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The end of ideology in India?

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
9 June 2004

The articles by Antara Dev Sen and Rajeev Bhargava on openDemocracy vividly convey the intense sense of relief felt by liberal, middle-class Indians at the defeat of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the coalition it led, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), in the parliamentary election of April-May 2004.

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is responding to two openDemocracy articles:

But while Sen is right in emphasising how misjudged was the media’s pre-election estimate of the mood of the Indian people, and Bhargava is right in expressing scepticism that the right-wing Hindutva forces have suffered a permanent setback, it appears that the 2004 poll outcome in India is a little more complicated than they suggest.

The real divide

Many people like to see their own beliefs reflected in the election results. Antara Dev Sen reads the message that old, Nehruvian socialism should be combined with new economic liberalisation: that is, reforms with a human face. Rajeev Bhargava seems to view the verdict as an endorsement of “pluralism”: a term that functions as a euphemism for, in turn, regional parties and caste (the typical Hindu formation) parties.

In either case, the people’s rejection of the “India shining” campaign launched by the BJP to showcase its imagined success in the liberalisation of the economy is interpreted as a rejection of the market economy. But this is not the case. People did not like the “India shining” campaign because the reality was so different and stark from the claims made for it, not because its presuppositions were denied.

People at large do not have ideological affiliations. Indians found no succour in socialism in the three decades after independence, and the rhetoric of economic reforms circulating since the mid-1980s makes equally little sense to them.

It is true that there was a silent anger against the BJP’s complicity in the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, the western state in India, where nearly 2,000 Muslims were massacred after 57 Hindus were burnt in a railway coach. Yet this does not mean either that Indians approve of secularism as such; it is rather that people in India are both religious and tolerant. It is Indian liberals, not the country’s ordinary citizens, who aspire to the puritanical and intolerant secularism represented by the French revolutionary, Maximilian Robespierre.

Here we come closer to the real ideological divide in Indian politics, one that exists at the level of the articulate English-speaking elites who dominate politics, the economy and society.

On one side are the liberals, who respond to India’s grinding poverty with compassionate altruism. They want a welfare state to take care of the poorer sections of society, but they really have no idea of the economics of such an enterprise. This is the position of the Congress and other leftist parties.

(It is significant that in many of the traditional polities of Asia, the liberals tend towards leftism – in marked contrast to the industrialised societies of Europe and the Americas.)

On the other side are the reactionaries, who believe in a crude kind of capitalist zeal and an exaggerated nationalist pride, bordering on nazism (infused by tribal frenzy) and fascism (belief in the authoritarian state). This position is represented mainly by the BJP.

The reactionaries do not understand that capitalist success and national glory can be achieved only through scientific and technological breakthroughs, which in turn presuppose a culture of individualism.

The elites and the people

India’s development in the last half-century has been haphazard and paradoxical. The continuation of the colonial education system has indirectly created the English-speaking workforce in the information technology sector that has made India a key player in the globalised IT markets. Alongside them, the predominantly rural poor keenly desire to improve their lot and grab new opportunities. Theirs is a heroic unsung tale of fighting against odds, not through programmatic enlightenment but through the rough and tumble of caste and regional political formations, which fail as often as they succeed.

In the next few decades, the majority of the one billion-plus population will struggle to make their lives better by finding a foothold among the global changes in economy and technology. The ordinary Indian is open-minded and assimilative, and displays admirable resilience. If the political and economic leadership had been responsive to these qualities in the past, then India would have witnessed truly dramatic change. But the leaders of this great country have turned out to be quite small.

It is in this economic and social context that the victorious formation in the recent elections, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), needs to be assessed. The new prime minister, respected economist Manmohan Singh, is in a precarious situation because he has been handpicked by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born Indian citizen. In this sense he cannot be compared with other scholar-politicians like former Brazilian president Henrique Fernando Cardoso or former French prime minister Lionel Jospin. The latter fought, won and lost elections on their own account. But Manmohan Singh is not a politician who can contest an election.

Moreover, Singh has many enemies within the Congress party because the economic reforms he introduced in 1991 were unacceptable to the party’s old members, who had been nurtured on socialist slogans. Yet Singh does not believe in the virtues of an untrammeled market economy. He is a pragmatist who favours both capital infusion and ameliorative measures on the part of the state. It is an ineffective cocktail at the best of times.

Singh lacks the talent to argue the case for economic reforms convincingly. Like a good bureaucrat, he knows what he is doing is right, and that he means well for the country. But in the political arena, the anchorite’s virtues are a liability. Meanwhile, there are not many figures in the government who can defend the need for a market economy, and demonstrate the impossibility of constructing a welfare state in a poor economy. There is no Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher in Indian politics to carry the flag for the market economy.

The finance minister, P Chidambaram, is an enthusiastic believer in the markets and a persuasive speaker, but he connects with the urban elites not with rural people. This Harvard-educated business management graduate turned lawyer lacks the political charisma the government will need to take the people with it.

Politics and civilisation

The BJP and its friends in the media are using the presence of Communist parties in the new governing alliance to create a “red scare”. This is absolutely misplaced. The Indian communists have become seasoned players of bourgeois democracy, and despite their anti-capitalist rhetoric, they are not about to overthrow elected governments and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Congress-led alliance is, however, ideologically attuned to the politics of a welfare state, even though it knows very well that it is an economically unfeasible project. The BJP, now in opposition, similarly nurses ambitions of creating an authoritarian state, an impossibility because the ordinary Indian is phlegmatic enough to reject any kind of regimentation.

Thus, the political debate will continue to revolve round the jaded terms of secularism, Hindutva, caring state, and market economy, and it is unlikely that the proponents will fine-tune them in any way. The lack of imagination in the Indian intellectual class guarantees a sterile political debate. This class has not absorbed the western philosophical ideas of liberty and the individual, while it has lost its roots in India’s own philosophical traditions that speak of justice and righteousness.

There have been long periods in India’s millennia-old history when the intellectual life was quite dormant. This is one of those moments, and there is nothing apocalyptic about it.

What is heartening about the democratic process is that every ideology gets its airing and its short spell of power. It is the inherent moderation and good sense of the people that has preserved this civilisation, and it shows no signs of fading away.

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