The Seeds of Modi's Future Failure?

Published: December 08, 2014 10:30 IST
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(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

I have just sent to the press the manuscript of my 15th book, India Shastra, which will appear in January. India Shastra is a collection of 101 articles and essays, some longish, some rather short, that seek to convey a portrait of contemporary India from the perspective of late 2014.

With India Shastra, I have concluded a de facto trilogy of works attempting to explore what makes my country what it is.

India: from Midnight to the Millennium (1997), slightly revised and republished at the turn of the century as India: from Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond (2000), took in the broad sweep of India's politics, economics, society and culture in its first 50 years of Independence. The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone (2007) was a collection of various writings on the same themes, bringing the narrative of India's transformation up to the 60th anniversary of India's Independence. India Shastra (2014) updates the story with more recent writings, and takes into account the dramatic change in Indian politics today with the ascent to power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

My basic thesis about India has remained consistent in these three books. It is a land of extraordinary pluralism and diversity, where political democracy is indispensable to national survival; a country of great economic potential held back by some of its own policies and practices, many of which are in the process of being re-examined and reinvented; and a lively, contentious and exciting society which is far removed from the timeless and unchanging land of well-worn cliché. A Rip Kumar Winkle who had fallen asleep at the end of the Second World War 70 years ago would be unable to recognize the India of 2015.

Everything has either changed dramatically or is in the process of changing: the nation's politics, its economic preferences, its social assumptions, the relations amongst castes, the material and professional choices available in the country, the patterns and habits of daily life, and the intangible attitudes of Indians towards everything from religion to profit-making.

I am, I suppose, an old-fashioned liberal, one who believes in political liberty, social freedoms, minimal restrictions on economic activity, and a concern for social justice. This has tended to put me in a very small minority in India, where political opinion is divided between a "left" pledged to upholding socialism and state command of the economy, and a "right" defined principally by its adherence to religious and cultural nationalism, rather than economic or political convictions. The one liberal political party that largely embodied my views, C. Rajagopalachari's Swatantra Party, disappeared in 1974, and it was only after the liberalization policies undertaken by the Congress Party in 1991 that I was able to find a congenial home there, albeit, on some issues, on its fringes.

My political isolation in many respects has been compounded by the robustness of my views on foreign policy and national security, laid out in greatest detail in Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century (2012). A liberal hawk is a rare bird anywhere, but particularly in an India whose social and economic pieties and peace-loving credentials were sanctified by the hallowed freedom movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

And yet, as my book suggests, India may be coming increasingly around to the point where my beliefs might one day even appear mainstream. Prime Minister Modi's speeches and sound bytes since his election could certainly have been scripted by a liberal, though the gap between articulation and implementation, in his case, remains currently wide enough to drive a rath through.

What can one make of a man who speaks of tolerance and accommodation while condoning hate speech by party members he has appointed as Ministers? How does one interpret a PM who speaks of "minimal government, maximum governance" but is in the process of running the most centralized, top-down, bureaucracy-driven, personality-cult dominated central government since Indira Gandhi's Emergency rule? What conclusion can one reasonably derive about a leader who says "the government has no business to be in business" but has never said a word to question the anomaly of his government owning and running airlines and hotels? How can one interpret the intentions of a Prime Minister elected on a promise of delivering results, whose very fine speeches and liberal pronouncements appear completely disconnected from any tangible action plan, adequate funding or execution capacity?

So the jury is still out on how much we can celebrate the "Modi-fication" of India. What are the prospects for the expansion of the liberal space in India over the next two decades? This desirable objective requires both growth and equity. Progress is being made on both, but there's still a lot that needs to be done before we get there.

We cannot think of economic growth in India without also thinking of bringing its benefits to all our countrymen and women. (As I have written elsewhere, whether we grow at 9% or at 5%, we have to ensure the benefits reach the bottom 25% of our population.) The most significant facts about the Indian people today are that the majority of them are young, and the majority of them are poor. The availability of human resources of such magnitude only means anything if we can feed, house, clothe, educate and train these young people so they can actually contribute to achieving socio-economic change in their own lives and in the country's fortunes. If we can't do that - if we fail to provide them the opportunities to make something of their lives in the new India - the same youthful and aspirational population could be not only a burden but even a threat, since so much of terrorism and extremist violence in our country is carried out by embittered, under-educated and unemployed young men.

As a political representative in India today, I certainly do not take the prospects of success for granted. The process of doing what I have described is not just huge in itself; it also involves something no society, not even China, has yet attempted. And that is to connect millions of citizens in a functioning democracy to their own government: not just to announce entitlements that they are expected to grasp for themselves, but to create delivery mechanisms that ensure that these entitlements are not just theoretical, but real and accessible.

Prime Minister Modi seems to understand this, if his speeches are anything to go by. But in India, the right diagnosis does not always result in the right prescription, and even when it does, there is no guarantee that it will cure the condition - implementation of good ideas has long been our national weakness.

If Mr Modi can change this familiar narrative, he will have earned his place in history. So far, we in the Opposition have not seen enough to dispel our skepticism, though it is reasonable to argue that six months is far too short a time to draw emphatic conclusions either way.

There is a paradox at the heart of Mr Modi's ascent to the Prime Ministership. His speeches and rhetoric appear to recognize, and harness, a vital shift in our national politics from a politics of identity to a politics of performance. Yet he has ridden to power at the helm of a party, the BJP, which is ill-suited to the challenge of delinking India's polity from the incendiary issue of religious identity that it had built its base on. And his rise to office has empowered the khaki-shorts wearing "cultural organization", the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose views on every subject - economics, politics, history, culture, morality, gender relations, even matters of appropriate dress or conduct - are totally illiberal.

Mr Modi has built his appeal by putting the focus on what the Indian people manifestly need - more development, better governance, wider socio-economic opportunities. But having won an election by attracting voters to these themes, he has given free rein to the most retrograde elements in Indian society, who are busy rewriting textbooks, extolling the virtues of ancient science over modern technology, advocating protectionism and self-reliance against free trade and foreign investment, and asserting that India's identity must be purely Hindu.

Mr Modi cannot be oblivious to this fundamental contradiction, but he can only resolve it by jettisoning the very forces that have helped ensure his electoral victory. I am not sure whether such a fundamental contradiction can even be resolved, and in that may lie the seeds of Mr Modi's future failure.

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