Every stereotype has an expiry date, though we live in an India where stereotypes die hard. We may have come a long way from the wayfarer’s tales of Oriental kitsch, but we have not earned enough civilizational miles to pass the Moody’s test. Hence the image of a moderniser overshadowed by the medievalist; a marketplace of a million possibilities pitted against the mythologies of the madmen of religion. Once again we are being represented by a stereotype: the enraged cultural nationalist, driven by an exaggerated sense of the sacred, creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred in Asia’s most evolved but impatient democracy, and his empowerment a bad news for the dreamers of twenty-first century India.
We have been here before, as a people whose identity is shaped by paradoxes. And our triumphs are written by those who have learned to manage contradictions— and refused to retreat from the battlefields of ideas and ideologies. In most instances, the anti-modernist, or the antediluvian, is not the cultural but the political stereotype. Even today, what stands in the way of wealth creation is not the sacred cow, with due apologies to Moody’s, but a different kind of beast: the politician steeped in dead certainties, and the world his mind inhabits is smaller than his shrinking province.
In the beginning, he was the socialist who internalised the Soviet model. The Nehruvian New Man—scientifically tempered, secular-minded—was created to exist in an India where the state controlled everything except the conscience (what a relief!). Like any other ideal created by ideology, this Man was destined to have a shorter life. The state-run economy, though, lasted, and along with it a labyrinthine system where the politician became the master and manipulator of the marketplace. The winner would still be the dreamer. Even as the temples of socialist India—the public sector—grew in size, the big private business found its way through the system, and in most cases, it was the ingenious Indian mind that made it possible.
We are well past the socialist model, even though the state has not fully withdrawn from the marketplace. It has certainly surrendered most of its intrusive powers. It is no longer an embarrassment to be rich in India; its prime minister travels the world as the new wise man from the East (a post for so long reserved for enlightened dictators), selling an idea of India that is worth investing in. The only market in this part of the world that is sustained by the laws of a civil society, India is fast emerging as a global destination and a domestic romance (see the profiles in the following pages). The paradoxes are still prevalent: the digital and the dispossessed, make in India and die in India…
These paradoxes are political, some of them of course inherited and some freshly invented. And they can be unmade by politics alone. That is why Modi—and the mandate he has won—matters. The moderniser is on full display when he is abroad and when he has an idea to share, and he plays the part—an Indian, perhaps the only one in politics today, who has the ability to reduce the distance between tradition and future—to perfection. At home, the context tends to overshadow his text, and managing contradictions becomes as important as managing the dreams and aspirations that put him in power. His conversation with the future, which kept India in thrall in the campaign of 2014, is not yet over, even if they are not as audible as they should be. Its compatibility with the darings of the smartest in the marketplace makes India a much better place for the creation as well as distribution of wealth.
Today, can there be a better word than Bihar to illustrate this? There cannot be another place in India that shows how the perversions and pathologies of what we loftily call the politics of social justice lead to dehumanising injustice and inequality. The last two decades have seen how a political system built on the matrix of caste and the cult of the spittoon (what an apt metaphor for the simulated earthiness of Lohia’s revolutionary) has turned Bihar into what one of our recent cover stories called the ‘land without justice.’ No matter how much sociology you can apply on Bihar, it is the worst instincts of politics that have made it poorer and lawless. Its redemption lies in politics itself, and here again Modi becomes inevitable. One day we should not be embarrassed to speak about wealth and Bihar in the same breath. That is why Bihar provides a perfect backdrop to Modi’s conversation with the future.
This conversation takes place at a time when the wealth gap has become a mobilising topic across Europe and elsewhere, radicalising politics and empowering salvation theologists from the Left as well as the Right. When affluence is threatened by resentment, morality helps, and conventional wisdom tells us that to be moral is to be socialist. That is not true. The so-called crisis in capitalism is not solved by applied dogma, but by ethics—call it compassionate capitalism or whatever. That is why the state still matters, not as the engineer of our happiness, but as a constitutional ombudsman of fair play. It may be glorious to be rich; it should be noble too. It is a sentiment shared by the young faces that feature on the cover of our second edition of the Wealth Issue.
It is the wealth of ideas that lights up the future. Happy Deepavali.