Politics often works on psychological alchemy as much as on policies and programmes. Successful politicians create psychological resonance. What drew Jawaharlal Nehru to Gandhi, for instance, was not his moral authority or ideas. Rather, it was Gandhi’s ability to tap into something that suddenly lifted a pall of fear from Indians. There is a curious historical myopia in our contemporary debates over the appropriation of historical figures. There is a pseudo-intellectual war on how far apart Nehru and Patel actually were during their last days, with the right wanting to rid Patel of any vestigial Nehruvianism. But this debate is laughably narrow-minded. In the long sweep of ideas, in visions of modernity and the state, Gandhi was farther away from Nehru than Nehru and Patel were from each other. Yet these were relationships marked by complex psychological interactions, a more intricate appreciation of the demands of the time. At the risk of simplification, one can say that most intellectuals look for clear markers. Most statesmen or even lesser politicians, on the other hand, have what Isaiah Berlin once called “antennae of the greatest possible delicacy”, honed in not just to changing circumstances but also to moods and feelings. They juggle the complexity of human nature more deftly than those who write about them. Most politicians, therefore, escape neat grids and categorisations. It is intellectuals who are left gapingly surprised.
This is also true of political leaders in relation to the larger currents of politics. Successful politicians, in their moment of insight, tap into their compatriots’ inarticulate thinking and feelings. The central anxiety that Narendra Modi honed in on, with persistence and clarity, was that there was a yearning to defeat defeatism. The UPA’s biggest disservice in its second term was to induce a kind of fatality about India. Policy paralysis was the anodyne technical term to describe this state. Underneath was a vast nervousness about whether India could actually change.
It was not that change was not taking place. Growth had produced a new kind of mobility. And even many sticky social indicators, like poverty, moved quite dramatically. As Rukmini Shrinivasan reported recently, the most dramatic number may be the 10 percentage point decline in the number of underweight children born in India — even the bar on malnutrition moved. We can debate the underlying causes and, as always, they will turn out to be more complex than a simple left-right narrative would have us believe. But the UPA’s greatest political blunder was to transform even this underlying dynamic of hope into a self-image of despair.
This was the moment Modi stepped into with political finesse, with political antennae that now work overtime, drawing in a bewildering array of symbols and finely honed messages. The main draw was not the coherence of ideas; it was the overcoming of defeatism. This forms a crucial psychological backdrop to the structure of critical engagement that will be possible in this mood in the near future. All of the pet themes that Modi has highlighted so far have this thread running through them. If you thought India could not be cleaned, let me energise Swachh Bharat. If you thought India could not do manufacturing, let us instigate the process so that India becomes the factory of the world. It is true that the support scaffolding to execute this is far from being in place. Only time will tell whether this turns out to be just a moment of bluster or an inflection point that energises large parts of the citizenry.
But this does pose dilemmas for critics of the government, not just for opposition parties. And given the likely dominance of the BJP, our democracy will need healthy criticism. What kind of critique is likely to be effective and constructive? This challenge becomes even more acute when public discourse becomes a strange combination of sycophancy and critics merely itching for a fight, sneering at everything.
As critics, we often define our identities by picking out the worst arguments and the worst characters to go after. This is not because of the magnitude of the objective threats they pose. It is because our intellectual victories are easy.
Of course, on some matters that are fundamental to our freedom and dignity, the lines we must draw are clear. The BJP’s ascent to power has emboldened a lot of nasty characters to openly express prejudice: the unchecked nonsense on “love jihad” and the representation of floods in Kashmir as a kind of deserved retribution are truly nauseating. This is still, in my judgement, a minuscule tendency; the underlying social dynamics are quite the opposite. But it is a poison that can vitiate the whole.
But for clear lines on these issues to be effective, they will have to be rescued from a broader culture of partisanship and negativism. I think one of the interesting subtle shifts that is happening is this. In India, it is very easy to convince yourself of a story about why a policy is not good or will not work.These cautionary tales are important in so far as they get us to think of obstacles to overcome. But when these tales shade into a congenital scepticism, they become less effective. The demand is for a more affirmative discourse. To join a meaningful debate over Clean India, or Make in India, or “smart cities”, an existential stance of mere negativism will have little psychological resonance. This is unfortunately the stance in which whatever little is left of the opposition and even independent criticism have locked themselves into. To be more effective, they will have to move away from saying “no” to articulating how it can be done better.
There is also one elementary psychological insight most critics have forgotten. For criticism to be effective, it presupposes the possibility of praise. And for a ruling dispensation, by the same token, the opposite lesson is true: for praise to be meaningful, it must be premised on the freedom to criticise when necessary. But a neat and predictable stacking up of critics and followers does little to advance the cause of either. One thing oddly astute about Modi so far is that almost none of those who smacked of sycophancy in the last stages of the campaign have been rewarded — again, politicians may have a finer-tuned antenna than we give them credit for. If criticism, or praise, is to have resonance, it will now have to display more judgement than we are accustomed to. It will have to work harder at understanding the zeitgeist than on knocking down opponents.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ email@example.com