Nani Palkhivala’s Vision for India

Nani Palkhivala on his vision for India.

Those of us who have lived through the earlier days of free India, when the entire nation as looking forward with zeal and fervour and with a sense of national pride, cannot but look upon the present times with deep anguish and distress. I do not think India in its entire history of 5,000 years has ever reached a lower level of degradation than it has reached now. The depth of decadence to which we have sunk was exemplified by the leakage of question papers for the Joint Entrance Examination 1997 for the first time in the history of the Indian Institute of Technology.

The only achievement of Indian democracy has been that it has survived unfractured for fifty years. Nine hundred fifty million people — more than the combined population of Africa and South America — live together as one political entity under conditions of freedom. Never before in history, and nowhere else in the world today, has one-sixth of the human race existed as a single free nation. Professor Rostow of Texas University regards the survival of Indian democracy as the most important phenomenon of the post-war era.

The achievement is all the more creditable, since no other democracy has had such diversity in unity, or was such a mosaic of humanity. All the great religions in the world have flourished in India. We have 15 major languages written in different alphabets and derived from different roots; and, for good measure, our people — whom you can never call taciturn — express themselves in 250 dialects.

The English language, which is not included in the 15 major languages listed in the Constitution, yet continues to be the only link language for the whole country; it is the only tongue in which the South is prepared to communicate with the North.

In 1950, we started as a Republic with inestimable advantages.

First, we had 5,000 years of civilisation behind us — a civilisation which had reached ‘the summit of human thought’ in the word of Ralph Waldo Emerson. We inherited great skills and many-splendoured intelligence, since the genes had evolved over five luminous millenia. We had a superb entrepreneurial spirit, honed over a century of obstacles. A few years ago, a World Bank report on India mentioned two very favourable factors — an unlimited reservoir of skilled labour, and abundance of capital available for investment in new projects. The trader’s instinct is innate in Indian genes. An Indian can buy from a Jew and sell to a Scot, and yet make a profit!

Secondly, whereas before 1858 India was never a united political entity, in that year the accident of British rule welded us into one country, one nation; and when Independence came, we had been in unified nationality for almost a century under one head of state.

Thirdly, our founding fathers, after two long years of laborious and painful toil, gave us a Constitution which a former Chief Justice of India rightly described as “sublime”.

The substance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, is embodied as Fundamental Rights in our Constitution. The right to equality before the law is guaranteed to citizens and non-citizen alike. All religions are treated with equal tolerance and equal reverence. The religion of a citizen is no bar to his holding any office, however exalted, in politics or the judiciary. In this respect, we are more secular than the United Kingdom where a Roman Catholic cannot be the monarch or the lord chancellor.

In another respect, our Constitution may claim to be more progressive than that of the United States of America. Equality of the sexes is a guaranteed right in India, whereas the attempt to incorporate a similar right in the United States Constitution was met with resistance.

We can proudly say that our Constitution gave us a flying start and equipped us adequately to meet the challenges of the future. Unfortunately, over the years we dissipated every advantage we started with, like a compulsive gambler bent upon squandering an invaluable legacy. I am afraid, India today is only a caricature of the noble democracy which our forefathers strove to bring to life and freedom in 1947.

As early as January 1987, The Economist rightly remarked that socialism as practised in India has been a fraud. Our brand of socialism did not result in transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor but only from the honest rich to the dishonest rich.

We built up state-owned enterprises called the public sector in India. The sleeping sickness of socialism is now universally acknowledged, — but not officially in India. More than 240 public sector enterprises are run by the Union government, and more than 700 by the state governments. These public sector enterprises are the black holes, the money guzzlers, and they have been extracting an exorbitant price for India’s doctrinaire socialism.

There is a tidal wave of privatisation sweeping across the world from Bangladesh to Brazil, but it has turned aside in its course and passed India by.

The most persistent tendency in India has been to have too much government and too little administration; too many laws and too little justice; too many public servants and too little public service; too many controls and too little welfare.
My own thinking is that our greatest initial mistake was to start with adult franchise. No democracy has ever paid, all things considered, a heavier price for adult franchise than India. I am not aware of any great democracy which started as a republic on the basis of adult franchise: all of them started with a more restricted system and then graduated to adult franchise. When the Constituent Assembly was in session, two of our greatest statesmen — C Rajagopalachari and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel — recommended that we should not start with adult franchise but educate our people first to make them worthy of discharging their duties as citizens of a great democracy; but they were out-voted.

The second fatal mistake was to let the population nearly treble, in the absence of any sensible or sound family planning measures and policies. Today, the unbridled population growth, except in the state of Kerala, has been the ruin of this country.

Our third disastrous mistake was to pay no attention to education. Value-based education has never any sex appeal in Indian politics. Unlike Lee Kuan Yew who gave education the priority of priorities in Singapore, our political parties treated literacy as a matter of no consequence. The result has been that more than half of our population is literally illiterate. Official statistics give a more comforting figure; but that is only because any person who can write or sign his name is considered to be literate according to official statistics.

Professor Amartya Sen has bluntly said India will be the only country in the world to enter the 21st century with half her population illiterate, and that successive state governments have demonstrated “incredible irresponsibility” with regard to primary education. In total disregard of Article 45 of the Constitution, state governments have completely ignored their obligation to provide compulsory primary education.

When I was in the United States, I was often asked one question — How does India, with its great human potential and natural resources, manage to remain poor? The correct answer is very unflattering and hardly the type of answer which an ambassador of any country may be expected to give: We are not poor by nature but poor by policy. You would not be far wrong if you called India the world’s leading expert in the art of perpetuating poverty.

