The problem

back to issue

‘In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics". All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.’

George Orwell

‘Politics and the English Language’, 1946

IT is tough to decide whether it is the Orwellian dictum of ubiquity of politics or his description of the essential character of politics that better captures our present context. Perhaps at no time in the history of our nascent democracy have we been more polarized than today, revealing the divide of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ not only politically but also in everyday activity. Is this merely a fallout of the electoral outcome of 2014 or was the change already in the making – except that we were loath to notice? Above all, what sense do we make of the contentious present? Does it only reflect a cacophony of contrarian politics or are we witnessing a fundamental change in the way we will henceforth understand our ‘new’ tryst with destiny?

In the current climate, the ‘idea of India’ that emerged through the freedom movement and acquired shape during the Constituent Assembly debates, does not come across as one born out of a historical consensus. Rather, it seems to signal a philosophical schism. While some believe that the so forged compact is under siege, many supporters of the present regime perceive the results of the 2014 elections as not just reflective of the inevitable cycle of electoral fortunes but more representing a triumph of the real India over the externally imposed ‘left-liberal idea of India’. Equally, the politics that this ‘newly-born’ second dominant party system has ushered in has unsettled intellectuals, liberals and leftists, to the extent that they fear that both the hitherto accepted idea of India and the intellectual freedom integral to it are under siege. Meanwhile, even as these battles continue to unfold in the realm of ideas and intellectual contestations, the Modi regime has signalled not merely its desire but determination to usher in a ‘new India’.

Is Modi’s idea of ‘new India’ inherently an antithesis to the Nehruvian ‘idea of India’? To some, the new regime under Modi represents a sharp departure from the Nehruvian consensus, an erroneous turn in India’s journey into the future which will do irreversible damage to the nation founded on twin principles of diversity and democracy. To others, it represents a democratic revolt against the established elite of Lutyens’ Delhi, who did precious little for the masses except making rhetorical promises while serving their own interests. They argue that the shift reflects a much-needed correction, one which will eventually restore our country to its rightful place.

Our polity is undergoing a rapid transition which is characterized by new electoral as well as governance arrangements, together resulting in wide-ranging changes in India’s institutional-political structure, the democratic legitimacy of ideational norms, the social fabric and imagination of our cultural constructs. Is it that existing frameworks and modes of analysis are insufficient to anticipate and explain the ongoing churning in Indian politics? This issue of Seminar probes the contours of this shift at multiple levels.

First, apart from electoral victories and election slogans, what is the nature of changes happening in the arena of politics and governance? We can clearly discern significant changes in the area of India’s engagement with foreign countries and the governmental apparatus that deals with the economy. However, the record of this government in improving economic conditions, institutional health, and ensuring social uplift of women and other marginalized communities appears rather modest. On this front there seems to be less of intent or purposive action and more reliance on jumlas. And yet, the initiatives in both the foreign policy arena and on the domestic front, like the introduction of the new GST regime, are claimed as game changing with a potential to transform the economy.

Second, irrespective of the achievements of this government as claimed by its supporters in the fields of governance and economy, a statist discourse seems to be gaining ground via the nationalist route. Whether it is discussions about our neighbourhood or the war on black money or about how to accommodate/handle our own internal dissenters, or even the provisioning of welfare measures – our understanding suddenly appears to be shifting toward a big brotherly, state oriented framing that is no longer merely polemical and confined to the realm of public conversations; our policy discourse too is overly imbued with ideas of security and surveillance. Citizens are now increasingly under the scanner as suspects. Moreover, in this new environment of ‘national interest’, the idea of state (aiming at creating loyal subjects) increasingly trumps the ideal of citizenship.

Third, there is little doubt that corruption, administrative inefficiency, deteriorating institutional norms, failing heath, education and agriculture infrastructure, rising unemployment and many such issues continue to be the primary concern of Indian voters. Yet, at least so far, there is a marked absence of organized politics around these questions. The discourse dominating our intellectual hubs largely revolves around the bigger questions of Indian politics – either about a masculine nationalism that invariably discredits all opposition to the ruling party as ‘anti-national’, or about the shaky future of democratic norms.

Recent survey findings suggest that there is a reasonably widespread popular acceptance of the nationalist rhetoric. The corrosion of the democratic ethic and the privileging of national identity over concerns for democracy probably constitutes the biggest shift that we are now witnessing. As independent India completes seven decades, we are experiencing a double rupture: between claims of nationalism and demands of democracy and between the mundane material expectations of millions of citizens and the high ideological discourse that divides the elite. How do we make sense of this dual rupture?

So, did the election of 2014 bring only a change of government or does it mark the arrival of a ‘new hegemony’? If we are indeed in a new hegemony, will it strengthen and enrich Indian democracy or does it signify a truncated definition of democracy with which we should learn to be content as a nation?

This issue of Seminar reflects on some of these aspects at a time that is likely to be an inflection point in the history of modern India.