India remained an optimist’s country despite widespread poverty and illiteracy.
Neither a country nor an individual can turn 70 overnight. You traverse territory that exists in many dimensions, including that of time. 2017 make sense when you look back and see the milestones of 1957, 1967, 1977, 1987, 1997 and 2007. By 1957, India has passed the exultation of becoming a free, democratic multi-lingual, multi-religious country of 1947 despite the trauma and nightmare, of massacres and mass migrations.
It seems India has lived through three revolutions in 1947, compared to the Americans, whose revolutions spread from 1776 to 1865. In 1776, American declared its independence, in 1787 it gave itself a Constitution, and through 1861-65, it settled the issue of racial equality in the bloodiest ever Civil War, which ended with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, who stood for the unity of America. For India, independence, making of the Constitution and civil war on the issue of religion all came together, followed by the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948. India had both won and lost the civil war that was Partition. The country split into Pakistan, a Muslim-majority state which had no option but to be a Muslim state despite Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s refusal to do so, and India, a Hindu-majority country which remained defiantly multi-religious and refused to be a Hindu rashtra or state.
In 1957, as India celebrated its first 10 years as an independent country, Jawaharlal Nehru remained the Prime Minister. He was 67 and into his second term, as Narendra Modi is a month shy of turning 67 and in his first term. India remained an optimist’s country despite widespread poverty and illiteracy. There was both hope and innocence though there was impatience over the slow economic progress. People were not yet angry. They believed that they would become a modern industrial power. But Nehru is under fire from old friends who had left the Congress that he was turning into a dictator. There was plenty of advice suggesting that he should make way for a successor. Nehru remained a popular leader but he was roundly criticised from all quarters.
In 1967, the mood was different. Indian democracy takes a dramatic turn. The Congress’ monopoly over political power in the country was broken with many states voting in non-Congress governments, and it had lost its unassailable position it had held from 1947 to 1967 in Parliament. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, and she was 49. It was not a walkover for her. After being chosen Prime Minister in January 1966 following the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent. Morarji Desai challenged her again in 1967. There was a truce and Desai became deputy prime minister. India at 20 was poised at the edge of political equilibrium, which broke soon after. India lived through the humiliation of defeat in the 1962 war against China, and regained its military honour in the 1965 war against Pakistan. And the country lived through the economic crisis of drought and famine of 1966.
In 1977, Indira Gandhi lost the Lok Sabha election after she lifted the 19-month state of Emergency, and the anti-Congress formation forged by Jayaprakash Narayan, the Janata Party, came to power, with Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister. The fall of Indira Gandhi came despite the triumph of India in the 1971 war against Pakistan, and the country emerged a regional power which helped the emergence of a new state in the subcontinent, Bangladesh. In 1974, India carried out its peaceful nuclear test.
In 1987, as independent India turned 40, Rajiv Gandhi, who became Prime Minister after the assassination of his mother, Indira, on October 31, 1984, and won a landslide victory in the December 1984 elections, was in trouble on the political front because of allegations of corruption in the Bofors gun deal. But the country was looking towards the 21st century, the telecom revolution had begun with Sam Pitroda facilitating the spread of public telephone booths across the country, a prelude to the mobile telephone revolution of the 1990s. India emerged from terrorism in Punjab and the breakdown of the political system in the Assam agitation.
In 1997, when India turned 50, the political situation was glum and depressing with a frail coalition government in power, and with antiquated socialists and communists in the saddle. But the economy could not be bridled any longer. The opening up of the Indian economy which the minority Congress government of P.V. Narasimha Rao had rolled out in 1991 continued unabated. At 50, independent India did not much care who was Prime Minister. The people were revelling in the new openness of the economy.
In 2007, when India turned 60, the Congress was leading a coalition government under a self-effacing Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, but there was spurt in India’s economic growth despite the Great Recession which still haunts Europe and North America, had burst on the scene. The mobile revolution had spread far and wide and at 60 the country was riding the economic crest.
In 2017, as India turns 70, the country’s economic growth has plateaued. There is anxiety over jobs among the youth. Political power is in the hands of the right-wing BJP, which brings with it its nationalist fervour, which is a symptom of economic uneasiness. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017 is in the same position that Nehru was in 1957, Indira Gandhi was in 1967 and in 1977, and Rajiv Gandhi n 1987 — in a troubled spot. People are not any more charmed by his rustic rhetoric. They are looking at the economy that refuses to grow. Mr Modi has only rhetoric and hardly any solutions to offer. India is passing through an economic trough accompanied by political volatility. India at 70 is young and restless.