Unintended Consequences of Unholy Alliances

Some time back, I was talking to a well known journalist and political commentator about “Modi magic”. Both of us felt that to a large extent, Modi’s appeal could be attributed to his success in fusing Traditional India with Aspirational India.  I call this an unholy alliance, not because it is undesirable or untenable, but because it has been forged without paying adequate attention to the inherent conflict between the two. An effective alliance requires engagement with both synergies and divergences between the two entities. When the divergences and inherent conflicts are put aside, because they are inconvenient to look at, they end up degenerating into opportunistic unholy alliances with disastrous consequences which neither party had bargained for.

Historically, there has been an uncomfortable relationship between Traditional India and Aspirational India. The tension between Gandhi and Nehru/Ambedkar being a classical example of it. Inspite of Gandhi’s critical views about  several aspects of the Indian tradition, his anchorage in Indian tradition remained strong and hence it was easy for Traditional India to resonate with him. On the other hand, his stances on technology, modernity, economics, social arrangements etc. made him unpalatable to the Aspirational India. Nehru and Ambekar could find some traction with the Aspirational India but remained largely alienated from the Traditional India. With his charismatic personality, Nehru managed to create huge mass following, but his connect with Traditional India was largely through regional satraps . At various points, he had to make several compromise to accommodate the compulsions of “Identity politics”, but by and large he regarded “Indian ways” as more of a handicap than an asset.

The split between Traditional and Aspirational was a major theme in the popular cinema of the 60’s and 70’s. For example, the blockbuster “Do Raaste” ( later remade as Om Jai Jagdish) centres around the turmoil caused in a joint family when one of the brothers  (in whose education, the family had invested heavily) gets drawn towards material advancement, after his marriage to a rich and “modern” girl. I suspect, that preponderance of this theme suggests a latent fear that pursuit of aspiration will entail rupturing of traditional ties.

Thus it is not surprising that the split between traditional and aspirational has played out in different ways in most spheres of Indian life. In the political sphere the divide between “Identity politics” and “Developmental politics” is virtually taken for granted– with Identity politics representing Traditional India and Developmental politics representing Aspirational India. Several politicians mouth the development rhetoric but their essential emphasis remains on Identity politics. Similarly, several politicians have carved out a niche for themselves by playing on the “aspirations” of marginalised groups. Not surprisingly fighting against”discrimination” and “oppression” becomes their primary traction, which necessarily carries an “anti-tradition” hue.

In this scenario, there was/is a huge constituency which has largely remained unattended to- i.e. of Indians who wish to remain connected with their tradition , but also pursue their aspirations. It is this constituency which Modi&co. have carefully cultivated and harnessed. The biggest advantage of this constituency is that it is not restricted to any specific socio-economic category but is spread across different castes, classes and  communities. The choice of Gujrat model was an apt symbol for this purpose.Gujrat is associated with both Tradition and Prosperity, and hence could effectively carry the message of fusion between Tradition and Aspiration. Modi’s own rise from very humble background, an image of a diligent, confident, austere and no non-sense person was/is extremely helpful. He is a role model who can be identified with. He is not a distant prince like a Rahul Gandhi. Similarly, he is not a Mamta Bannerjee or Laloo yadav, who though seen as “one of us”, are not aspired for.

How long will this alliance between Traditional India and Aspirational India last at the political level, is difficult to predict. The unease and tension between the two is fast acquiring alarming proportions. Two of the deadly consequences which have already begun to show  are as follows-

  1. Several rogue elements have given to themselves the right to create havoc in the name of Indian culture. Quite often, these elements are motivated by petty selfish interests and not any real concern for the values and traditions which they claim to be protecting. Besides the obvious law and order problem, it has become a serious hurdle in the path of Aspirational India, as several compromises are forced upon it in order to placate these elements. The worst part of this process is that a very narrow minded and intolerant picture gets painted of Indian culture.We are fast  reaching a point when many sane people will  cringe at the mention of the term Bhartiya Sanskriti.
  2. Several mediocre elements of Aspirational India, have found a convenient band wagon to latch on to i.e.  Indian culture. Scholars, artists, filmmakers with very little to their credit, have come to occupy positions of immense power and significance. What is worse is that many people with  with very high levels of credibility and contribution can be easily sidelined as “anti-Indian “. One may argue that this is essentially one set of coterie replacing another, but that argument ignores the fact that there are many hugely talented people on both sides of the ideological divide. Aspirational India can ill-afford to ignore merit irrespective of ideological orientation.                                                                                                                                                      I believe, the project of integrating Traditional India with Aspirational India is a commendable one, but it cannot ignore the landmines which need to be negotiated. If the inherent tensions are not acknowledged and addressed, it will only remain an opportunistic exercise. I also believe that a meaningful partnership between the two, will entail a recalibration  with both  Tradition and Aspiration.

