2 March 2014

Modi, Development and Indian Middle Classes

With the dust having finally settled down on Modi’s ‘ascension’ – as against Rahul baba’s ‘coronation’ – and with the tireless NaMo running across length and breadth of the country with his vision of India and ‘India First’ homilies in a manner which makes you wonder if Gujarat government is running on autopilot, I have finally overcome my inertia and decided to finish this blogpost which has been a work-in-progress since quite some time. Since my views on Modi and most of the things that he stands for – starting from economy to Hindutva – is quite well known to my Facebook friends, let me start with a cliché.
Modi’s detractors on the left, liberal side of the spectrum accuse him being a highly polarizing and divisive figure – someone who inspires either extreme admiration or extreme loathing. No one can really have a proverbial love-hate relationship with him. To a large extent, I am in agreement with this based on what I have come across amongst people. This image of being polarizing is not just based on his baggage from 2002 – wherein tried and tested antics of Hindu right won him handsome electoral dividends – but is also reinforced by his legions of supporters on the internet. Any criticism of Modi or his ‘Gujarat model of development’ is met with scorn and abuse. Any reference to Gujarat’s less than impressive human development index (states like Tamilnadu, Kerala and Maharashtra fare much better) makes you a Congressi (They spell it as ‘Con-gressi’ with ‘con’ in bold type). Any mention of 2002, immediately brings about standard responses of ‘What about 1984’. The message is this: you are either with us or against us. You are either an admirer (if not worshipper of NaMo) or you are a consumer of ‘Congress-wadi, paid media’ run by the likes of Barkha Dutt and Sagarika Ghose. There is no scope of a discussion or debate. You must choose. A natural extension of such a stunted view is that India’s politics has only 2 alternatives – Congress’ family-run franchisee model patronage networks supported by socialist-era mai-baap Sarkari doles for pre-identified vote banks and Modi’s model of ‘getting things done and delivering’ which is comfortable with trampling rights of a many for ‘greater common good’ of a few. It is this binary which is most appealing to India’s middle class, the typical FB-crawling guy who calls himself politically aware but is short on both patience and critical thinking to understand how politics in this country works. Thankfully, elections are not fought on Facebook. 

To me (and there are many others), it is this divisiveness of Modi which makes him unsuitable to govern a country as heterogeneous as India. This was precisely the reason which made AB Vajpayee the PM in the NDA government and not LK Advani, to whom BJP actually owed its victory. Moreover, in past 2 decades India’s politics has become highly localized – and will continue to be so – where a DMK more concerned with stoking Tamil sentiments and quasi-nationalisms, shows a middle finger to the diplomatic costs associated with alienating an otherwise friendly Sri Lanka. Considering India’s diversity and this age of coalition politics, I am curious how Modi’s ‘India First’ (putting countries interest ahead of regional, linguistic, religious and other parochial interests) hyperbole is going to work in practice. This brings me to the subject of Nationalism. BJP has always identified itself as a nationalist party, never mind that with a support base restricted to the Hindi heartland that too primarily amongst the upper caste, upper class Hindus, it probably can’t even speak for 40% of the populace. Now, in a nation where another 40% of the people can’t think beyond mere survival, it is a bit rich to expect a coal scavenger working in subhuman conditions in Lalmatiya, Bihar to believe that Kashmir is an inalienable part of India (whose territorial idea of India itself may be a bit fuzzy) or expect a tribal rendered homeless as a result of a big dam to believe that electricity from the consequent hydel power will lessen India’s crippling power shortage. (You may say that the electricity will also light up his home and enable his son to finish high school but you need to have homes and schools to begin with). These (Kashmir, dams, power plants) are things which capture the imagination of the middle classes who become all red in face with faux-indignation because sovereignty of their country has been affronted when a foreign country, which doesn’t care about how well-connected you are back home, follows their due process of law against an erring diplomat. These are the issues on which Arun Jaitleys and Ravi Shankar Prasads make the right noises on prime time telly watched by people who are purportedly potential customers of platinum love bands and Swarovski crystals. Keep an unsmiling and austere looking face and you give a message that we mean business, no pussyfooting when it comes to questions of sovereignty, national security, yada, yada.

A decade back BJP used to call itself a party-with-a-difference, though the larger party hardly seems to matter in this election. (Here again if BJP rightly claims that Congress is nothing but one family, then BJP is also a party run by proxies who are in turn remote-controlled by the khaki knickers of Nagpur). For all their accusations of Congress, can they truly claim to have played the role of a constructive opposition in last 10 years? Instead of fielding their key leaders on 9 pm telly, can’t they have formed a shadow cabinet on the lines of what they have in the UK and played a more constructive role? But, that is more difficult than simple hectoring and walkouts. 

