Focus: Hold the fireworks

India is in no mood to celebrate her jubilee, but she retains three rare treasures - freedom, democracy and tolerance There's no carnival mood for the jubilee but India holds on to three rare treasures - freedom, democracy and tolerance
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INDIA celebrated its 50th anniversary 10 years ago, 10 years early: Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister, was too impatient to wait for the golden jubilee, and instead threw the most splendid triumphal party for India's 40th birthday. Back then, no one could be in any doubt what the party was to celebrate: not just the nation's birth, but its continuing domination by the Gandhi family whose illustrious ancestor, Jawaharlal Nehru, had done so much to bring it into being.

Ten years on, and six years after Gandhi's assassination by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber, his party, Congress, is out of power and in apparently terminal decline, and the mood is much less certain. Something is going to happen, that's no longer in doubt: over at Teen Murti, the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Museum and the great man's home when prime minister, they are stringing lightbulbs across the facade, at India Gate floodlights are being fixed to the trees and fountains while small boys splash in the turbid green waters of the ceremonial ponds. Steel crowd barriers line Rajpath, formerly Kingsway, the vast boulevard, twice the width of the Champs Elysees and two miles long, that runs from India Gate to the Presidential Palace. While the residents of Old Delhi a mile to the north sit down en masse in protest at the total loss of electric power to the area for the past week, official Delhi prepares for a carnival of the stuff.

But the vagueness and lateness of the government's initiatives, the lacklustre mood as the date approaches, leaves non-official India with a certain mental freedom. There is no bandwagon to be leapt on. They can celebrate, or grieve, or merely take the day off and think about other matters, exactly as the fancy takes them. "No one's celebrating," the novelist Mukul Kesavan put it to me, "and that's one of the nice things: one feels completely unmanipulated."

With no ruling family to adulate, Indians have to make up their own minds about what they are celebrating. For those old enough to remember the freedom struggle, India's awesome triumph over empire remains a big enough theme. For the rest of the population, however, the matter is much less cut and dried. The vacuum of purpose at the centre transforms the anniversary into an almost neutral event, which can be interpreted any way one chooses.

Suppose, for example, that what happened in India 50 years ago was not a famous triumph but a terrible disaster: one would expect disastrous consequences to have flowed from it. And, of course, they did flow: partition, most famously, the snipping of the ears off the Indian elephant, the deaths of hundreds of thousands in communal massacres, the fleeing of whole populations. India insisted in the teeth of British disbelief that it was a real nation; but it began its free life by practically conceding the argument.

If India's independence was a disaster, disastrous consequences would have flowed: and surely they have flowed since then like the monsoon-swollen waters of the Yamuna. Fifty years ago, India was a desperately poor country. Today it remains desperately poor. Fifty years ago, illiteracy was the lot of the vast majority of the population: 50 years after the nation- building, tryst-with-destiny rhetoric of Nehru, almost half remain illiterate.

Authoritarian or dubiously democratic governments in East and Southeast Asia somehow grasp their bootlaces and find a way to give their masses a rudimentary education. They have absorbed the lesson that without literacy, all such other boons as population control and economic development do not even get started. Not so India, where a third of men and two-thirds of women still can't read or write. Despite spotty successes in places such as the southern state of Kerala, universal literacy remains as far off as ever. More shockingly, there is no sense that transforming this state of affairs ought to be the number one national priority. Instead, education is one of those sad, tiresome, glamour-free portfolios, like health, that Prime Minister I K Gujral doled out to the women he brought into his cabinet as a sop to feminists.

It's one of those areas where inertia is the norm. Too many vested interests are happy with things as they are: the upper and upper-middle classes glad to have (unlike the unlucky West) an endless supply of servants; orthodox Hindus, glad to keep the caste system and its inequalities; the lower caste political parties who depend on people with low aspirations as their faithful votebanks.

From illiteracy and high rates of infant mortality comes an exploding population. And when India's population finally tops China's in the next 10 years, it may provide chauvinists with a twinge of pride, but it will be another calamity in the long catalogue.

Free India has done just as bad a job of looking after its environment as its people. Don't drink the water: that's one of the few things that everyone knows about the country. But population growth means that today there is vastly less of the poisonous stuff available per capita than there was 50 years ago, much less than half, according to a recent study, and shrinking fast. Deforestation, erosion, salinisation: the same pressures of population and poverty, plus governmental inertia and corruption, mean that the prospect of Indians in the next century living in conditions that wealthier countries consider tolerable grows ever bleaker.

