A combination of factors is inexorably pushing India toward what may be described as a political and economic watershed. The decisions and actions that its leadership takes-or fails to take-this year may shape the history not only of India but perhaps of Asia for a long time to come.

To say that affairs in India have reached a watershed is perhaps an understatement or a euphemism. It would be more accurate to say that the country is faced with the biggest crisis since its independence twenty years ago. The coming months will show whether we have the capacity to face it determinedly or will move apathetically down the slippery slope of economic chaos as China did some thirty years ago.

None of the problems and challenges that India is facing at present is new or unexpected. At various times since independence we have been confronted with each of them. We have also had adequate warning that they were developing. What makes the situation so difficult and disheartening-many in India sincerely doubt if the country has the capacity to face it-is the fact that such a large number of problems have to be dealt with simultaneously. To give only an abbreviated list of them, India's population has crossed the 500 million mark and its annual rate of growth shows no sign of declining from 2.4 percent; its economy is stagnating; its once ample resources have been frittered away on grandiose schemes which have failed to pay the expected dividends, and its treasury is literally empty; it has experienced three successive years of drought, a phenomenon unparalleled in living memory, and consequently has a food deficit this year conservatively estimated at twelve million tons; the monolithic Congress Party, which won the country its freedom and has held it together since independence, is crumbling and in certain areas its place is being taken by political parties lacking broad vision or dedication to national unity; charismatic national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru have been replaced by ones with local or at best regional followings and limited political wisdom; disenchantment with the leadership is widespread and the country seems to be losing its self-confidence.

The results of the general election held earlier this year were not only surprising and unexpected-even the worst enemies of the ruling Congress Party had not anticipated the mauling that it actually received-but also highly significant. This first election without Mr. Nehru clearly demonstrated that the people of India, notwithstanding their lack of formal education and economic backwardness, valued their vote and had learned to exercise it independently if not always judiciously. It also showed convincingly that elections in India were fair and that there was no noticeable evidence of any official attempt to interfere with their conduct. (If official interference were not the exception but the rule, such Congress Party stalwarts as Kumaraswami Kamaraj, S. K. Patil, Atulya Ghosh and the Chief Ministers of several States would not have been allowed to lose their seats in the legislatures.)

That was the credit side of the general election. On the debit side, it exposed India's unity to stresses and strains which may well prove unbearable, opened uncharted and hazardous avenues in the relationship between the States and the Center, and pushed the aging Congress Party out of office in more than half the States without evolving a stable alternative pattern of power.

The new pattern is confusing. At the Center, the Congress Party has won an absolute majority (although the present margin of less than fifty seats must seem meagre when compared to that of over two hundred in the previous Parliament), but it has been defeated in half the States. The non-Congress parties which have come to power in the States must watch the Congress- controlled Central Government with suspicion and hostility. In five of the eight States which were lost, ministries have been formed by what may charitably be described as a "consortium of parties." Many of the coalescing parties have little in common ideologically and are held together only by their desire for power. In Punjab, for example, the principal partners in the government are the Akalis and the Jana Sangh, the parties representing, respectively, Sikh and Hindu chauvinism; it was their mutual antagonism that led to the State's bifurcation last year. In West Bengal, the Chief Minister is a rather conservative liberal ex-Congressman, while the Deputy Chief Minister, who also holds the finance portfolio, is a Communist, and a Peking-oriented Communist at that. In order to maintain their precarious unity, these strange bedfellows may tend to face the Congress at the Center with more belligerence than is justified. At the same time, unaccustomed as it is to sharing power with other political parties, Mrs. Indira Gandhi's Government may not deal with the non-Congress States with the required degree of patience and understanding. In some States, as in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, the non-Congress ministries are headed by former Congressmen whose defection after the elections led to the Congress Ministries' defeat there; this will not improve the Center's disposition toward them.

Even in the brief time since the elections, we have seen the tendency of the Central and State governments to pull in different directions. The head of the Left-Communist Government in Kerala, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, has demanded a firm assurance from the Center of an adequate and uninterrupted supply of rice for his State. He has also openly demanded to know why foreign exchange earned by exports from Kerala should not be earmarked exclusively for the use of his State. This may open a dangerous avenue of political thinking leading ultimately to secessionist moves. The West Bengal Chief Minister, Ajoy Mookerjee, has similarly visited Delhi to make what in the present state of India's food reserves must seem exacting demands. After reëlection to the Haryana legislature on the Congress ticket, Birender Singh defected from the party to head a non-Congress ministry, and suggested convening a meeting of non-Congress Chief Ministers to evolve a common line of action for dealing with the Center. This tendency to challenge the Center may disappear as the governments get into their stride, but it is quite as likely to increase.

