On August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, addressed a newly-liberated people suffused with a sense of possibility and hope to collectively build an egalitarian and democratic nation. The people’s aspirations were articulated in Nehru’s famous words:
“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavor? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”
This vision was subsequently enshrined in India’s Constitution on January 26, 1950.
Sixty-five years later, the dream of a truly democratic India has dulled more than a little. Hope has been replaced by dismay at the cheap pursuit of self-interest that pervades our present political and economic landscape.
Did we expect too much from a post-colonial, impoverished country? Did we overestimate our future and now find that the reality does not match our vision? Did we unrealistically compare ourselves with other fledgling or developing nations? In other words, is the sense of disillusionment only a problem of perception?
After all, a lot has been achieved since 1947 in giving a more dignified standard of living to a population that has nearly quadrupled to 1.2 billion. Life expectancy has more than double to 65 years, while infant mortality has halved. Literacy has grown from 12% to 74%; unemployment has dropped from 48% at independence to around 19%, and per capita income has risen to approximately $3500 at Purchasing Power Parity levels.
Development indicators, however, are debatable and only one part of the picture. The sense of failed expectations is not only a matter of perception, it is embedded in more tangible experiences. The promise of an egalitarian democratic nation has been tarnished by the entrenchment of dynastic leadership, the concentration of political power and wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer interconnected politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. This new aristocracy has replaced the colonial rulers and kings of earlier times and effectively subverted the ideals of a true people’s democracy. Indians are uneasy because they no longer feel empowered to determine their destiny.
At the same time, a parallel, paradoxical process is underway. Indian citizens have higher expectations and a greater sense of entitlement. The spurt of economic growth since India began a process of economic liberalization in the early 1990s has raised aspirations. The escalating trend of populist political campaigning during elections involves promises made to potential vote banks—promises that people expect will be fulfilled, but rarely are.