The Member Secretary of the National Commission for Women, MEETA RAJIVLOCHAN, is a 1990 batch IAS officer of the Maharashtra cadre. She has served in various capacities in the state and central governments including as additional director general of foreign trade, Government of India, and as secretary in the public health and finance departments in the Maharashtra government.

She has written extensively on issues of public policy. Her latest book “Making India Great Again: Learning From Our History”, which she has co-authored with Rajivlochan, professor of history in Panjab University, is now out. In an interview with RAKESH KUMAR, she talks about her book and explores a range of crucial, burning issues concerning people, India and the world.

Excerpts:

Q. Your book echoes, in the Indian context, Donald Trump’s 2016 election plank and pitch. How striking does this point appear to you?

A. The idea of ‘Making India Great Again’ by referring to India’s past underlay two of the most influential books from India. One was Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, which was published in 1908/09 as a series of articles in his newspaper “The Indian Opinion”. The other was Nehru’s “Discovery of India”, published in 1946 by an American publisher, John Day, and written in jail by Nehru when he demanded that the British quit India.

Q. Your book’s central theme seems to be its diagnosis that a failure to build robust learning and information- sharing mechanisms and institutions as well as indifference of the State to business led to collapse of India’s remarkable past accomplishments. What’s your prescription for reversing its downslide and restoring it to a successful trajectory?

A. At the macro level, it is never individual achievement or brilliance which matters but the entire eco-system. An eco-system based on systematic learning is always far more effective than one merely based on hunches, beliefs and hopes. In the past Romila Thapar, Satish Saberwal, Romesh Thapar and their friends gave this process the name of “scientific temper”.

In the absence of a learning culture, with no concern for documentation, our ancestors lost almost their entire corpus of specialized knowledge in the span of a few decades. After a while, about all that was left for us was memories of great riches and a belief that we were an “other-worldly society”, riven by the evils of caste, sati and ignorance, and with a lamentable propensity to seek out knowledge in formulaic form revealed to us by some Baba or the other.

Early nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji too considered the absence of a learning culture central to India’s loss of greatness. Apart from learning, the other element that was lacking then (and even now) was institutionalised state support to business. The colonial state was hostile to Indian businesses and industry; the post-independence state has been even more so.

Bullying others, dominating others, forcing anyone to our will are not, were not, components of India’s greatness. Being prosperous, being able to live with each other, being able to share our prosperity, were.

Q. To what extent, in your view, could India’s failures be attributed to the rise of its contemporary identity politics and the systematic, organised attempts to bulldoze its multiplicity of identities in an unbridled pursuit of a single-identity fantasy?

A. Identity politics and the pushback against it in the form of a single- identity fantasy is, to our mind, the consequence of our inability to do well in material life. You would recall that Yogendra Yadav, in the 1990s, was one of the first ones to point out that something like reservation – in which the identity politics of India is rooted – was not having its desired effect of changing society.

It had instead become a drag on society, polity and economy of India. Yet, since we do not have a learning culture, there have been no systematic inquiries into why identity politics and its opposite, are self-limiting and India-defeating exercises.

Q. What is your take on the health of India as a secular, democratic, constitutional republic?

A. Indians instinctively pull back from extreme positions and routinely build bridges across the social divide. We think Indians have a very strong will to live together without forcing their views on the other person. This has nothing to do with either secularism or democracy.

In fact, the Indian Constitution, as we see it, is the consequence of trying to formalise this desire to live together using modern words. Secularism and democracy are merely chance phrases to capture this Indian reality. Outside observers, people from whose culture the words secularism and democracy arose, quickly noticed mismatches between their version of these ideas and Indian practices.

They quickly built an entire echo-chamber to repeat their dire prophecies. Since the earliest years of independence, they have predicted that India will fall apart. We have disappointed such soothsayers. The falling apart of India hasn’t happened till now. Chances of it happening in the future are bleak.

Q. What is your assessment of the Covid pandemic? It has devastated the Indian economy which has slowed and contracted in an unprecedented manner, wreaking havoc on the lives and livelihoods of crores of people. Don’t you think that the pandemic has set India’s development back by several years?

A. The Covid pandemic is a great opportunity for India to go for a full reboot. There wasn’t much for the economy to lose when it shut down in 2020. Our people, including our workers and farmers, mostly existed at a subsistence level.

The shutdown allows us a chance to figure out why, in almost every field of existence, we led such ineffective lives. Indians have got a fantastic chance to rethink their education system, start generating knowledge that is relevant to Indian needs. Indians can use this chance to liberate their teachers from bureaucratic controls, free their students to learn and in general, actually foster a learning culture.

Q. Women in India continue to remain disempowered, suffering from multiple deprivations and atrocities. This was also manifested during the coronavirus lockdown that saw a surge in domestic violence against them. How do you look at this disturbing reality?

A. The idea that women in India are/were/continue to remain disempowered is a widely held myth. It is born of three things: One, lack of documentation; two, an unthinking, slavish, adherence to the western idea that India is a patriarchal society; and, three, an absence of institutional support for child care.

Unbeknown to all those who lament the condition of women in India, it is the absence of institutional support for child care which hit women the hardest when schools were shut down during the lockdown. Two things need to be done to remedy the situation: One, improve the skills of women to enable them to move up the value chain in the economy; two, set up better institutional facilities for child care.

Q. India and China are locked in a tense border stand-off now. These two Asian neighbours are both aspiring to emerge as the next global superpower. What are your thoughts on this issue?

A. The current leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is about to learn a rare lesson. Those days are over when a country could bully others, dominate them. India’s past greatness lay in being prosperous without being a bully, spreading Indian culture across Asia without conquering any people.

India will go back to providing economic goods and services to the world as it did in history without making any effort to dominate anyone. For once the people of India trust those who are leading the nation and trust them to do good for the people. That trust is the most important factor in winning this round of Chinese chequers.