II

As for India's fundamental problems, the economic crisis is admittedly the most pressing. India's economic planning has been highly sophisticated but totally unreal. In their thinking, Indian leaders and planners have been influenced by ideas which at best have limited relevance to the country's immediate needs and resources. Also, they have been unwilling to free themselves of the slogans which they coined during their long fight against the British. And while much attention has been devoted to preparing the blueprints of the four Plans, their execution has been neglected. Metaphorically speaking, the imposing Planning Commission building in New Delhi has had no windows through which to see what was happening outside. Poor field performance has seldom incurred corrective sanctions. In deciding certain issues, such as the location of large industries, political considerations have often been allowed to outweigh purely economic ones. One part of the MIG aircraft factory, for example, is located in Nasik in Maharashtra and another in Orissa nearly one thousand miles away, while the electronic equipment for the aircraft will be produced at Hyderabad in Andhra, which is several hundred miles from the other two plants.

It was perhaps their endeavor to think in grandiose industrial terms that made leaders like Mr. Nehru fail to grasp the real importance of agriculture and family planning. Some attention was paid to the former, but for all practical purposes the latter was totally ignored. Even now the population control program moves with marked sluggishness along a course which is still beset with red tape and administrative inefficiency, and it reaches only a small proportion of the people. At the present pace, it may be twenty years before it has a decided impact on the birth rate, and by then the country's population will have risen beyond 700 million. Many people think that population control is already a lost cause.

These and other factors have combined to create a situation of near economic disaster. The export deficit rose last year to over $ 1 billion, while interest on foreign loans amounted to another $400 million. Last summer, Mrs. Gandhi bravely devalued the rupee but it failed to reduce the pressure of inflation or bring about the industrial buoyancy that was expected. The devaluation was not followed by the lifting or easing of the controls which hold Indian industry in a virtual administrative straitjacket. Consequently, exports fell instead of rising and industry is experiencing the worst recession in decades. The cost of living has risen by nearly 20 percent in a year.

But India's woes are not solely economic. The failures at the political level have been even more grievous, though their consequences are not as readily visible. It was of course foreseen that the titanic leadership thrown up by the struggle for independence and the great sense of idealism generated by it would some day disappear. It was also expected that lesser men would come to power and that politics in India would acquire a less exalted character. Despite this, the crop of leaders at the Center and in the States has been a great disappointment and politics has become too unashamedly a pursuit of power. Power-in fact petty, personal power-seems to have become an end in itself in many an area of Indian public life today.

In sharp contrast to the people's earlier starry-eyed faith in their leaders' integrity and dedication, there is in India today a general sense of disillusionment. Many people talk of politics and politicians with unconcealed disdain, and few would credit them with any deep concern for the public good. Everyone in politics, it is frequently said, is there to make his personal fortune. This is obviously an exaggeration but it is by no means baseless. In any frank and honest appraisal of the Congress Party and its top leaders, it must be admitted that they have invited a great deal of justifiable public anger and hastened the party's disintegration by their tolerance of corruption. The concept that those holding public office must, like Caesar's wife, be above reproach was not accepted. Even when serious and precise charges of corruption were publicly leveled against a Central minister or a State Chief Minister they were seldom investigated; or, as in the case of allegations against two State Chief Ministers, such extensive documentary proof was insisted on as to make a mockery of the inquiries. No minister would be foolish enough to leave a trail of documentary evidence in his pursuit of corrupt ends. Even when misuse of authority was established, the punishment was negligible. In one instance, after a charge of impropriety had been established against a former Chief Minister, he continued to be a member of the Congress Party's highest policy-making bodies. This typified the party's attitude toward corruption in high places. In Mr. Nehru's cabinet there were some ministers whose personal integrity was widely doubted and yet they flourished politically and were included in successive cabinets. Many a politician with no ostensible source of income has been seen to live in style after a brief ministerial assignment. Sons and relations of many a person in power have suddenly blossomed into business tycoons displaying a flair for commerce and industry which somehow had remained dormant until political power came to the family. Others who have not amassed personal wealth have collected funds for the party (which really means their own supporters in the party) or accepted fabulous sums as "birthday gifts." Corruption and misuse of authority apart, Congressmen at the Center-and more so in the States-have gone to such lengths to attain office that they have earned public ridicule.

