Mother India to mother cow

SALMAN KHURSHID

back to issue

SEVENTY years is a long time in the life span of a human being, but seven decades for a nation is early days in its history. Yet, somehow, it feels that a long time has passed since the country gained Independence, possibly because of dramatic changes that our polity has seen since the general election of 2014. Most democratic elections are pointers to change, particularly when an incumbent is unseated. But what we see and experience today looks more like the outcome of a revolution of sorts rather than a routine electoral change.

The phrase, ‘Congress mukt Bharat’, that we so often hear articulated is both an exaggerated expression of the reverses suffered by the Congress as well as a representation of a myopic obsession. But above all it is a reflection of the intent and enterprise of a great conversion of the ‘Idea of India’ into a Hindu Rashtra. Despite a fundamental disagreement that many people have with such a thought, and not all of them are minority citizens, it might not have entirely been a bad thing if only its proponents had understood Hinduism for its pristine qualities.

The democratic challenge to the concept of a theocratic state comes both from within and without, irrespective of the religion with which a state is concerned, be it Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. In each of these faiths there are attributes that are not quite compatible with modern times and, therefore, sought to be diluted in practice over a period of time. We are also all aware of the reformist movements in the Islamic world, even as the hydra-headed monster of what is wrongly described as jehadist groups threaten world peace in various regions.

One clear and irrefutable proposition is that each religion encompasses a range of opinions, sometimes dramatically divergent, both theologically and politically. In this surely Hinduism is no exception and, of course, people who know better are familiar with the range of perceptions about Hinduism, including its incredible spiritualism and ability to function and survive without formal exclusive structures. It is, therefore, myopic to believe that a Hindu Rashtra will be homogenous and without internal conflict, once the impact of the current advocacy about a common enemy wears off with time and success.

The brief diversion into the intent and viability of Hindu Rashtra must not distract us from the express purpose of revisiting the national journey of seventy years, particularly pausing to examine milestones that were critical pointers to the direction we have travelled. Was the present destination inevitable or could it have been avoided, if only we had read the writing correctly? Is the present situation of some permanence or is it merely a temporary rough patch that will pass? In many ways, understanding the journey will help us better understand the present, as indeed chart the national course for the future.

 

Even people not inclined towards the incumbent government often blame the Congress for having paved the way for the BJP by showing it unnecessary accommodation. But they forget that there are many others who believe that uncompromisingly adhering to our articles of faith can easily give the impression of being unreasonably opposed to the Hindu cause. Either way we (the Congress) would have lost, and so we believe did the India that is Bharat project against India that is Hindustan. The more likely truth is that both projects have some relevance for the journey thus far, as indeed for the journey ahead.

The seeming contradictions that wrecked the great Indian welfare state concept under the UPA-I and II governments had surfaced earlier during the Narasimha Rao regime, as he used his considerable political expertise to protect economic reform or liberalization against the anti-elitist, post-socialist, populist opposition campaigns (as indeed by sections of his own party). But finally, he was overwhelmed by the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The days that followed the tragic events of Ayodhya at best only postponed the inevitable, even though several BJP governments in the states were unseated in the elections that preceded the 1996 general election. The Congress lost political space, though not entirely to the BJP; instead, it made way for regional parties who successfully poached upon the minority base of the Congress. Thus, for the first time in an important phase of its over hundred year existence, it was unclear as to who the main adversary of the Congress was – the BJP or regional parties like the JDU, SP, BSP and so on.

 

Not knowing the adversary, and not recognizing the enemy, has thus been a real challenge for the Congress as it made arrangements to survive in the arch of power, first as a minority government under P.V. Narasimha Rao and later as a coalition government under Manmohan Singh. The holding operation, if that is what it may be called, unfortunately never quite made way for a more sustainable model of self-reliance. Currently, as things stand, it is virtually impossible for the Congress to even think of aspiring to return to power on its own; note its public admission that 2019 will have to be a collective endeavour of all opposition parties. It is indeed ironic that at one time all parties had joined the BJP to displace the Congress and now it is to be all against the BJP. But there is a fundamental difference: the last time (in 1977), the anti-Congress coalition desired a shift of personnel and change of emphasis in social policy, whilst this time around the struggle is to preserve India as we have known it for as long as one remembers.

