Why governing India is (made) almost impossible for a right-of-centre, pro-Hindu government.
In May 2014, after three decades, India got a government run by a political party with an absolute majority of its own in the Lok Sabha. The new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, promised to bring in a fresh culture of governance and decisiveness to Delhi and put the Indian economy back on the rails, after years of stagnant economic growth, plunging currency, soaring prices and uncontrollable budget and current account deficits. India had gone from being an emerging superpower (BRIC) to a basket case in the 10 years of government, from 2004, by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by a man with a doctorate in Economics from Oxford.
Given the scale of the triumph—in terms of the number of seats that the BJP won, many party leaders have taken it for granted that they will be re-elected in 2019 if they just do better than the previous government. There is a fatal flaw in such thinking. India is far from ready for a right-of-centre and pro-Hindu government. On the contrary, India remains hostile— actively or by default—to such a government.
Re-election in 2019 is far from assured. A repeat of 2004 rather than 2014 carries a much higher probability than many would like to acknowledge. Among several reasons, one is that the campaign that was unleashed to prevent Narendra Modi from winning has continued unabated after his government took office.
This article is part of our special series on Modi government’s first anniversary in power.
Cue March 2015. Julio Ribeiro, a retired IPS officer, former Mumbai police commissioner, DGP Gujarat, DGP Punjab, and a former Indian ambassador to Romania, penned an op-ed in The Indian Express that he had become a stranger in his own country and that he is “back on the hit list”. This is but the latest in the series of a sustained, calculated and systematic campaign to paint India as an unsafe place to be in and unsound to do business with:
Many entrenched interests in India, upset by the displacement of the status quo, have recovered from the shock of the election defeat and are regrouping to hobble the government, ensure its defeat in the next elections and to restore the old order that favoured them. The next elections may appear to be far off but shrewd generals prepare ahead.
It is common and sound strategy for the West (nay, for any sensible nation) to engage and contain simultaneously. Indians do not grasp it well, let alone practise it. Hence, it is possible that the government and the Prime Minister have been deceived by the apparent bonhomie. They have to remember—always—that they face an uphill battle and the only way to resist and succeed is to be bold, anti-establishment and anti-status quo.
Incrementalism will fail.
This article is from our May 2015 magazine issue. You can view a PDF copy of the pages from the magazine below.
UNSAFE AND UNGOVERNABLE
Leslee Udwin, an independent filmmaker, produced a documentary for the BBC on the rape and murder of a girl in Delhi that shook India in December 2012. An interview of one of the rapists who has been awarded the death sentence was recorded. He was unapologetic and blamed the victim for her suffering at his hands. He has appealed to the Supreme Court against his death sentence. The court has been sitting on the appeal for more than a year while other pressing matters such as the affairs of the Board of Control for Cricket in India vied for its consideration. The television channel NDTV decided to telecast the documentary with exuberant claims of exclusive coverage of the views of an unrepentant rapist.
This was legally a wrong thing to do. His appeal for clemency could be vitiated by the telecast. The matter is sub-judice. Hence, a restraining order was sought by the government and given by a magistrate court against telecasting the interview of the rapist.
Word spread fast and wild that India was unwilling to or unable to take a hard look at itself. A rapist’s views and that of his lawyers, we were told, held a mirror to us and that we turned our gaze away from the image we saw because it was ugly. The producer said that India was a sick and misogynist society. The Kuwait Times (!) carried a front-page story echoing her views. The headline screamed: “Rapist’s views reflect those of many in India: Indian men ‘blame women for rape’”.
Female professors in a university in Leipzig in Germany refused to admit Indian male students out of fear of safety for their other female colleagues. That gave an opportunity for the German ambassador in India to burnish his “Indian loyalty” credentials. In the aftermath of the February 2015 elections to the Legislative Assembly in Delhi, the ambassador had tweeted on the resilience of Indian democracy. He tweeted on 10th February: “It confirms my con- viction that the Indian voter can’t be taken for granted.” Ten days later, the tweet went missing. The German President who visited India last February met with Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi.
A rape that took place when another government was in office has been successfully converted into an indictment of “Modi’s India”. The producer claims that the BBC converted her documentary into an expose on India while her purpose was to highlight the issue of women’s safety globally. An article in London’s The Daily Telegraph on 14 March by columnist Christopher Booker lends credence to her charge that BBC removed references to international rape statistics that would have shown that India was far from being the rape capital of the world and that there were far more serious and credible contenders for that honour in the West.
“The film, designed to be shown in seven countries to mark International Women’s Day, seemed to want to portray India as the rape capital of the world, with its headline claim that the country has ‘a rape every 22 minutes’,wrote Book.