Another issue with Modi, which is related to being-acceptable-to-most-if-not-all is his autocratic style of functioning. For those who doubt that his style is not one of that of either-my-way-or-highway, just try to recall the names of a couple of his Cabinet colleagues (That rogue named Amit Shah doesn’t count). In all probability, Gujarat Cabinet is a rubber stamp which just endorses whatever the Chief Minister has already made up his mind on. To be charitable to Modi, there are other autocratic CMs like Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee in the country. An autocratic style of functioning often leads to creation of a personality cult. Today, in minds of most non-Gujarati, middle class Indians, Gujarat is synonymous with Modi – Gujarat is Modi and Modi is Gujarat (Remember Indira is India and India is Indira?). From Mr. Bachchan promoting Gujarat Tourism, to Sabarmati Waterfront, to expressways of Gujarat, it all begins and ends with one man. Here is another example. To prove the point that Modi is non-partisan, his supporters will say that he has demolished many unauthorized temples within Ahmedabad city limits. What they probably don’t know is that such demolitions fall under the jurisdiction of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and not their beloved leader’s state government. So, anything good happening in Gujarat automatically gets attributed to Modi. Next time a Gujarati scales the Mt. Everest, they will say it was Modi’s vision of putting Gujarati on Everest to begin with. And Modi himself has done nothing to demolish such a cult – from Modi masks being worn by thousands who throng his rallies to 3D Images to NaMo TV to using social media and websites like Niti Central to promote blatant lies, all such gestures by ‘Modi fan boys’ have the man’s tacit endorsement. While you can brush aside tall claims of uninterrupted power supply, Rambo-style evacuation of Gujjus during Uttarakhand floods and photos of I-am-happy-with-Gujarat’s-development Muslims as pushing the agenda by partisans, how can one ignore Modi’s own intellectual dishonesty? While he (and BJP) has rightly pilloried the Congress for promoting a cult around a particular family as long as one can remember, now he himself is guilty of the same error.

Another halo conjured up by Modi’s supporters is his perceived incorruptibility and how his Gujarat example shows that development can happen without the bane of corruption. While he rightly pillories Congress for the rise of crony capitalism of the sort which we have seen during last decade or so, it is only the naïve who will believe that doing business in Gujarat doesn’t need political patronage. While Adani is in news these days for his perceived closeness to Modi, a little investigation reveals that Modi government is guilty of all the crimes which he blames Congress and other parties for – handing over land to business houses at throwaway prices, turning a blind eye to violation of environmental norms, making cheap gas available to his favoured business groups etc. Behind all the glitter of Modi’s Gujarat, there are stories of farmers protest in Bhavnagar against a proposed nuclear plant and pollution of coastal ecosystem due blatant violation of green norms by Adani’s Mundhra port.

Then there is the message of the man. His message is something which strikes a chord with loath-to-pay-taxes middle classes who can afford that1.6 litre sedan but don’t have the roads to drive it. A minimal government (His slogan is Minimum Government, Maximum Governance), top-notch infrastructure which will tell the goras visiting ‘Incredible India’ that India has indeed arrived, functioning public services (he doesn’t tell you that you will be expected to pay at ‘private’ rates to avail these ‘public’ services. Well, if you can’t, tough luck, chote.), rapid industrialization and so on.

I have two issues with this so-called vision of development – actually one should ideally spend some time to define what exactly is this beast called ‘development’. To most minds rooting for Modi, it starts and ends at infrastructure – water supply, power, rapid transit systems, metros for urban transport, roads, ports, highways, airports. It doesn’t talk about environment, agriculture, schools, primary health centres and other such non-glamorous stuff. After all people who have their bellies full hardly need to bother about where will be the land left to grow food if all the land is handed over to Adanis and Ambanis. Firstly, while Modi talks about how this and that inefficient government service should be privatized starting from Railways to Ordnance Factories to public Utilities, I am a bit hard-pressed to recall how he intends to provide universal education and healthcare – two most basic components of human development index – probably, by letting apro Mukesh-bhai to run a series of Dhirubhai Ambani International schools and hospitals.