It would be useful to recall Pandit Nehru attempting to explain his experience as India’s first prime minister: ‘My job is to run a secular government in an intensely religious country,’ he is reported to have said to a visiting foreign journalist. In contrast, the incumbent prime minister may well confide that he has to salvage a religious country from the captivity of a secular government! Yet, therein lie the challenges for both sides of the political spectrum. Ironically, neither side has a clear socio-political blueprint that it can share with the people in whose name one side claims a mandate for sweeping change whilst the other hopes to secure a mandate in the future by reminding us of the past.

 

So even as we do sort of know that there is Hindu agenda, no one is quite sure as to what this entails beyond changing the names of certain roads and institutions, a rewriting of history, and a ‘free run’ for the lynch mobs in the name of mother cow, not mother India. Whatever the Hindu way of life is, it does not seem to influence conversations on economics and development; it certainly does not figure in terms of a vision of the world articulated on even the mann ki baat out-reach by the prime minister.

Curiously, the communists and socialists, as indeed the Congress, all had, even if imperfect, an articulated world view in which social justice and empowerment of the individual played a significant role. It is, of course, another matter that a changed world, within our borders and beyond, demands a restatement of our principles, priorities, strategies and commitments. For the present, the establishment dominated by Prime Minister Modi seeks to offer everything to everybody it cares to address and that includes foreign interlocutors.

When the Congress was sliding towards the 2014 debacle, we were questioned on everything and for everything. Evidently, there was nothing that we could do right and everything that we did was subjected to intense, often unfair, questioning. In contrast, since Narendra Modi is rarely asked any questions, he does not have to worry about not having answers. Form has overtaken substance as the latter has been reduced to the magic of marketing. Even as the shelf life of empty packets of dreams is difficult to predict, one thing is certain – the miracle will begin to vanish with foreign policy.

 

India is an emerging economy and an intermediate power but to retain a place at the high table of the world community takes a lot more than speeches. Our markets may well remain an attraction, but transactional relations do not make for world power. We live in a difficult, inward-looking world with some very worrisome and dangerous areas of conflict. And we cannot take decisions for the moment without thinking about long-term implications. Much of the talk about the successes of the foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi has to do with the unprecedented energy he has expended on trips across the world. However, three years into the travels, India has little to show in terms of real foreign direct investment or obvious strategic gains with the exception of some movement on Pakistan sponsored terrorism. That too might have more to do with Pakistan continuing to advance improbable alibis when the world has changed its attitude towards extremist violence since 9/11 and the growing dark cloud of Al Qaeda and ISIS.

The problem that Narendra Modi has in responding to international Islamist terrorism is no different from the one faced by developed democracies of Europe and the USA, except that President Trump’s statements indicate a strange myopia on that score. UK, France, Belgium, and Germany, amongst others, too have suffered grievous attacks, but have so far held their faith in plural societies, even refusing to impose blanket bans on immigration and influx of refugees. Even President Trump has had to moderate his position on Islam, although he continues to strive for a ban on visas for people travelling from particular Muslim countries. Sensibly, the West is abjuring the clash of civilizations, even as countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE et al try to put their house in order, pushing Qatar pretty hard.

 

The Islamic world may well take time to settle down, particularly as the Arab Spring does not seem to have delivered the ambitious democratic institutions. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to test each other’s resolve and might, and India will have little capacity to persuade them otherwise. Despite the NAM movement having been bypassed by events in the world, there might have been greater possibilities in NAM version 2.0 but India chose to cozy up to the USA with little to show for it as yet. The hype that Prime Minister Modi has sought to give to his visit to Israel may have rocked the carefully crafted balance crafted by previous governments in India, of both hues, when he thought it expedient to open up channels with Israel. The concern about ensuring a supply of weapons is understandable, but to lean on Israel for intelligence on terrorism might be a bit over the top. We must not forget that though we may have persuaded the world that ‘all’ terrorism is bad, the fact remains that most terrorist groups, by and large operate in a geographical and political context. There might be possibilities of empathy for peer groups, but ultimately each group has a stated cause that concentrates on a particular polity, institution or social order. That likely explains the ambivalent attitude of the US and its allies to Pakistan linked terrorism.

