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.

 

The Mythical Majority

Whenever I hear the term Majority Community, I feel a little lost. I am not sure as to who does it include and who does it exclude? I presume that term is intended for people who are branded as Hindus, and since I am one such person it should include me. While I strongly resonate with the philosophical underpinnings of what are considered Hindu Religion(s) as also the way religiosity is engaged with in our civilisation, I am not a religious person, have very little faith in many of the practices which are followed in the name of Hinduism and most importantly, do not subscribe to the Varnashram- which is an integral part of most Hindu Religion(s). In fact so pervasive is the influence of Varnashram that it has been able to make significant in roads even in religions which are not supposed to be Hindu e.g. Sikhism, Islam, christianity etc. Keeping all this in mind, I do not know whether I should consider myself as a Hindu and whether or not I should consider myself  as part of the so-called majority community. Further, all my sectoral identities(based on caste,language, region etc) make me into a minority with varying degrees of strength. As a hindi-speaking person I am part of a significantly large minority and as a Punjabi Khatri Arya -samaji, a relatively smaller one. However, since I do not have any significant emotive pull towards my sectoral identities (except the linguistic one) I can not consider my self a minority either. Hence I am in this strange place where I can neither consider myself as part of the majority nor a part of the minority.

This see-saw of majority-minority had not been of any great significance for large part of my life. I had assumed rightly or wrongly that most of my other countrymen are in the same situation. I had assumed that we are a collation of minorities who have done a reasonably good job of living together. (please see my post on the principle of limited consensus) This had been made possible partly because of tightly defined codes of behaviour for social engagement(e,g. restrictions on who one can marry) which are neither feasible nor desirable in the present context. Simultaneously there was a philosophy of life and psychological orientation (what I call Indian-ness)  which helped us to live with differences. Unfortunately I see this fast eroding. I feel very sad about this erosion but I am not sure how my fellow countrymen feel about it. Hence here again I do not know whether I am part of the majority or the minority.

What I am most concerned about it is that in absence of the traditional ways of living together, how will these different minority groups relate with each other. In this context, even groups who claim to be the voice of the majority community are in fact only a minority. If they really believed that they represented the majority voice, they would not need to resort to the tactics which they do. What I see happening around me is heightened anxiety bordering on paranoia in every minority group, quick closing of ranks, a complete refusal to listen to others except to the extent of forging alliances. This process has surfaced very prominently in the last few days but it has been going on for a considerable period of time. Thus  strife has come to define the basic relationship between minority groups and all co-operation is for the purpose of fighting a common enemy (the principle of enemy’s enemy being a friend) In today’s newspaper I was horrified to see the expression of “ideological war” being attributed to Sh. Arun Jaitely . I do not know whether he actually used the term, but his statement certainly had a win-lose flavour. If people who are supposed to integrate, synthesise and hold the total picture, talk in terms of a win-lose language, then we are in deep trouble. Let me also point out that Mr. jaitely is no exception in this regard.Most others (including the so-called liberals) have been doing the same thing.Several people who are talking today of the need to protect the right to dissent, have had no problems with crushing dissent when it suited them. This is  an inevitable consequence of forging alliances on the basis of animosity towards a common enemy. Today the minority group which wants religious/cultural hegemony has made a convenient alliance with another minority group which wants to convert India into Singapore,and found a common enemy in the liberal left. . I am sure in time there contra-pulls will surface and a new set of alliances/enemies will emerge. Similarly groups which have come together on the basis of their animosity towards the Sangh Pariwar will also have to deal with their animosity towards each other. The central point I wish to make is that when anxiety/paranoia of being a minority is fuelled then all relatedness gets determined by strife and animosity.

The win-lose paradigm seems to have now gone beyond the main actors and infiltrated among all of us also.Thus I find that it is becoming extremely difficult to talk to anyone on these issues without taking sides. The kind of mails a person reads, forwards, likes ,comments upon has a distinct stamp of which side the individual is on. Most of the writings of intellectuals  have a clear one-sided position. Even those who claim to provide a “balanced view” are only using relatively moderate language and taking extra effort to sound “reasonable”, though their basic position is the same as that of the group that they represent. The comments posted are close-ended and made from frozen positions. Any attempt to explore/raise questions (as I have sometimes tried to do) remains un-responded . I wonder whether anyone is really interested in a dialogue or do we only want to fight-sometimes in tones which sound reasonable and sometimes in loud/shrill and abusive ways.  I am afraid, in absence of dialogue, the anxiety of being a minority will push every group into forging a mythical majority with continual strife and hostility

I would very much like to hear how you have experienced the majority-minority dynamics for yourself and in the larger context

 

Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative

Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative

One fall out of the present crisis linked to the JNU issue is that it has brought to the surface a significant question as to what does it mean to be an Indian? Large part of this discourse is around meaning of Nationalism. However constructs like Nationalism have to be contextualised. Meaning of Nationalism for a country which has a long history of uninterrupted Nationhood and which consists of people who belong to the same race, language, religion etc. can not be the same as in case of a plural society with huge diversity and at best a sporadic history of Nationhood.

 

I am not a student of history and can not comment about the competing accounts regarding constructs like Aaryavrata, Akhaand Bharat etc. All I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is that in 1947 when we came together as a nation, our primary anchors of belonging were more sectoral (based on province, language, religion etc.) than national. Thus at that time it was not uncommon in Punjabi households to use the term hindustani for people in U.P. The official clarion call was to transcend our sectoral belonging, embrace a national identity and participate in the task of building a fair, progressive, equitable and secular society. However the notion of what this Indian identity was remained abstract and could at best be linked with what we wished to become rather than who we were. The end result was that the Indian identity got split into two parts-one part was what my friend Raghu Ananthnaraynan calls the “ urban, english speaking, featureless, odourless, colorless Indian” who has no link with either his heritage or his context. In many ways this part of ourselves is very much like what Macaulay wanted us to become. The other part remained deeply entrenched in the sectoral identity ( and its associated fears, anxieties and prejudice) and mechanically adhered to all its prescribed ways. This split was inevitable since we had a narrative for our sectoral identity, we had none for our national identity. The only way we can deal with it is by building a meaningful narrative of being an Indian which resonates with us both emotionally and intellectually. A narrative which we feel/think understands who we are and who we wish to become.

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