Modi, secularism, and the future of Indian democracy
The South Asian Studies School at Oxford and King's India Institute last week (which predictably, began late; 'we the Indians'). A few points from that were particularly interesting for me:
- Dr. Matthew McCartney, ('political-economy macro-economist' at Oxford) invoked the idea of 'the developmental State' (see Öniş, 1991) and drew comparisons between India's growth trajectory and that of the Asian tigers, in particular Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. He noted that while the civil services in these countries were largely meritocratic and elitist (as he suggested was the case in India too), the wider population was ready to sacrifice short-term goals to achieve the 'vision of development' as espoused by their leaders (which is where India is different). For example, McCartney noted, South Korea was exporting colour TVs long before its own citizens were allowed to buy them. Such sacrifices were seen to be in the greater good and the idea of 'development' was constructed as the only option to counter the spread of communism. Under this notion of 'develop or die', the Asian tigers grew.
- Dr. Maya Tudor drew on how constructions of national identity fed into the practice of democracy in newly decolonised, multi-ethnic, and culturally heterogenous Asian countries: in Pakistan national identity is closely linked to being a Muslim and non-Muslims and Shia or Ahmediyas are second class citizens; in Malaysia, ethnic Malays are 'true Malaysians' while other ethnic minorities are marginalised; in India, a clear choice was made to tie nationalism with secularism. Tudor argued that the rise of Modi (perceived as a strongly Hindu nationalist figure), does not bode well for democracy in a country that is built on the idea of secularism. This is because nationalism then gets tied with 'who's a good Hindu' rather than 'who's a good Indian citizen'. She said that the clear impotence of the current government had made first-time voters (a segment that is young, aspirationally impatient, and has only seen a >6% growth rate) envision Modi as a promising replacement to the Gandhian/Nehruvian narrative.
- Dr. George Kunnath, anthropologist and expert on the Maoist movement in central India, voiced his
Cartoon from The Hindu
- Finally Dr. Nikita Sud, who has followed Gujarat's growth story over the last decade, critiqued the 'personalisation of power' and construction of Brand Modi as a son-of-the-soil cum humble tea seller versus the idea of Rahul Gandhi as a shehzaada born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Sud questioned how a man from an inherently undemocratic organisation such as the RSS, could possibly be seen as a product and preserver of democracy. She was scathing in her verdict of Modi running his government in a dictatorial manner with 'dubious, self-affirming, and questionable characters' surrounding him.
- Has secularism as an idea been hollowed by Indian politics? Yes and no, replied all the panelists. (A recent debate on this here.)
- Has ideology been replaced by identity (similar to personalities been pitted against each other as one sees in the US Presidential race)? No, replied Matthew McCartney, Modi in fact comes from a powerful ideology of Hindu nationalism and capitalist growth.
- An IAS officer questioned why Modi's rise was considered undemocratic, since he had been voted to power thrice. Wasn't that a win for democracy? Maya Tudor pointed out that while the electoral process was a crucial pillar of democracy, once in power, an elected candidate must uphold the constitutional protection of citizen rights. It is here that Modi, either through the Godhra riots, or through the favouring of industrial growth at the cost of rural livelihoods, fails as a truly democratic leader.
- Hasn't Gujarat's growth shown Modi can be a successful leader? To this George Kunnath, pertinently responded, 'Yes, Gujarat has shown growth but for whom?'
- Why are we bashing Modi? Isn't he a product of India's politics which is inherently undemocratic to begin with? McCartney cited the example of the highly publicised Narmada Dam Movement and compared it to the silence around the Three Gorges Dam in China, saying that while Indian democracy was certainly far from perfect, it wasn't a complete failure.
The session ended on Sud convinced Modi would not come to power, and Kunnath emphasising the need for further discourse on what we mean by development and how can it be inclusive. The most positive part was of course, an announcement of lunch afterwards. Students and free food have an uncanny bond that is hard to define.