“But what has also come to light is that when the film was privately previewed in Delhi, its original version included evidence that in many countries in the West, the incidence of rape is actually much greater. In Britain, the official Crime Survey for England and Wales 2014 estimated that there are 85,000 rapes every year, or one every six minutes. Equivalent US figures suggest that 1 per cent of all women are sexually assaulted each year, one every 25 seconds.”
Nonetheless, Mission Accomplished.
Before the elections in Delhi, there were some minor incidents, which involved churches. Whether they were communal in nature or not, the media was quick to charge and judge that they were communal and reflected the culture of intolerance that, according to them, had arisen after the BJP-led government took office. Later reports suggest that they could have been individual incidents of minor theft, unintended vandalism and arson strung together to create a communal narrative. Home Minister Rajnath Singh promptly apologized. But in its report to the Home Ministry, the Delhi Police noted that 265 Hindu temples had witnessed thefts in the last one year, as well.
The President of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) made a matter-of-fact statement that the services of Mother Teresa to society were because of her evangelical mission to convert. It was a statement of fact. She herself made no bones about her agenda to serve the Catholic Church. Unsurprisingly, Indian media and foreign commentators expressed outrage at this statement of fact. In his article referred to earlier, Julio Ribeiro had called this an outburst against an acknowledged saint. His article was peppered with victimhood. However, the truth is that India has been at the receiving end of religious conversions before and after a Papal declaration that Indian souls remained to be harvested.
I visited the website of the International Mission Board (the evangelical arm of the Southern Baptist Convention). This is what the website has to say on South Asian peoples: “South Asian Peoples: Greatest concentration of lostness where 1.2 billion people do not know Jesus.” And on Hindus, it said: “The predominant religion of South Asia, Hinduism, teaches that one must acquire good karma to end the cycle of reincarnation and reach heaven. There are more than 990 million Hindus in South Asia— that’s three times the entire population of the United States. Ask the Lord to show Hindus who have chosen to follow Christ how to follow Him and still maintain good relationships with their Hindu families and friends. Pray that the local Christian churches will have a better understanding of the Hindu culture, their felt needs, and how better to present Jesus in a culturally sensitive way.”
Recently, as I was searching for the name of a temple in South India, I stumbled upon an appeal issued by leaders of the local Hindu community in Thiruvathavur, a village near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Thiruvathavur is special for Shaivaites. Manickavasakar, one of the four exalted Shaivaite saints (the other three being, Thirunavukkarasar, ThiruGnana Sambandhar and Sundarar), was born there. He composed Thiruvasakam, one of the most moving tributes and prayers to Lord Shiva. There is a temple of Shiva and his consort in Thiruvathavur and it is administered by the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. The appeal by Hindu leaders made to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in October 2014 requested her to help remove a church that had sprung up in that village on unauthorized land. And the village has no Christians! The church has not been pulled down yet. Had it been pulled down, all hell would have broken loose in India’s “secular” media that the heavy hand of Government machinery had come down on minorities.
There is outrage at the ghar waapsi (returning home or the return of the prodigals) programme that Hindu organisations were carrying out to reconvert the converted to Hinduism. The truth is that the media took note of religious conversions only after reconversions took place. Even now, the mainstream media narrative remains that reconversions are bad but conversions are not.
In a rare exception seldom seen in India, T.V. Mohandas Pai, former Chief Financial Officer of Infosys Technologies, wrote an op-ed in The Economic Times on 27 December 2014, on the pervasive practice of conversion to Christianity by Christian missionaries through veiled or open coercion.
“The new phenomenon over the last five years has been the huge increase in evangelical conversions in Tamil Nadu, clearly visible via the vehement advertising on particular channels on TV,” wrote Pai. “Andhra Pradesh, particularly the interiors, Hyderabad and the coastal regions, has been specifically targeted due to the red carpet laid by a now deceased Chief Minister whose son-in-law is a pastor with his own outfit. The visible impact across this region to any observer shows clearly that a huge amount of money has come in and that there is targeted conversion going on. Some evangelical groups have claimed that 9-12 per cent of undivided AP has been converted, and have sought special benefits from the State (which has been reported in the media).
There is a very sophisticated operation in place by the evangelical groups, with a clear target for souls, marketing campaigns, mass prayer and fraudulent healing meetings. Evidence is available in plenty on videos on YouTube, social media, press reports, and on the ground. Pastors have been openly tweeting about souls converted, and saving people from idol worshippers. Some pastors have tweeted with glee about converts reaching 60 million, declaring a target of 100 million, and have also requested for financial support for this openly. Violence in some areas due to this has vitiated the atmosphere. The traditional institutions of both denominations are losing out to the new age evangelicals with their sophisticated marketing, money and legion of supporters from the West. One can almost classify these groups as hyper-growth startups—with a cost per acquisition, a roadmap for acquiring followers, a fund-raising machine, and a gamified approach (with rewards and incentives) to ‘conquering’ new markets.