The list goes on and on, only stopping when it comes to economics, for after more than 40 years of self-imposed isolation and consequent economic stagnation, the cautious liberalisation of the economy which began six years ago has given an unprecedented jolt to what used to be called "the Hindu rate of development" (which was just about nil). Six per cent growth a year is now becoming normal, foreign goods are in the shops for the first time ever - "I never dreamed of owning a Sony television!" as one prosperous and independent businesswoman put it to me. The ubiquitous Morris Oxfords, thinly disguised as Hindustan Ambassadors, are at last facing some modern competition, and the clinching proof that India has arrived (for those who don't allow themselves to think too deeply) is that Mercedes Benzes are now assembled here. (So all the rich snobs insist on importing theirs from Germany.)

But no one ever claimed that market forces could erase illiteracy, and all the tiger-talk with which Indians now titillate themselves - dreams of zooming up behind Malaysia and Indonesia - will be so much moonshine unless that fundamental problem is tackled. And in the continuing absence of effective government, rapid economic growth can only make environmental problems worse.

Satellite television, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch (who else?) has awoken hundreds of millions of Indians to the modern world and its glittering prizes. But if economic growth only enables the middle class to accelerate out of sight of the masses, it will merely aggravate the country's already monstrous inequalities and its tendencies towards political and social fragmentation.

There are therefore all too many reasons, and not only for imperial sentimentalists, to don mourning on the night of the 14 August, to wring hands, gnash teeth and tear hair. This, however, will not be happening. There will be a celebration. Indian hearts will lift at least a touch. They will not turn away from the affair in disgust. And for this there are also some very specific reasons.

For all its glaring failures, India in the 50 years of its freedom has mounted a number of impressive demonstrations to which the world is obliged to attend. It has shown that in a country as vast and poor and diverse as this, democracy based on universal suffrage can take root and continue for decade after decade. The authoritarianism of China and Indonesia, the Confucianist impositions in Singapore, the military dictatorships, constant or intermittent in Pakistan, Burma and elsewhere - to all of these India offers a magnificent alternative. Its consequences in policy and governance , as discussed, are deeply flawed: but the principle that people control who governs them is too firmly embedded to be easily yielded up. All voters need now is some reasonable candidates to choose from.

Other manifestations of liberal democracy survive here as in few other places in the developing world. The judiciary, for example, has teeth. Viciously corrupt politicians such as the ex-chief minister of Bihar, Laloo Yadav, may milk their exchequers for hundreds of millions of pounds. This is very bad. But Laloo Yadav is ex-chief minister because he is now in jail, awaiting trial. Justice works, sort of. The press says what it likes, yet is not wild. Petty - and not so petty - corruption may be rampant, and the bureaucracy a shadow of its imperial self. But wonderfully bold figures emerge from time to time, usually with some tincture of lunacy, to demonstrate that all has not terminally gone to the dogs: people like Joginder Singh, for example, director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, who threw himself into the task of nailing Laloo Yadav, before being booted upstairs. Or K J Alphons, a civil servant from Kerala, five years ago appointed head of the Delhi Development Authority (he calls it "probably the most corrupt organisation in the world"). One of Delhi's many problems is illegal encroachment on city land, both by penniless squatters and by the very rich. As an example to the rest, Alphons set about demolishing these illegal mansions of the rich on DDA land, including one belonging to one of the most powerful politicians in the country. He boasts of having demolished 14,200 such houses during his five-year tenure.

Underpinning democracy and liberalism is the fact, in defiance of the sneerers, that India has proved itself to be a real nation. Winston Churchill, free India's most dogged opponent, insisted that India was merely a geographical expression. It is not. On paper it is far too diverse to work, but it has been that way for millennia, its Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims and Jains and Christians and the rest have rubbed along for ever, and its big-country tolerance and generosity of spirit are among its more impressive characteristics. The secularism of Nehru, which meant not anti-religiousness but, as one person put it to me, "equidistance from all religions" is at one with that generous spirit, which is why the threats of the communalist sectarians in the Hindu nationalist BJP or in Shiv Sena are so dangerous to the nation's health.

India possesses these rare treasures, freedom, democracy, tolerance. It won them in 1947 and it clings to them still. The awesome challenge for its leaders now is to employ them to transform a nation that in so many other ways has gone so badly wrong.