One of the world’s most influential economic journalists, Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, has said it’s not absurd to claim that the election just completed is “the most momentous in world history”. “If the election of Narendra Modi was to transform India it would transform the world.” But that is a big ‘if’ and Wolf adds an important warning. “India must accelerate development in ways seen to benefit the vast majority of the people not just the elites.”
It is the elites who are the danger to Modi. Their influence is disproportionate to what should be their importance and they believe that what is good for them is good for the rest of India. Their attitude to civil society is an example of this. Civil society deals with the rest of India, not with them, so the elites have no time for NGOs and the like. They are the ones who are now mocking jholawalas, debunking environmentalists’ concerns, pooh-poohing the last government’s welfare measures as sops or doles. Journalist Shekhar Gupta has included in his recently published collection of articles one in which he says: “India has the most retrograde environmental and jholawala movements in the history of mankind.” I am not saying that all the welfare measures introduced by UPA 1 and 2 should be retained, or that there isn’t a need to improve the delivery of those that remain in place. But there is a danger that the scorn being poured on the Congress-led government and Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council will wash away the contribution civil society and welfare measures can make.
Those contributions go far beyond relieving poverty. Modi will find it takes time to usher in his promised “new age, new India”. While that process is taking place he should also not underestimate the need to provide immediate relief to the poor. It’s all very well talking about giving a poor man a fishing-rod rather than providing him fish to eat, but until you can provide the rod it’s necessary to provide the fish.
At one stage in his campaign Modi alleged that NGOs, an important part of civil society, were ganging up with the Congress to make sure he didn’t become prime minister. But now that he has achieved that goal he might recall the remarkable work of civil society in his own state. Civil society can be defined as a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity. Verghese Kurien linked thousands and thousands of farmers in the Anand Cooperative to pursue their common interests in creating a market and getting a fair price for their milk. SEWA, the trade union Ela Bhatt founded, provides protection for countless unprotected women workers. Ninety-four per cent of the female labour force have no protection. In the drought that afflicted Gujarat at the turn of the century it was the campaign run by the newspaper Fulchab that brought villagers together to start water-harvesting in Saurashtra. All these civil society initiatives have contributed to the Gujarat model.
The railways themselves are evidence of the disconnect between the elite and the rest. While gleaming new airports have sprung up all over the country, the influential echelons of society pay little or no attention to the dismal state of railway stations. Now instead of considering what ordinary Indians want from their railways, the new government is in danger of succumbing to pressure from the elite. There is talk of investing in bullet trains. For the elite they will be a welcome alternative to the tedium of flying.
So if Modi wants history to declare his election momentous, he should not just listen to those elites but cultivate an ear that also hears what ordinary Indians want. Listening to civil society is one way of hearing that. Listening to railway passengers is another source.
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)