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India needs change by conversation, not audacity alone

After 31 months, the BJP’s Modi-centred government seems to have divided India into two sharply opposed camps.

Written by Rajmohan Gandhi |
Updated: December 27, 2016 5:25:48 pm
modi, Narendra Modi, Modi demonetisation, UP elections, BJP, BJP UP elections, India PM, India democracy, democracy India, India news Audacity has its place in leadership, but a democratic system like India’s requires consultation among power-centres, even when the prime minister’s primacy is conceded.

From 1947 to 1998, for 51 consecutive years, persons from the Congress stable led India’s Central government. After six Vajpayee years (1998-2004), the Congress was in power again for another decade before yielding to Narendra Modi’s BJP government, which has completed half of its 60-month term.

The Congress’s prime ministers were of different sorts. Loved by India’s crowds from whom he derived energy, Nehru laid the foundation for our democratic system and technological progress, but he had a surer connect to the world’s history than to India’s ground-level facts. Shastri was closer to the Indian earth but died after a premiership of only 18 months.


Indira Gandhi stood up to superpowers and dramatically enabled Bangladesh to emerge, but she wounded Indian democracy through the 1975-77 Emergency. Earnest about global nuclear danger, Rajiv memorably quantified India’s corruption, but he placed no firm obstacles against its spread.

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With crucial support from Manmohan Singh, Narasimha Rao unshackled the Indian economy, but he will be remembered for not preventing the Babri Masjid’s demolition, an act that started the legitimisation of “popular”, unconstitutional coercion.

In their joint governance for a decade, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, often dependent on autonomous coalition partners, did not or could not fight corruption, although they enacted the valuable Right to Information; they often seemed cut off from the electorate.

Narendra Modi won in 2014 by offering stable rule, liberal economic policies, a share to every poor family of the secret foreign holdings of India’s super rich — and by signalling to Hindutva’s backers that the leader they were looking for had finally arrived. The combination of Hindutva’s human resources, Modi’s promises and oratorical skills, unlimited election funds and a brilliant advertising campaign converted 31 per cent of the popular vote into a large Lok Sabha majority. After 31 months, the BJP’s Modi-centred government seems to have divided India into two sharply opposed camps.

Each camp contains contradictions. Some tensions inside the camp in power are revealed if you try to name it. Should it be called the Modi camp, the Hindutva camp or the BJP camp? Again, is the Modi government market-friendly or populist? Pro-trader or not? Does it push Hindutva or the Modi persona?

The RSS has always kept an open mind on personalised politics. If a charismatic man can take Hindutva forward, adopt him; if a personally ambitious man uses Hindutva for himself, cut him to size. Although others are presenting themselves as more suitable grooms for the Hindutva bride, we cannot currently assume serious tension between Modi and Hindutva. If, through populism, he brings large chunks of the poor to Hindutva, Modi will be useful to it.

Though coming together, parties in the opposition camp are yet to agree on a clear strategy, let alone a chairperson acceptable to all. The Congress is not the automatic leader today of the anti-BJP camp, though at the national level its wider presence and longer experience perhaps gives it an edge over BSP, SP, Trinamool, JDU, AAP, RJD and the Left, all of whom seem firmly opposed to Hindutva and to many of Modi’s policies. In recent Indian history, egos were overcome and an unlikely unity was produced; in 1977, when elections were unexpectedly called after 19 Emergency months, and in Bihar, in 2015. Can something similar happen next year in UP?

Probably not, for the contradictions in the camp opposed to Modi-BJP-Hindutva are large. Much depends on how Prime Minister Modi conducts himself and the success or failure of his recent policies, notably note-bandi.

Audacity has its place in leadership, but a democratic system like India’s requires consultation among power-centres, even when the prime minister’s primacy is conceded. Ministerial and party colleagues, chief ministers, Parliament, opposition leaders and independent thinkers can help in making a brilliant measure more practical, or in applying brakes on an unwise idea. All-powerful as he was, Nehru cherished discussion, dissent and criticism, as also several centres of autonomy. Patel, often invoked as an ideal by Modi, was a strong home minister and minister for princely states. Yet he treated colleagues and civil servants with respect and sought their opinions. How much give-and-take is there in Prime Minister Modi’s relationship with colleagues, critics and officials?

Another relevant question is about bids to change a nation’s behaviour through governmental measures. Though they desired improvement in Indians’ habits, Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar did not try to reach that goal through legislation. Conversation, not coercion, was their route for reforming Indians. The same was true for Vajpayee.

The aim of legislation is to make life easier for the citizen and harder for the criminal. It is not to make life harder for the citizen and merely more creative for the law-breaker. In suggesting that he would use laws, civil servants, bank officers, university students and others to change the practices of the Indian people, Modi seems closer to cultural revolutionaries of the Right and Left.

Whether fissures occur in the Modi camp, or reconciliations in the opposition, it is perhaps safe to assume a clash in India between individual freedom and rule by a strong or obstinate individual. In such a clash, the odds would probably favour the former. Democracy may not be a perfect fit for Indians — but its opposite is likely to have a harder time.

The writer, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, is research professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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