The redeeming radicalism of Modi
MJ Akbar | 19 Jul, 2019
For the first half of the ‘Open Decade’, between 2009 and 2019, India was governed with a closed mind.
History does not measure time by the feeble pages of a calendar. It shapes our lives through the churn of events. The 20th century,
to cite a relevant example, did not begin when one hour slipped into another during a liquid midnight on December 31st, 1899. The course of that century, with its dynamic upheavals, was set in August 1914 with the beginning of the First World War. The past had created the war, but the war created the future.
Age-tested empires wobbled and collapsed, creating space for a reinvention of the world order based on the rise of a republican and democratic spirit which demanded political rights and economic gains for those who had never enjoyed them before, the impoverished masses. Empires grew enormously rich at the cost of subjugated nations, but elites transfer the wealth of conquest to their own pockets: the poor of London were perhaps only marginally less hungry than the poor of India at the pinnacle of the British Raj. Russia’s nobility under the Tsars had as much contempt for its serfs as the mandarins had for Chinese villagers. This process of socio-economic liberation led to revolution across the world; and if nations like Britain managed to avoid class war, it was because they heard the approaching thunder in the echo chambers of democracy and hurried through preventive reform.
Communism could not find an anchor in India, although the objective conditions were ideal, because Mahatma Gandhi turned India’s freedom struggle into a mass movement inspired by India’s ethos. It is no coincidence his leadership extended from the First World War to the Second, four decades which saw more change than in the previous 2,000 years. Colonialism was buried in the debris of a people’s rage against injustice. That, however, was only half the battle. Gandhi’s Ram Rajya was a metaphor for individual rights and collective prosperity. Indians got the first. But till the end of the first decade of the 21st century, more than half-a-billion Indians were still waiting for the second.
The economic stagnation, if not collapse, induced by the hybrid confusion of Jawaharlal Nehru’s quasi- socialism during the 1950s is rarely mentioned. The dreams that emerged with freedom took barely fifteen years or less to dissipate into frustration and nationwide anger. Nehru’s first political challenge came from an armed Communist rebellion in Telangana born of bare-subsistence poverty. That rebellion was brought under control, although the Communist Party remained powerful enough to emerge as the strongest Opposition force in the elections of 1952.
But such was the economic despair by the 1960s that a second Communist revolution sparked off by 1963, and this time on a far wider scale than Telangana. It was quickly named after the place from where it began, Naxalbari in north Bengal. The Naxalites not only wreaked havoc through the 1960s and 1970s but also abandoned nationalism and declared that Chairman Mao Zedong was their chairman. Their strength lay not in Chinese-sourced weapons, or the Red Book, but in the support they found across India from the dispossessed. Half-a-century after the spectacular bonfires of Naxalism, we were still debating, in 2014, whether Rs 32 a day was enough to calm the needs of half-a-billion Indians.
By the end of this century’s first decade, India, spurred by its young, was anxious to join the 21st century. The meaning of this aspiration is not complicated. You cannot be a modern nation with the complete elimination of poverty. It means an economy sustained by equity.
In 2009, voters placed the Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, at the head table of the Last Chance Saloon. It was both a warning and an opportunity. Instead of seizing the opportunity, Congress leaders shut their minds, opened their hands and went to sleep in the smug cocoon of self-satisfaction. The Congress-led UPA coalition offered boring, tendentious and venal repetitions of familiar indifference. Government was intellectually barren, and fecund only in corruption. It confused a lottery victory in 2009 with legitimate earnings. This, in turn, induced a cynical conviction that India had no alternative to its chalta-hai ideology and milta-hai governance.
The Congress-led UPA coalition offered boring, tendentious and venal repetitions of familiar indifference. Government was intellectually barren, and fecund only in corruption. It confused a lottery victory in 2009 with legitimate earnings
By 2014 India was exhausted.
The country was going nowhere because there is nowhere to go in a swamp. Corruption had become an odorous partner of inert government. The poor correctly interpreted corruption as the loot of the nation’s wealth which should have been used for their welfare. Even media, traditional guardians of the public interest, seemed complicit, thanks to a Delhi-centric clique which was caught on tape while being on the take.
Citizen rage was devastating. Here is a statistic that might help clear any leftover cobweb. The Congress tally in two general elections, of 2014 and 2019, which is 44 plus 52 seats, is less than half of what the party got in just one General Election, that of 2009. This is the same party which humiliated and drove out then party president Sitaram Kesri in 1998 for winning 141 seats, silently looked the other way in 1999 when Sonia Gandhi took this down to 112 seats, and then praised her as saviour and saint when the Congress won just 145 seats in 2004. But, of course, Sitaram Kesri came from an ordinary Indian home rather than the glittering palace of a dynasty.
A full analysis of the range of disillusionment with the Congress and its dynastic leadership is far beyond the scope of a magazine article; corruption alone would occupy a book. But if I had to trace the pivotal centre of India’s national anguish, then it would surely be India’s continuing poverty and the absence of any credible answer to this crisis.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was simply too much a creature of the past to find answers for the present and solutions for the future. He therefore either lived in the era of the British economist John Maynard Keynes or, for a more contemporary touch, advisors minted by the World Bank. The latter were advocates of the infamous ‘trickle- down theory’ which, as the phrase indicates all too evidently, engineered policies which piled up wealth at the top in the expectation that some of it would trickle down to the ‘deserving’ poor. It was a mindset which believed in economic patriarchy.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought one unique advantage over his immediate predecessors, who took a patronising view of this historic curse. He sought, and found, answers from the practical perspective of the impoverished.
