far more on the basis of Reason: rigorous, methodical, sedulous argumentation used to shape our thought, without our being dogmatic about it — ours is perhaps the only country with a religion believing there are other ways to God. Such a cast of mind leads to a live-and-let-live acceptance of diversity essential to our unique nationhood. Is it operative now?

When his first atomic explosion succeeded, Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted the Vedas. When I asked what made him interested in them, he answered; “Your ancestors asked the right questions, which we scientists are still struggling with.” That intellectual curiosity, that search for knowledge, for meanings, for all the other truths leading to the Ultimate, drove us to our initial heights. To imagine we are still on those heights, to ignore the expansion and modification of knowledge, to ignore experience, is dangerous folly. We are emerging from a long period of backwardness, when we lost the qualities that had first made us great, and had succumbed to newer, more efficient forces. We will get nowhere by fighting yesterday’s battles all over again — and that too in yesterday’s ways. As the Victorian novelist-poet George Meredith wrote, “In tragic life, no villain need be… We are betrayed by what is false within.”

Using changes in knowledge to change beliefs and practices is what enables people, societies, nations to improve their conditions and circumstances. Leaving aside the endless debate on modernity-versus-tradition, modernity here means simply this readiness to benefit from additions and corrections to existing knowledge rather than suffer from the outdated. Where would we all be if orthodoxy insisted the world is flat? Consider our own history: we keep blaming colonialism for various deficiencies, without asking why we fell. No great forces invaded us, we were outplayed by a few adventurers because we wallowed in careless obsolescence, whereas they used discipline, training, organisation, new weapons and methods — i.e., modernity. What have we learned?

Focussing on national priorities

Till the 1980s, China and India hardly differed in various economic parameters or the pace of progress. In our present tensions, comparisons are particularly unwelcome, but we must understand the crucial importance of the lesson they learned and we reject: ‘Never Again.’ India actually suffered foreign humiliation far more extensively, and directly, but the determination ‘Never Again’ galvanised China into modernity. They adamantly aim to outdo others in all fields. We Indians blame the distractions of democracy but there is a deeper fault: there is no thinking-out of vital priorities, no acceptance of modern ways. Yes, winning State elections, consolidating central power, democratic politics inescapably consume energies at the cost of national priorities, but what distinguishes serious states from Third World frivolousness is the attention to national needs. Unless the key priorities are attended to, what kind of nation will remain to play politics in?

Building up state power to establish and sustain our position in a troubled and troublesome world should long have been our topmost priority. How many in governmental circles, leave alone the country, even realise what that involves? French Premier Pierre Mendes-France observed: “To govern is to choose.” How do you govern a country if it chooses rebuilding temples as its leading objective?

Defence situation

Late though it is, we must choose national security as our overriding priority. Whether in organising appropriate weapons supply, developing our internal infrastructure or in ensuring effective management, our defence situation suffers from cumulative amateurishness and neglect. How our Defence Ministry has been operating almost from the beginning staggers belief. Indeed, our entire administrative machinery has become so dysfunctional, one despairs of reform. While the considerations that go into decision-making hardly measure up to the issues, the instruments of implementation simply don’t work. Overhauling this machinery is surely the sine qua non for our survival, leave alone our progress.

We may prefer blind eyes, but others see all this too clearly, not least the two neighbours with major claims on our territory. We increase their opportunities for mischief while limiting our own options by disregarding our failings. How you appear to others shapes their approach: being seen as a state strong, knowing what to do and equipped to do it, exerts an innate deterrence; look sloppy, ill-prepared and problem-ridden, you are bound to encourage aggressiveness. Our government came to power arousing expectations of firm, effective governance. It looks like having a long run ahead, with the only possible national challenger bent on suicide and State leaders ever more parochial. The greatness of India they proclaim will only be possible if we put our house in order to suit modern times.

K. Shankar Bajpai is a former Ambassador to Pakistan, China and the U.S. and Secretary, External Affairs

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Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 10:47:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/an-overhaul-at-seventy/article19493394.ece

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