My second issue with NaMo’s so-called vision is in its lack of details. He roars – his rallies have names like ‘hunkaar’ and ‘lalkaar’ to further reinforce his machismo – about giving a befitting reply to China’s intransigence by mobilizing the armed forces (that makes him decisive) but doesn’t explain how roads and associated infrastructure will be built overnight in a terrain which is mostly disadvantageous to India. He talks about indigenizing defence production to cut down corruption in defence deals. He doesn’t say how he manages to do something which DRDO and nine Defence PSUs have failed to do in past 50 years. (Privatise DRDO perhaps? J) He talks about eliminating poverty and creating jobs and by extension harps on how Congress has fooled and kept people deliberately poor for 65 odd years. He doesn’t explain how a population lacking basic skills and education will be absorbed in the job market. (assuming such a job market indeed gets created by industries brought about by his regime’s intense wooing, land offered at low prices by booting out farmers and emasculation of trade unions by relaxed labour laws. Remember, most of the investment claims touted from Vibrant Gujarat summits are just that, claims.) He doesn’t tell you that unleashing entrepreneurial energy by cutting red-tape may create jobs but will also give rise to crony-capitalism of the sort that has flourished under Congress. This is exactly the strategy which Congress has played around since years – so you have a Right to Food program which intends to eliminate something as dehumanizing as hunger but its foremost advocates are hazy on where the whereabouts of 1,60,000 Crore rupees will come from to eliminate malnutrition from this country and ensuring that hunger shouldn’t keep kids out of school. But Modi’s core constituency doesn’t have the time and patience for such details. They want quick, neat and decisive solutions as long as they themselves don’t have to bear the cost of such solutions. What they don't understand is the state - however inefficient and corrupt it may be - simply cannot abdicate its responsibilities in certain areas, particularly social sector. To offer a simplistic example, I doubt if any mobile service apart from BSNL works in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh.

There is a reason after all why so little scholarship, literature, art has come out of this country’s right. They are at the forefront to attack researchers and artists and burning books and effigies but when was the last time they produced or created something which this country could be proud of. But that is story for another day.

Modi’s one great strength is his oration. In a nation used to seeing geriatric dhoti-wallahs reading out prepared speeches, answering to pre-screened questions from tutored journalists in stage-managed press briefings and sighing at the speeches of Obama and other sharply-dressed Western leaders, it is refreshing to see someone who exudes energy while speaking impromptu with the right intonation, voice modulation and connects with the audience all the while (never mind his latest gaffes with historical facts). Pepper the speech with personal attacks like calling the Prime Minister a night watchman; referring to his potential opponent for PM post as shehzada and head of current coalition government as Pardesi Bahu, you know that your speech will be even more appealing to your equally uncouth supporters. It seems that name calling automatically makes you a strong leader. While this little man doesn’t have the stature or statesmanship of Vajpayee, it seems that he hasn’t even inherited the values of the previous generations of BJP/Jana Sangh leaders.

In his bid to create a strong leader image with chappan ki chaati (56" chest) he has very smartly hijacked the legacies of leaders like Sardar Patel and Netaji Subash Bose. In Gujarat, he has been long known as ‘chote Sardar’ and his so-called ‘Vikas Purush’ image borrows more than a few things from Sardar Patel’s ‘Louh Purush’.

A lot has been said about how Modi has changed the face of Gujarat but the fact of the matter is Gujarat has been more urbanized, industralised and developed than most other states even when Modi was a nobody. My parents arriving in an industrial township of South Gujarat in early eighties could out rightly see the stark differences from their native Bengal. So, Gujarat’s development has much less to do with Modi than it has to with that legendary entrepreneurial spirit of Gujaratis. Gujaratis as a race have done extremely well for themselves wherever they have gone – starting from trading with Arabs since the middle of second millennium to establishing trading posts in East Africa to pickle and papad manufacturers of the UK to ‘Potels’ of small-town America to young, educated professionals at London’s Canary Wharf financial district. Still one must say that state’s leadership did have a role to play in making Gujarat what it is today. But here again monopolizing Modi’s leadership for claiming all the great things about Gujarat today – and there are plenty – will be belittling the achievements of many others who preceded him. So, these days when I see the outrage of my Gujarati friends on slightest criticism of Modi, I find it strange that the people who gave leaders like Gandhi and Patel have to look up to a demagogue for their asmita.

But Gujarat is not India and more than anyone else, Modi knows this. What has worked in Gujarat won't work in rest of the country. Just like AAP’s success in an urban setup like Delhi doesn’t mean that they are going to bring in a revolution in this country’s politics. That is also the reason why his "hum paanch humare panchis" (sloganeering in the run-up to 2002 elections which he won by a landslide in a highly polarized environment) is being toned down to "Devalaya se pehle shauchalaya". (Anyone who thinks that Modi is fighting this election purely on the agenda of development need look no further than the recent Muzzaffarnagar riots and the fact that his man Friday Amit Shah is further burnishing his Hindutva credentials as campaign-in-charge of UP, the most critical state in any general election) This is why a Rajnath Singh is attempting to apologise to the largest religious minority of this county.

