Why We Must Not Give Up The Freedom to Think
had only seven in the Fortune 500 list, with Indian Oil at 161); and that India must account for at least 10% of global trade (government figures show India accounted for 2% in 2015).
Among other big goals was the wish that India should become a world leader in innovation and new technology. This would be great, but do we realistically think we are going to be home to the next Google or Facebook or WhatsApp within the next five years? Our start-ups seem to be content with copying or adapting existing models. It is well-nigh impossible to carry out a national audit of the research our universities and institutions produce; my guess is that a considerable proportion will turn out to be unoriginal or plagiarised. The University Grants Commission urged universities last year to use anti-plagiarism software to catch fraudulent scholars, but you don’t hear any naming and shaming.
Four days before he retired, Vice President Hamid Ansari told law graduates in Bangalore that pluralism and secularism were essential for India’s democracy. Religious minorities constitute 19.4% of the population, Ansari noted. In his thought-provoking speech, peppered with citations, Ansari argued strongly for tolerance, compassion, and inclusiveness. The alternative was unpalatable, he added: “There is evidence to suggest that we are a polity at war with itself in which the process of emotional integration has faltered and is in dire need of reinvigoration. On one plane is the question of our commitment to Rule of Law that seems to be under serious threat arising out of the noticeable decline in the efficacy of the institutions of the State, lapses into arbitrary decision-making and even ‘ochlocracy’ or mob rule, and the resultant public disillusionment”. If our prime minister believes we have five more years to erase communalism, casteism and religious intolerance and become the world’s benchmark on how to cope with diversity, do you have high hopes we will succeed?
Ansari, who more than Pranab Mukherjee was an occasional voice of conscience, will be missed. We can look forward now to some hagiography: Modi released a book of Venkaiah Naidu’s speeches and articles just as the new vice president was elected. Two months ago Naidu, a relentless cheerleader for the prime minister, spoke about MODI, the Making of Developed India. Last October he released a book on Modi’s ‘Midas touch’ in foreign policy.
Couched in careful language, Ansari’s farewell speech was an indictment of our political class. It is possible to be depressed by the depths to which this class can descend in its pursuit of power – whether it is a Nitish Kumar, who has shredded the last vestige of political morality the opposition could pretend to believe in, or it is the sordid shenanigans that ended in the early hours of the Quit India anniversary with Ahmed Patel’s re-elec- tion to a fifth term as a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat.
And yet, both Modi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi stood up in the Lok Sabha later that day to speak aboutthefreedommovementandthe ideals that fired men and women three-quarters of a century ago. Modi stuck to the script from his MannkiBaattalkandendedwitha series of pledges he said every citizen should take, which were emblazoned in full-page newspaper advertisements that morning. Sonia Gandhi dwelt at some length on the sufferings of Congress leaders from Jawaharlal Nehru on during the agitation. She added that the ‘powers of darkness’ that were out to destroy secularism and freedom of speech must be defeated. This was two days after Jairam Ramesh said in an interview that the Congress party faced an existential crisis (“The sultanate has gone but we behave as if we were sultans still”) and must re-invent itself. Many of us have been saying this for three years.
Forget the nitpicks: next week, we will be celebrating 70 years of democracy. This is no mean feat, although Western Europe, which rose from the ruins of war a couple of years before the Union Jack was taken off our flagpoles, has also had enduring democracies, however flawed they may sometimes appear. Our neighbours in South Asia have fared much worse; no prime minister in Pakistan has lasted a full term, and coups, monarchies, uprisings and civil wars havebuckedandheavedaroundour borders.
These seven decades have been marked, elsewhere in the world and at least once in India, by an overall distaste for totalitarianism, although North Korea has survived as an exemplar and now looms monstrously on the horizon with its nuclear arsenal.
Across the world, we have fared less well against authoritarianism, which the dictionary defines as “the enforcement or advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom”. We will forget this at our own peril. In his 2007 speech, Prof. Prahalad put this in stark terms: “Just economic strength and technological maturity is not enough. We know that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had economic and technological muscle. They failed. Morality is an integral part of leadership.”