Our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, which includes the right of the individual to choose her religion. This is not in question, and is a very important concept for a nation like ours. But this right is terribly constrained by religions which severely punish apostasy. Our laws prohibit conversion due to inducement, allurement, undue influence, coercion, or use of supernatural threats. Every debate on TV misses this point—people argue on grounds of constitutional rights and abuse right wing groups who protest such conversion, forgetting that these new age evangelicals are clearly breaking the law! They go to the desperate, and prey on their insecurities by offering education for their children, medical services for the sick, and abuse existing religious practices and traditions.”
The pattern is clear. Isolated incidents are strung together—with or without basis—to create a siege mentality. Even as the West engages with a new government in India, several agencies and news outlets in the West simultaneously undertake a systematic and sustained campaign to paint India as a country that is full of rabid religious fundamentalists and backward people, implying that it does not deserve to belong at the High Table. How should the government respond?
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The politically correct argument is that the government in India should focus on the economics of development. After all, if economic development occurs and people are gainfully employed, they will be grateful to the government that gave them their livelihood. In the elections to the Indian Parliament in May 2004, this hypothesis was belied. It may be hard to believe, but even job creation did not seem to help.
During the NDA rule of 1998-2004, India suffered two droughts. The world economy itself was coming off the shock of 9/11 and the economic recession that followed it. India was also recovering from the sanctions imposed on it for the nuclear tests it conducted in 1998. Hence, there was no sustained period of rapid economic growth under the Vajpayee-led NDA government to make a visible difference to the lives of the people. Economic growth picked up only from 2003. The country went to polls in the summer of 2004. Droughts made farmers worse off and the elections held in the scorching summer only reminded them of their plight.
In spite of these various setbacks, the Indian economy created jobs during the NDA regime. Data from the now-defunct Planning Commission tells the story. The data, available only up to 2009-10, is presented in the table below. An annual growth rate of 2.4 per cent in jobs failed to ensure re-election for the NDA in 2004. A miserly 0.1 per cent growth rate in employment— based on job creation only in the construction sector—got the UPA re-elected in 2009.
In India (or, for that matter, in any country), rational economics and economic growth take time to diffuse down to 1.2 billion people where nearly 50 per cent of the population live at or below or slightly above the poverty line. One needs sustained strong economic growth for at least a decade, if not two, to see the difference on the ground at the lowest income strata. India has not had that advantage yet. That is why the politics and the economics of development do not resonate with voters. They have not felt it.
Further, the Indian English language media played its part too in tarnishing the “India Shining” campaign of the government which, in hindsight, might have been a tad too optimistic. However, as subsequent performance of the Indian economy between 2004 and 2008 demonstrated, the NDA government had laid the foundation for strong growth but did not reap the benefits.
What the Congress Party did, after it formed the government in 2004, was to resort to the economics of unsustainable giveaways on the back of economic growth and tax revenues delivered by liberal economic reforms of the previous regime. In economics, consequences follow actions and policies with a lag. The Congress benefited from this and positioned itself as the saviour of the poor. For, the poor in India still look up to the government as the feudal benefactor.
This was in keeping with the Congress strategy since Independence. As long as it maintained mediocre economic performance or slightly better, combined with liberal hand-outs and practised its own soft version of anti-Hindu secularism, it won elections. That is why the Congress came to be called the Big Tent. Its leaders cleverly camouflaged their anti-Hindu orientation with visits to Hindu shrines and gurus. Its anti-Hindu policies were never in- your-face. Hence, they did not register. So, the Congress ruled India for a long time.
Indeed, no constituency has been developed in India for the so-called economic reforms or liberalisation of the economy that leaves economic decisions to society, to individuals and to the private sector, with the government ceasing to be directly responsible for economic activity, except to create enabling conditions for such activity to take place. Choice and freedom to make economic decisions appeal to the educated and the rich, but it makes no difference to those who have no incomes to exercise any consumption option for goods and services. It will be a long time before right-of-centre economics based on liberty, choice and markets gets a sizeable constituency in India.
Even in developed countries, when economic conditions turn sour, people turn to the government for answers and support. When people feel helpless, they do not look for choice and empowerment, but subsidies and support. This is true in Europe today. Governments in rich Scandinavia have fallen when they tried to roll back their welfare state a little to keep them viable longer.
The UPA government reaped the dividend of its so-called pro-poor policies (including a waiver of loans taken by farmers, announced in December 2007) in 2009 and then squandered it all. Why? And what made the BJP victorious in such a big way in 2014? What lessons do these hold for the future?