Inevitably, the politicians' selfishness has also infected the civil services. The top bureaucracy's pursuit of power is perhaps a little more sophisticated and less conspicuous than that of the politicians, but it is just as harmful. Senior civil servants tend to gravitate to New Delhi, for it is the capital which offers the principal spoils. They thereby leave the States in the hands of relatively junior officials who are not always capable of withstanding pressures from politicians. In the States, where political pressures are exercised rather more blatantly than at the Center, and cover a vast area of public life, certain major acts of alleged corruption might not have been committed if senior and self-confident officials had been there to point out to the politicians the impropriety involved.

At the Center the attractions for civil servants are enormous. Besides getting extensions in service beyond retirement age, a senior official, if he is able to win ministerial good will, can aspire to be an ambassador or a State governor or at least the chairman of some state-owned corporation. In order to win the necessary good will, he inevitably panders to the wishes of the politicians. Thus, at the highest level of policy-making, the country is deprived of the benefit of his independent judgment fearlessly expressed. At the lower levels of administration, government employees are resentful of the economic pinch they are in, and feel that their welfare is not receiving due attention. Thus, in the country's vast administrative structure there is only a small segment at the middle level which has neither wholly lost its enthusiasm nor succumbed to the irresistible pressures of personal ambition.

As far as the public is concerned, it alternates between sudden bursts of irrational anger and prolonged and equally inexplicable periods of apathy. In recent times, particularly since the beginning of 1965, violence has erupted in many parts of the country; yet the people's capacity to tolerate administrative inefficiency and suffer the tyrannies of petty bureaucracy has been enormous. Even in New Delhi, which should be something of a show- window for this country, and where the administration should be anxious to put its best foot forward, one is appalled at the indignities and annoyances that a citizen silently suffers every day. Public utilities in the capital are primitive. Serious pollution of the drinking water is an almost constant hazard. The state-run milk-supply organization is in a shambles. The city's hospitals and schools are ill-equipped and crowded. Many of the problems facing Delhi undoubtedly are due to the fact that the city has expanded at a greater rate than the civil authorities could cope with, but administrative negligence is also a prominent factor; what is worse, it is accepted without much protest. During the last two years the people have tended to rise in anger over political matters such as the language issue or a border dispute between two States (particularly when politicians were around to incite them), but on questions affecting their day-to-day life they have often showed remarkable forbearance.

III

In these circumstances it is not surprising if foreign observers-not necessarily hostile to India-should wonder if democracy will survive in India. At home and abroad, there has been speculation about the possibility of a military coup. In these days of rapid transition, nothing can be dismissed as impossible, but the prospect of a military coup in India is exceedingly remote. The Indian army is still composed of professional soldiers with little involvement in politics. Also, it comprises such diverse linguistic and religious elements, and is spread over such a vast area, that the unity of purpose and action which a coup presupposes would be almost impossible to achieve.

If the army in Pakistan was able to act effectively against the politicians in 1958, it was largely because the armed forces there were much more closely knit than one would have expected in a country which consists of two parts with more than a thousand miles between. Pakistan's geographical and linguistic diversity was hardly reflected in the composition of its army; at that time East Pakistan had no place in the country's army. It was composed primarily of Pathans and Punjabis, who have much in common. Another factor which facilitated the army's rise to power was that Pakistan had had no democratic election since independence and democratic values had scarcely developed roots there.

Solutions to India's problems, therefore, will have to be found by its political leaders. But will they be able to make the necessary decisions? If real solutions are to be found, the decisions will have to be big-and sometimes harsh. Making them will require much courage.

First and foremost, those who run the Government will have to rid themselves of the attitudes acquired in the early years of Indian independence when economic and political realities were not as stark as at present. Certain slogans fashioned during that period are no longer relevant and serve only as mental shackles for the leadership; they must be consciously discarded. Basic policies must be judged by the results they produce and not by their faithfulness to any particular ideology. Such an approach may seem to lack idealism but it must be realized that India needs this kind of pragmatism to extricate itself from the present unhappy situation.

It is true that a nation's foreign policy is difficult to change overnight. At the same time it is not desirable for a country to have a static, unchanging pattern of international relationships. Indian foreign policy must respond to a new era in which non-alignment has been reduced to a sterile slogan. The concept of nonalignment had its value and impact on international relations some years ago, but in the light of recent developments a warmed-over Bandung approach based on the assumption of a mystic unity among Asian and African nations is seen to be a dead-end street. China has become a menace not only for India but for Asia; and the United States and the Soviet Union, whose mutual antagonism gave nonalignment meaning, are eagerly exploring the possibilities of coexistence. In these circumstances, such conferences as that between Gandhi, Nasser and Tito in New Delhi last October seem a rather pointless exercise in flogging a nearly dead horse. This is not to suggest that India must rush into one bloc or the other or enter into a defense pact. No bloc would be too eager to be saddled with the responsibility of defending a vast and vulnerable country like ours. In any case, as Pakistan's political waywardness has recently demonstrated, defense pacts themselves are outdated. What India should do is to take a realistic view of the Chinese threat and shape its foreign policy so as to combat it effectively.

