Over the last eighteen months, we have been exposed to a masterclass in governance. The freshly minted politically-minded Congress-hating (predominantly male) Indian is the typical profile of what I will call in this column – the ‘political Indian’. This is the group that brought the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to power – either by actively campaigning for it, or by trusting in the myth of the one-man miracle worker, or due to their extreme disdain for all things Congress.
Understandable then, that they have been the primary recipients of this intensive training in the realities of governing India. In place of the unhindered frustration, ridicule and abuse thrown at the previous government over issues such as corruption, economy, law and order, and foreign relations, the political Indian now exhibits tremendous sagacity and patience. After all, those undoing the damage inflicted upon this great nation over the past six decades (or it is the past seventy decades?) need our unstinted support.
This change in attitude and the forbearance that came with it is thanks to our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The lessons from the last eighteen months have been rich and varied in dimension, and together, they have altered the vantage points of the political Indian with respect to the intricacies of governing a country as large and complex as India.
So what are these lessons that have been learnt?
- First is the primacy of development in our political discourse. The politics of caste is now passe, ‘development for all’ is what matters. Shared prosperity is the most effective way to come out of social conflicts. Governments in India, both at the centre and the states need to focus on economic reforms that are long overdue. Creation of a single unified market, with instruments such as the Goods and Services Tax is critical.
- Next, we now have a better understanding of the federal structure of our country. Delhi is a ‘glorified municipality’ and Bihar is casteist. So it is not surprising that the charms of national parties fail there. Of course, state elections are fought on local issues, and are not a referendum on the performance of the central government. Knowing this, we must be committed to strengthening the federal structure of our country. State governments matter. Our constitution sets out a list of exclusive domains for state governments, and yet the union government attempts to routinely infringe upon them in one form or the other. The true spirit of federalism demands that states get more autonomy in managing their affairs. Law and order is a state subject, and so are building schools, clinics houses and toilets. If states fail, the primary responsibility for this lies with them.
- Third, our social fabric at the moment is irreparably damaged. Rapes, caste-based violence and atrocities against minorities reflect an ugly side of our culture and are divisions all political parties – bar none –opportunistically exploit. While specific incidents can be prevented through better law and order arrangements, if an overall climate of hate and fear is created, the responsibility for that lies with us and not with any political or cultural organisation. When the government law enforcement machinery intervenes, it does so to protect us, and to do so, it can impose reasonable restrictions on individual freedom.
- Fourth, in order to understand the insidious nature of propaganda that fuels this hate, look very carefully at the role of the media. Corporate-owned media have corporate (and political) agendas. We need to guard against becoming passive recipients of news, examining even reportage as carefully as we would political rhetoric. It is therefore also pointless to hyper-ventilate in a manner similar to prime-time television studios on issues that are picked out for debate, night after night.
- Fifth, our economy is intricately tied to the global economy. Prices of oil and other crucial commodities, the Chinese economy and the Greek bail-out – all have an effect on our indicators fare, at least in the short to medium term. Monsoons continue to determine the fates of our farmers and governments. This is unlikely to change in the short-term. One can fault the union government of the day for its emergency response, but there are structural issues at play that are often beyond their control.
- Sixth, international relations are complex. Bilateral relationships with our neighbours such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh need great political finesse and state-craft; treaties on black money, extradition of terrorists, maritime law, etc are often a matter of give-and-take. Even a small country like Nepal can teach us a lesson in constitutional sovereignty. Multilateral agreements can have a large bearing on these issues, as we have seen with climate change negotiations.
- Finally, the most important lesson is that no one man possesses a magic wand to do away with all our problems. As the points above demonstrate, good governance requires a collective effort towards reform, which needs a combination of the ‘big-bang’ and ‘gradual’. This also means that while 100-day targets and the like are traditional political posturing, they do not reflect the rigours of governance.
On one hand, these lessons make for a more ‘civil’ citizens – a key attribute for domestic peace and calm. As the political Indian grows to be more accepting of the constraints to good governance, he insists – louder than ever – that those asking more of the government of the day have no locus standi. So when today, writers, filmmakers and scientists protest, they are comfortably dismissed as politically motivated and irrelevant. Also, in the current scenario where an unending calendar or state-level election campaigns continue to take precedence over the complex task of governing the country, a patient citizenry is of the essence. This patient political citizen also dispenses sagely advice on how to interpret electoral trends when faced with adverse results. While doing so, their moral compunctions regarding corrupt, illiterate or dynastic politicians come to the fore.
But there is another important purpose the political Indian now serves, and this relates to Brand India on the global stage. Indians have always prided themselves in being different from the rest of the world, and we have to continue to strive to retain that characteristic. From our past, our leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement and our espousal of the ‘mixed economy’ stand out at exemplars of our differentiation on the global stage that were also used to feed our domestic pride.
This time around, it is a unique model of governance that we wish to sell. The USP of this branding strategy is our ability to juggle contradictions that strike at the heart of our democracy and culture. Never mind the fact that Indians have a long and rich tradition of successfully embracing modernity in their own unique ways; the attempt now is to roll the clock back some, and then some more. Our government is keen to demonstrate that India is a country of both mouse-charmers and cow-worshippers; that like the United States, we can lead the world on innovation and like Russia, strike down swiftly on dissent. All this, without allowing the contradictions take away from the swagger of an emerging global superpower.
For all of this to work, individuals have to embody these qualities. It is slowly becoming apparent that the sagacious political Indian can unabashedly pull off a primitive interior within a plural exterior. With just eighteen months of priming, we have indeed come a long way.