The Congress/UPA lost badly in 2014 because the government had failed too miserably on the economic front. Inflation was the biggest reason. Measured consumer prices had gone up by more than 60 per cent in the previous five years. The rupee had taken a big tumble in 2013. On top of this, the UPA and the Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, had taken their anti-Hindu policies and practices to a different level. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that Muslims had the first claim on national resources. That shocked many. The government gave unrestricted access to Christian missionaries to pursue their proselytization practices and goals in India. It was particularly flagrant in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
These two combined to take their unpopularity to great heights and paved the way for a big consolidation of the negative vote against them, propelling the BJP and the NDA to power in Delhi. Otherwise, under normal circumstances, the Congress, with its soft-touch anti-Hinduism and populist economics, would have remained in office with or without the support of other like-minded parties.
It is worth remembering that the BJP, in the 2009 elections, abandoned the right-of-centre economic reforms pursued by the previous NDA government led by it. It tried to become a clone of the Congress in its economic policies. It fared worse.
When it comes to populism, voters would rather trust the original and not the imitator. It will be difficult for the BJP to occupy the left- of-centre space in economics that the Congress has nearly monopolised since Independence. There is a lesson in it for the present BJP government. It should stick to its liberal instincts— minimum government and maximum governance—when it comes to economic policies.
This article is from our May 2015 magazine issue. You can view a PDF copy of the pages from the magazine below.
In theory, its comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha allows the BJP government to pursue both the economics of development and empowerment and the politics of denomination. However, in practice, the forces arrayed against it—both inside India and outside—will not permit them to pursue either of them. It is a different ballgame for the BJP—a match that is fixed for the BJP to lose.
The deck is loaded so heavily against the BJP government because many English-speaking intellectuals do not identify themselves as Hindus or identify with the Hindu ethos, culture, beliefs. One could enter into a lengthy discussion on how these attitudes had been formed, but to put it briefly, being schooled on misinformation about Hinduism and the resulting lack of proper perspective about the religion are important factors, among others. There is enough evidence to assert the widespread prevalence of such attitudes.
Take the disparaging reaction that followed the comment made by the Prime Minister that the creation of the elephant-headed god Lord Ganesha was an evidence of plastic surgery in Puranic India. Similar was the reaction to the observation that Hindus had figured out flying and versions of aircraft were used to travel through the skies. Such outlandish claims were rightfully rubbished. But what was missing was a reluctance to praise legitimate and note- worthy scientific and mathematical achievements of ancient India.
Well-known Indophile and Indologist Michel Danino correctly noted: “The Indian History Congress (IHC) recently held at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi passed a unanimous resolution condemning ‘historical distortions’ promoted by the ruling party at the Centre or its associates. Several articles that appeared online and in the print media (for instance, The Hindu of December 31) have reported criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent mention of Ganesha’s head transplant as proof of advanced surgical expertise in ancient India.
“It is hard to decide whether Mr Modi expected his listeners to take his pronouncement literally or as a metaphor, but it remains true that a number of publications and websites abound in grotesque claims: ancient Indians manufactured advanced aircraft, while Vedic rishis went about in automobiles and knew all about the heliocentric system, nuclear weapons and the Theory of Relativity.
“The historians behind the recent IHC petition should realise that some of the blame for the distortions they object to lies at their own door. Their resolution is titled ‘In Defence of Scientific Method in History’, but what is ‘scientific’ about suppressing the genuine achievements of Indian science? If our students had substantial exposure to them, they would feel no need to let their imagination run wild.”
If further proof were needed, one needs to note the observations made by G.G. Joseph in his interview to The Telegraph in India in February 2014 relating to his book, The Crest Of The Peacock: Non-European Roots Of Mathematics. A comment by him in his interview stands out:
“People who disappointed me were the Indians. Part of colonisation involves a form of brainwashing where you end up defending something because you think you have invested time and emotion in it. I was awarded a Royal Society Visiting Fellowship to deliver a series of lectures in Indian universities. But a number of those I met didn’t either want to know or were very critical. Subsequently, I also noticed that academics has been highly politicised in the country. So I suddenly find my views and conclusions either being approved by the Right who say, look here is a book that shows India is great, or being criticised by the Left, who claim that the book panders to the other side and contains not much of material analysis….”
A brilliant “guest editorial” titled “The ‘Historic’ Storm At The Mumbai Science Congress” by Prof Roddam Narasimha in Current Science (25 February 2015) beautifully captures the complexity and the multi-layered thinking of ancient Indians that eludes the brainwashed modern Indians that G.G. Joseph refers to.
