India underscores inclusivity on 75th anniversary of Independence


Coming on almost the eve of India’s 75th independence anniversary celebrations, the election of woman tribal leader Droupadi Murmu to the prestigious position of India’s President underscores afresh the country’s democratic credentials. While the historic Partitioning of India in 1947 drew attention to the endemic and destructive presence of identity politics in the Indian sub-continent, India is providing proof that she is in a constant effort to bolster her secular-democratic identity. The election of Droupadi Murmu as President of the country, is the latest of such evidence.

To be sure, identity politics are continuing to plague India, inasmuch as they have been doing most countries of South Asia, but the resounding election of Murmu is proof that inclusivity or efforts at national integration are vibrantly alive in India. Perhaps more than any other country in the region, India gives proof that national integration goes hand-in-hand with democratic development. It is not possible to lay claim to the latter while ignoring or soft-pedalling national integration, as is the case mostly in Sri Lanka.

If national integration is truly state policy, then, members of minority groups should be in a position to occupy the foremost political positions in a country. Countries professing to be democratic are obliged to ensure that a level playing field exists in their countries that could enable members of minority communities to ascend to the highest political and public positions in their lands. Why, indeed, cannot a Tamil citizen ascend to the position of Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, as suggested by some political quarters of the country? Hopefully, this will be a matter of serious discussion in Sri Lanka.

However, India has time and again proved that one need not necessarily be a so-called upper caste Hindu, for instance, to be elected to the position of President. The overwhelming support that Murmu won in the Indian legislature proves the point that ‘being minority’ is no disqualification to run for high office in the country. Besides, the point is being resoundingly made that India is for all its communities, regardless of their numerical strength. That is, the future lies with inclusion and not exclusion.

The fact that Murmu hails from India’s North-East is also of tremendous importance. For far too long the ‘Seven Sister States’ of India’s North-East have been seen as having been left out of the country’s mainstream development process. It is to rectify this perceived developmental imbalance that the ‘Look East’ policy was brought into being by the Indian centre in recent years.

Murmu’s election is proof that India’s mainstream political parties are in earnest when they speak in terms of bringing the North-East increasingly into the country’s growth process. Among other things, she will be a veritable connecting bridge between the North-East and the rest of India.

As has come to be realized in India, the country’s North-East could be converted into a vibrant economic doorway to South-East Asia’s markets, via neighbouring states such as Myanmar. Besides, once fully developed, India’s North-East could integrate more closely economically with adjacent markets in China. The coming on stage of a North-East tribal leader as India’s new President could be a huge catalyst in this wide-ranging development effort.

However, on the occasion of India’s and Pakistan’s independence anniversaries the hope of sensible opinion in South Asia is likely to be that identity politics would not be allowed to get in the way of the two countries collaborating closely to bring back on track the much weakened SAARC process, on which the region’s development depends very considerably.

The ideological bases of the two states have time and again prevented the countries from interacting with a degree of harmony on issues of importance to South Asia but the wise course for both states to take would be to not lose sight of the greater good that could accrue to South Asia as a consequence of their placing the material wellbeing of the region above any narrow individual interests. In the short term, they would need to keep their communication channels fully open and converse constructively on how cordial relations between them could help contain the economic hardships of the peoples of South Asia.

Right now, the economic prospects of the poor of the region in particular are very bleak. Sri Lanka has joined Afghanistan as being among the poorest of the poor in Asia but poverty issues lead to an intensification of identity politics and the latter brand of politics is proving the bane of the global South. Afghanistan is an example of how poverty and material inequality could be exploited by identity groups to ascend to power by dividing populations along ethnic and religious lines. Sri Lanka too should brace for a new round of divisive identity politics in its current material woes. This is on account of the fact that political entrepreneurs representing the interests of the majority community could resort to the strategy of coming to power by blaming the ‘ethnic other’ for the hardships of the former.

The above reflections should help in bringing into focus the importance of continuing democratic development. It is in this respect, that India’s democratic credentials prove important for the rest of South Asia. Among other things, India’s democracy is founded on secularism. Secularism entails a clear separation of politics and religion. In the Indian context, secularism denotes an equidistance of the state from the country’s religions. Thus, the state is in a position to deal even handedly with the country’s religious communities. This has the effect of building a degree of trust between the state and the country’s religions.

Thus, secularism in India has helped the latter to grow into a more fully fledged democracy than many of its neighbours in the region who claim to be democratically-oriented. It does not follow from this position that India is an ideal democracy, with no more room to grow. Far from it, but she has some democratic strengths that other democracies in the region would do well to replicate. The latter would do well to bolster their credibility, for example, by providing more opportunities for members of their minority communities to ascend to positions of responsibility, the way Droupadi Murmu has been enabled to do in India.

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