Facing up to the Modi challenge T K Arun The Economic Times, January 3, 2008
Narendra Modi’s stunning victory in Gujarat strikes a body blow to the idea of India as a modern democracy.
If Moditva spreads, instead of maturing into the liberal democracy envisioned in the Constitution, India’s polity will lurch towards authoritarianism and yield civil strife instead of prosperity. Checking its spread calls for a political strategy that goes beyond conventional cleverness with electoral arithmetic, charisma of infallible leaders and facile alliances of social groups and political rebels. It calls for clarity and conviction about the political essence of modern Indian nationhood and the ability to counterpose that against Moditva. Modi has won people’s hearts, some claim, because he believes in and works for development. It is indisputable that Modi is an efficient administrator and has passionate commitment to his state’s material progress.
But does development derive solely from and absolve the Modi brand of politics? The 1930s supply a dramatic answer, when three countries were ‘developing’ at a furious pace under the aegis of three different leaders and political ideologies. The US was recovering from the Great Depression and basking in the glow of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Germany, under Hitler, was rebuilding its war-ravaged economy and acquiring the muscle required to wreak revenge on the world. The Soviet Union, under Stalin, was tempering the steel it knew would be required to withstand an inevitable assault by western powers. Two things were common to all three leaders: passionate commitment to economic growth and reciprocally passionate support from their followers. For the rest, they stood for diverse political ideologies and led their countries to drastically different political denouements.
Clearly, the same quantity of steel smelted, the same length of road and rail track built and the same units of power generated can owe allegiance to wholly dissimilar political leadership and mutually hostile political ideologies. Development, in short, is not a political ideology. Modi’s politics is similar to Hitler’s in several ways. Vilification of a minority community and its transformation into a hate object for the majority, contempt for democracy and its constitutive organisations such as trade unions and institutional processes such as the rule of law, dependence on the personal charisma of a demagogic leader, glorification of the nation and the strong leader who alone can provide prosperity and security — these are common traits. Modi scores over Hitler in that the latter had just one Goebbels to spread the good word about him.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued in the Indian Express that Modi won because he holds out the promise to fulfil the average voter’s quest for wholeness, a sense of belonging to a collective that is strong, prosperous and secure and not just on the passions of a communal divide. He says what makes Modi all the more dangerous is that he has woven exclusion of Muslims into that vision of fulfilment. This argument is convincing. The practical import of this diagnosis is that countering Modi calls for an equally compelling vision of collective fulfilment, one that is inclusive. Voter frustration with the incumbent bunch of political miscreants might no longer suffice, in the era of Modi, to carry another bunch of political opportunists to power. You need to offer the voter an alternative vision of the future, one which is prosperous, secure, inclusive. Continued...Next >> Capitalist growth, the only kind of growth taking place anywhere in the world, is desirable not just for its poverty-reduction potential but also for the diverse non-traditional economic activities and urbanisation it would spawn. These are needed to undermine the caste-occupation correlation that serves as the material basis for the bane of rural Indian life: caste oppression. To his credit, Modi has said that poverty knows no caste. To his discredit, the unspoken sub-text is that castes can unite in hating Muslims as well. We need an anti-caste agenda, not divisive patronage politics in the guise of reservations for more and more sections of the people. Secularism needs to be reclaimed and reaffirmed. The very term dharm-nirapeksh is misplaced, and grossly. Dharm stands not just for religion but also for ethics and morality. To suggest that secularism is politics devoid of these virtues is wholly self-defeating. So is the attempt to project irreligiosity as the counter to communalism. Secularists need to draw upon those traditions of Hinduism that promote peaceful coexistence of faiths. As a polytheistic religion that had more gods than the number of believers till after Independence, and, moreover, accepted diverse forms of spiritual pursuit ranging from austere scholasticism to tantric sex, Hinduism can be comfortable with the notion that no theology is deviant. To posit this possibility is not to assert its historicity, of course. Sree Narayana Guru and Kabir are perhaps more relevant than Gandhi in this context. They used Hinduism’s core advaita philosophy to argue against caste distinctions and for the notion that being a decent human being is what counts, not one’s religion. What is needed is a vision that draws upon available resources within India’s tradition to build India’s modernity as an inclusive, prosperous democratic society. Failure to forge that vision cannot be redeemed by ranting against Modi.