Sunday, May 18, 2014

India 2014: The Post-Independence Amnesia

Narendra Modi made a big point when speaking in Varanasi after his election win: That his administration will represent the first in India's history to be led by someone born after India's independence in 1947. Voted in by voters mostly born after independence, this is an unsurprising claim. What goes unsaid is that one factor that helped him most also comes from the post-Independence mentality: That his voters have taken India, and its democracy, for granted.

Narendra Modi's elevation as India's Prime Minister shows how well we have managed to wipe any historical memory. Indeed, BJP talked a lot about the historic injustice done by the Mughal Emperors, particularly Babar, whose eponymous Masjid was the party's rallying point, but it choose to be silent about India's struggle for Independence: This goes well with a generation which will rather read the fictionalised accounts of the exploits of the mythical Shiva, rather than spending time reading about the torturous imprisonments that Indian nationalists had to go through. As someone explained the approach succinctly, such tales of hardship upsets the mood. 

That India had to be imagined as recently as 1947, that democracy was not just the natural choice but a heroic feat of imagination and implementation, that people died for what we have today, are all moot points that may upset the mood. Only history could perhaps inform that democracy is always vulnerable, and needs to be protected. The fact that modern India, a complex, multicultural construct, is based on, and therefore maintained as such, the Madisonian idea of deliberation and diversity, has now been forgotten. The lack of historical memory has now prodded this generation to fall into the trap of 'safety in purity of communities' that Madison warned against.

Narendra Modi is a big beneficiary of such amnesia. He would rather build the world's tallest statue of Sardar Patel rather than reminding people that the Sardar thought that the RSS, Modi's political sponsors, are the biggest threat to Modern India. He would rather conveniently own up Gandhi as a fellow Gujrati, rather than talking about his assassination, masterminded by RSS and carried out by one of their operatives (we would like to believe all terrorists are Muslims and came from Pakistan). He would own up Vivekananda, an enlightenment figure, but erase out any memories of Bengali enlightenment, with its dangerous virtues of Western science and liberal thinking. He would even attempt to make an icon out of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet who wrote India's national anthem, but who spent a lifetime warning against militant nationalism of the kind of Mr Modi represents.

But, above all, he would enjoy this collective belief that India's democracy is a given, and this will mend his authoritarianism. Mr Modi managed to subvert the whole legal scrutiny of his role in Gujrat riots, despite most of it being common knowledge. He managed to completely ignore the legislative process, reducing the appearance in the assembly to a minimum and making it virtually non-functional. He has also just managed a huge majority spending a huge amount of money and trouncing rivals almost everywhere, except a few states in the East and South of India. Yet, the post-Independence Indians think that the institutions of democracy are so strong that it would tame him and make him function like any normal Prime Minister. The loss of recent memory, of the Emergency, of the indiscriminate use of President's Rule to trounce democratically elected state governments, a regular affair in the days when Congress used to have the majority, has led to the belief that those subversion were only temporary, mostly inconsequential. Surely that represents a big opportunity for Mr Modi, and for RSS, who has a chance of a lifetime to subvert the republic. 

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