Reflections on dynamic trajectories and uncertain futures

Reflecting on the 75 years of the Indian Republic, one ponders its current position and the significant milestones achieved since 1947.
Reflections on dynamic trajectories and uncertain futures

75 years of the Indian Republic

Dipak Kurmi

(The writer can be reached at

Reflecting on the 75 years of the Indian Republic, one ponders its current position and the significant milestones achieved since 1947. The journey of independent India has been marked by notable events, shaping the nation’s course. From this vantage point, the future unfolds with uncertainties, inviting contemplation on what lies ahead for this diverse and dynamic nation.

At the dawn of independence, India grappled with inherent contradictions that cast a shadow on the Republic’s trajectory. Economically, the nation lagged significantly, showcasing dismal statistics. The average life expectancy was a mere 32 years, with a literacy rate of approximately 14%. Particularly disheartening was the meagre 9% literacy rate for women. Famine, a grim reality, claimed three million lives in Bengal during the Second World War, attributed to both disease and starvation stemming from a shortage of food. Despite its vast size, India, the world’s second-largest country after China, struggled as a relatively small economy, its resources drained and potential for growth hampered by two centuries of colonial rule.

Yet, India possessed distinct advantages relative to other colonies during independence. It boasted an autonomous capitalist class, free from entanglements with British imperialism. Additionally, the nation enjoyed a well-established infrastructure, encompassing banks, financial institutions, and extensive road and rail networks crucial for fostering economic development.

Foremost among India’s strengths was its rich intellectual and philosophical heritage. The people of India orchestrated a disciplined and enlightened mass resistance against the formidable British imperialism. The profound depth of India’s intellectual capital found its apex in the Constitution, adopted in 1949 by an elected Constituent Assembly and inaugurated on January 26, 1950—designated as Republic Day. This constitutional document served as both a representative and an emancipator, capturing the aspirations of the Indian people. It not only outlined the blueprint for India’s modern transformation but also skillfully retained the positive elements of its deep-rooted traditions. Carrying this baggage of contradictions, the nature of India’s journey into the future unfolded with intriguing complexity.

Examining the Indian Republic reveals a tapestry woven with multiple trajectories—oscillations, continuities, and mutations. In essence, it narrates a tale not of stagnancy but of an exceedingly dynamic social order where motion consistently outweighs inertia. However, the dynamism, albeit prominent, hasn’t invariably steered in the desired direction. Broadly speaking, the political course of the Republic has been characterised by disruptions, while the economic path has demonstrated sustained patterns. Simultaneously, the evolution of the ‘nation’ has encountered transformative shifts, akin to genetic mutations in its developmental journey.

In its political infancy, Independent India embarked on a transformative journey under the aegis of a representative state for its people. This era was characterised by a pervasive consensus, marked by a broad agreement on overarching goals. Nehru emerged as the undisputed leader, steering this consensus. The political landscape witnessed a phase of centralization wherein Nehru’s leadership faced minimal opposition, even prompting arguments that he held a dual role as both Prime Minister and the foremost leader of the opposition. While centralization harboured authoritarian tendencies, India’s political trajectory diverged from that path. Factors such as the lingering spirit of the national movement, Nehru’s enlightened guidance, the diverse nature of the Congress party, an overarching consensual atmosphere, and a resolute commitment to diversity collectively deterred the nation from veering into authoritarianism.

The late 1960s marked the onset of fractures in this model. Consensus, the initial linchpin, gradually faded away. Despite the absence of consensus, centralization persisted, paving the way for potential authoritarianism. Discontent materialized prominently through the JP movement, and its aftermath saw the declaration of the emergency as a reactionary measure.

The period of centralization bereft of consensus proved unsustainable, harbouring inherent contradictions. This led to a pronounced swing in the Indian political landscape. The pendulum shifted decisively towards the opposite end, witnessing an era of excessive federalization, notably in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Concurrently, the decline of the Congress, coupled with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not fully realizing its nationwide potential, marked a clear weakening of all-India parties. Governments, whether of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), found themselves reliant on small regional parties, often resorting to tactics bordering on blackmail to navigate the intricate political landscape.

Disillusionment with the existing model grew, leading to a second pendulum swing towards centralization in the early years of the 21st century. This shift differed significantly from the centralization witnessed in the 1950s. The decline of the Congress party persisted and seemed irreversible, while the Left lost its prominence in pan-Indian politics. A societal preference for centralised governance coincided with a desire for a strong leader. The global economic crisis provided an opening for a right-wing ascendance, and cultural energies increasingly leaned towards majoritarianism. These dynamics culminated in the ascendancy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. However, viewing the BJP solely as a beneficiary of new realities would be an oversimplification. The relationship between the BJP and these realities was dialectical, with the party not only benefiting from the changes but also actively contributing to their creation. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement of the 1980s and 1990s, ostensibly focused on the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, also aimed at forging a pan-Indian political constituency of Hindus, thereby centralising majoritarianism in Indian politics.

