A nation at war with itself

Lester M. Salamon

June 25, 1991|By Lester M. Salamon

THE CAMPAIGN billboards I saw dominating the streets o New Delhi in the week preceding the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi told the story of modern India all too well: "Vote Congress," they proclaimed, "for stability."

They did not mention progress, independence, freedom, socialism, development or any of the other values that gave rise to the Congress Party more than 70 years ago and that filled India with hope in the heady days following independence in Lester M.Salamon1947. Just stability, internal peace, a degree of calm.

For in India, stability has become the dominant political value, and for good reason. India is a nation at war with itself. Worse than that, it has become a nation in despair, in which hope and confidence seem to have disappeared, replaced by an enervating passivity and a desire just to make it through the next day.

Nor is the source of the despair that seems to have gripped India hard to discern. It greets the visitor on the trip in from the airport, in the hordes of people living in all manner of deprivation in the streets and sidewalks and parks and public places of this vast land, in the dust and dirt that is everywhere and in the overwhelming smells of crushed humanity, fouled water and uncollected refuse.

One statistic alone can convey the magnitude of India's problem: The number of people living in the streets, let alone in the crowded tenements, just in the city of Bombay is larger than the total population of the Baltimore metropolitan area -- 3 million human beings in all.

But it is not the poverty alone that ultimately explains India's current despair. Poverty has been a fact of life in this country for many decades. What seems different now is the widespread loss of faith in the institutions that in the heady early years after independence people trusted would remedy this situation: the Congress Party -- the party of Nehru -- and the newly liberated Indian government and civil service. These were to be the instruments through which India was to overcome its historic disabilities.

But in the face of communal unrest, the late Indira Gandhi turned the Congress Party into an instrument of repression in the mid-1970s, and under Rajiv Gandhi, her son, the party became a vehicle for corruption as well.

As for the civil service, it proved as obdurate, lethargic and bureaucratic under the new Congress Party leadership as it had been under the British raj, and perhaps more so. The senior civil servants are bright and dedicated activists. But the legions of hangers-on, sitting and sleeping in the corridors and waiting rooms, speak volumes about the difficulties even able leaders must encounter in trying to bring about meaningful social and economic change.

The task of governing India is an ominous one under the best of circumstances. The new prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, faces caste and religious strife, separatist wars and an economy in serious trouble. This is a nation of at least 850 million people, compared to the 230 million in America. These people speak different languages and represent a degree of ethnic diversity that makes America seem homogeneous by comparison. Just to manage a democratic election in this vast land is a major accomplishment.

What happens when 500 million people cease to have hope? Where will these people turn to renew the faith they seem to have lost in the institutions that brought them independence?

Rajiv Gandhi offered a chance -- perhaps the last for some time -- for India to avoid having to face up to this issue. He did not offer hope or a real solution to people's problems because no one would have believed him. But he did offer a degree of stability, a kind of "breathing space" that potentially could have provided an opportunity to formulate a new path to the future and to foster a new lease on hope.

Given its rich history and tradition of culture, art and philosophy; its breathtaking natural beauty, and its enchanting people, India deserves better than this. Perhaps Rao, who heads the fragile government, is the answer, but success will take much time and much luck.

Lester M. Salamon is director of the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies. He was in India in connection with a research project he is directing on the emerging private, nonprofit sector in India and 11 other countries around the world.

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