An open civilisation rejecting old monolithic constructs
Narendra Modi performs bhoomi puja for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, August 5, 2020
OCTOBER 7TH MARKS THE DAY Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed 20 years as the head of a government. It includes his transformative 13 years as the chief minister of Gujarat and seven illustrative years as the incumbent prime minister. These two decades have seen the transformation of India as a nation and as a civilisation. Modi is both a symbol of and the driving force behind the emergence of New India, which is more rooted and confident in its civilisational antiquity and futuristic in its vision.
The Republic of India emerged from a turbulent period of repeated waves of invasion, settler colonialism and imperialism. The indigenous resurgence started before the British period during the Maratha century when the rule of foreign dynasties was rolled back on large parts of the Indian subcontinent. The British conquest of India violently disrupted this resurgence. It is often discounted how brutal British rule was and how violently they conquered and subjugated India. Two centuries of British rule in India were two centuries of hunger and famine and two centuries of armed uprisings by the masses every decade. Following the sacrifices made by countless revolutionaries and freedom fighters, the spectre of the Indian National Army and the naval uprising of 1946, the British rule finally ended. But then imperialism is not just about the physical subjugation of a country. It is also about cultural, social, institutional and knowledge aspects of the society and the polity.
British rule formally ended in 1947, but the Raj continued to linger and even thrived among the remnants of the colonial elite and order. The old agrarian relations instituted under British rule survived the uneven tenancy reforms. Flawed economic policies ensured that India failed to industrialise and urbanise, stifling the key driver of economic and social change. The political alliance of the English-speaking urban elites and feudal elements in the countryside blunted the promise of the Constitution and democracy for the majority. Life went on listless for the vast majority of the people as before, full of deprivation, poverty and lack of socioeconomic mobility.
The core task of the postcolonial Indian state should have been the rejuvenation of the Indian nation and the renaissance of Indian civilisation. And the key to this task was the rapid socioeconomic transformation on the back of industrialisation and modernisation. The economic uplift of the masses and social emancipation after centuries of foreign dominance was the historical task of the state. But instead, we deluded ourselves into chasing alien constructs of the secular-socialist paradigm. The state and government became a vehicle for perpetuating the old elite rule and patronage to the cultural commissars tasked with whitewashing history and creating an alternate reality to “re-engineer” society into their imagined ideal state. The result was decades of economic stagnation, social unrest and a worsening strategic and security environment.
The democratic upsurge in the anti-Emergency movement and later economic reforms provided a respite from a seemingly endless dystopia presided over by Congress the hegemon.
Economic reforms proved to be a pivotal moment in India’s history. It put India on a new trajectory of growth to which the National Democratic Alliance Government gave a further fillip under the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It disturbed the diurnal certainties of life and caused a churning, continuing from which a New India is finally emerging. Millions of people, especially the marginalised communities, fled the villages with their social and political bondages to the burgeoning urban centres in one of the greatest migrations in human history. It was both an act of desperation and an act of liberation. A new class of people emerged from smaller cities and towns that were neither part of the old landed agrarian elite nor the bureaucratic and political patronage system of what is derisively called Lutyens’ Delhi. It was this class that distrusted the old elite and yearned for change in the political guard. These middle and neomiddle classes became part of the democratic uprising that in 2014 swept aside the old political certainties and cold arithmetic of opportunistic caste and communal calculation. Narendra Modi had won the largest democratic mandate in human history. A feat he would repeat in 2019.
So, what does the rise of Narendra Modi symbolise?
Economic transformation, democratic deepening, social assertion, rejuvenation of the Indian nation and renaissance of the Indian civilisation. He is both a product of the churn and an architect of New India. He has been a relentless moderniser in his entire tenure, first as chief minister and then prime minister. He has emphasised economic growth by embracing the markets and consigned the old samajwadi obsession to the dustbin of history, where it rightly belongs. By championing entrepreneurship, reinstating profit as a legitimate goal, and celebrating businesses and industry, he has caused a shift in the political culture of India in favour of economic growth and prosperity.