An understanding with Pakistan-a working arrangement if not an abiding friendship-must be the basis of any real resistance to Peking. This, of course, presupposes a settlement of the Kashmir problem, but unfortunately both President Ayub Khan and Mrs. Gandhi lack the political strength for any bold attempt to resolve the dispute. Conscious of their weakness, they tend to stick rigidly to their declared stands, but it is essential that they move, however slowly, toward a solution.

Taking a new and pragmatic tack with the domestic economy is perhaps even more necessary for India's recovery. Other countries in the region faced with similar, if not worse, circumstances have overcome their problems effectively, and there is no reason why India should not be able to do so. Taiwan and South Korea are small countries, but their difficulties in regard to food and population were not less serious than India's. Also, though in quite different degrees, they had the enormous task of recovering from the ravages of war. Most of their difficulties are now behind them, in large part because their leaders had the right sense of priorities, adopted methods which produced results and made effective use of the local and foreign capital available to them. In India there is much talk of socialism, but it means different things to different people. Whatever it is, its positive benefits have been few. It has raised expectations without fulfilling even a part of them. Also, it has given the Government and the people some needlessly negative attitudes, such as that toward foreign investments. In the past many a country has leaned heavily on foreign capital and technical know-how for quick economic development. There is no reason why India cannot do the same now without suffering political depredation.

Above all, Mrs. Gandhi, Mr. Kamaraj (who still wields power in the Congress Party) and Mr. Morarji Desai must burnish the image of political leadership and restore to it a measure of public respect and confidence. Otherwise the sullen apathy of the people will only deepen and the supreme effort to advance the nation will become impossible. In convincing the public that politics in India is not wholly devoid of a sense of public service, the Congress leaders must be joined by the various other parties which have come to power in nine of the sixteen States. If the Congress leaders make the effort, coöperation is almost certain to be forthcoming from other parties in power. Having profited from the Dorian Gray-like deterioration in the Congress Party's image, the other parties should be anxious to show to the people that they have a better set of values.

IV

Given the available leadership and the country's resources of spirit, money and technical competence, can India turn the corner? How likely is it that the right, bold decisions will be made before it is too late? That the average Indian has the desire to improve his lot and the necessary common sense and energy to work for it is undeniable. The present state of sullen indignation hides enthusiasm which needs to be harnessed. Where they have been given even minimum guidance and help, illiterate Indian villagers can claim noticeable achievements. In Punjab some areas have experimented successfully with high-yield wheat seeds from Mexico, and farmers in the rest of the State are clamoring for the new variety. In Madras and Andhra, despite the drought, farmers have increased the rice yield several fold with the help of the Taichung variety of paddy. The area covered by the family planning campaign is still depressingly limited, but the people's response has been heartening. In the field of industry, the Indian worker has acquired a degree of skill which should make India's labor force the envy of most countries in Asia and Africa. The standard of efficiency in industrial management is also generally acknowledged to be fairly high.

It is leadership which may prove to be India's Achilles' heel. Nehru's long inning as the supreme leader enabled India to acquire a sense of unity, but it also discouraged the emergence of successors. Mrs. Gandhi, Mr. Desai and Mr. Y. B. Chavan have merits as leaders but none of them has all the qualities essential for the leader of a vast country in serious difficulties. Mrs. Gandhi provides the youthful image and has shown herself willing to make unpopular decisions, but she lacks experience and sagacity. Mr. Desai, the Deputy Prime Minister, gives the Government the much-needed appearance of strength and is capable of the ruthlessness necessary in the present situation. Mr. Chavan is capable of shrewd, if unspectacular, action. In many ways they complement each other. The void at the top may be filled if they work unitedly and single-mindedly. Unhappily, they are all regarded as rivals for the post of Prime Minister and tend to look at each other with suspicion. The early weeks of the new Government do not suggest that they realize their personal shortcomings or the need to stand together. Nor does the composition of the new Central cabinet show an awareness of the gravity of the situation and the enormity of the economic and political problems facing the country. Few impartial observers would describe the Central Government as a cabinet of talent.

Perhaps in the coming months, as they get accustomed to working together, suspicion will gradually give place to trust and the vulnerability of their own positions at the top will remind each of them of the necessity to work in harmony. It may sound hackneyed but it is a fact: the top leadership is on trial and their period of probation may be amazingly short.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now