Opinion

1974 again? Despite wielding enormous power, Modi has failed to destroy India’s Nehruvian idealism

On the 43rd anniversary of Emergency, the second part of a series on parallels and differences between the situation before Indira Gandhi’s move and our times.

Though several commentators – as did the first part of this series – have drawn parallels between the political situation in India now and in 1974, the year before Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, there are some significant differences.

Though the rate of growth under the Narendra Modi government has been lower than in previous years, it is still around 6%. This is significantly higher than the rate of growth in the first half of the 1970s. The rate of inflation is also much lower.

The main beneficiaries of the post-1991 model of development have been the urban middle classes, especially professionals, and the propertied rich in the urban and rural areas. They can be seen revelling in their prosperity at Indian Premier League matches and globally at Modi’s events for Non-Resident Indians. They comprise mostly upper caste Hindus, and remain Modi’s strongest supporters.

The industrial working class, which has benefitted from post-1991 economic reforms to an extent, is quiescent. The decline of the traditional Left – the Socialists and the Communists – has had some part to play in this. The space the working class and the Left have ceded in the revolt against the government has been taken over by Dalits and farmers. This is because these marginalised and people living have benefitted least, in many places, not at all. This can be seen in continuing farmer suicides and agitations across the nation. It can also be seen in the enduring strength of Naxalites who are active in the nation’s most and poorest rural and forest backward areas.

In other words, rapid economic growth over the last 20 years in India has helped contain popular discontent and keep social conflict and turmoil under control. As a result, disillusionment and consequent discontent with the Modi government are still some distance away from the level reached in 1974.

Dialling down Hindutva

To some extent, this may also be the reason why, despite winning an absolute majority on its own, the BJP has not been able to make much progress in implementing its Hindutva agenda.

For one, it has not made much progress in building the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Regarding the issue of cow slaughter and cow smuggling – on which it has expended a considerable amount of energy – it has been partially successful in enforcing laws to prevent it, and that too only in states where it is in power. It has also cracked down on illegal slaughter houses in these states. However, it had to backtrack on its cattle sale rules notified in May 2017 – in which the sale of cattle for slaughter was banned in livestock markets across the country – after widespread opposition. In cases where BJP activists or other Hindutva-oriented groups have attacked people – mostly Muslims suspected of cow slaughter or transporting cattle for slaughter – public opinion has forced the government to reluctantly take legal action even while trying to get the accused released. In another issue it has focused on, “Love Jihad,” where is even got the National Investigation Agency involved, it has faced resistance in the courts, for instance, in the Hadiya case.

Another area of focus has been the attempt to smear Muslims as anti-national and provoke clashes with them. The row over the Jinnah portrait in Aligarh Muslim University in May is a recent example. It was ignited by the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a youth militia founded by Uttar Pradesh’s BJP Chief Minister Adityanath. But its champions were unable to take it beyond a point. The BJP and its Hindutva affiliates have also been forced to take reluctant action against those who violently attack, rape and lynch Muslims, as well as against those who defend them, as seen in the Kathua case.

Though some have alleged that the BJP is responsible for the slow progress in cases involving Hindutva groups – such as Mecca Masjid, 2008 Malegaon blasts, and the Naroda Patiya massacre case – as well as the acquittals, granting of bail, milder sentences of some of the accused in some of these cases, the convictions in post-Godhra 2002 riots cases, such as the Bilkis Bano case, show the limits of the Modi government’s power.

Similarly, the Modi government has not attempted to follow up on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s Constitution Review Commission. Set up in 2000, many suspected it was a ploy to subtly promote the BJP’s hidden agenda of a Hindu Rashtra. Instead, the BJP has repeatedly been swearing by the Constitution and its institutions like the judiciary.

A partial explanation for all this is that the BJP campaigned and won on a different agenda. But this does not explain why the BJP whose Plan A (development) is failing has not been able to activate its Plan B (Hindutva) adequately enough to regain a decisive electoral advantage, as some had expected. Rather, top BJP leaders in the government and the party have stuck to chanting the development mantra. At the same time, they have, in a largely veiled manner, been smearing Muslims and their so-called appeasers and alleging that the latter are indulging in vote-bank politics.

What then has constrained the BJP from returning to the open and blatant Hindutva agenda of the 1980s? Is this because of what several commentators on Indian politics have described as the compulsions of power, of politics? By this they seem to mean the tendency of parties and their leaders in post-Independence India to moderate and mainstream their views and actions as soon as they come to power. The greater their power, the greater their sense of responsibility, is how the argument goes.

Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in 1935. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).
Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in 1935. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).

