Sunday, January 19, 2014

India 2014: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

In a few months, India will hold a General Election which may change the country. Rather, it would be appropriate to assert that it will change the country. The Indian Republic, founded 67 years ago, has finally run its course, and this time, its citizens will have to choose a path which is different from what has been for the last 67 years. This change may be frightening, chaotic and even disastrous, but this time around, there is little choice but change.

The competing ideas are firmly pitted against one another. It is no longer about one party against another, as it has always been, but two clear ideas of governance, two clear ideas of India. And, there is no middle ground. The mythical middle ground may be the holy grail of democratic polity, but at the time of change, this may not present an option. Everyone must choose - and everyone must resist, because compromise and staying silent may veer the country to a course which will shape everyone's future.

The most talked about choice on the table is a Hindu Nationalist government of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its charismatic Narendra Modi, which promises to create a paradise of middle class prosperity in India. Staunchly pro-business, pro-urban middle class, Mr Modi is feted for governing the Western Indian state of Gujrat well, though his stint includes a bout of ethnic cleansing of the state's Muslim population in a pogrom in 2002. This factor alone should have disqualified him in office, but the fact that it did not seem to count shows what kind of administration he would lead, if elected.

He is the favoured candidate for the middle classes, and seen as a 'strong' leader. He, in turn, promises a strong stance to Pakistan, strong stance to China, strong stance to Indian muslims, and an income tax free world for Indian middle classes. His fortunes are buoyed by the hapless Indian National Congress (INC), in power for a decade, which has little to show for its years except raging corruption scandals and a fragmenting party. Despite its initial promise, the Congress failed to connect with and represent India's overwhelming young and increasingly urban and aspirational middle class. This has made the businesses and overseas corporate interests shift their allegiance to Mr Modi: Mr Modi's campaign for power is bolstered by huge pools of money thrown at it by Indian tycoon businesses, as well as Overseas Indians.

The BJP's vision for India has been quite clearly presented in a book called Breaking India, by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian-American Hindu Chauvinist ideologue, and Arvind Neelakandan. As apologists for the 'strong leader' case, they present three existential dangers for India: An Islamic fundamentalism supported by Pakistan, a Maoist insurgency supported by China and a Dravidian-Dalit fault line nurtured by the West. This is indeed an old Fascist tactic to try to create a scare to convince people to give up their liberties, and taking from the Fascist playbook, this points to the other, Pakistan, China, the West, rather than trying to seek the answers inside India. And, clearly, this others presenting existential threats to India represent most of India's people, Muslims plus the landless peasants fighting for their land (labelled as Maoists) and Dalits and Dravidians will account for more than 70% of India's population, leaving only a tiny sliver of caste Hindus living in the cities and seeking to enjoy Mr Modi's handouts to decide what the true India is. 

So, in summary, this is choice number one for Indians: A strong leader, running an authoritarian government, primarily focused on the tycoon businesses and urban middle classes, serving the upper caste Hindus. His solution to India's problems will be to impose an uniform vision of India, one framed in Hindi-Hindu terms, and anyone speaking against it will be categorised in one of three anti-national categories: Muslim, Maoist or Dravidian. If one has to reconstruct Martin Niemoller's  timeless poem for the fate of a Modi-fied India, it is easy to see what shape it would take.

But, just in time for those Indians who did not necessarily subscribed to this apocalyptic vision of Hindu India but were complaining that they had no viable choice (the only alternative being voting for the corrupt Congress and its allies), the emergence of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a ragtag citizen's coalition led by a former taxman, Arvind Kejriwal, presents an alternative. Indeed, AAP is small, somewhat chaotic, untested and currently confined within the City state of Delhi, but regardless of its size and scope, it represents a truly alternative vision of India.

This vision is somewhat opposite to Mr. Modi's, and Congress'. This is about saying that India's problems can not be solved by its politicians, ministers and civil servants. Its problems must be, first and foremost, be solved by its people. Standing at the opposite end of the Strong Leader thesis, this is about the government being an instrument to facilitate and enable citizen's actions. Its leaders clearly see governance as revolution itself, and their three week rule in Delhi was marked by activism and demands for accountability. 

Indeed, the established political parties have condemned AAP's style of governance, sticking it with the 'anarchist' label. AAP's style of governance, with Ministers roaming around without VIP convoys and in the streets, legislative activism, a culture of consultation, a common thing in most mature democracies, is a new thing in India. It is usual in India not to see one's MP ever in life, much less approaching him with a problem to solve. So, for those Indians used to regal MPs and distant governance, a politician who turns up at the front door may indeed appear anarchic. Besides, Mr Kejriwal's government has given credence to these claims by threatening to protest against the callous lack of accountability that State police, not directly controlled by its government but by the Federal administration, shows to cases of rape and drug abuse: A Minister who is ready to take the sides of the people when those in power fail to be accountable is a dangerous precedence for the political establishment which is used to being distant, indifferent, unaccountable to its citizens.

Arvind Kejriwal, AAP's leader, brushes off the allegations by stating that they must take unprecedented actions because the precedent of governance was leading India nowhere. BJP apologists, in their desperation, claim that AAP and Mr Kejriwal stands not for 'the middle class but the lower classes' (this 'lower class' being most Indians), that AAP manifesto echoes communist manifesto (raising the fear of the other, without having read either), and that they lean to the left and therefore an alternate to Congress rather than BJP. (See these allegations here

In a sense, the poorly argued article cited above got one thing right: That AAP is not BJP and represent an alternative for Congress. This is fundamentally because BJP's, and Mr Modi's, politics stands on two pillars, that of fear and of chauvinism. BJP's politics portrays India as a besieged country, subject to countless conspiracies all around the world aimed at undermining its greatness, and Mr Modi is that superman who would lead India to its destined greatness by suppressing the internal enemies (just as he did to Muslims in Gujrat) and challenging the external ones. The AAP idea, on the other hand, is one of hope - that Indian people, yes, even the lower classes, are inexhaustibly resilient and can solve its own problems; all it needs is a government that is accountable and that works for them, enables them, facilitates them, and at least not work against them. BJP presents an institutional vision, regal, distant, authoritarian, a picture of India as an exceptional country (though the vision itself is a cheap copy of Nazi nationalism), denied its rightful place by enemies within (Muslims, Maoists and Dravidians) and without (Pakistan, China and the West). The AAP, on the other hand, presents the alternative vision, of an India resilient and aspirational, which is held back only by the lack of accountability of its government and its elite.

So, the elections in 2014 represents a choice between fear and hope, democracy-for-a-day versus citizenship and accountability. The latter message is difficult to comprehend, and the BJP strategists, who, in their heart, hold the ordinary Indian in contempt ('the lower classes'), are hoping that the glitz and the glamour of Modi campaign will convince most Indians that they do not want the responsibility of citizenship. Those on the other side will, however, do better to keep their faith - and believe that involved citizenship may be an idea whose time has finally come in India.



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