President Pranab Mukherjee in his address to the nation on the anniversary of India’s 67th Republic Day reflected on the state of the nation calling the year gone by a “year of challenges”.

He spoke of the “great virtue in acknowledging a problem and resolving to address it”. In this context, he does see an effort to build and implement strategies to solve these problems, though the problems he rightly alludes to are complex — for instance the “blowback” when the global economy is subdued, and the rural miseries that have piled up — as suggested by falling rural employment and incomes — on account of droughts and floods last year.

He thus mentioned the need to re-vitalise the forces of growth – reforms and progressive legislation – and the duty of parliamentarians who have held the two houses to ransom.

The President also cautioned Hindutva forces in a manner by stating that imagined grievanaces of the past have no place in democracy.

The positives and the negatives

Although India achieved Independence on August 15, 1947, it was not until it promulgated the Constitution on January 26, 1950, that it shed the leftovers of Western colonialism and set out in pursuit of true self-determination. Despite flaws, India have largely respected the “basic structure” of the Constitution as defined by various court decisions, including concepts like fundamental rights, federalism, equality before law, freedom and dignity of the person, unity and integrity of the nation, independence of judiciary and separation of powers. Sreeram Chaulia, Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs puts it aptly: “Even where we fail to uphold these core pillars, the aspiration is there and no one in India questions the essential Constitutional tenets or proposes any better alternative to them”.

This is important even though over the years, the definite imagery of the Republic Day is not the direct celebration of the Constitution but one of the military (and cultural) parade. Lt-Gen Bhopinder Singh (retd), former Lt-Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry
says “it is still a tribute to the Republic of India, as the nation visibly asserts and reaffirms its military might in service to the democratic foundations, by the marching contingents saluting to the President of India (Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces) and not to the military top brass — positing the supremacy of the People over its defence forces”.

However, all is not well with the Republic. And the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a dalit (lowest caste) in Hyderabad University a few weeks ago symbolically demonstrates that. Caste remains a factor that continues to divide in Indian society. Rohith’s suicide note says “life itself is a curse”, and for those whose birth is, in Rohith’s excoriating phrase, “a fatal accident”. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, distinguished Professor of history and politics, Ashoka University says Indians should be concerned and not be in denial of the great social evil. “The people of this Republic are facing an identity crisis because they have been reduced to the de-humanising bare bones of this or that identity. Worse, their identity has become a market commodity, to be bought, branded and bullied into adherences or antagonisms……. No one has abetted the suicide. But there are those who have abetted the emptiness that Rohith speaks of”.

That said, Indian as a nation and society is becoming increasingly aspirational and there is hope that caste and class divisions will blur as prosperity comes. With 7 per cent growth and billion-plus consumers, India is recognised at the Davos World Economic Forum, as a bright spot. As an economist put it, the party seems to be over in the emerging world, except India.
The Indian economy, however, is not out of woods. Corporate India is under heavy debt which hits its earnings and investment plans. Due to a bad loan pile-up, banks are unable to lend more despite the RBI rate cuts. Startups cannot take off unless there is an easy access to affordable finance. Agriculture remains sluggish. Food inflation is high and supply-side reforms are on hold. There is much work on the economic front for the government.

Competitive federalism

Other than economic challenges, the country is witnessing a phenomenon that Meghnad Desai, a member of the House of Lords but who keeps a pulse on India, call competitive federalism. As the Congress lost elections in many states the clout of the Centre weakened. “The states have become more powerful. Tamil Nadu, for example, is an independent nation in all but name……..States which are large enough to be independent nations have begun to experiment with governance and innovative policies. Not all the innovations are well designed. Yet, there is a value to local autonomy which should be prized. India is a nation of many nations, like Europe which is even now struggling to be become an effective Union”.

Desai gives a few examples of competitive federalism. Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal experiment with the odd-even rule to reduce traffic congestion was surprisingly welcomed. The policy was a success and “citizens cooperated and gave up their law-breaking tendencies”. Importantly, this was an example of intelligent and innovative way of using the limited autonomy the government has.

In Maharashtra however, a progressive young Chief Minister has gone on to implement a beef ban which is unnecessary and provocative. This is an example of misusing the power of the State.

In Bihar, the charismatic Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is planning to impose prohibition of alcohol. Though well-meaning, this is a bad option as it will not only affect the revenue, but it is also guaranteed to encourage criminal activity.