By Swapan Dasgupta
It is amusing to witness the alacrity with which many English-language publications in India are fast turning themselves into a dumping ground of term papers of American universities. From wide-eyed doctoral candidates to lesser-known expatriate academics, there is an unseemly rush to pronounce judgment on facets of Indian public life. Publications hungry for content are only too happy to oblige since the publish-or-perish academic culture means that articles can be secured either gratis or for a pittance of an honorarium.
A perfunctory dissection of how this seemingly innocuous vanity publishing is actually serving an ideological-cum-diplomatic agenda may well be revealing. Without needlessly subscribing to colourful conspiracy theories that are reminiscent of the Cold War days, it is still instructive to map the way in which quasi-academic discourse is attempting to re-shape India’s ‘common sense’. The purpose is obvious: to smother the political spontaneity that grew out of simple patriotism, family values and ordinary decencies—in short, the whole gamut of rooted traditions—in a wave of intellectual condescension.
It is not that the rejection of an existing consensus—which itself is constantly being reshaped by a rapidly changing society—is necessarily bound up in the creation of one single alternative. Such a project is about as impossible as the monolithic ‘idea of India’ that exists only in the minds of some over-zealous defenders of the Nehruvian faith. What is being witnessed is a chipping away exercise aimed principally at shaping the minds of a generation that is only too anxious to embrace the trappings of modernity.
As an example, it is worth looking at the attempt to refashion the narrative around Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It would not be inaccurate to suggest that Modi’s campaign for, first, the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party and, subsequently, the prime ministership of India, drew the least support from India’s wsternised elites. By westernised I am not referring to the small section that is naturally at ease with the English language but to those whose lifestyle choices and cultural preferences are disproportionately cosmopolitan. Located mainly in the ‘liberal’ professions—media, publishing, academia, NGOs, et al—this section viewed Modi’s rise with horror, perceiving it as some kind of Hindu fascism. Their opposition was heartfelt and vocally articulated in the editorial pages of prominent English-language publications and on TV.
This contrived alarmism was no doubt dampened when it became plain that May 2014 wasn’t an Indian replica of 1933, the year that Hitler assumed power in Germany. At the same time, the innate discomfiture with a government created on an alternative set of political assumptions persisted. After an initial period of navel gazing—the where-did-we-go-wrong lamentations—the opposition has honed in on the Indian electorate’s impatience for big changes. From debunking Modi as a ‘fascist’ who had been elected on the back of big corporate backing the critics have changed tack and begun attacking the government for its reluctance to rush with the bulldozers.
The Budget, which did a great deal to improve the ease of doing business in India, was attacked for its conservatism and for lacking the vision that was the hallmark of, say, Margaret Thatcher. The government was attacked for the caution with which it dealt with the repugnant retrospective tax; it was faulted for not launching a programme of genuine privatisation; and it was lampooned for accepting the erstwhile government’s fiscal deficit estimates.
Shortly after the Budget, the same critics have flayed the government for its failure to sign on the dotted line of a WTO agreement. Modi has been attacked for not being sincere in his bid to liberate the economy from the accursed subsidy raj and, in fact, being even more retrograde than the UPA which always succumbed to the pressures from Washington.
At the heart of these criticisms is an attempt to paint Modi as a one-dimensional politician—one committed to robust, ‘neo-liberal’ economics. This projection is a wilful conceptual fallacy. The great beauty of the BJP’s successful election campaign was that Modi was presented to the electorate in a multiplicity of guises. To corporate India he came across as a relentless economic reformer committed to minimum government and rapid growth; to the youth he was presented as a leader who was in tune with their quest for opportunities and who symbolised their brash search for self-improvement and national glory; to the Hindi heartland where caste mattered, he came across as the first backward caste leader aiming for national glory; and all over India, his personal story of a chaiwala-made-good struck a responsive chord. Each voter who voted for a BJP or a NDA candidate did so for very different reason that ranged from exasperation with dynastic politics to admiration of some facet of the alternative leader.
To try and put Modi into an ideological straightjacket is tempting and perhaps even expedient. However, the reality is that there are very many different Modis that are vying to meet the different expectations of the electorate. There is certainly a case for arguing that Modi can’t devote himself indefinitely to formulating battle plans but to suggest that the failure to privatise and not agree with the WTO consensus amounts to a betrayal is absolute poppycock.
Underlying the attack is actually a deeper belief in the intellectual vaccuousness of the regime. There is an ill-concealed sneer behind the disavowal of the Modi government’s refusal to succumb to US pressure on bolstering remunerative returns for farmers. It is based on the premise that the government is out of its depth in the complex world of global economics and multilateral diplomacy. The idea is to pressure the government into a situation where it takes decisions on the strength of doctrinaire reasons, without concerning itself with the political lay of the land.
Modi has been entrusted to engineer change. But unless that change is also politically managed, he is certain to falter. At the risk of being uncharitable, I would suggest that many of his non-resident critics are actually looking forward to precisely such a day—where Modi loses his reputation as a decisive leader and is led by the nose. After that it will be just a wait for his political eclipse.
Asian Age, August 8, 2014