Two views of future
Results are too varied to be explained by any single factor, writes Vir Sanghvi.
What was this election about? Was it only about local issues, as the BJP has claimed? Was it a mandate against reforms, as some people on the Left are arguing? Or was it simply a rejection of the BJP?
I don’t know. I suspect that the results are too varied and too complex to be explained by any single factor. But from my perspective, there was only one battle that mattered. Whenever foreigners ask me about Indian politics — one of those questions you dread because there are no simple explanations — I always retort that the last ten years have seen a conflict between two models of development.
The first is the old Nehruvian model. In this version, democracy and social justice were paramount. You valued the freedom of the press, ensured some level of distributive fairness and still tried to achieve economic growth. The problems with this model were, and still are, that a) it works very slowly, b) that impatient prime ministers (such as Indira Gandhi during the Emergency) forget the basic rules, and c) when this model is attached to the wrong economic policy, the poor may remain free but they also go hungry.
There is, however, a second model, one that owes a lot to the flourishing economies of East Asia. In this model, it is good to have a free press and, of course, democracy is nice, but that’s not what it is really about. The priority is economic growth. If you can make people rich, then they forget about freedom, social justice and the rest.
This model has its own problems. It may work in city-states like Singapore, but in more complex societies, the danger is that you will end up with crony capitalism, a high level of corruption and massive social and ethnic tensions bubbling below the surface, because fairness, social justice and the checks and balances of a classic democracy are all regarded as unnecessary.
India’s experience has been mixed. From 1975-7, Sanjay Gandhi tried the second model — with disastrous consequences. Rajiv Gandhi saw the need to preserve the strengths of the first model but recognised that economic policies had to be altered — sadly, the system didn’t let him move fast enough during his first term and then, he died just before he was ready to take office for a second term and get it right. The Congress government that took over after his assassination tried amending the first model and though the economic reforms benefited India, the government lost popular support because the prime minister did not care about social justice (the Babri Masjid demolition) and ran a sleazy sarkar where godmen did deals and MPs were bought and sold.
The last BJP government believed, in essence, in the second model. The BJP, itself, grew up in the RSS tradition where discipline is prized over free speech, and thus had no real commitment to liberal values. It had no interest in social justice. It’s position was that the minorities were welcome to fall in line, but if any of them ‘misbehaved’ (as it said the Muslims did with the Godhra massacre), then retribution would be swift and terrible.
Secularism, the BJP said, had been overdone. It was time for progress and prosperity. But it did not realise that social justice doesn’t only mean secularism. It also means that you do not allow a minority to prosper at the expense of the majority. The BJP believed that as long as the cable-TV viewing classes were rich and happy, the bulk of India’s population did not matter.
My concern has always been that while the second model suits people like myself who make our living from the cable-TV viewing classes, it is fraught with danger for India. If you slaughter Muslims on the streets of Gujarat and then praise the murderer (on the bizarre grounds that Hindus voted for him afterwards which proves that he’s really a great guy), you effectively write off 15 per cent of the population. And yet, the BJP acted as though this didn’t matter. It had the political rejects like Arif Mohammed Khan, the rent-a-mullahs like the Shahi Imam, and the Uncle Toms like the ludicrous Shahnawaz Hussain, and so, it fooled itself into believing that Muslims were on its side, and society was united.
As the BJP and the second model of development grabbed hold of the middle class, I began to worry. It was partly the fault of the media — and I include myself in this category — that we had become so middle class-centric in our attitudes. We regarded the level of the Sensex as a measure of India’s success, we treated brand creation and marketing as the new mantras and acted as though rural India was another country. We let the likes of Praveen Togadia appear on TV to say the most vicious and offensive things about Muslims and defended it on the grounds that we were providing an insight into the Sangh parivar mindset. (Contrast this with the restraint with which the media treated the poisonous Sadhvi Rithambara a decade ago.)
And yet — as the rout of the BJP in Bombay and Delhi demonstrates — I needn’t have worried. The middle class did not fall for the media’s biases. It did not want an India where Muslims were second class citizens, where crores of tax-payers’ rupees were spent to tell us that India was Shining. (That slogan in itself tells you something about the BJP campaign: every other party makes promises; these guys were content to boast.)
But now that the second view of India (epitomised also, I think, by Chandrababu Naidu) has been defeated, we run another risk: of going back to the unreformed first model.
If you listen to all the nonsense that the Left has been spewing over the last few days, you would think that many of them still had little shrines to Josef Stalin in their houses (except perhaps for Harkishan Singh Surjeet who sounds like he has a shrine to Amar Singh).
Many of us respect the Left because it has the right views on social justice. But let’s be honest. It also has no tradition of democracy and free speech. (Show me a communist country with a free press and I’ll show you a masjid at an RSS headquarters). Its ideology has been comprehensively defeated nearly everywhere in the world. It survives in India not so much a communist party but as two regional parties (in Kerala and in Bengal where it has run the state’s industry to the ground).
There is no doubt that reforms without social justice will not work. But it is as clear that social justice without reforms will set India back ten years. If the commissars and the Stalinists of the Left do not back off, then we are all in deep trouble.
Optimists say that it would be a mistake to read too much into the Left’s rhetoric. The Manmohan Singh reforms were started by a minority Congress government that had the Left’s support. P. Chidambaram continued the process even though his government was kept in office by the Left. So, once the initial urge to appear on TV has been satisfied, the Left will fall in line.
I hope this view is correct. The alternative to the Shakha Pramukh is not the Commissar. If India is to progress then we need to follow the example of Britain’s Labour Party which took the basic values of social justice but combined them with economic liberalisation to create the election-winning New Labour.
Though Tony Blair now has his own problems, the most impressive achievement of his leadership, in the early years, was that it was able to free Labour of the entrenched interests of the trade unions, abandon the discredited slogan of nationalisation and build a multi-ethnic, multi-racial Britain that respected the virtues of capitalism but also recognised the importance of building a society that cared for everyone —not just the well-off or the white.
The true test of Sonia Gandhi’s leadership will be whether she can create a party that combines the traditional Indian strengths of entrepreneurial initiative and a decent, caring society.
If she can pull that off, then she will have created a new Congress.
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