The New India Project

Last few days, we have been hearing a lot about New India. Opinions differ about what exactly does it mean as also the hopes and fears that it generates. But what everyone seems to agree upon is that we are at a crucial inflection point and the next few years are going to see a significant transformation not just in the political space but also in other aspects of the Indian society. Personally, I am not too sure about the extent and depth of this transformation but I will not get into that debate. For the present, I will accept that we are likely to see some shifts, though they may not be as dramatic as some people expect.

There are two broad pictures of New India, which people are talking about- depending upon personal orientation and political ideology, most people subscribe to one or another. The feelings that they have towards the New India project, is a direct consequence of which picture they are looking at.

The first picture of New India is of a young, strong,  united, confident, meritocratic, aspirational society striving to claim its legitimate space under the Sun. In this picture, the emphasis is on your merit, performance and delivery – your lineage etc. are of no concern.  In this picture, everyone is ( or hopefully will be) on the same page. While different groups may  have different affiliations (e.g. of caste, creed, language, region, religion etc.) they are all aligned to same goals, values and nationalistic fervor. It is a picture which supporters of the New India project find extremely inspiring and even the detractors find it difficult to argue against.

The second picture which the detractors find very frightening is of a majoritarian, jingoistic, intolerant, insensitive, boorish society run by an autocratic regime. In this picture, there is no space for dissent and there is an insistence that everyone must adhere to the same ideology. Goals, values and behaviors which do not conform to those propagated by the majority have to be strictly regulated and any potential disruption weeded out.  Whether the ideology is called Hindutva or Bhartiyta or Indianness, is irrelevant. It is the monolith of the ideology which frightens the detractors.

The supporters of the New India project try to allay these fears by arguing that the ideology which they are propagating is inherently open, flexible, tolerant and diversity friendly. Acts of intolerance are attributed to “fringes”, but the failure to regulate the fringes( and often extending implicit support to them), brings into question the intent and motives of the powers that be.

Not surprisingly, often the discourse turns into an examination of intent and motive.  The detractors argue that the New India project is nothing but a sham and the real purpose is to gain power at any cost. On the other hand, the supporters argue that the detractors are blowing things out of proportion so that they can protect their vested interest in the “status quo” After all, the feudalistic and corrupt  politicians, the elite in various other fields (the so called Lutyens and the Khan market gang) have much to lose if the New India project becomes a reality.

In this bitter exchange of attributions of motives, the real issue gets lost viz. the inherent tensions and contradictions in the New India project.  It is easy to see that the two pictures of the New India project ( as portrayed by its supporters and detractors respectively) are intimately connected. In many ways, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

A monolithic ideology and an authoritarian regime are more pronounced in the second picture, but are an implicit part of the first picture also. A simple example of this is the PM’s speech to the MP’s of NDA.

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Take for example, his preference for “efficiency” over “effectiveness”. Efficiency requires adherence to a laid drown process in a disciplined and rigorous manner.  Thus, authoritarian regimes are best suited for efficiency ( recall  that  running of trains on times was touted as the biggest achievement of Emergency) Effectiveness is a more messy affair, it entails juggling with several variables in order to achieve the desired result.

In a soft and gentle manner, the PM kept reminding his MP’s to stick to their ” maryada” – refrain from speaking out of turn, ensure that they do not misuse (or let others misuse) their power and status, dedicate themselves to their duty in a selfless manner. The message was loud and clear- ” you are to be dedicated soldiers of my army- yours is not to question WHY but to DO and DIE. However, the message was delivered in such a suave and self effacing manner that the underlying authoritarian streak did not become “in your face”.  My suspicion is that perhaps he looks at himself also as a dedicated soldier who is fulfilling the task which destiny has bestowed upon him.

The simple point that I wish to make is that there is no way you can pursue the first picture of New India project, and stay clear of the second picture. Nationalistic fervor is a necessary ingredient of the New India project, without which it loses its emotive appeal and inspirational value. Similarly an authoritarian streak ( even if it be of a soft benevolent variety) is necessary to enforce the “selfless disciplined effort” which lies at the heart of the New India project. The similarity  between the New India project and protestant work ethic is quite stark and its aims seem to be inspired by the western concepts of progress and development. In this sense it is closer to Calvinism than Hinduism.

This is a significant difficulty which the New India project is likely to encounter. Its success depends upon its ability to manage the tension between Indian cultural identity and western notions of progress and development. Not surprisingly, the path chosen by the New India Project is far removed from both Gandhi and Deendayal Upadhayay, though it claims to be inspired by them. Significantly, both rejected the western notions of progress and development.  Both were great champions of Indian cultural identity though they defined it in very different ways. Similarly, the differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar were not just tactical but fundamental. They conceived of an ideal society in very very different ways. If the New India project claims to draw inspirations from these conflicting sources, then it has to address the tensions between them. Without that it is unlikely to go beyond well intended homilies.

