By Swapan Dasgupta
A casual reading of India’s post-Independence history may well prompt the belief that the Republic was born to be Left in its political orientation. From the time Jawaharlal Nehru warded off the challenge of the orphaned followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabbhai Patel in the early-1950s, socialism was the buzzword of the times. This deification of state control with its attendant inefficiencies and the celebration of centralised planning persisted into the tenure of Indira Gandhi when it was obligatory to be progressive.
Apart from institutionalising sluggish economic growth, creating a bloated and venal state, and driving honest entrepreneurship into oblivion, Indira Gandhi, who entered into a marriage of convenience with an opportunistic Marxist Left, distorted the vocabulary of Indian politics. As opposed to Nehru who transplanted the genteel traditions of upper-class British socialism into the discourse, his daughter had little inhibition in borrowing generously from the crude, sloganeering language of the pro-Soviet intellectuals. Thus, the denunciation of “right wing reactionaries” that was the hallmark of the battle against the Syndicate became a feature of the political landscape until the collapse of the Berlin Wall put an end to the supposed march of history. Its high point was the Emergency when the Preamble to the Constitution was modified and replenished with the terms ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’.
The economic liberalisation process initiated by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in 1991 was an important trigger in breaking the Left consensus. Hitherto, the so-called Right had existed at two levels: as a traditionalist critique of a nationalism that was insufficiently mindful of the cultural moorings of India, and as an alternative to statist economics. The two strands, initially represented by the Jana Sangh and the Swatantra parties remained on the margins and were unable to effectively challenge the Nehruvian consensus. It was the Ayodhya movement and economic liberalisation that created the conditions for a viable Right—a process that, however, remains work in progress.
For the Indian Right, the general election of 2014 presents the greatest opportunity to rectify the ideological imbalance. The rise of Narendra Modi as a pan-Indian challenger to dynastic politics and the Left consensus is located within a definite context. First, thanks to the UPA Government’s hesitation in carrying forward the process that had been inaugurated by Manmohan Singh when he was Finance Minister in the Rao government, India’s growth rates have slipped alarmingly. From being a rising world power, India appears to have lost steam in the increasingly globalising world. Secondly, the BJP, with its emphasis on infrastructural development and the promotion of entrepreneurship, has emerged as an alternative to the Congress’ well-meaning but inept welfarism. Finally, the steady dilution of the rough edges of ‘cultural nationalism’ has meant that the Congress attempt to paint the BJP as a party of the lunatic fringe is carrying diminishing returns.
These trends have coalesced around the personality of Modi for a variety of reasons. As a three-term Chief Minister of a rapidly-growing state, Modi has had the opportunity to demonstrate an alternative approach in action. Despite his commitment to a ‘minimal state’, Modi isn’t a classical Thatcherite. Rather than dispense with state-sponsored initiatives—a difficult proposition in a country marked by economic and social inequalities—he has focussed on two things: doing away with needless bureaucratic controls and demanding efficiency from the state. Lacing his larger-than-life persona with an enthusiastic promotion of technology, he has sold a dream to an India that is longer content to remain stuck in the Third World. Modi has whetted the Indian appetite for modern governance draped in an Indian flag. A formidable communicator who loves to take on his opponents frontally, Modi has used Gujarat as the launching pad of an audacious attempt to make a parliamentary election presidential.
As the general election battle heats up, there are likely to be two emerging trends in the Modi campaign. First, it is more than likely that the facets of governance, particularly the approaches to economic management, which distinguishes Modi from the rest of the pack will be aggressively showcased. Those wishing for a manifesto commitment to large-scale privatisation and the abolition of the Planning Commission could be disappointed. But their enthusiasm may well be kindled by an assurance that the days of big government are over.
Secondly, it is also likely that the projection of Modi may well be aimed at elevating him from the humdrum of party politics. A carefully-crafted and nuanced distinction between what Modi stands for and what the BJP represents could well find reflection in the next few months.
For the Indian Right, the Modi campaign is make-or-break moment. The outcome will prove crucial in determining whether or not Indian politics can be re-calibrated to reflect the logic of the changes that have affected the country over the past 25 years. India has changed unrecognisably but its politics is still stuck in a rut. Modi represents the most coherent bid to bring governance and politics into the 21st century.
The voices that were stifled after 1947 are awaiting their moment, eagerly.