Narendra Modi can no longer be validated by the weakness of the Congress. He has to be judged not on critique but on the constructive nature of what he offers
The victory of Mr. Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now more than a week old. The immediacy of victory often blinds us to bigger issues of policy and planning. Yes, history was created. What was historical was the end of the Congress as a major party. Acting as the vector of a new generation, Mr. Modi decimated the Congress. But, ironically, the moment of victory becomes the moment of doubt. As long as he was in the Opposition, Mr. Modi was relevant, topical in his attacks on the Congress and its continuing politics of entropy. Next to the Congress, Mr. Modi appeared energetic, decisive, alert and open to learning. As the Congress fades from the scene and Mr. Modi stands victorious, the scenario changes. Mr. Modi can no longer be validated by the weakness of the Congress. He has to be judged not on critique but on the constructive nature of what he offers. What does he offer which goes beyond the Congress as an imagination? At this stage, Mr. Modi is just another hypothesis India has wagered on.
Paucity of new ideas
Watching the rituals of Delhi one senses, first, signs of doubt, about the paucity of new ideas. The regime is projected as a deft game of secrecy, of Delhi without leaks. There is no real discussion of policy. The audience settles for a litany of possible names. The super-cabinet is banal and indicates neither synergy nor connectivity. Ideas and events are reduced to a game of musical chairs. Suddenly, one confronts the idea that it is not secrecy and discipline we are confronting but a scarcity of ideas; that beyond the end of the Nehruvian imagination, Mr. Modi has little to offer. The BJP becomes the Nehruvian double merely strengthening the Nehruvian indecision. In this scenario, Mr. Modi as the new Patel rules instead of an adolescent Nehru (Rahul Gandhi) but the categories are not different. They are the same idea now presented in a more Prussian, technocratic and efficient form. The irony comes home if we compare it to a wider frame of history.
Mary Kaldor in her Baroque Arsenal raises the point that victorious generals of World War II refight the same war long after it is over. Instead of confronting the new polity, they relive old scenarios. They keep insisting on savouring the moment of victory. This prevents them from realising that one chapter of history is over and a new one has begun. The latter’s rules are very different and even more unforgiving. The foolishness of the Congress no longer adds value to the BJP.
There is more to worry. The electoral Hinduism of the BJP might placate a majority but does not solve the question of democratic polity. It hides the dullness of thought in a machismo of fronts, raising issues of security where a new securitarian regime seeks to reassert itself both on a troubled polity and a confused neighbourhood. There is a hysteria of expectations where a sycophantic, news starved media converts every breath or hiccup of the regime into a new innovation. Politics is much more complex than the media claims it to be.
Acrimony over development
If one looks at it starkly, India stands between a desiccated left and an inflated right. Yet, one stands at a time when the left and the right as ideologies or problem-solving solutions are outdated. The nature of history has changed and Mr. Modi’s moves look outdated. Reports claim that he is business friendly; that he will provide a single window of decision-making. But what one needs to ask is this: what is the nature of responsibility, of ethics, of visions of the future, ideas of employment and sustainability that corporations like the Ambanis, the Tatas and the Adanis or the Aggarwals have provided? Corporate social responsibility (CSR) as hype does not even provide a fig leaf in the new crisis of sustainability. Let us be brutal. The new technocrats like Mr. Narayana Murthy and Mr. Nandan Nilekani cannot provide a single framework for the future. They have neither the power of philanthropy nor new ideas of social responsibility to bring to the scene. If the reader feels I am unfair, try naming one interesting theory of institution building or an idea of the city they have offered.
The sadness of India is that we have been obsessed with our own definition of reality. We have become narcissistic about constitution and pompous about our electoral democracy. Our framework, as its stands, are doubly outdated. First, many of our institutions are corroded. Second, we have little in terms of the new or the enzymatic to replace them with. Our courts are stretched with cases before them and justice in India is at most times more distant than any socialist dream. Our universities are colonial fictions which still dream of a secretariat of babus. Our youth face unemployment and our farmers face a crisis of agriculture which is shattering in its implications. Sadly, our scientists keep pandering to power without questioning the relation between them as democracy demands.
I cannot think of a more inane debate than the acrimony over development models. It was an act of sniping or reiteration of old positions. Worse, it was the conversation of a few expert economists who acted as if the debates of development raised by the anti-dam, the farmer’s movement, the development critique, the debates of science were all irrelevant to this issue. Human development seems to exclude a lot that is human as experts take over. There was something incomplete, even confused, about the debates which one needs to work out as a polity. It is the same with energy where energy is equated with national interest. The term becomes barbed wire, denying any further debate on even access to the responsibilities of citizenship. I am not blaming all this on Mr. Modi. He offered an energetic politics and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) an inventive one. Today, the egotism of the top leadership of the latter prevents it from realising that the inventiveness of AAP lay in the enthusiasm of its diverse followers, not in the emerging narcissism at the top.
A new set of perspectives
As part of the small group of critics, let me state the minimum that Mr. Modi and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) or in fact any regime entering the 21st century needs to do. We have to go beyond an obsessive, minoritarian tactic or Pakistan neurosis to wider global questions. Let me state the problem in more planetary terms. One can represent it graphically in terms of three triangles, each representing the problematic of the vision. The modern vision inspired by the French Revolution and the enlightenment was conceived around the slogan, liberty, equality and fraternity. The Industrial Revolution presents the next crisis or challenge by offering the visions of productivity, growth and efficiency. The two visions overlap, dovetail and also conflict demanding the third solution. The models offered by the UPA seem to be politically anchored in uniformity, security and governance. The solution seems incomplete and in fact adds little to the democratisation of democracy beyond electoral celebration. What one is asking for is a nudge to a fourth triangle of pluralism, sustainability and justice. This requires a new set of perspectives. Let me state it abstractly. It needs a new social contract where nature needs representation. Our constitution, sacred as it is, needs to be rethought such that nature and the speechlessness of nature and the ways of life and livelihoods (tribes, nomads, craft) that depend on it are represented. Without this, an Indian idea of diversity or justice is not possible.
Second, the fetishism of democracy as electoralism has to go. One has to see democracy as a theory of four forms — plurality, a plurality of minorities, the plurality of the marginal (Dalits, fishermen, craftsmen, the informal economy), the plurality of dissent where dissent is not perpetually subject to sedition, and the plurality of futures. The future is a constituency that needs deeper thought. Within such a view, security without sustainability, a democracy without dissent, and a future without alternatives are unacceptable
Third, the fetish about innovation chains which overwhelms debates on technology needs an ethics of memory and an ethics of innovation. Progress has to look in the mirror and see artificial obsolescence. Fetishising technology is dangerous in Modified India where development is the new state religion and technocratic-fundamentalism is often inspired by diaspora seeking to blend technology and culture into the new cultic religion. This world view can be more dangerous than any secularism that my friends and I might have espoused.
My prognosis is that Mr. Modi and his team has little to offer as yet. The sins of the Congress can no longer exonerate them. As they step into the future, they have to realise that yesterday’s news is outdated history. It is the future that they have to respond to and the future can be more unforgiving than any Indian electorate.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)