Yes, the potential of India is so great! Sir William Ryrie, the executive vice -president of the International Finance Corporation, expressed the view that India has some of “the most creative entrepreneurs . . . The most dynamic business leaders, and the sharpest financial brains in the world.” These words give you an idea of the magnitude of the effort needed to keep India impoverished.

Most of our politicians and bureaucrats, untainted by knowledge of development in the outside world, have no desire to search for genes of ideas which deserve to be called “a high-yielding variety of economics”. We are smugly reconciled to low yield from high ideals.

India is rattling — and rattling violently with spare human capacity. More than thirty million are registered on our 891 employment exchanges. According to objective estimates, there must be at least thirty million more who are unemployed, but who are not registered.

As the chancellor of the exchequer pointed out in the House of Commons some time ago, the population of Hong Kong is less than one per cent of India’s (0.7 per cent to be precise) and its land area is 0.03 per cent of India’s and yet it has twice the trade of India.

The picture that emerges is that of a great nation in a state of moral decay, of which corruption and indiscipline are two of the several facets. In the land of Mahatma Gandhi, violence is on the throne today. Mobocracy has too often displaced democracy. The contribution of modern India to sociology has been a Bandh — the closure of an entire city by militant rowdies.

One may apply to India the words used by the late Benigno Aquino about the Philippines — “Here is a land in which a few are spectacularly rich while the masses remain abjectly poor, where freedom and its blessings are a reality for a minority and an illusion for the many, a land consecrated to democracy but is a land of privilege and rank, a republic educated to equality but mired in an archaic system of caste.”

The greatest problem of India is that its finest men — men of calibre and vision, knowledge and character — are not in politics and stand little chance of getting elected, having regard to the murky atmosphere of our political life. I was one of the foolish people who told Hari Nanda to stand for Parliament. He stood for Parliament from the seat which was supposed to be the safest for him — Faridabad. He was not only defeated, but he forfeited his deposit!

If I am asked to name one curse which deserves to be regarded as the greatest curse of India, I would say it is casteism.

Unfortunately, divisiveness has become the Indian disease. Truly, divisiveness is the AIDS of India — a disease which is spreading fast and wide, preys on the public mind and is without a cure in sight. Communal hatred, linguistic fanaticism, regional fealty, and caste loyalty are gnawing at the vitals of the unity and integrity of the country. To the growing army of terrorists and professional hooligans, caste or clan, creed or tongue, is a sufficient ground to kill their fellow citizens.

National integration is born in the hearts of the citizens. When it dies there, no army, no government can save it. Inter-faith harmony and consciousness of the essential unity of all religions is the very heart of our national integration.

The soul of India aspires to integration and assimilation. Down the ages, Indian culture — a tremendous force of power and beauty — has been made richer and deeper as a result of absorbing what is best in outside influences and integrating those various influences to grace and enrich its own identity.

Yet, an objective overview would justify confidence in the long-term future of the country. A nation’s worth is not measured by its gross national product any more than an individual’s worth is measured by his bank account. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith remarked that while he had seen poverty in many countries of the world, he found one unusual attribute among the poor of India — “There is richness is their poverty.”

Hundreds of millions, who have no standard of living, still have a standard of life. The ancient civilisation has survived and will survive when the raucous and fractious voices of today are lost in the silence of the centuries.

Nature has been kind to India in one respect. It has endowed the country with the gift of producing great leaders in the darkest hour — leaders with the gift of grace who can arouse the trusting millions to lofty heights.

I believe the solution for India is not to be found in adult franchise. There is a basic lesson of Indian history. Our people have always taken their moral standards from their rulers; the people have risen to great heights when they have basked in the glow of noble kings or leaders. The present generation is waiting for a leader who will make it relearn the moral values, and who will inculcate in the people as Gandhiji did, a sense of the responsibilities which fall on every citizen of a free society.

It is true that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. But it is true, in even a deeper sense, that eternal responsibility is also part of the price of liberty. Excessive authority, without liberty, is intolerable; but excessive liberty, without authority and without responsibility, soon becomes equally intolerable.

De Tocqueville made the profound observation that liberty cannot stand alone but must be paired with a companion virtue: liberty and morality; liberty and law; liberty and justice; liberty and the common good; liberty and civic responsibility.

One last thought, and I shall have done. Today, the unity and integrity of India seems to be at stake. But “even this shall pass away”. Indian society will, in course of time, acquire the requisite political culture — the attitudes and habits of tolerance, mutual respect and goodwill, which alone can make democracy workable.

The day will come when the 26 states of India will realise that in a profound sense they are culturally akin, ethnically identical, linguistically knit and historically related.

The major task before India today is to acquire a keener sense of national identity, to gain the wisdom to cherish its priceless heritage, and to create a cohesive society with the cement of Indian culture. We shall then celebrate our Republic as the dependence of the states upon one another, the dependence of our numerous communities upon one another, the dependence of the many castes and clans upon one another — in the sure knowledge that we are one nation.

4 thoughts on “Nani Palkhivala’s Vision for India”

  1. What a remarkable speech. I am reading this a day after Modi’s epic speech to the NRI’s in New York, and can’t help but get stuck with a prophetic observation in Palkhivala’s speech –

    “Our people have always taken their moral standards from their rulers; the people have risen to great heights when they have basked in the glow of noble kings or leaders. The present generation is waiting for a leader who will make it relearn the moral values, and who will inculcate in the people as Gandhiji did, a sense of the responsibilities which fall on every citizen of a free society”


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