Commenting on the observations made by Hermann Weyl in his preface to The Theory of Groups and Quantum Mechanics (1928), of how Occidental mathematics followed the route that originated in India, Narasimha notes: “This extraordinary tribute is a striking recognition of the slow, silent but inexorable diffusion of Indic mathematical ideas to Europe through creative Islamic volunteers, culminating four centuries ago in a redefinition of what mathematics was, and the profound revolution that we call modern science. With a legacy like this, we do not need to invent unlikely stories about the past; we just need to work hard in the present.”
What neither Hindus nor the government seem to be doing for now is raising awareness among the people of India’s history and roots, despite placing it at the heart of its election manifesto in 2014: “BJP recognizes that no nation could chart out its domestic or foreign policies unless it has a clear understanding about itself, its history, its roots, its strengths and failings. In a highly mobile and globalized world, it is imperative for a nation to know its roots that provide sustenance to its people.”
The Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) in India, even during the UPA years, managed to put together an elective course on “Traditional Indian Knowledge Systems” for Grades XI and XII, with a lot of research behind it. One would have expected the new NDA government to champion this elective among parents. To the best of this writer’s knowledge, the Ministry of Human Resources Development has not done so. Of course, it is a complex task and one that needs foresight and preparation. The reason is that Hinduism does not lend itself to homogenous thinking. That has neither been its feature nor its strength. Its strength is its heterogeneity.
The various practices, traditions and philosophies that are broadly classified as “Hinduism” have thrived on their plurality, diversity and heterogeneity of views. It would be very hard to make Hindus think as a collective bloc, for electoral purposes, even if a sense of Hindu identity is forged with some success. Yes, there was a common civilizational unity between them, but they were as conscious of what was different about them as they were conscious of what united them.
Some stressed form, some stressed the formless god, some argued for no God at all, some argued for rituals, some wanted to transcend them. It needs intellectual hard work to comprehend Hindu thoughts and their evolution. Most completely avoid the labour involved and prefer to wallow in their shallow ignorance, founded on superficial generalities.
How many of us know that there are many different ways to woo the muse of mathematics and tease her secrets out of her, and that the Indian way was not inferior to that of the Greeks? We did not know because we were not taught. Our curriculum, upon India gaining independence, did not undergo any change.
The brainwashing of Indians with Western thought, arguments and conclusions continued even though India was no longer ruled by the British. Nearly a millennium of invasion, colonisation and occupation of minds, land and people had robbed Indians of the memory of their rich and historical collective knowledge, scientific temper and progress. The brainwashing also erased any trace of confidence among Indians in themselves. That is why a large number of educated Hindus prefer to think in the Western idiom and a government sympathetic to Hindu tradition and the Hindu history of India is alien to them and is viewed with hostility.
Forging Hindu unity is easier said than done. It is not impossible but it requires an extraordinary set of circumstances—usually a very common and serious external threat—to unite them. That does not come around very often. One has to be grateful that the UPA II government provided such an opportunity to forge Hindu unity, at least temporarily. Otherwise, in normal times, it is hard for a lot of Hindus to perceive such threats. In the absence of an external adversary, many of them play the game of one-upmanship.
Indeed, Hindus have struggled to redefine themselves ever since the rise of Abrahamic faiths, which are more centralized, homogenized and hence have been able to mobilise collectively against other faiths far more easily, at least in the past. Hindus, by the very nature of their history and cultural upbringing, are scattered. They have been unable to respond cogently. The difficulty persists to this day. The absences of a central Guru, a central Holy Book, a single God and blind faith are important strengths of Hinduism. They allow every individual to forge his or her own unique path to spirituality or salvation or, simply, personal evolution. However, when it comes to realpolitik and Western forms of governance—whether democracy or not, Abrahamic faiths blend more easily with the norms of a government: a central authority, clear goals and appropriate strategies and tactics.
Perhaps, all these make a Hindu society more difficult to govern. Forging unity among them is far more difficult. Hence, the fact that Hindus find themselves on the backfoot and mostly reactive to the onslaught of Abrahamic faiths to this day is unsurprising. This was not a problem for Hindus until Abrahamic faiths burst on to the scene. Now, Hindus are still struggling to grapple with the existential challenge that the Abrahamic faiths pose. They are yet to formulate an appropriate response strategy. Either they are too passive or too shrill. The combination of intelligence, restraint and effectiveness is seen rarely in their responses.
Most of the English language media outlets in India exploit the situation for narrow ends.
Most of the English language media outlets may have been started decades ago by visionaries who had the national interest in mind. But, financial difficulties led to ownership changes. The new owners have different goals and priorities. These owners have numerous English-speaking Indians willing to work for them and their goals. Quite clearly, supporting a government that is sympathetic to Hindu causes and concerns is not one of their priorities.
