Saturday, March 08, 2014

India 2014: Resurrecting the Republic

As India approaches the 2014 General Election, and the prospect of a Fascist takeover becomes real, the grand old idea of India - that of a cosmopolitan nation - comes to the fore in sharp relief. This foundational idea of modern India, a nation that welcomed everyone and rejected no one, with an  identity to be conceived on the basis of inclusion rather than exclusivity, is the one up on the ballot paper, so to speak. 

But this is a strange contest. Despite the fact that the idea of India is being contested upon, there is not a side standing for it. In the post-modern reality of Indian politics, the parties are jostling for positions on various other issues, ranging from India's pride to the battle against corruption, with various local and parochial issues lined up in between. The idea of India as conceived by the Founding Fathers and enshrined in its constitution is being represented, ironically as it must be, by the 'None of the Above' option on the ballot.

Which perhaps is also the most appropriate. India is hardly a nation in the European sense, which is about a congruent geographic, linguistic or religious identity. The anglophile founders of India may have been influenced by the idea of a nation, a body of people bounded by a common sense of identity, but couldn't really figure out what that could be for India. Churchill's observation that India is no more a nation than the Equator may be just colonialist banter, but that captured succinctly the puzzle that the nation-makers faced when tasked with the creation of an Indian identity. 

The solution they came up with, I shall claim, was a stroke of genius: India was to be a nation not of a particular race, religion or language, but of an idea. The idea of India had more similarities with the 'City on a Hill' conception of the United States than that of Modern Germany: This is not a country defined by its geography or religion, but by an idea, which was both unique and universal at the same time.

This idea of India was based on several daring, pioneering, elements:

First, this was to be a republic. The Constituent Assembly, after many cantankerous meetings, claims and counter-claims, came up with a Constitution which was to be followed by all parties, guaranteeing that all citizens, regardless of who they are, would be treated equally before the law. This was a radical commitment, considering that many other countries, and as a notable contrast, Pakistan, couldn't get itself a constitution agreed upon, as such a measure invariably means the rich and the powerful giving up some privileges. 

Second, this was to be a democracy, based on universal suffrage. So, everyone got the vote right from the start, despite only 12% of the Indians were literate at the time. Most outside observers thought it was absurd, politically and logistically, to commit to this immediately after Independence. But it did happen, and despite all the scepticism about democracy, Indian electorate showed remarkable prescience, showing the door to successive corrupt and inefficient administrations and rewarding the successful ones unerringly. Again, this was a great leap of faith, and a great achievement of political will - making the elite give up powers that usually accumulated to them by default in Post-Colonial societies.

Third, the country was to be secular, that is, without a state religion. This was the most daring and controversial of all, particularly because the Muslim League chose to campaign for, ultimately successfully, for a Muslim homeland in Pakistan. But India was not to be a 'Hindu Pakistan', and this was not just idealism but a sharp realism, for a country where less than 20% of the population is Upper Caste Hindus, the really privileged.

Fourth, as all of the above amounted to curtailing the powers of the elite and subjecting them to popular will, in the quest of creating a state which will be, borrowing from Lincoln, 'for the people, of the people and by the people', one needed to find a way to enable industrial progress, which needed investment. The State, rather than its elite, occupying the commanding heights of the economy, was a product of realism, rather than idealism, in that sense. India needed State Capitalism for the sake of industrial progress to happen in the absence of a dominant elite class.

In all, this was a brilliant construction of nationhood out of thin air, ideas of freedom, fairness and progress binding a diverse country which outsiders always predicted would fall apart. It was a fascinating concoction of idealism and realism, a bold vision of the future practically realised, a model for the other countries emerging from bondage to follow. 

Surely, India after Independence was a poor, sickly, illiterate nation, mostly rural, mostly backward and gravely exploited by its own elite who enjoyed their privileges hand in gloves with the colonial administrators. This idea of India, at its core, was a bold challenge to create a modern emancipated nation from its self-inflicted bondage, its all-crushing history of servitude of caste and creed, of fratricide along religious lines, of centrifugal tendencies of local warlords. While the modern social scientists are coming to the conclusion that a country can only develop if its people can hold its elite accountable for their actions, the construction of the modern Indian state was a bold attempt to do the same, ahead of its time, visionary, yet steeped in realism and practical wisdom.

