Original ideas, passionate discussion, and rooted optimism are all values we at Literature Live! cherish. When it came to choosing a speaker for The Anil Dharker Literature Live! Independence lecture commemorating India’s 75th anniversary we naturally wanted someone who reflected these principles. The person we chose was the regional politician Dr Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, Tamil Nadu’s finance minister since May 2021.
In his short stint in the post, he has become one of the most compelling votaries of federalism and pluralism, standing out in television debates for his sophisticated grasp over policy issues, and for articulating his views in a highly cogent and lucid manner. This is why people from diverse fields and of different age groups jumped at the chance to attend the event at the Experimental Theatre in the National Centre for Performing Arts complex in Nariman Point, the city’s southern business district.
Since last year, this annual lecture has been named after our founder, Anil Dharker, who tragically passed away in March last year. An inveterate institution builder, Mr Dharker passionately believed in creating forums in which citizens could take stock of how their country has evolved and where it is heading. Dharker was, after all, “India’s twin”, as Mr Nadir Godrej pointed out in the first of two of his own poems that he recited to open the evening. Mr Dharker was born on August 15, just a year before India won independence. Godrej, the managing director of Godrej Industries, which sponsored the lecture, went on to recite a poem for India’s 75th anniversary, in which he felicitously summarised the key challenges that the country faces, as this snapshot of four lines reveals:
“I sincerely hope that we will be
The true spirit of democracy.
Where institutions will be strong.
Now, building them takes very long…”
PTR, as the minister is called, then took the stage. He gave the audience a lot to think about. He began by briefly diagnosing the reasons why India had not fulfilled its potential. The country has failed to offer all its citizens equal opportunities, creating extreme economic inequality, whether across individuals, the rural-urban divide, or regions. The gap between states such as his own and less-developed ones like Bihar is widening every year, he pointed out. “We have a society that is coming apart,” he said. In such a society, “there is a lot of room for zero-sum [politics], othering and fear-mongering.” He went on to outline ten concrete steps that the country could take to break from its underachieving past while also realising the egalitarian dreams of its founders, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, from whose famous Independence Eve speech he quoted at the start of his lecture.
Of these suggestions, PTR picked two as the most significant. The first is that the centre should devolve much more power to the states and further down the governance pyramid to the panchayat level, because when people are allowed to make decisions about their own lives, the outcomes immediately improve. “We are the most centralized, least effective form of government anywhere in the world today,” he said, pointing out that countries on both ends of the political spectrum, namely the US and China, had a far greater devolution of power than India. The second is that we must educate a greater number of women, especially in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which have the most dismal statistics in this regard, because educated women improve prospects for their children.
After the talk, the journalist Anuradha Sengupta, a Literature Live! favourite, questioned the minister in more depth about some topics, including his view on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s criticism of an ostensible freebie culture among political parties. A lively Q&A session followed, in which one audience member actually managed to confound the otherwise eloquent minister by asking him why his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, had not tried to go national when, as he claimed, Tamil Nadu had surpassed the national average on a range of parameters.
For the small, close-knit team at Literature Live!, after nearly two years of isolation and virtual events necessitated by the Covid pandemic, it was wonderful to be back together on the ground, engaging with important issues of the day. The pleasure was, however, tinged with sadness, as we remembered Mr Dharker, whose spirit we endeavour to keep alive.
Guests had begun arriving an hour before the lecture. Spotted, among others, were leading corporate executives; senior journalists and editors; prominent people from non-profit groups; a contingent of alumni from Lawrence School in Lovedale, the minister’s alma mater; and an unusually large number of college students. Indeed, this last group, whose concerns we at Literature Live! particularly care about, have the most at stake in what happens to this country. They will be in the sweet spot of their lives — experienced, but with many more years of productive work ahead of them, when India completes a century.