For those people in India for whom history begins with 2014 and its emergence on the world stage is seen as a product of that historic event, there is a need to remind them that Indian soldiers contributed heroic legends to the victories of the Allies in Europe and Africa during the World War II, long before our generals began speaking of fighting on two-and-a-half fronts. Furthermore, not only were we at the forefront of the NAM movement along with Nasser and Tito, but were also part of the mission to Vietnam before the Americans arrived there. India counted under Nehru and India counted under Manmohan Singh. We were in G-20 and BRICS long before 2014, and world leaders ranging from Fidel Castro to John Kennedy, Lee Kuan Yew to Nelson Mandela, celebrated former Indian prime ministers in a very special way. What we see today is the result of nurturing of decades of the natural leadership of the developing world.

 

Now with the NAM bloc having lost its relevance, the Commonwealth virtually cracking up between ABC (Australia, Britain, Canada) and Africa, competing interests in WTO cutting across the Third World, India has to choose a unique path that takes a bit from the past and a bit from the present to forge a future destination. A nuclear weapon state with huge capacities in software, the largest number of mobile telephone connections in the world, the third fastest growing economy that still has a huge population under poverty, makes it imperative for India not to follow any extant operating model. In 1947 we chose our own path and so must we do now.

Today, long after the problems of East Timor have been resolved, the Berlin Wall has come down, and the Soviet Union has disintegrated, the problems of seventy years ago continue to plague our society. Europe is only now coming to terms with the tensions of plural societies, but we in India took a clear position on that as far back as 1950 when the Constitution was adopted. We lived through the horrors of Partition with the resolve of ‘never again’; yet we saw 1984 and 2002. Riots may no longer happen but we continue to be subjected to daily doses of atrocities, even lynching in the name of religion. Someone used a macabre expression for it: ‘a more cost effective method of ethnic cleansing!’ We may have seen the end of the Punjab trauma but drugs seem to have taken the place of the gun; the North East remains tense even though Irom Sharmila has given up her decade long fast. Meanwhile, Jammu and Kashmir has never been as restless and explosive as it is now with BJP participation in the state government. Our relations with China and Pakistan are at low ebb and people speak of war as children speak of computer games. The grandiose welfare state plans a la UPA-I and II have been reduced to naught by electoral might. India continues its journey from trauma to tragedy, with a few periodic moments of glory on the sports fields, achievements in science and technology, a Noble prize or two, a growing pool of skilled professionals, a democratic system that has thus far survived many shocks.

 

A stocktaking of triumph and tribulation will at best put us down as a struggling nation. Seventy years down the road from independence, we yet have miles to go, but the real challenge that dwarfs every problem is to preserve and protect our democracy. Both Gandhi and Nehru understood democracy in a certain way. Today, decades later, we are now being told that it means something quite different. How we resolve this lesion is what will ultimately decide the future of our democracy. After all, we know that dictatorships seek unbridled power, supposedly to protect democracy. Ironically, however, seven decades of nationhood have landed us squarely back into the debate about the very notion of nationhood and thus about the Idea of India.

Dramatic shifts in public opinion can throw up electoral swings that may well justify equally far-reaching changes in governance and social policy. But, for a mandate to be so interpreted as to justify interference with the broad consensus on which the basic document of governance, the Constitution and values, perceived as constitutional values is certainly unheard of. Yet, this is what is being sought to be done since 2014. It remains to be seen if the two-third majority will be marshalled to amend the Constitution itself. Of course, the basic structure doctrine of Kesavananda Bharati remains a bulwark that will need more than a two-thirds majority to be overcome. Meanwhile, the Idea of India is fast turning into the Irony of India. Fighting for an idea makes sense, but how does one fight irony?

 

There may be a lesson for India. In China, even as a market economy has replaced universal state ownership, the political system remains mysteriously one-party. Evidently memories of the chaos and the uncertainly created by the Cultural Revolution remain firmly entrenched. But it is too early to believe that the Chinese system (open economy, closed polity) is sustainable. Close China watchers forewarn of bigger troubles than Tiananmen Square. So, can a hyper-nationalist idiom of the ruling NDA in India provide a substitute for political communism of modern day China? Can the contradiction of a free market and aspirant developed society accept the confines of a pseudo theological polity? Or will the contradictions take us the way of Soviet Russia? Seventy years have brought more questions than answers for Mother India.

top