IF POLITICS IS an argument that consistently resists resolution, economics is still seeking validation as a science. In 2014, the argument turned decisive for an India shaped by the holy precincts of the original nation-builders. When Narendra Modi entered Delhi as prime minister, with the kind of flamboyance that set him apart as a lone traveller in the Sangh Parivar, he was determined not to be one of ‘them’ who came before him. He was the sole custodian of a mandate that owed more to his personality than to the party itself. The personal was destiny—and it was always there about him as he continued the argument for his version of India. He did so as an outsider, all the while accentuating his cultural differences as a politician from those who dominated the argument before him. And he still feels he cannot afford a pause, for, in his scheme of things, power is about making a change in the cultural behaviour of a country. The cultural is the political.
The economic argument, which the Right is used to winning, has not been as dramatic as the cultural engineering, in spite of interventions like demonetisation. His first steps as a gradualist in the marketplace have been seen by those who were expecting a blue-blooded right-winger moulded in Reaganism or Thatcherism as tentative, still returning to the abandoned book of socialism whenever he was in doubt. The impatience of his admirers-turned-disillusioned was to a great extent justified by the market legacy the new prime minister carried with him—remember Gujarat being portrayed in the international media as India’s version of Deng’s Guangdong for its special economic zone-like transformation in an otherwise stagnant country. The Gujarat chief minister’s bold strokes were missing; the unfettered marketplace and a downsized state were not there yet. They also remembered the moderniser on the stump in the campaign for ‘liberating’ India—someone who didn’t bother to stress the cultural agenda then. Did the impatience of the doubters with the ‘tentative moderniser’ miss the man’s own impatience with an unequal India?
In another India, the slogan that launched the other leader of mass appeal as a campaigner against an unequal India was as crisp as Garibi Hatao. The political culture that canonised Indira Gandhi as Mother India, though, made poverty a prerequisite for social as well as communal ghettoisation. The poor India kept the elitism of ideology not just relevant but necessary. The perpetuation of wretched India was an ideological project that made slogans compassionate and reality all the more wretched. Modi’s modernisation was meant to be a freedom struggle, a rejoinder to the socialist inertia of the Congress years. In power, his style was big-changes-come-from-small-steps, and he didn’t reject the state. He just realised that the first step towards the modernisation of the marketplace was the modernisation of the state itself. What was required before the retreat of the state was a restoration of the state. There was no drama; there was only quiet de-dogmatisation.
This was his way of nation building, even if it lacked the pace and clarity of the cultural project. His focus was not on dismantling the old edifice of the state entirely; he wanted to make it receptive to the demands of the unequal India—no modernisation project would be meaningful without a restructuring of the moribund state. And it was being played out outside the annual ritual of the Budget, which has already become more of a media event than an economic event. (Give the prime minister a few more years and the matter-of-factness of Budget presentation will be inevitable.) Still, some of us wait for that breakthrough Budget, that moment of historic rupture and reinvention. With this prime minister, the Budget is a reflection of what is being undertaken out there, not a revelation of intentions. When the finance minister promises a smoother ride to a digitally fabulous future, it is also a reaffirmation of Modi’s idea of a responsive state, not a stifling state. The state alone can’t end social inequalities, but the state can make the future unveiled in the Budget more accessible to Indians who were pauperised by a socialist state.
Nation building, in Modi’s version, is a project in which the cultural is more pronounced and the economic is understated but equally purposeful, no matter how we have overused all the superlatives from the media’s Budget glossary. The seamless compatibility of the cultural and the economic alone will make the nation-building a unifying project as well—something the prime minister continues to emphasise. For someone whose ultimate constituency is history, Modi knows that India’s inequalities cannot be measured by economics alone. The journey to the future envisioned by the Budget has to be a cultural event too.