Globalisation is usually perceived from two standpoints: One focuses on the political economy and governance and the other on the politics of knowledge and culture. The current government under Narendra Modi confronts both but is more avid in its recognition of governance. Oddly, it defines governance often in cultural terms emphasising civic virtues like cleanliness and punctuality. The government, in fact, rode to power emphasising that the key words the Congress likes — secularism and nationalism —were empty and hypocritical. A huge majority felt coerced by these terms because it sought to repress their imagination. Nehruvian modernity, in its later incarnations, created an epidemic of discontent and the BJP rode to power exploiting this sense of malaise. What brought Modi to power is a Hindu, majoritarian, aspirational middle class. Electoral majoritarianism erected the Modi regime but it is the very culture of democracy that haunts it.
Firstly, democratic regimes have to face the contradictions of electoralism. Majorities often feel treated as minorities and, when they come to power, assert their majoritarianism not just demographically but culturally. Minorities today feel afraid of Modi and his regime because they feel electoral democracy may not safeguard their culture, livelihoods or their rights anymore. The regime has provided few assurances for such anxieties.
In fact, what trouble us today are not the regime’s statements but its silence. While Modi acts as a politician wearing the corsets of governance, his array of supporters are asserting a cultural hegemony. Opponents of Modi are peremptorily told to join the train to Pakistan. By default Modi is giving the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal a free reign. Their freedom to express is important but what one sees is growing authoritarianism, symbolic threats in terms of cultural hegemony.
For instance, the domain of education is getting peppered with little examples of saffron history and culture. But the media does not give place to a full-fledged critique of such projects. Modi himself seems to be confusing history, myth and folklore. Modi and his supporters have to realise that science is not a tool of fundamentalism, and when science is understood so instrumentally, it affects expectations from science. Science eventually seeks new knowledge. It is not a spring cleaning experiment.
Today the regime allows for a new sense of religion and religiosity. I think this is welcome. Yet there are dangers here. Firstly, our civilisation is pluralistic and syncretic. Hindu is an all-encompassing, all-embracing word. It is hospitable to other creeds and faiths. Modi and groups like RSS are semiticising Hinduism, tending to create uniformity, trying to reduce it to a catechism of dos and don’ts when Hinduism is an open ended way of life. Damaging Hinduism in the name of Hindutva might be the regime’s greatest crime.
To be sure, many in the majority today feel easier about themselves. Secularism has been absent-minded about justice, one-sided in its advocacy of suffering. It talks about dissent in Kashmir, often glorifies separatists but ignores the Kashmiri Pandit displaced from his home. Such unfairness needs to be rectified. However, it cannot be done by erring on the other side.
This brings us to the fact that development Modi-style can be hegemonic. The Modi model of development is rooted in Gujarat, where development is offered as a project of erasure, an invitation to citizenship in return for the ritual of forgetting the riots. Secondly, such development has little place for the secondary and the defeated.
The new aspiring class that Modi represents is in a hurry. It does not want to wait and is often ready to prioritise mobility over justice. Development, whatever the model, needs a theory of ethics and suffering, and the current regime lacks this. It abolished the Planning Commission but at least the presence of the institution allowed for debates on poverty and livelihood. All we now confront is void and silence. The debate around NREGA is proof of this. No doubt it was corrupt, inefficient but it did provide a space.
One can appreciate the government’s effort to remove outdated laws but erasing institutions needs deeper thought, debate. Bandwagons of erasure are not the answer.
For observers like me, the government needs to rethink culture, the culture of institutions and culture of the nation-state to be truly democratic. An emphasis on narrow governance can hide these sins.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad. The views expressed are personal)