After publishing a false story aimed at painting the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting and BJP MP Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as anti-feminist by twisting his remarks, India Today removed the story, after tweeting this “apology”: “We stand corrected, Mr @Ra_THORe. It was an agency story. We have taken it off. Apologies for the mix-up.”
Meenakshi Lekhi, BJP MP from Delhi, wrote a detailed rebuttal on her Facebook page on how she was using development funds allocated to Members of Parliament (MP) for the welfare of her constituency in response to a story published in The Times of India on 1 February. The story mentioned that BJP MPs did not spend the funds at their disposal for their constituencies. They did not bother to check with any of the MPs mentioned in the article.
Even if the government pursues seemingly non-controversial measures, it is dubbed chauvinistic and reeking of majoritarian unilateralism. That is what they did successfully to Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, Minister for Human Resources Development, in the first NDA government. His decision to commence a conference with an invocation to the Hindu goddess Saraswati led to a boycott of the conference by ministers for Education from various state governments run by other political parties. The conference had far-reaching reform proposals to free up the education sector, but they never were discussed.
Thus, media projection successfully creates the image that India, under the BJP, is a hotbed of communalism and religious intolerance. Notice too, how, in the process, reform proposals are derailed. Two birds with one stone: paint them as villains and render them incompetent and paralyzed too, on the policy front. It is doing so again this time around too. The op-ed by retired police officer Julio Ribeiro is proof of the triumph of the misinformation that has created a siege mentality in the minority community. The tragedy is that the BJP does not seem to have come to office prepared for this counterattack.
Perhaps, given the unexpectedly large margin of victory (in terms of number of seats), it expected the Opposition—political and media— to roll over and play dead.
The answer may not necessarily lie in starting a media outlet to counter this. Such an outlet could be branded immediately partisan by these pre-existing partisan and biased outlets. The difference is that their historical reputations and brand names provide them the cover of objectivity and unbiasedness. However, it may be an idea worth exploring.
In a comprehensive essay published on the website indiafacts.co.in on 12 March, that seeks to trace the history of the Indian Right intellectual ecosystem, Praveen Patil forcefully argues that the government and the BJP have to make their case:
“It would be unjust to blame the media alone for this deliberate mischief because the Modi government will also have to apportion the blame for its inability to change the narrative despite being in power. If this state of being continues, then this might prove to be another false dawn for Indian Right Nationalism. In fact, this Modi government is an idea and an opportunity that has rarely been bestowed upon India in the last few centuries and one can only dread to even imagine the advent of its failure.”
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How to change the narrative in economic policies from enfeeblement to empowerment? How to change the narrative on secularism from minority appeasement to one of genuine respect for all religions, not excluding the majority religion? Both are big challenges and they are multi-generational projects. Leaders who grasp these two challenges may simply not be allowed the luxury of time to overcome them. Therein lies, possibly, the secret of success.
The leadership has to act as though it does not have time on its hands.
It is hard to be a leader of a nation which is predominantly Hindu with a desire to preserve its essential Hinduness and civilizational unity, even if the leader sincerely wishes not to endanger the practice and the presence of other religions in the country. Such a goal is simply unacceptable to other nations where Abrahamic faiths dominate. Their “secularism” is confined to governance in their own countries. Even on their home turf, there are clear lines in the sand that people practising other faiths cannot cross. It is possible for British Prime Minister David Cameron to declare proudly that Britain is a Christian nation, and that Christians should be “more evangelical” about their faith and “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives”, as he did in an article in Church Times in April last year, during Easter. He wrote that he wanted to “infuse politics” with Christian “ideals and values” such as “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love”.
If an Indian Prime Minister were to say that, he would be hounded for life by Indian intellectuals who are, for the most part, puppets at the end of the strings held by their foreign masters.
Thus, the task of governing India and the goal of making it prosperous faces several unique obstacles, thanks to India being a Hindu-majority nation, on top of other developmental challenges that come with its size and diversity.
The sheer size of the country (spatially and demographically) demands scalable solutions. These are capital-intensive. In the last two-and-a-half centuries, global economy and production have evolved to become capital and resource-intensive. Now, resources are running out. Further, there are new scientific truths (e.g, climate change and global warming) that pose hurdles in following such a path. A developing economy of India’s size needs a lot of capital to deliver growth, jobs and prosperity. Theoretically, it is possible to abandon the capital and resource-intensive model of economic growth and go for labour-intensive and decentralised model of development. But in practical terms, it will be impossible to swim against the tide and roll back two-and-a-half centuries of learning, habit and worldwide practice. Even China did not or could not forge its own path to economic development.