Where mocking and targeting temples was once common, the ascendance of shakti-upasak Prime Minister Narendra Modi has compelled the deracinated secular leaders to do a temple run. The cultural, spiritual and civilisational essence of Bharat is being reclaimed one brick at a time
The debate has shifted from removing poverty to creating prosperity. The opposition may mock his plank of vikas but is forced to talk about development and claim that it can deliver better than Modi. Modi has embarked on an arduous path of accelerating the modernisation of the Indian economy, the Indian state and Indian institutions. Over the last year, he has enacted the biggest set of economic reforms ever, touching every sector of the economy from agriculture to manufacturing to labour laws to tax laws. And unlike the 1991 reforms under duress, these reforms are born of conviction. His push for digital India, universal access to digital public goods and digital sovereignty is guided by a vision of the future. He has pushed the unified legal and administrative structures, such as the Goods and Services Tax, ”One Nation, One Ration Card”, etcetera, which seek to strengthen the Indian state and modernise its apparatus for the 21st century by empowering the people.
Modi has laid great emphasis on infrastructure development. Road and highway construction are at an all-time high; the railways are getting modernised; Bullet Trains are being introduced and reaching hitherto untouched corners, especially in the frontier regions. Waterways are being revived, and air connectivity is expanding like never before. Why is all this important? We often forget that infrastructure is one of the key factors that have driven nationalism and civilisational consciousness. When the Sui dynasty built the Grand Canal, north and south China were brought into closer cultural and social embrace. The Roman roads were transmitters of the Roman civilisation and Roman identity in the farflung areas of the empire. Railways and highways in the modern period reduced distance, spurred migration and enabled economic integration, thus playing an important role in the rise of the modern nation. The rapid expansion of infrastructure is leading to the rise of an even stronger common Indian identity where the difference between local and national is getting blurred with each kilometre added to the expressway or new tracks laid in the Northeast. Modi is redefining what it means to be an Indian simply by enabling more and more Indians to fly for the first time through policies such as the Udan Yojana.
VS Naipaul rightly called India a “wounded civilization”. Repeated invasions and colonisation by various Central Asian tribes dislocated society and brought wanton destruction upon the sacred sites. Such has been the scale of destruction that hardly any temple structure older than 200 years can be found in north India. Even after Independence, these historical wrongs were not corrected, barring in exceptional cases such as the Somnath temple in Gujarat. Nor was any serious attempt made to repair and reconstruct the sacred sites to restore them to their former glory. Everywhere one went, there were temples in ruins or occupied by alien structures. Most of the temples and sacred sites that were operational were in a dilapidated state. Prime Minister Modi is the first ruler after Shrimant Ahilyabai Holkar to build, repair and renovate temples on such a large scale. Several famous temples in Ayodhya, including ghats of Saryu, were rebuilt by the sage queen. And today, after 500 years, the Ram Temple is reborn. Kedarnath and Kashi Vishwanath are being renovated for the new era. Where mocking and targeting temples was once common, the ascendance of shakti-upasak Prime Minister Modi has compelled the deracinated secular leaders to do a temple run. Sacred cities and places such as Varanasi and Vindhyanchal are undergoing transformation. And with these, the cultural, spiritual and civilisational essence of Bharat is being reclaimed one brick at a time.
One of the core issues in the rejuvenation and renaissance of India has been a fractured society with deep faultlines running across caste lines and persistence of discrimination and marginalisation. Economic modernisation and industrialisation pursued by Modi weaken the boundaries of caste and undermine the structure that sustains the caste system. But it is not sufficient, and conscious efforts in the realms of society, government and polity are equally important. It is important to remember that Modi started his activism in the Sangh Parivar, which, rooted in Hindutva, inherited the legacies of the Hindu proto-modernity of the early modern period and contemporary social and religious reform movements to imagine a modern nation. Rising above the distinctions of caste and community has been one of the core concerns of the Sangh Parivar. It is the worldview reflected in the policies and working of Prime Minister Modi. He has launched massive welfare schemes for the poor and the marginalised communities. From free housing to free healthcare to free gas cylinders, his schemes are the wildest dreams of doctrinaire leftists in Western countries such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. But unlike the old guard, Modi is known for ensuring successful implementation of these schemes. But most importantly, he has based these schemes on objective criteria. Caste operates on the ground by excluding weaker castes from access to state resources and schemes. India has failed to achieve even basic education and healthcare because the implementation of these policies was mediated through local power structures that invariably depended on old social structures. It meant that most of the benefits were captured by dominant caste leaders. It is here that Modi has acted as a disruptor par excellence.
