India marked its 63rd Republic Day on Thursday, and it was on this day in 1950 that the world’s largest democracy adopted its Constitution and declared itself a Republic. This remarkable journey was on full display in the capital, where the country presented its cultural, economic and military might at the majestic Rajpath, the country's ceremonial boulevard.
Due to heavy security and associated restrictions on mobility, people walked many miles to reach the two-hour event, with people from across India gathering from the early hours to catch a glimpse of the parade.
Thailand’s first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was the guest of honor at this year’s Republic Day celebrations. The choice of guest also indicates New Delhi’s drive towards greater engagement with Southeast Asian countries. It’s no coincidence that the Thai premier’s sojourn in New Delhi coincides with the visit of Burma Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin.
Thursday was also a day of reflection for the country, allowing it to look back at how it has fared as a nation since becoming a republic, and how successful it has been in achieving the goals it set for itself six decades ago.
India is now undoubtedly a robust and vibrant democracy, and it’s no mean achievement that it is the only country in South Asia which is really politically stable. Democracy has unleashed the dormant energy of the country and liberated those groups and communities who had been deprived and underprivileged for centuries. The push for equal opportunities and the power of the vote have given voice to the once voiceless, and empowered large sections of society.
It’s also a genuine achievement that Mayawati, who comes from a community that was considered untouchable, is now the chief minister of the largest Indian state. Similarly, politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh and many others who belong to traditionally ignored castes and communities are part of the ruling elite. This historical empowerment is a wonder of this democracy.
On the economic front, the country is now on a different trajectory and is in some ways one of the best performing economies in the world. The country has seen the unprecedented growth of its middle class, and has made strides in tackling poverty. Politically, it has widened its reach and representation. With the emergence of local and regional parties, the polity has become decentralized and all sections of society are stakeholders.
However, the journey ahead won’t be easy. If the political system has reached and empowered ordinary people, then it has been helpless in trying to solve many of their day-to-day problems. It has failed to fully address the economic and social backwardness of large parts of the country outside the middle class. Here, the bureaucracy has become something of an Achilles heel, slowing efforts to help the poor. It’s clear that over the past six decades, the bureaucratic machinery has failed to move with the times – it needs overhauling. Related to this is the issue of corruption, perhaps the biggest barrier to progress in India, with too many greedy politicians and officials gorging themselves on money meant for others.
The Maoist rebellion in parts of the country, meanwhile, is also a byproduct of this systematic inefficiency. Centuries of poverty and deprivation and indifference have encouraged people to take up arms. Today, Maoists or Naxalites are a real challenge to the Indian state, raising questions about the efficacy of the country’s democratic institutions. Violence isn’t, of course, the answer to their problems, and the government should for its part do more to make those living in remote tribal areas stakeholders in the process of development.
The preamble of India’s Constitution declares that the country is a sovereign socialist secular republic. Yet right from its inception, India has struggled to strengthen its secular credentials. There are still forces in the country that pose a grave threat to this principle, and far right Hindu parties and groups pose a constant threat to society. Sadly, the anti-corruption movement led by some civil society groups also seems largely aimed at giving sustenance to right wing voices.
Over the past six decades, India has managed to emerge from the shadow of its colonial past. It now has step up to the role that modern history has thrust upon it.