Hence, capital has to be imported. Compromises and dependency start there. Therefore, the West demands its pound of flesh in many aspects—from religion to financial institutions to pharmaceuticals to defence. Leaders try resisting but soon give up or give in, in one or two areas. Exhausted and resigned, leaders pursue a policy of appeasement, but in vain, in the hope that the goodwill would be reciprocated. They do not realise that, once they yield to one blackmail, it becomes a chain and a habit. Once the other side tastes blood, its appetite grows and is not satiated. Appeasement and yielding under pressure become habits. Initially, leaders may feel guilty for doing so, but turn defiant later as their minds rationalise the conduct.
Consequently, committed followers become disillusioned. Out of a sense of guilt or embarrassment, leaders sever or grossly dilute contact and ties with core followers. That worsens the alienation. The faithfuls do not show up at the polling booths in the next election. At the same time, appeasement does not bring in new followers. The other side had extracted concessions only to delay, deny and thwart the original agenda of the leader. They had never intended to cross over. By the time the leader realises that the other side never wanted to play a fair game but merely was engaging in shifting the goalposts all the time, it is too late. Whether he regrets it or not, he becomes history.
There is an alternative path even if it comes with dangers of failure. Indian leaders can stand up for their convictions. They could pursue their own economic template and not the one that is dictated by outside forces. On religion, they can walk the middle path of pursuing a pro-Hindu agenda without pursuing communal polarisation. However, the leadership could be genuinely worried about the economic levers that the West has. They may hear from their advisors—some well-meaning and some not—that it is good to be open-minded and liberal towards Western ideas and investments. This advice taps into the innate Indian desire that craves Western acceptability.
China enjoys a crucial advantage over India in this respect. It has dealt with the West mostly on its own terms. The most recent example is the formation of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank with Chinese leadership and dominant shareholding. China managed to split the West, leaving the US and Japan isolated. China could pull off such feats because Chinese minds were not occupied as Indian minds were, for more than a millennium. The country’s thoughts and national priorities are Chinese and not Western. Unfortunately for India, colonisation is the weight that buckles even the most nationalist and sincere Indian leader into abandoning his ideals, mission and methods.
But appeasement and acquiescence have no sovereign payoffs. In general, only those who are willing to stand up for their beliefs and rights command the respect of friends and rivals. To be loved and not feared may be a good spiritual destination for individuals, but it is poor statecraft. Regrettably, this may be unlikely to go away soon. It may take several generations for a millennium of slavish thinking to be shed. The risk is that the idea of India may well and truly be buried before that happens, with its potential and promise remaining unfulfilled.
I have argued that right-of-centre economic policies that focus on economic development through empowerment and expansion of personal choices are still largely alien to Indian society. Further, forces within and outside the country want to stop Indians from discovering their roots and heritage and acceptance of the essential Hinduness of the country and its Hindu history. So, what should the leader do?
Swapan Dasgupta (Editor’s disclosure: Dasgupta is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Swarajya), in a recent piece (“Indian National Character 2.0. The Asian Age, 20 March 2015), made the following observations and left the readers and the leadership of the BJP with a question in the end:
“In 2014, Narendra Modi destroyed the existing electoral calculus and won a parliamentary majority, mainly owing to a massive endorsement by the youth. The imagery of his victory was achchhe din, that incorporated the promise of change, rapid change. Implicit in the verdict was a vote against Incrementalism, the philosophy that had guided earlier governments.
To my mind, interpreting the mandate is the real challenge for the political class. Was the verdict a knee-jerk response to a decade of sluggish governance? Alternatively, was India in the throes of acquiring a new mindset that broke with the leisured timelessness of the past? If it did, what are the implications for policy? Does it call for re-imagining the modern Hindu mind? An observer can ask the questions, the strength of a leader lies in taking the final call.”
I believe that the election verdict of 2014 was more a knee-jerk response against the incompetence and venality of the previous government than an aspirational vote for change. One must note that this is a relative statement and not an absolute one that denies any role for the second interpretation of the vote.
To his credit, the Prime Minister, with his ceaseless campaign, effective mobilisation and masterful oratory, was able to tap into the disgruntlement much more effectively than others who were all compromised. The big difference for him in 2019 is that he may not have either Dr Manmohan Singh or Rahul Gandhi opposing him. He would face that very big handicap. In other words, much as his personality, his message, his oratory and campaign contributed to his victory, so did the record of Manmohan Singh and the “promise” of Rahul Gandhi. This message may not be easy to absorb, but, absorb he must, if he has to stand any chance of being re-elected in 2019. The promise of victory has to be built on realistic foundations.
So, what does the Prime Minister do?