Modi’s rise has inevitably made his detractors to bring back the ghosts of 2002 and by extension, the accompanying cries of ‘Courts have exonerated Modi’ and ‘What about 1984’ from his supporters. Here’s is what I will say in response to the first comment of his supporters. I have no idea whether he personally ordered the police to stand back and let ‘Hindus vent their anger’ but I will narrate 2 examples of what happened during and after the riots which suggest that there is no smoke without fire. During Feb-March 2002, I was in my 6th semester of engineering at a small town in central Gujarat around 60 kms from Ahmedabad. While I never saw actual rioting and killing, I had seen petrol bombs being assembled, mobs armed with lathis, cricket bats, stumps, sickles assembling in parking lots of middle class apartments and Muslim shops being burnt in our mostly Hindu neighbourhood. In one instance, the local police threw teargas to disperse a reasonably armed Hindu mob. In response to that, a VHP goon called up the local DSP and swore at him with loaded expletives. Having personally seen such sheer impudence to authorities, one can’t help but think that these folks had blessings from many higher-ups in the administrative hierarchy. The second example is a matter of record about how most of the IPS officers who considered maintenance of law and order as their foremost duty and tried controlling the spread of riots by making proactive arrests and clamping strict curfews were punished by the Modi administration after the riots by initiating disciplinary proceedings, transfers etc. It was largely due to proactive steps taken by people like VK Gupta (then Commissioner of Surat), that communally sensitive cities like Surat saw minimal casualties due to riots.

Yes, one of the lower courts in Gujarat has exonerated Modi and his guilt may never be proven beyond reasonable doubt because our justice system requires evidence and deposition by independent witnesses. In a system where sitting judges have their rates fixed and where the rich and powerful routinely manipulate hearings of commissions, coerce witnesses, tamper with evidence and eventually get scot-free, Modi is bound to be exonerated simply because there is very little against him which will stand the scrutiny of court. Let’s for the sake of argument forget that Supreme Court appointed an amicus curie to monitor the SIT investigation into Gulberg Society massacre, that Haren Pandya’s didn’t die a mysterious death which had something to do with his secret deposition to Nanavati Commission. But what about Modi’s own moral pretensions? At the end of the day, he, as an elected representative of people, failed to protect their life and property. That is a sufficient reason for his head to have rolled – the way heads rolled starting from Home Minister to Maharashtra CM in the aftermath of 26/11. In any western democracy, an insensitive remark of the likes of every action has an equal and opposite reaction would have been sufficient for a leader to lose his job. This brings me to ‘What about 1984’. Let me unequivocally state here that I believe Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Fall of a big tree shakes up the earth’ was equally insensitive for him to lose his job. But while Congress at least put up the sham of not giving tickets to the likes of Tytler and Sajjan Kumar (mostly due to electoral exigencies), Modi appointed Maya Kodani, who was eventually convicted with life imprisonment for leading riots, to his cabinet. I won’t compare Manmohan Singh’s apology in parliament with Rajnath Singh’s ‘offer’ of apology because in a modern democracy only, and only, the law of the land should prevail. Apologies are meaningless.

Reasons for Modi to be able to ride rough shod over such moral pretensions and electoral exigencies lie in the demographic composition and social make-up of his Gujarati electorate. Muslims constitute only 8% of Gujarat’s population which allows Modi to care two hoots about Muslim votes (this is another point where Modi knows India is not Gujarat). Moreover, the most Dawoodi and Bohra Muslim communities of Gujarat are successful entrepreneurs and reasonably well-off when compared to their brethren elsewhere in the country. They are pragmatic enough to understand that endless confrontations won’t yield much and they need to make the best in the given circumstances and so have made their peace. This helps Modi to put across the narrative of ‘people have moved on’ to the rest of the world.

Another factor is the social polarization of the Gujarati society and this has got little to do with Modi. Communalisation of the state started mostly in mid-80s when Congress tried to implement the KHAM (Khsatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula. The result is that today the average Gujarati society is so polarized that a middle-of-the-road party doesn’t stand a candle's chance in a cyclone. While all major Indian cities have Muslim ghettoes and so-called mini-Pakistans, you will see the polarization a notch higher in larger and reasonably cosmopolitan Gujarati cities like Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat. I am not aware how things are in small towns. There are entire Gujarati colonies in Bombay where Muslims can’t rent apartments, where builders refuse to sell apartments to Muslims. And this has got nothing to do with Modi. But the fact remains that the home state of the man who fought his whole life and eventually gave it up for the sake of communal harmony had become fertile enough – since mid-80s or latest by 1992 Ram Janmabhoomi mobilization – for the rise of a man like Modi.

