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.

 

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.

Continue reading “Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative”

Feats of Self Destruction

Feats of Self Destruction

I am a compulsive gambler and I have lost a small fortune (by my standards) in this pursuit. One of my significant learning has been that there is a common pattern to all my significant losses. They all begin with a winning streak and my taking winning as my birth right,, followed by a reversal of trend, followed by my intense rage, desperation and recklessness, followed by a state where I “stake it all “ in a spirit of “all or nothing” and eventually getting “cleaned out”

I find a remarkable similarity between this process and what I see happening in the country today. First let us look at the Modi Sarkar. It started with a strong winning streak, not just in terms of electoral results but also with the hope and enthusiasm that got generated on several fronts. Soon the trend began to reverse with gradual disillusionment. The tipping point I think was the defeat in Delhi elections. Ever since the government seems to have been in a state of directionless desperation. The present crisis around JNU captures the entire process very well. It started with what seemed like a victory for the Government against its arch-rival (usually described as liberal, secular left) and more importantly providing it a platform from where the passion could be raised in the name of Bharat Mata rather than only Hindu religion. However it over-stetched itself and through manipulated evidence did a “self side goal”. Ever since, its reactions are becoming increasingly mind –boggling. One would expect that in a situation like this the government will try to diffuse the situation rather than escalate it. Hence inaction of police at Patiala court, Ms. Irani’s histrionics in the parliament, tacit support to people who wish to see the issue in terms of Nationalism and disapproval of those who see it in terms of liberalism and veiled threat of charges of sedition against all and sundry, suggest a state of panic. I will not be surprised if in not too distant a future it reaches a point of no return and where it will find itself compelled to “stake it all” in a mother of all battles. Continue reading “Feats of Self Destruction”