Saturday, February 02, 2008

Let’s stop living a lie 27 January, 2008

“Until India is able to view itself and its history dispassionately, reject the twin failures of socialism and non-alignment, modernize its Muslim citizens and bring their aspirations in line with those of the Hindu majority, it will likely remain an underachiever” concludes Sadanand Dhume in the latest issue of the influential American journal, Commentary. I found this irritating, especially now that we are doing so well economically. As I thought some more, however, I had to agree with this unhappy verdict. We all need to acknowledge our past failures publicly. Only then will we stop repeating mistakes or reforming by stealth. Only then will we mature as a nation.

As for rejecting socialism, the opportunity arrived on 8 January when the Supreme Court issued a notice to the government to respond to a petition which questions the propriety of employing “socialist” in the preamble of our Constitution. The court also asked the Election Commission why every political party must swear to “socialism” before it can be registered. Appearing for the petitioners, Fali Nariman asked the court to do away with the compulsory socialist vow. “It is hypocritical to say that you believe in it when you don’t,” he said. “One can always have a political party that has capitalism as its intent, and why not?”

The bench, headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, raised an interesting question. “Why do you define socialism in the narrower sense as the communists do?” it asked. “Why don’t you go by the broader definition… which mandates the state to ensure social welfare measures for all the citizens… as a facet of democracy?” Nariman did not reply. The answer to that question, of course, is that we must use words in a clear manner. Ever since Marx “socialism” has had a very precise meaning--the “public ownership of the means of production”. Most Indians do not subscribe to this ideology any longer.

BR Ambedkar explained in 1948 why we must not use “socialist” in our Constitution: “[How] society should be organized in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether… It is perfectly possible… for thinking people to devise some other form...which might be better than the socialist organization.” The Constituent Assembly agreed with Dr Ambedkar and we decided to call ourselves a “sovereign, democratic republic”. But Indira Gandhi amended the Constitution during the Emergency and inserted “socialist” in the preamble. Later the People’s Representation Act was amended and now every political party has to pledge allegiance to socialism to gain recognition.

Well meaning Jawaharlal Nehru set out to create socialism, but we got statism instead. The state assaulted our right to property, whose victims, it turns out, were not the rich but poor farmers from whom the state acquired land forcibly (as Nandigram taught us). Socialist control on industry brought License Raj, which bred black money and damaged our moral character, making us one of the most corrupt societies in the world. Socialist labour rules shattered accountability among state employees. Hence, above-average people in government produce below-average results. And so, even the pretence to offer decent public services has gone. The saddest truth is that our socialist state did not work on behalf of the people but on behalf of itself.

The Supreme Court has now given us chance to look at ourselves in the mirror and reject the mistakes of our past. Until we do that we will keep living a lie and perform below our potential.

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