The legacy of the freedom struggle

But this explanation begs the question: What are these compulsions? How did they come into being? What accounts for their legitimacy and continuing power? Are they common everywhere and at all times – inherent in the nature of things and routinely taken for granted, as we routinely take for granted – or are they specific to a particular time and space, for instance, India today?

It is my argument here that the compulsions of Indian politics today are a consequence of the rise to hegemony in the post-Independence period of the experience, ideology and people behind the nation’s freedom struggle. That struggle was based on the realisation that poverty and the lack of economic development was a consequence of British imperial rule and that national unity of a diverse society was essential for that rule to be overthrown.

That struggle was led by the Indian National Congress which was started in the late 19th century by modern middle class public intellectuals as a discussion and petitioning forum to arouse public opinion and draw the government’s attention towards resolving the ills of Indian society. It transitioned in the 20th century to a mass movement using non-violent agitation to secure Independence. The failure of these nationalist leaders to prevent the Partition of India in 1947 only impelled them to redouble efforts to base the Constitution on that inclusive experience and ideology. This was also to be the inspiration for the policies of the first post-Independence government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, who did more than anything else to nurture the institutions of India’s emerging democratic politics. (Since its historical experience has been different, it is doubtful whether Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan is, except in some aspects, the forerunner of the main direction of Indian politics under Modi and the BJP-RSS, as some writers have suggested.)

This institutional framework is referred to in contemporary Indian public discourse by the terms “system” and “mechanism”. This constitutes the bureaucratic-judicial complex, which includes not just the personnel but the rules and norms that govern their functioning. (It can be said to bear some resemblance to what is called the “Deep State” in the United States, not necessarily including its negative connotations. And to what sociologists following Max Weber call “rational, impersonal bureaucracy” which underpins “legal-rational authority”). Over the decades, its role in governance has grown enormously in the context of an increasingly corrupt, indifferent, incompetent and communal political elite. At its apex are the senior Indian Administrative Service and Indian Foreign Service officers and the Supreme Court, who have not only taken over guiding politicians with their expertise but are also getting many diverse administrative tasks done. This bureaucratic-judicial complex also provides the thread of continuity that is essential for modern government.

Narendra Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river, in September 2017. Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone of this project in 1961. (Photo credit: IANS).
Narendra Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river, in September 2017. Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone of this project in 1961. (Photo credit: IANS).

Another pre-Independence inheritance that has grown increasing influential with each succeeding decade, especially with the spread of education and the growth of the middle class, is public opinion in civil society, and activism based on that. Whether it is newborn deaths in a small-town hospital, or rape by a self-styled godman, what appears in the press is taken seriously and acted upon by those in power and other authorities. Consequently, people have resorted to agitating for issues small and big. In recent years, the response has improved substantially, even it is still far from adequate.

So far the Modi government’s agenda has coincided to a remarkable extent with that of the top bureaucracy in domestic politics, economics and foreign policy, and he depends primarily on them for governance. Like the preceding two United Progressive Alliance governments, his government has continued and expanded the state-dominated, pro-private sector economic reforms of 1991.

People in New Delhi, in April, attend a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu, and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo credit: Reuters).
People in New Delhi, in April, attend a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu, and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo credit: Reuters).

What next?

Governance under Modi is better in some respects as compared to his predecessors: there is more drive in the administration, things are moving, there have been no major political corruption scandals so far. There has been a tilt towards a more rightist, majoritarian agenda – pro-business, pro-rural rich, pro-upper castes, pro-Hindu, anti-minority, particularly Muslim, away from citizens empowerment and activism, towards personal and party favourites in the bureaucracy and other institutions, towards the US and Israel, against tolerance of dissent and protest, towards promoting Hindutva personnel and ideas. But the so-called “hotheads” within the Sangh Parivar and outside have been largely kept in check.

But despite wielding enormous power within the Constitutional framework, Modi and the BJP-RSS have not been able to disrupt the nationalist consensus. So, the Nehruvian agenda to make India a “developed nation” and a non-aligned great power still abides, though with much less emphasis on social justice, secularism and democratic citizens’ rights.

But what of the long-term? Will Modi and the BJP-RSS work insidiously to infiltrate the institutions, gain popular legitimacy and wait for the opportune moment to cast off their new “inclusive development” guise, overthrow the existing social order, and usher in a Hindu Rashtra? Or, will the system be able to moderate and mainstream them into being a conservative political party – like the Christian Democrats or the Republican Party in the US – working within the Constitutional framework? Can the BJP-RSS leopard change its spots? Only time will tell. Meanwhile the battle has been joined.

This is the second of a two-part series considering the similarities and differences between the situation in 1974 and the present situation. The first part can be read here.

KN Hari Kumar is the former editor-in-chief of Deccan Herald and Prajavani.

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