 The pendulum of Indian governance swung between centralization and federalization before reverting to centralization, yet the parallels between the two are only surface-level. The centralization of the 1950s, led by Nehru, was underpinned by a staunch commitment to secularism and pluralism, with the celebration of diversity as the cornerstone of Indian governance. In contrast, the current phase of centralization exhibits a distinct inclination towards unitarianism over pluralism. Underneath the surface, the predominant conflicts in Indian society today can be traced back to the fundamental contest between these two contrasting visions—pluralism and unitarianism—with a discernible tilt in favor of the latter.

In the economic domain, the path follows one of consistent progression and organic development, devoid of abrupt shifts or oscillations. During the post-Independence era, a prevailing consensus emphasized the imperative for India’s economic growth to be grounded in self-reliance and predominantly reliant on its indigenous resources. The prospect of re-colonizing the Indian economy was unequivocally dismissed.

The planned economic model, the import substitution strategy, and later, the Green Revolution, all aligned in a cohesive direction. By the 1980s, any looming threat of re-colonization or dominance by global superpowers in the Indian economy had been effectively thwarted. Having established a secure foundation, India took a significant leap towards active participation in the global economy, following the successful examples of South Korea in the 1960s and China in the 1970s. Recognising the need for internal economic reforms to compete globally, the government initiated a gradual withdrawal, promoting private initiatives. This period witnessed the dismantling of major monopolies, such as Indian Airlines in civil aviation, Doordarshan in television channels, and VSNL/BSNL in telecommunications, with enduring consequences. The emphasis on economic growth also facilitated the government’s welfare initiatives. Notable schemes like MNREGA, the Right to Education, and the distribution of free rations to millions of Indians during and after COVID became feasible due to the rapid economic growth that generated resources for welfare. In essence, India’s economic trajectory has been one of consistent organic growth, where the economic reforms initiated in 1991–92 should be viewed not as a reversal but as a logical extension of preceding policies.

Significant transformations have occurred in the fundamental identity of the Indian nation. The notion of an Indian people and their nation began evolving in the latter half of the 19th century. The predominant vision of the Indian nation, as articulated and practiced by freedom struggle leaders, portrayed it as a civic rather than ethnic entity, grounded in territorial rather than religious affiliations. Pluralism, federalism, and a non-coercive approach characterised this mainstream imagination, which emphasised unity in the struggle against British rule. The foundational principles of Indian nationalism rested on fostering a sense of unity among all Indian people, transcending religious, cultural, and linguistic differences. Minority communities were actively encouraged to join the nationalist cause, with assurances that they would be equal participants in national life. In essence, this outlined the emerging Indian nation.

The zenith of Indian nationalism was reached with the expulsion of British imperialists in 1947. Nevertheless, this pinnacle of success was paradoxically marred by a momentous failure—the partition of India into two distinct nation-states, India and Pakistan.

Post-1947, the significance of anti-imperialism, a pivotal pillar of Indian nationalism, diminished. Nehru, in his role as the leader of the Indian people, grappled with the question of the new elements that would shape the nation’s ideational fabric. He anchored these elements in developmentalism, social harmony, and securing a dignified position for India among major nation-states globally. To address these concerns, Nehru established the National Integration Council, comprising politicians, bureaucrats, and academics. The council’s mandate was to propose measures aligning with the principles inherited from the days of the national movement, aimed at fortifying the Indian nation.

In the 1980s, the predominant vision of Indian nationalism underwent considerable turmoil as it faced divergent influences. Its legitimacy was scrutinized by separatist movements in Punjab, Kashmir, and parts of the North-East. Simultaneously, efforts were made to shift its orientation towards a Hindu majoritarian perspective through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The Dalit assertion in politics accentuated internal fault lines, often magnified for effect. The ideational fabric of Indian nationalism faced a rigorous examination, subjected to challenges from various quarters with varying levels of assertiveness. The 1980s emerged as a decade that inflicted substantial damage on the original mainstream Indian nationalism since 1947, leaving it scarred and bruised. The unfolding scenarios included possibilities of fragmentation, mutation, and appropriation, each with the potential to reshape the fundamental character of Indian nationalism.

The Indian Republic has traversed three significant trajectories. Politically, it has witnessed fluctuations akin to the rhythmic swings of a clock’s pendulum. Economically, there has been a consistent and organic growth trajectory, devoid of significant breaks or ruptures. However, the fundamental character and orientation of Indian nationalism present the most enigmatic aspect. The original concept seems more fragile and weakened from within than ever before, casting a substantial question mark on its core identity.

What lies ahead in the future—will it unfold as a mere extension of the present, laden with its certainties and uncertainties, or are we poised to witness an expansion of the spectrum of potential trajectories? The certainty is that we do not know. The answers to questions about the future remain within the realm of the future itself.

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