India Has Been Plain Lucky

by Sharad Bailur - Jun 8, 2015 11:17 PM +05:30 IST
India Has Been Plain Lucky

In some ways India has been an extraordinarily lucky nation. Right from the pre-Independence era, we have faced major political problems and, throughout, this country has had good luck, nothing else, coming in as its knight in shining armour, most often at the last moment. This does not happen to other countries. The two countries that became independent along with India on the same day — Pakistan and Bangladesh — have had histories that prove the opposite. So have our other neighbours: Nepal, Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).

Let us begin with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He proved such a spectacular success because he had faith in the ‘essential goodness of human nature’. An essential concomitant of this faith was that British nature was susceptible to moral blackmail. It worked on the British. It would not have worked on the Germans or any other European imperial power or, say, the Taliban, the al Qaida or the LTTE, or even our own home-grown Naxals. In essence, he was the right man in the right place dealing with the right enemy. If not luck, what was it?

Immediately after Independence, the problem of integrating the various princely states emerged. And precisely at that time it was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who took up the task and ensured that it all happened with no bloodshed, in spite of the fact that various princes like the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Raja of Rampur and the Nawab of Junagadh had other ideas. India as a new nation was then so weak that it could easily have gone the other way but for the fact that we had the right man in the right place at the right time. If not luck, what was it?

Meanwhile in Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah died within months of its gaining independence. His lieutenant, Liaquat Ali Khan, became the prime minister and, like so many since, was assassinated. And within six years after that, General Ayub Khan sent the fledgling democratic setup packing. Pakistan continues to be a political mess to this day.

Patel (L) and Nehru (R) with Liaquat Ali Khan (centre)
Patel (L) and Nehru (R) with Liaquat Ali Khan (centre)

By contrast, the Indian ship of democracy continued to sail serenely guided by Nehru and his team. We then did something wrong-headed. Indira Gandhi was no economist. To her, socialism was a mantra and a ritual to be blindly followed. It was on her advice that Nehru had allowed the economy to be dominated by the public sector with the call for it to hold the “commanding heights”. As a result, after he died, Indira Gandhi nearly messed it up. It warranted a PV Narasimha Rao to pull the country out of the economic disaster into which it was heading. Again we had the right man in the right place at the right time to do the job. And he had an able lieutenant in Manmohan Singh. If this was not luck again, what was it?

We have done a great many wrongheaded things. Succumbing to the demand for a linguistic division to form new states was one of them. So was Shah Bano. So was the Golden Temple. So was the IPKF in Sri Lanka. So was Operation Brasstacks. Each time there has been no dearth of people in power who would cheerfully have led us down the path to disaster without even realising it. Each time the nation has veered away from that disaster with little or no damage. If not luck, what was it?

Indira Gandhi’s persecution complex, the famous Allahabad High Court judgment against her and Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for a “partyless democracy” in 1973 led to her imposition of the infamous Emergency after JP called for the armed forces and the police to revolt. Politically it appeared that the country was finally and inevitably going down the drain. It could easily have been the gangster-in-the-making, Sanjay Gandhi, whose will could have prevailed. Better sense prevailed however, and Mrs Gandhi lifted the Emergency and called for elections, which she promptly lost. If not luck, what was it?

India Has Been Plain Lucky

But democracy won.

Even though we got a disaster of a prime minister in Morarji Desai and a worse government in the Janata Party, the first promptly asked for the nuclear programme and the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to be wound up on the grounds that both were engaging in immoral activity. His salvation with his own god was more important to him than the security of India. The nuclear establishment said “Yes, but…” and the programme was mothballed — but it stayed, as did the R&AW. Luck again?

As a result, Rao was in a position to advise AB Vajpayee, his successor, to go ahead and test the weaponised bombs that we had built. Hence Pokharan II in 1998. All this because of a disastrous decision that was not implemented despite the insistence of Morarji Desai! Had both really been wound up the programme, we would have been heroes among the Taliban, Pakistan, the Communist parties in India among sundry others, but we might not have been a nation. Luck again?

India Has Been Plain Lucky

Then, the 123 agreement that Manmohan Singh had with President George Bush in 2006 and the dropping of the embargo on nuclear trade by the NSG as a result of which we are among six nations that can openly and legally trade in nuclear materials and import nuclear technology without having signed the NPT or the CTBT. Luck again?

The global economic meltdown and its effects on India similarly also seems to have the hallmarks of natural caution and economic prudence aided by good luck. Even if we manage a 7 per cent growth rate, it is more than double that of the 3 per cent that we managed for decades right up to 1994.

It did not take very long for the long parade of men with no foresight, beginning with Desai and ending with the somnolent Deve Gowda, to play ducks and drakes with the country. The problem of international terror was then only a distant mist vaguely trying to become a cloud on the far horizon. How would Deve Gowda have dealt with it, if he had dealt with it at all? Luck again?

The four major wars fought with Pakistan were all fought under strong prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Had a war been fought when Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Charan Singh or even VP Singh was prime minister, the fate of this country can easily be imagined. Indira Gandhi was the right head of India’s political executive fighting the right war in the right place with the right enemy at the right time. Luck again?

Now to the question: Depending upon good luck calls for a successful gambler’s instinct, which, as a nation, we do not have. No nation does. We bumble from one near-disaster to another and, miraculously, as it were, we have till now veered away when we were on the edge. When that luck fails, as it inevitably must, if we go merely by statistical probability, what is India going to do? How will it survive?

The question is not as frivolous a matter as it might appear. The nation must ponder on this issue. Dealing with good luck, like dealing with goodness in human nature, is easy. It calls for no extra effort. Good luck takes care of itself, and of the nation. Laws are made to deal, not with the goodness of human nature, but to prevent the badness of human nature from doing its worst. We must set in place systems and procedures that rise above political and religious compulsions to deal with a long run of national bad fortune from doing its worst, as a national priority.

How can we think of reforming our electoral processes to make it more representative without giving it over as a hostage in fractured mandates to small, two-bit political outfits that sit in judgement in so-called coalition governments? How long before we take up electoral reform to deal with this travesty of democracy? If we don’t, how long before it destroys India’s democratic framework and, with it, the nation itself? The fact that the nation threw up a BJP with a full majority is again a matter of good luck, since only some 31 per cent voted in its favour.

With the Congress placing all its eggs in the Dynasty basket, it would seem that it is headed for a fade out. It has not done, nor is it likely to do, anything to reverse this growing conviction. That leaves a political vacuum that cannot be filled by the sundry socialists of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar or the caste-based parties or the regional parties in other states. Worst of all, it cannot be filled by the raucous Aam Aadmi Party. What is needed is either a revival of the Swatantra Party or a new party with ideological leanings similar to C Rajagopalachari’s political organisation. If this gauntlet is not picked up, now that the time is ripe, the luck that has saved the nation time and again will start to desert it. Once deserted, the nation will have a hard time getting it back again.

Sharad Bailur is a former banker who moved into Corporate Communications and worked for three major organisations in both the public and private sectors. He has been an occasional writer for most major publications in India over the last 40 years. Now retired, he lives in Mysore.
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