Indeed, the vision which underlies the New India project is problematic and full of internal contradictions. However, with all its limitations, at least the supporters of the New India Project have a vision, which is much more than what can be said about the detractors. Every time, the detractors are asked for a vision, they have very little to offer except homilies like pluralism and social justice. This is essentially a fall back on the Nehruvian vision, which I believe has already run its course.

The Nehruvian vision was a source of great inspiration for people like me who grew up in the fifties. There were several reasons for its losing steam after the first decade post independence. One of the significant reasons was that it was a culture agnostic vision. It side stepped the question of what does it mean to be Indian, beyond citizenship of the geo -political entity called India. Unity in Diversity was a great slogan – it  urged us to transcend our sectoral identities( based on caste, creed, language, region etc.) and embrace a national identity. However, the national identity remained an abstract construct with no cultural anchors. Not surprisingly, people either remained caught with their sectoral identities of caste, creed, language, region etc. or embraced soulless, rootless notions of national identity and/or global citizenship.

It is great to talk about diversity and pluralism, but simultaneously one needs to ask as to what holds this diversity together. Does India have a heart and soul or is it a mere geo- political convenience to hold together disparate, disjointed clusters ? Thus at  the core is the issue of our Identity – Who are we and what do we wish to become ?

The supporters of the New India project have defined it in a certain way, which is both problematic and full of internal contradictions. On the other hand, the detractors do not wish to engage with it at all. They either dismiss it as irrelevant ( let us only focus on issues of development, social justice and individual liberties) OR respond to it with negation ( we are not Hindu Rashtra).

I find it rather disturbing that  terms such as cultural identity or  Indic have been virtually usurped by the right wing. I am sometimes invited to participate in discourse around Indianness, and invariably it is by bodies and institutions which lean towards the right side of the political divide. It is another matter, that very soon they discover that what I have to offer does not suit their agenda and promptly drop me like a hot potato. I have rarely come across initiatives from the other side ( generally referred to as left liberals )  to explore this issue. At times I feel that they are allergic to terms like cultural identity  and see it only as a reactionary, regressive endeavor which will support oppressive monoliths.

I believe, it is high time the detractors of the New India project give up their aversion to notions such as cultural identity and Indic. Mere denial or defiance will keep them perpetually on the back foot. It is time that they start defining Indianness in their own way. Their fears are very real but the only way to deal with them is to actively participate in the New India project rather than scoffing at it or fighting it. Whether they like it or not, a New India is emerging and will continue to emerge.  In this transformation process, we can ill afford to ignore the issue of cultural identity. A culture agnostic rhetoric of Pluralism, Inclusion, Development, Social justice etc. is just not enough. It must take into account the salient predispositions of the Indian people and their cultural identity, otherwise it will not have any emotive force.

In other words, if we do not wish to get trapped in a narrow, restrictive definition of what it means to be Indian, we have no choice but to participate in defining it.

 

3 thoughts on “The New India Project

  1. Thank you Ashok. Found myself nodding all through the read. Leads me to introspect – what’s the nature of difficulty in engaging with the issue of our cultural identity. In my personal introspection and conversations with friends and colleagues, I find several struggles – (a) what is my cultural heritage, what part of it do I hold in pride and what part of it is embedded in shame – is a question we find very difficult to engage with. The shame is much more pronounced than pride, and when we see the pride in others, we find it jingoistic and filled with hate of the other. (b) the urban middle class Indian wishes to be part of the world where one will not be identified by their parochial identities. For example, if someone is told that he has a Punjabi or Bengali accent in his English, it evokes shame (unlike a French or Belgian being told that he has a distinctive French accent in his speaking of English). Therefore, anchoring oneself in his regional and parochial identity is seen to be regressive and backward in organisations and social groups. (c) claiming one’s cultural belongingness evokes anxities amongst many in fear of our minority identities being subject to shame and humiliation – be it our caste, gender and sexual orientation or religion. For example – I have seen how Bengali Muslims are snubbed by the upper caste Hindu Bengalis. Or someone who is polyamorous or bisexual or gay feels afraid of being labelled, marginalised and stigmatised in the Indian cultural identity discourse.

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    1. Agree with you. I think there are socio-economic factors at play also. Embracing cultural heritage reduces the distance between elite and the commoner and hence reduces their competitive advantage. This is particularly applicable for the English educated upper middle classes who are already reeling under tremendous anxiety on this counts.

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  2. I think right wing nationalism is cartographic and there is no genuine love for the people inhabiting the map.

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