He has not only ensured public provision of private goods to the poor but made these either universal or dependent on a clearly defined criterion such as the Socio-Economic Caste Census, 2011. And by doing so, he has undermined the old patronage model of politics where a person would benefit if her caste supported the party in power. The old patronage model created a “politics of unfreedom” for the weaker castes, especially the non-dominant Other Backward Classes and Dalit castes, who are now free of the tutelage of the dominant castes in accessing government schemes and benefits. It is no surprise that they have rallied behind the prime minister and his party, which has undermined old caste politics that thrived on promoting the widening of the social divide. This new model of bringing people together and welding them into a united political bloc without appealing to base caste instincts was always critical in healing the social divide and laying the foundation of a stronger national and civilisational rejuvenation.
Social inclusion and representation without factious competitive caste politics is the new paradigm ushered in by Modi. This new paradigm was visible when as chief minister of Gujarat, he started a training programme for priests from Dalit castes. It was visible when he formed the most inclusive and representative council of ministers ever in India. There can be no restoration of pride in the Indian spiritual traditions and civilisational narrative unless social equality and harmony are at the cornerstone of the futuristic vision of India. And under Modi, we have seen that vision in action and not just the usual political rhetoric of the past.
In the “Idea of India” of the old elite, the identity of India was defined in opposition to British imperialism. It was an identity supposedly born of the struggle against British rule, which was ascribed to one party and family in the version of the court historian patronised by successive Congress governments. The role of thousands of revolutionaries and the contribution of various castes and communities were sidelined. We were told that unless we believe that India owes its existence to the anti-British struggle led by Congress and pledge our allegiance to its monolithic view of India, the existence of India will come under threat. But as successive generations of Indians moved away from the direct experience of the anti-British struggle, they found it more and more difficult to relate to this arcane “Idea of India”, not the least because it was an artificial construct that didn’t gel with the social and civilisational memories of the society. Disenchantment with the narrative of India created the void which was being filled by far-left ideas and wokeness flowing from the liberal arts departments of American universities.
THE RISE OF Modi has corrected this anomaly by firmly rooting the identity of India in its civilisational history. India is not merely a postcolonial state. India is not merely a modern nation supposedly created in the process of anti-British struggle. India is the world’s oldest living civilisation. And at present most of the geographically contiguous parts of this civilization are united under a single polity, and this political unification derives its justification from a shared civilisational heritage. This older, grander sense of Bharatvarsha has been revived in the popular imagination by Prime Minister Modi. It is reflected in his speeches, in his symbolism and in his action. When in his speech at the UN General Assembly, he asserts that India is the mother of democracy, he is invoking the ancient republics of Bharatvarsha, religious sanghas, village councils and various spiritual traditions that advocated and practiced democratic, collective decisionmaking with social and gender representation. When he becomes the first prime minister to visit the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, he affirms that the”Idea of India” is much older than the modern history of the anti-British struggle. When he takes foreign dignitaries to the ghats of Varanasi, he is mainstreaming the antiquity of India that is Bharat into the international relations and strategic discourse.
Under Modi, India is reclaiming its natural identity as an open, plural civilisation by rejecting the old monolithic constructs seeking to impose a manufactured version of history and identity. He has refocused the Indian state on its historical task of the rejuvenation and renaissance of the Indian nation and civilisation by accelerating economic transformation, infrastructure development and social inclusion. As an administrator, he has proven himself to be the great moderniser who seeks to propel India into the future by equipping it with a modern state apparatus and legal framework for the 21st century. As a politician, he has swept aside the timidity and apologia that the Indian political class felt when owning its identity and practising its traditions. What we see before us is the architect of New India and the rise of a civilisational state.