Revisiting The Modi Government Grounding Consensus On Self-Worth
BJP assembled a basket of popular views on such issues as nationalism and communitarianism, and juxtaposed them with promises of sustained efforts at promotion of vitality in inter-community and inter-regional relations to draw the masses on its side
Why did the Congress Party lose at the hustings? A fresh attempt to answer this question is like seeing the year now ending in the rear-view mirror of politics in India. An exercise of this kind constitutes an interesting backdrop to understanding the style of the Modi government in legitimising its power. The rationalists and modernisers in UPA-2 relied on private enterprise and market processes for delivering economic benefits to the people and put the Nehruvian combination of Keynesianism with welfare on the back burner. They went along the dominant discourses of ‘competitive state’ to push India’s share in international finance and trade and distanced India’s liberalised political sphere from reading much in the available data on growing economic inequality and unemployment. They treated this data as of minor calculable relevance to the task before them. No doubt, there were departures from this extreme rightist position, especially during the closing years of their term. But they continued to regard this platform as their best bet for winning the general election. They did not consider the possibility of the emergent reality opening a wide discursive horizon to generate campaign fodder against them.
For the BJP, this was a moment of opportunity. It crafted a more inclusive programmatic response designed to conflate with major clusters of political and cultural preferences across the society without, at the same time, sliding back on commitment to making India an economic success. It assembled a basket of popular views on such issues as nationalism and communitarianism, and juxtaposed them with promises of sustained efforts at promotion of vitality in inter-community and inter-regional relations to draw the masses on its side.
Modi translated his India First slogan into a project for national regeneration. The aim was to take the opponents along. A non-political, national approach was necessary for bringing dissident knowledge on board so that there was no effective opposition to his economic policies. For an autonomous working out of this dynamic some changes in social and economic arrangements were foretold mainly to undo the so-called ‘distortions’ resulting from social and economic interventionism in the past. Legislative measures and rights claims as engines of welfare and social harmony were deficient. And so the emphasis shifted to capacity-building for achieving these objectives. The polarity between rights claims and capacity-building was underlined by the current concern for personal security of women. A common observation was that those women who were confined to a cloistered home life lacked, more than others, a capacity for independent living and free movement. They felt insecure in the public sphere even under a canopy of a protective legal framework. This was true of middle class women also despite their educational and economic status. Their scores on independent variables of empowerment like education and employment were not good indicators of their capacity to manage themselves in an inhospitable public environment. Capacity-building was thus as important as the efficiency of the law and order machinery in achieving women’s personal security. This approach was also integral to lowering the cost of internal security on the economy. No different was the case of the communities lacking capacity for taking advantage of opportunities opening before them. They opposed developmental-related training and discipline as hegemonic. Linking work to traditional and learnt skills was important but the primary requirement was to go beyond it.
A multi-pronged effort at reform and revival was needed for standing up to capacity-deficit at different levels. The first imperative was to reach out to the people in terms of their live experiences for boosting their morale by inspirational references to their innate genius and goodness.
The other imperative was to stop blind imitation of Western culture and institutions. The urge for such imitation arose from feelings of cultural inferiority generated by the colonial construction of Indians especially the Hindus as primitive, savage and barbarous, congenetically incapacitated and not capable of rational thinking or civilized living. Such generalisations about Indians should be jettisoned as they were baseless, not supported by credible anthropological evidence. The colonial masters drew on what travellers and missionaries in distant past casually wrote about India. They tried to naturalise the difference between the West and the non-West. University students including those at Oxford and Cambridge situated the imagined difference within the academic perspective of the Victorian legacy, that of liberal evolutionism: ‘if some savage people fall behind, others might decide to represent, not only retarded or imperfectly evolved, but actually degenerate forms of civilisation’. Liberal evolutionism paved the way for the civilising mission of imperialism and was legitimated in terms of de-contextualised political thought, constitutional history and development of the West. This evoked sentiments of paternalism and otherness in governance and, with the passage of time, fanned out beyond race and civilisation to include inter-community relations and differences along language, caste, gender, class and regional dimensions.
This led to various public and private initiatives for emancipation of those lagging behind Western standards. Those participating in this work were defined as ‘progressive’ and labelled themselves as ‘left’ in politics and scholarly pursuits. They subjectively understood cultural diversity as a modern approach to constituting otherness, especially with respect to irrational religiosity, which was seen as not just a polar opposite of the left on a secular (non-religious) continuum but a threat to its very survival. This further tightened the grip of colonial assessments on the political strategy of rationalists in politics and economy. The Modi government was rising above them, first to off-load the social baggage from the back of the economy so that it performes better, and second, to clear the way for an intellectually open and pragmatic approach to India’s past. His appeal to the people was to wipe the colonial dust on their looking-glass and see in it a clearer reflection of their beauty and qualities. This is the Modi style: infuse among people a strong sense of self-worth to expand the boundaries of consensus on the need to run together for India.
By Sushil Kumar
(The author is a former Professor at JNU)