 One of the biggest difficulties is that we  either glorify our Tradition or condemn it.  We attempt to preserve it  it as a relic of the past or discard it as an unwanted burden. Rarely do we engage with it as a living reality which needs to be understood and reinterpreted in the present context.  Consequently, Traditional India tries to ensure that we remain captives of our tradition, be like “frogs in a well” and look towards past for all our answers. On the other hand Aspirational India tends to treat Tradition as regressive and an unnecessary burden-  not an active partner or collaborator but a potential nuisance which needs to be placated, managed and controlled. In practice, this translates into collusion with a handful of self-appointed vanguards ( godmen, opinion makers, street goons etc.) rather than any real engagement with Traditional India. Needless to say, this only plays into the hands of these vanguards enhancing their nuisance value.

On the other hand, our engagement with the world of aspirations has got caught into the “me too” mould. Our aspirations are based more on catching up with the advanced world, rather than what we need/wish for ourselves. In our craze for glittering Malls and Smart Cities, we rarely ask ourselves whether we wish to follow a model of development which is largely based on insatiable consumption. Interestingly,  Traditional India, instead of challenging this model of development, has chosen to collude with it.There is a fast growing group of professionals/ intellectuals who are trying hard to sell the proposition that we can become world beaters by following the traditional Indian ways.

Some time back, on a visit to Haridwar, I was shocked to see large hoardings saying “lets make India the Jagatguru (teacher of the world) again”. I can not imagine anything more non- Indian than this absurdity. It is a classical example of the collusive relationship between Traditional India and Aspirational India. It conveniently sidesteps the inconvenient reality that Knowledge and Wisdom are configured very differently in the Indian tradition and deploying them for gaining dominance and supremacy may in fact, vitiate their basic essence.

Thus it appears that the present alliance is not seeing the interests of either party. This does not take away the need for a meaningful partnership between the two. In fact, as  stated earlier, meaningful partnership between Traditional India and Aspirational India is not just desirable but the need of the hour. However, this can not happen through collusive arrangements. It has to be accompanied by a healthy dose of mutual challenge and confrontation. Unless Traditional India stands up and challenges the development models of Aspirational India, and unless Aspirational India  puts pressure on Traditional India to rethink its existing beliefs and stances, we are unlikely to make much head way. Alliances become unholy, when they only accommodate, compromise and collude. In order to make them into meaningful partnership, one needs to address the inherent tensions and conflicts also.






4 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences of Unholy Alliances

  1. What is missing in the Indian politics is the absence of Leadership to Resolve through significant advocacy to/within their own teams on both traditional & aspirational outlook and bring in ambivalence rather than blindly ignoring polarisation, a classical case of body not aligned with the head and eventually the tail wagging the body…unless a party works on advocating this balance and gets its followers to look at this principally…convenience of self, greed, power etc will take over…..the levels of development of our Leaders is quite an area of concern in building the India the world show see ….


    1. While I agree with what you say about political leadership, I believe this is not confined to politics alone. Political leadership is only reflecting a larger macro process.


  2. Have been recently deliberating on the concept of ‘well being centered organization’ . The essence of this article is pertinent to the process of dialogue and amalgamation to arrive at a model that takes the aspirational and traditional with both willing to give and take towards defining well being and creating an architecture to enable it.
    And as I read I can notice my own prejudice which has been coloring my thought process and belief.

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  3. nice, insightful piece. the challenge to co-hold both the traditional and aspirational is so difficult. i suspect many of us middle class indians are aspirational mostly, but fall back on traditionalism when faced with a crunch. this is sequential, not co-holding


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