What does this mean? Once again, there is nothing complicated about the reply. The establishment, which bought refrigerators in the 1950s, air conditioners in the 1960s, generators in the 1970s, air tickets for holidays abroad in the 1980s, and personal cars in the 1990s, generally congratulates itself on the accepted statistic that the number of those living below the poverty line came down from circa 60 per cent in 1947 to around 30 per cent in 2010. Those living on the nervous edge of subsistence have a different view of the same numbers. Their existential question is: If it took you 70 years to reduce 60 per cent to 30 per cent, is it going to take another 70 years before 30 per cent became zero?
They were not ready to wait for another two generations.
PRIME MINISTER Modi offered the radical difference that India wanted, and needed. First, he shifted gear from poverty alleviation to poverty elimination. There is a significant difference between the two objectives. The first is open-ended, the second has a deadline. Prime Minister Modi set a deadline: 2022, or 75 years after Independence. 2022 is set to mark Gandhi’s meaning of independence, which means freedom from hunger, homelessness, anxiety, insecurity and the helpless silence that consumes those who have no money for medicine.
Prime Minister Modi offered the radical difference that India wanted, and needed. First, he shifted gear from poverty alleviation to poverty elimination. There is a significant difference between the two objectives. The first is open-ended, the second has a deadline
In a famous talisman, Gandhi advised the first set of Congress ministers, who took office in the Interim Government of 1946, to think of the face of the poorest person before taking any decision and ask themselves if the decision in any way helped him. Prime Minister Modi took personal charge of schemes that concentrated on deliverables that the poor could experience, and which raised the quality of their lives in quantum leaps. The toilet mission is deservedly the most famous of these schemes.
VS Naipaul is surely a name familiar to readers, not least because he won—albeit after much huffing and puffing—the Nobel Prize for literature. In our country, Naipaul became infamous after the publication of his travelogue, titled An Area of Darkness, in 1964. One powerful reason for India’s darkness was the stark sight of men and women squatting in the open for their morning ablutions. What did we do? The Government in 1964 banned the book. It did not try and end open-air defecation.
Narendra Modi was the first Prime Minister to declare this abject failure a national shame, and he did so from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day. If there was a message in his speech, there was a signal in the location. Today, there is worldwide recognition of his achievement, but that is far less important than the fact that countless impoverished women across India can live with a little more dignity.
Narendra Modi also knew what his forebears did: that the poor were victims of an unusual, systematic nationwide heist. Their welfare benefits were being ripped off by layers of middlemen. Rajiv Gandhi had famously said that only 15 paise of every rupee actually reached the poor. Once again, no one knew what to do about what had become a generic disease.
No one had ever envisaged the Modi solution. He saw that the only way to end this corruption was by bringing the poor into the fiscal system through bank accounts. When in January 2015 he launched the innovative Jan Dhan mission to open 300 million accounts for those without money, there was derisive laughter from the Congress and its pipe- smoking acolytes. I doubt if there is much laughter left in the Congress now. Mudra, gas cylinders, homes, medical insurance, pensions; the list is long.
Toilets and gas cylinders in the homes of the poor may not add to India’s gross domestic product, but they add immeasurably to India’s gross domestic happiness. This is the touchstone of the Prime Minister’s driving objective: prosperity for all. When he talks of a $5-trillion economy, it means raising the living standards of the poor to the middle-class category. The base line of New India is the middle class.
This brings us to a parallel truth: we cannot grow to that and higher levels without security. Security was the second biggest failure of the first half of the ‘Open Decade’.
The most serious threat to our security no longer comes from nation states threatening full-scale war, because the nuclear option has made this mutually destructive. The danger is from terrorism.
No wake-up call could have been louder than the terrorist assault on Mumbai in November 2008. India watched, gripped and horrified, as this barbarism was covered live on television. Details of arbitrary, faith-based murder, and the links with masterminds and handlers in Pakistan became common knowledge.
Indians did not punish the UPA in the 2009 elections for the frail initial reaction. They were ready to give the government time. What India did not bargain for was the craven behaviour of the Congress over the next five years.
In retrospect, the extent to which Sonia Gandhi and Singh misread the public mood is astonishing. Perhaps they concluded that their victory in 2009 was endorsement of their weak-kneed Pakistan policy. Indians do not support unilateral aggression; but they are not ready to accept a supine reaction to savage terrorism. Singh never voiced the anger that India felt. Instead, he continued engagement with Pakistan in the mistaken belief that the wish for peace would bring peace. All it did was to embolden those within the Pakistan power belt who had calculated that the cost of such invasive terrorism would be minimal, and the rewards high.
Prime Minister Modi’s security doctrine is calibrated. India has a defence policy, not an offence policy; but it understands the meaning of defence. Not one inch of land shall be vulnerable to incursion. There shall be accountability for every Indian casualty in cross-border attacks and zero tolerance for any form of terrorism on Indian soil. No sanctuary is either safe or beyond reach. What is remarkable is the support from the international community to Prime Minister Modi’s radically different approach. It is a tribute to the rise in his stature and India’s credibility as a responsible power.
Those who have created careers out of media commentary never recognised this, exceptions apart. The Indian people did, and said so during this year’s election campaign.
The promise of prosperity, security, stability and the revitalisation of the country makes the period between 2014 and 2019 the first five years of India’s 21st century.