He should continue to be what he was before May 2014. He was an outsider then and he should be an “outsider” now. He was a rebel inside the BJP and outside of it. The old leadership in the BJP had voted along with the Congress on many of its regressive decisions. The BJP had gone a step ahead of the Congress and strengthened some of the proposals of the Congress in the Land Acquisition, Relief and Rehabilitation Bill of 2013. He challenged that leadership and won. Then, he challenged other parties and won and promised to change the system.
He is doing that with his abandonment of the Planning Commission, with his reforms of the labour market, including government pension and insurance schemes for workers and with his transparent auction of public resources like coal and spectrum. He should tell the country what he is doing. Tavleen Singh wrote in her recent column in The Indian Express titled “A Bunch of Hypocrites” that the “Prime Minister’s biggest mistake in the past eight months has been his reluctance to explain these things to the people of India in the way that he has explained social problems.”
Yours truly wrote after the Aam Aadmi Party won a landslide victory in Delhi that the Prime Minister needed to remain an outsider to the capital. He should not be seen as being part of the System. The English language media, ensconced in Delhi, is helping him immensely by continuing to paint him as an ogre and his government evil. He should “encourage” them to do so and the one effective way to do that is to ignore them. At the same time, he should continue to be in touch with the people. A person who becomes a part of the System will be assimilated and digested by the System to the extent that he becomes indistinguishable from the forces he is fighting against. That is what happened to the old leadership of the BJP. That is what he should guard against.
However, I believe, as I wrote in livemint.com on 16 February, that “the process of acculturation, assimilation and eventual digestion has not gone too far for him to retrace his steps”. He should not forget that “no matter how hard he tries, he will not be accepted by the self-styled elites, the pseudo-intellectuals, the pseudo-secularists and the English-speaking chattering classes as one of them. They will gleefully accept his patronage but will turn against him for he is always the chaiwallah to them. But, being the chaiwallah is his strength.”
The best way to thrive under pressure is to act as though there is no pressure. The best way for the Prime Minister to get re-elected in 2019 is to run the government in the next four years as though he would not be re-elected and that he could not care less about it. He should implement his agenda of minimum government and maximum governance with the utmost conviction. Incrementalism is for the risk-averse; for insiders. Not for an outsider who wants to demolish the system. He should remember that he dismantled the Planning Commission, a 60-year old institution.
To be fair to his government, it has been quietly dismantling the network of State involvement and patronage. The government has given up its monopoly on coal mining. Inefficient public sector banks are being starved of capital. It has gamely re-promulgated the ordinance to amend the Land Acquisition Bill. A path-breaking report to reform Indian Railways is now with the government. Irrespective of opposition and resistance by vested interests, the government’s best hope of getting re-elected through economic policies is to throw caution to the winds and change the very nature of the relationship between the Indian State and the public. The government should change the predatory and patronising role of the State to one that enables and empowers. It may be pleasantly surprised by the results both in the economy and in the elections.
Further, he should stay in touch with those who were loyal to him and who supported him in May 2014, and those who expect him to implement an actively pro-Hindu agenda. But, there are Hindu agendas and there are Hindu agendas. Some have widespread acceptance (preservation of Hindu heritage, temples and their administration) and some are controversial. Some may need time. Some of his followers, steeped in Hindutva, are impatient. That is understandable, since they have been denied for more than six decades, in their own country. However, he has been in the office for less than a year and it is not easy, on sensitive social issues, to break decisively with the past in quick time. It is of essence that this be communicated constantly, lest he be deemed traitor to the cause. Where he should not be hesitant is in pursuing genuine secularism that does not discriminate against the majority religion systematically.
The government should eschew compulsion and coercion and embrace persuasion. The nuance may be lost on some of his more impatient followers in the larger Hindu parivar. That is where his legendary communication skills should come into play. After all, in the age-old fable, it is the sun that gently bears down that removes the cloth from the itinerant traveller and not the fierce wind that threatens to snatch the cloth from him. However, willingness to explain oneself requires the acceptance of the obligation to explain. That, above all, demands sublimation of the ego and a willingness to learn from history—2004 was lost because the loyalists did not show up at the booth and the newfound admirers were fickle.
Given the all-pervasive importance of these attributes—humility and sublimation of the ego, it makes sense to conclude this piece with this vignette from history. Let me quote from a column by Gillian Tett published in Financial Times in October last year: “Just as ancient Roman generals on victory marches would task slaves to walk next to their chariots saying: ‘Memento mori’ (Remember you are mortal), we all need ways to deflate in a regular way.”
In fact, the first down payment that the Prime Minister could make on his re-election quest is to invite Lord David Owen, the former UK Foreign Secretary, to come and talk to him on the dangers of hubris.
Lord Owen has set up a foundation in London to study hubris. That conversation could set him on the path to re-election as nothing else would.
The author is co-founder of the Takshashila Institution. These are his personal views.
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