India at Seventy
Nationalism looms in a chaotic democracy
It’s an easy copout when talking about India to say everything and the opposite are both true and correct. That has never been more so than when assessing the country’s performance in the 70 years since it became independent on August 15, 1947.
Put simply, India is a huge success, tackling dire poverty, ethnic social religious and cultural divisions, building a strong private sector, developing infrastructure, excelling in research such as space and rockets technology, and breeding a new young and aspirational youth, all within a successful though turbulent and noisy parliamentary democracy.
It is also a dismal failure because it has done all those things far too slowly, encumbered by lethargy and a failure to grapple with challenges together with increasingly corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and police fed by greedy business people, criminals and members of the general public. Intolerance and ethnic and religious tensions, never far below the surface, are increasing.
Year by year, despite substantial successes, it falls more and more behind its regional rival and potential enemy China. It has been acting tough with its larger neighbor for the past two months in a military confrontation on the Himalayan border, but it has been increasingly losing out in terms of economic and infrastructure development, manufacturing competitiveness, defense preparedness, regional influence and international clout.
Economic growth is around 7 percent, but it should be far more. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of the 1.3billion population are illiterate and live below the poverty line, and far more are badly fed with inadequate education, sanitation and health facilities and a serious lack of jobs for the million young people entering the job market every month.
This is the third time I have written a decade’s assessment. In 1997 I said that “Indians seem unsure what there is to celebrate” because there was a “belated realization of how far development has lagged behind the rest of Asia, plus despair with the decrepit state of the country’s corrupt politics.” The economic reforms of 1991 had sputtered to a virtual halt and their effect had not by then fed through the economy – the major impact emerged in the following decade. I.K.Gujral, prime minister of a short-lived coalition government, said that India was “almost standing on the threshold of greatness”.
I noted that the country’s overall self-confidence and its economic performance were being transformed. In the previous four or five years, “a spirit of can-do” had inspired businesspeople – big and small, ranging from names like Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Azim Premji and the Infosys founders to small niche players – who invested, managed, delivered, and grew both at home and abroad.
Many problems, especially social, were however little improved: “Vast proportions of the country’s 1.1 billion people are undernourished and hungry, as well as poorly educated and illiterate. Blighted by a lack of drinking water and proper sanitation, many are plagued with poorly-treated ill health.”
No one this time is using a Nehru headline in a positive sense, despite the many advances made in the last decade. The trumpets are blasting out the new India of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by the Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi and by Amit Shah, the tough party president. Together they are more interested in celebrating the 75th anniversary in 2022 after they have won (as it seems they will) the next general election in 2019.
They and their platoons of followers crave a Hindu-dominated society that replaces Nehru’s secularism and turns Muslims, Christians and others into the second class minorities than many increasingly feel they have already become.
Their “ambience of acceptance” was under threat and there were “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians”. No-one had any doubt about his target – Modi, Shah and their followers.
India is a harsher society than it was 10 years ago with rabid nationalism, violence and vigilantism adding to cruel policing and ruthless regional politicians – many encouraged by the existence of a BJP government that shuns the softer secular approach of less fundamentalist political parties.
Maybe these contrasts and contradictions are inevitable in a society that has undergone India’s massive social and economic changes of the past 26 years. The 1991 reforms have gradually transformed the face of much of India, hastened by cascading access to television, the internet and social media. There is an arrogance of success among the new rich, and feelings of bitterness and anger among those left behind.
But if one is to pick a target to blame it should not be Modi and the BJP but the Gandhi family dynasty and its Congress Party that, having successfully led India into independence and beyond, has failed in the past 15 years to adapt to the aspirations of a changing India.
The Gandhis cling to power at the top of the party with a born-to-rule style that is no longer appropriate, preventing other politicians emerging to lead anti-BJP parties. Jairam Ramesh, an outspoken Congress politician, said recently that “the sultanate has gone but we behave as if we were sultans still.”
Modi an enigma
In all this, Modi is an enigma because he talks as if he is determined to build a strong and efficient India of which he can be nationalistically proud. Reforms have included efforts to curb corruption, a strengthened national identity system (Aadhaar), and the implementation of a long-planned national goods and services tax.
Yet he is also pulled into supporting or at least condoning the more extreme Hinduisation approach of the RashtriyaSwayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s extreme right wing umbrella body, and its allied extreme organisations.
“Let us pledge to free India from poverty, dirt, corruption, terrorism, casteism, communalism and create a ‘New India’ of our dreams by 2022,” he said in a recent speech that has been backed up with front-page government advertisements in leading newspapers headed Sankalp se Siddhi (pledge to achieve).
These are ambitious goals that have been on earlier governments’ agendas to little effect. Modi was elected in 2014 to implement developmental change and he has personally launched and driven countless campaigns that include his Swachh Bharat (Clean India Movement). The government claims that the number of people defecating in the open has dropped from 550million to 320million, even though many newly installed toilets do not have water or sewerage facilities. That is significant in a country where 100,000 children die each year from diarrhoea related diseases.
At the same time as examples of such developmental success are emerging, there also the glimmerings of the government softening its authoritarian line, presumably in order to quell criticism ahead of the 2019 general election.
One example is the appointment last week of Prasoon Joshi, a liberal screenwriter and poet, and the CEO in India of the McCann Erickson international advertising group, to head the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). He has replaced PahlajNihalani, a strong BJP and Modi supporter who was a controversially tough and insensitive censor, even shortening kissing scenes in a James Bond film.
Joshi’s appointment looks like a tactical move rather than a policy change, and 230million fewer people defecating in the open is only small change measured against India’s enormous needs for development.
But the first shows how India’s strident democracy does have an effect on governments, and the second shows that Modi recognises the need for action.
India’s future over the next decade depends on how this balances out.
Will Modi and Shah’s Hindu nationalism be constrained by the need to operate within a parliamentary democracy, or will their likely victory in 2019 make their nationalism increasingly dictatorial and disruptive? And how successful will Modi’s government be at making India work?
Put another way, thanks to the failure of the Gandhis and Congress, India’s future development depends on the drive that will be given by Modi and the increasing number of BJP state governments. The price for that is the BJP’s Hindu nationalism.
The hope therefore has to be that India’s diverse democracy, which inserts its own unpredictable checks and balances, will somehow keep that in check.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at www.ridingthelepant.com