There is one more thing which my friend A was talking about sometime back. Indians have traditionally looked up to one person to set things right. They keep wondering how things would have been different if a Sardar Patel or Subhash Bose had their time at the helm. It is the same idea which makes Modi appealing as a modern-day Messiah, who will clear up the mess, set everything right and bring back the glorious old days for India to take her rightful place on world stage. I personally believe that power of one man or woman to change the course of history has been over-stated. Some of the greatest achievements of modern mankind have been incessant, incremental efforts of thousands of men and women who wanted to make a difference in face of insurmountable odds. Even the vision wouldn’t have been of just one man.

Ascent of a man like Modi has a lot to do with India’s Middle Class about which I have written earlier. Modi knows – more than me and you – that perception is reality. He is aware of the gullibility and hypocrisy of the middle classes in all spheres of public and private life – from corruption to sexuality. For all their professed political awareness and so-called education, they are too lazy to look beyond the rhetorical bullshit dished out in what passes as media in this country - both print and electronic. So, they tell themselves that they pay all the income tax while the slum dwellers ride free but are not wont to acknowledge that slum dwellers not only pay taxes when they buy a packet of bidi or Parle-G but also contribute to an informal economy which provides them cheap labour.

Another issue with us (this country's middle class) is the absence of engagement with the larger community. Hinduism actually rationalizes poverty and suffering as fruits of bad karma from past lives. The poverty exists next door, cheek-by-jowl with my air-conditioned sedan but it has nothing to do with me but everything to do with govt., state, sarkar, that imaginary Bhup Singh sitting in Delhi. So, we will curse everything from Nehruvian socialism to populist handouts. Middle class will cringe at paying higher taxes but doesn't realize that their spending (aka consumerist hedonism) is not really trickling down but fattening the few fat cats of this country's oligarchy (Whatever the unleashing of entrepreneurial energy may mean - wealth has simply not trickled down). A natural extension is refusal to accept that the state does have a redistributive responsibility. All this makes it easier for a man like Modi to sell his prescription of decisive leadership all the while knowing that on-the-ground achievement of most of it is a pipe dream. Why the implementation is a pipe-dream?

To my mind, in a setup like ours, inability of a leader to take concrete steps for progress of the country has little to do with his indecisiveness but a lot to do with inherent contradictions in our country’s social and economic life and the ever-widening gulf in wealth distribution. Any decision will always be detrimental to one or other group and implementation of such decisions will be mostly fraught with vociferous opposition which can be overcome only by means of force backed by the power of state machinery. Such an approach may work as they do in China but as long as India remains a moderately functioning democracy anchored by a liberal Constitution such uses of force by the state will only result in further unrest, instability and resentment.

Listening to Modi’s fiery speeches often makes me think of today’s India’s parallels with the Weimar Germany. While Modi is no Fuhrer, there are some inescapable similarities between today’s India and Germany of 1920s – chronic political instability, sky-rocketing inflation and unemployment, a nose diving economy, a disenchanted middle class. In short, a situation ripe for a Messiah-like leader to rise from the ashes. To that extent, Congress has only made rise of Modi easier. In Germany before WW II, many otherwise sane and reasonable Germans were disenchanted enough to buy into Hitler’s strong-arm, nationalist rhetoric. While it will be a little too far-fetched to imagine that Indian public is at a similar point of history (for this we must thank this country’s pluralism), we can do with saner voices.
Democracies, by nature are messy. Dreams of an orderly society where everything works with a clockwork precision are tempting but we need to keep in mind that the desire to achieve order and efficiency should not be at the cost of individual liberty – a cherished gift for which mankind has fought long and hard. Being subjected to long periods of colonisations, Indians still have a tendency for mob justice and are used to tyranny of one man with a caveat. The caveat is that it is fine to wield the danda as long as I am not at its receiving end. So, AFSPA can continue in J&K in the sacrosanct name of national security as long as armed soldiers don’t barge into my home in the middle of night. Despotic tyranny may build world class infrastructure but there is always a cost involved. The question today is whether that cost is acceptable to us – environmental destruction, trampling of individual liberties and a deeply fractured and unequal society – just to chase a development which itself may be a chimera.

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