India is undergoing a major transformation. It is silent, and at the grassroots. In an earlier article I had said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mission was not limited to mere reform. Reform is important. But Modi is on a higher trajectory. His vision is of total transformation. Thirty months down the line, every perceptive person notices its signs.
Ten years ago it was nearly impossible to think of a yogi in saffron robes as the chief minister of India’s most populous state. It was unimaginable that overnight currency bills would be withdrawn forcing people to spend long hours in unending queues in front of banks, and yet they would steadfastly support demonetisation. Ten years ago nobody would have believed that an unpopular decision that puts people through hardship can become the most popular move that the very same people will applaud. No leader of any government would have attempted, much less succeeded, in taking back a subsidy that was given to the people in the form of LPG gas cylinders.
The transformation that we witness is unprecedented. The spirit of the Independence movement seems to have returned after seven decades. People are ready to sacrifice for the larger good; ready to undertake the unfinished agenda of our Independence; ready to set new standards in public life; and ready to create a popular movement that gradually allows governments to shrink and real power to shift to the people.
The catalyst for this magical transformation is undoubtedly Prime Minister Modi.There is a famous Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”. The best opportunity for total transformation came immediately after Independence 69 years ago. We missed it. Modi is determined that the second best time won’t be missed.
We missed it because we lost the transformative spirit somewhere between 1857 and 1956. In 1857 the nation witnessed a major battle against the British which was christened by Savarkar as the “First War of Independence”. The battle was fought by the leaders and masses together, with the objective of throwing out the British. It was a battle to restore “Indianness”. The provocation was the foolish British attempt to impose foreign cultural practices on Indian soldiers.
The year 1956 signifies how we lost that spirit of Independence. In an interview to John Kenneth Galbraith, Jawaharlal Nehru declared that he was the “last Englishman to rule India”. We started off in 1857 to restore “Indianness”, and ended up a hundred years later in the hands of Indian rulers more British than Indian.
Mahatma Gandhi had a vision for free India. On January 27, 1948, he dictated a resolution for the Congress party which read: “India has still to attain social, moral and economic independence in terms of its seven hundred thousand villages as distinguished from its cities and towns. The struggle for the ascendancy of civil over military power is bound to take place in India’s progress towards its democratic goal. It must be kept out of unhealthy competition with political parties and communal bodies.”
Gandhiji wanted true and total independence to be a product of popular effort; not political action. Here lies the difference between Fascist rule or Communist dictatorship and the Indian ideal. From Jan Dhan to Swachh Bharat to Give Up to Demonetisation — it is the popular will at work catalysed by the government that we have experienced in the last 30 months.
Joe Biden, former Vice President of the US, had said: “No fundamental social change occurs merely because government acts. It’s because civil society, the conscience of a country, begins to rise up and demand — demand — demand change”. It is that demand that we are witnessing today.
This is not going to be complete without the political establishment also changing. Gloria Arroyo, former President of the Philippines, in a scintillating address to her countrymen, once said: “We have to be bold in our national ambitions. First, we must win the fight against poverty within the next decade. Second, we must improve moral standards in government and society to provide a strong foundation for good governance. Third, we must change the character of our politics to promote fertile ground for reforms.”
Modi is attempting all three. The third is the most challenging, to change the character of our politics. The latest round of election has shown that such a change is afoot. Modi has lifted it to a level where caste, religion, money, brute force etc have become irrelevant.
This throws up a major challenge for the political establishment. Firstly, they have to read the message correctly. It will be a costly mistake to misread the mandate in terms of polarisation or as a “minor setback”. It is a profound and forceful message, that aspirational India is awakening and it wants nothing short of a politics of accountability, development and hope. The time is up for the politics of caste, religion, inducements, slogans and hollow ideologies. Parties are already feeling the pressure — perform or perish.
Be it Winston Churchill or Mahatma Gandhi, doubts were expressed about Indians’ ability to rule themselves. Modi wishes to allay the fears by making people the real agents of transformation. I am reminded of JP’s war cry in 1975 — “Simhasan khali karo ki janta aati hai”, failed leaders should vacate the throne, as the people have arrived.