Indeed, we have now come to be ashamed of what is perhaps our grandest achievement in history. And, we are indeed undoing the republic in the reverse. Just as the Chinese discovered the magic potion of ushering development in a backward country through state capitalism, we bought into the neo-liberal vision of the world where 'Wealth Creators' hold all the cards. In a strange rhetorical twist, we came to regard the founding formula of public sector driven growth as socialist idealism, despite its apparent realism and evidence on the contrary coming from China; and instead, installed the unproven fanaticism of market capitalism, a suitable disguise of unrestrained privileges for a small elite, at the altar. 

Call it the revenge of the elite, but the path was set once we bought into these neo-liberal fantasies. There is nothing noble in the market mechanism: The markets always came with corruption and debasement of human character, be it in London, Chicago or Mumbai. In the countries where markets came at a time of political emancipation, the privileged was bounded by the accountability as a part of the political culture: In those, like India, where the march of the markets came alongside a rhetorical regret about the political past, it resulted in undoing the accountability. In that sense, sinking into the get-rich-quick corruption and irresponsibility that engulf India today is only a natural aftermath of its political about-turn, its gradual abandonment of the founding principles. However, this is only the first step.

Next in line, as it must be, its secular commitment, the core idea of a cosmopolitan nation. The market capitalism as it is, if it has to really work for the elite, must be based on a clear definition of the elite. That is, India must be a Hindu nation, and its underlying caste identities must be reaffirmed and the entitlements must be justified. This is indeed the basis of Indians seeking glory in a distant, imaginary past, and feeling ashamed of their immediate achievements. It is a reflexive glorification of the few, which would be institutionalised in the entitlements as a logical corollary. This underpins the rise of Narendra Modi, an unashamed Hindu Fundamentalist who allowed carnage in the Indian state of Gujrat in 2002 as the Hindu Gujratis challenged the economic rise of Muslim businesses through street violence and eventually, genocide.

Indeed, the circle always gets smaller and smaller - as the economist Kenneth Arrow and poet Martin Niemoller would have seen in their separate ways - and India's undoing of its secular history can be expected to result in the death sentence of its democracy. Absurdly, Indians often cite China as a development model and point to India's democracy as the problem: Suggesting to them the plain fact that China's development happened through state capitalism, which India effectively abandoned, is blasphemy. But the 'development versus democracy' rhetoric is already there in India, indulged in by its self-centred middle class. However, the greatest danger to democracy somehow comes from the great and the good, India's intellectuals, who seem to regard democracy as a given, and take it for granted. This is perhaps a great achievement of India's founding fathers, but also their greatest folly: They somehow failed to remind their successors that democracy is a great responsibility. It is somewhat frightening to see eminent moderate commentators, such as Lord Bhikhu Parekh and Arun Shourie, to argue in favour of Narendra Modi with the hope that India always 'rounds the rough edges', as if moderation can be taken for granted. This is only the first step in the slippery slope of breaking of the democracies: It always has been.

The rule of law, and the constitution, is perhaps the final frontier, but the ultimate objective of the current brand of Indian politicians. It is not yet the political discussion and everyone pays lip service to it. However, Indian political class has sought to render the constitution unworkable by manipulating, or seeking to manipulate, its institutions as far as possible. The only reason this project remains incomplete, and the constitution relatively safe, because of the climate of competition among India's elite, a result of its democracy. Such safety can not be guaranteed once the guarantees of secularism and democracy have been breached.

In the end, I am tempted to say that I would keep my faith on the Indian electorate and expect them to save the Republic: But my optimism is tainted by the cautionary tales of other countries where democracy was taken for granted. I read the history of contemporary India as a narrative of market forces undoing the rule of law, a sort of contra-history of the Western sort. Along the way, I see the rapid degeneration of the institutions needed to strengthen the democratic culture and enable the modern state: Not just of the institutions such as the Judiciary, the Parliament and State Legislatures, Political Parties, of the Police and the Professional Army, but also of Education and Businesses. In all, I see the Indian Republic as a marginalised, abandoned idea, left at the mercy of the anonymous none-of-the-above in the 2014 election. But, then, as an Indian, hoping against hope, I discover the inherent realism and decency of the idea of India, and believe, yes believe, that we shall return to it someday.

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