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Posted at: May 28, 2019, 6:31 AM; last updated: May 28, 2019, 6:31 AM (IST)

An alternative vision of India

Shyam Saran

Shyam Saran
Any attempt to confine people to a monochromatic frame is bound to fail
An alternative vision of India
Phenomenon: We, too, suffer from ‘dictator envy’.

Shyam Saran
Former foreign secretary and senior fellow, centre for policy research

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi has won a second term with a resounding majority. This is a victory for Modi as a leader embodying an idea of India different from that of the founding fathers of the Constitution, even though he claims that for him the Constitution remains supreme. The notion of secularism has been buried and this has implications for a multi-religious society. The Constitution recognises citizenship as the basis of nationality. The new political dispensation may set norms of nationalism that go beyond citizenship and this could limit other constitutional rights and privileges of citizenship such as freedom of expression and the right to free speech. 

In his victory speech, Modi said there were only two castes now in India — the poor and those who are able to use resources to help them escape poverty. He would presumably count in the second caste his own party, the BJP, and its allies and supporters. What happens to the different categories of the middle class, professionals and entrepreneurs all of whom contribute to India’s growth story? Will they remain relevant only to the extent that they align with the political orientation of the elected leadership? Are they being consigned to the ‘Lutyens’ elite’ or the ‘Khan Market gang’ the PM so sharply criticised in the interviews he gave during the election campaign? A political binary may take hold with place for only black and white and no greys in between. It is the greys that sustain democracy.

One may argue that Modi’s victory has peeled off the veneer of Western-style liberalism and values associated with it which an English-speaking elite foisted on a deeply conservative society with its own entrenched value system. Anti-elite sentiment is not peculiar to India. We have seen its powerful energy in many countries, including mature Western democracies. Donald Trump’s election is one example. Brexit is another. There are deeper and more structural forces at work across nations and societies and it is important for us to understand them.

The end of the Cold War demolished the legitimacy of the socialist idea and entrenched the notion of market fundamentalism. Free markets and liberal democracy were linked together as inseparable ingredients of economic advancement. Free markets were expected to lead inevitably towards liberal democracy and it is this belief which led the West to support the economic reform and liberalisation process in China, a belief which now lies completely belied. The transition economies of Russia and Eastern Europe were similarly prescribed the twin remedies of political democracy and open markets as the gateway to the future. The role of the State in providing public goods to citizens in the form of education, health and welfare support was progressively dismantled across a large swathe of the global landscape. India was not immune to these changes, particularly after it adopted its own reform and liberalisation process. As in other countries, India's elite became more self-entitled, began to see itself as part of the emerging global elite, symbolised by the Davos man. It is no accident that the Indian contingent to Davos has been one of the most numerous year after year. Just as Wall Street in the US lost touch with the Main Street, so did the distance between a small but wealthy elite and the ordinary citizen in India grow apace.

The Indian State followed suit by diminishing even its basic responsibilities of providing education, health and public security to its citizens. The fastest growing sectors of the Indian economy are private education, health and security services. It is not English-speaking which is at issue. If you consider the rush for English-medium schools in India, there is a clear awareness that for success in India and in a globalised world, English is an asset. No, anti-elitism has deeper and global origins.

The notion of the ‘magic of the marketplace’ took a devastating hit in the global financial and economic crisis of 2007-08. However, what may have remained an economic setback became a crisis of democracy because of the equation of free markets with liberal democracy. Since one failed, the other became suspect too. And this explains why in most countries the support for democracy has significantly declined. There should have been no such equation between a certain kind of economic arrangement and the pursuit of democracy. There have been several models of market-based economic growth associated with a variety of political dispensations and China itself is a very good example. The idea of democracy has to be rescued from the tyranny of the market.

What about the argument that liberal democracy and the idea of a multi-cultural society of equal citizens is alien to the Indian way of thinking? Is faith in a powerful leader more aligned to Indian political culture? The immense diversity of India is a fact and any attempt to confine its people to a monochromatic frame of whatever shape or colour is bound to fail. If there are deep fractures on the basis of caste, creed and ethnicity, there are also more inclusive strains of thinking, of belonging to a larger humanity, of accepting that there may be several equally valid paths to redemption. While there may be communal or sectarian passions which lurk dangerously below the surface, the celebration of syncretic impulses in music, art and spiritual seeking is also real. Liberal values that embody the ideas of equality, liberty and fraternity have always been part of India’s cultural ethos but articulated in a different idiom. You may have a leader like Mahatma Gandhi who stimulated the more noble strains in our thinking. You may also have leaders who seek power through appeal to the darker recesses of our mind. The lure of a powerful leader has less to do with Indian values and is more related to the current global preference for authoritarian leaders. We, too, suffer from ‘dictator envy’.

Political democracy and liberal values associated with it are the most valuable assets India has. We should understand the context in which these are being questioned not only in India but the world over. We must reject the idea that a more authentic India is emerging for which these are alien concepts. There is an alternative vision of India which lies enshrined in our Constitution and must remain our guidepost for the future.

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