Friday, April 5, 2013

The unbearable rightness of being

It looks likely that either Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi is going to be the next Prime Minister of India. Both are getting a lot of press coverage. Of late the English-language press is working hard to rehabilitate the first and trash the second (along with his mother, family, party, government etc) so it's quite clear who they think is going to win.

The key point is that there are going to be two distinct models on offer next year. Both have their positive and negative features. Most people I know would like to stay within their comfort zone and keep repeating one of the following statements: (i) I detest Mr Modi because he is a fascist, (ii) I can't stand the Sonia Gandhi family, and the UPA government has been a failure. A few people say both, but most will agree that one of these two sentences resonates more with them than the other.

I've long been in the category for whom (i) resonates more than (ii). In fact I don't have any negative feelings about this particular Ms Gandhi: it's clear to me that she had a popular mandate to be Prime Minister of India in 2004 and was hounded out of the post by middle-class bigots crying "Foreigner! White person! Woman! Christian!". For me that remains one of the more ugly events in the history of Indian democracy. She handled it very gracefully, and grace has continued to be her hallmark. And look at the rest of her family. They don't preen and posture in public. When they do say something it may not be brilliant or insightful but it is usually quite accurate. And they maintain their grace in the face of venomous abuse from a right-wing that despises both their liberal agenda and their good manners which make other Indian political families look even cruder than they already are.

Of course you can't run a country on grace and good manners alone. The Gandhi family and the Congress government don't come across as dynamic, a label that sticks better to Mr Modi. He is seen as pro-industry, pro-infrastructure and, as a bonus, non-corrupt. Responding to the fascist label, his supporters point out that he has not actually been found guilty of masterminding the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, and they add in the same breath that the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, conducted by Congress supporters, killed more people and the guilty were never punished. On both these points I don't disagree with them.

And yet, by his own admission Mr Modi is no liberal. His vision is a muscular and majoritarian one in which concern for the underprivileged is a convenient showpiece rather than a deeply felt principle. One doesn't have to read too far between the lines to see that in his world the poor, weak and marginalised are expected to understand their place in society and stay within its confines. He and his party would like religion to play a more powerful role in our lives and will pressurise us to cede our individual preferences to a common, majority-determined agenda. It is this composite package, rather than a single period of bloody riots, that really typifies the right-wing universe. And the pressure to surrender individuality is indeed the seed of fascism.

Is this what one wants India to become? That depends on who one is. I suspect that under right-wing governments the rich tend to benefit, while the poor tend to do worse (the poor can nevertheless be induced to vote for such governments, as both US Republicans and UK Conservatives are well aware). So it's quite likely that under Mr Modi the rich will get richer. In itself, this is no bad thing. I don't share the popular Indian middle-class view that people richer than us are evil just because they are richer than us. But how the poor will fare is important too, and far less clear. What are their relative prospects under the "dynamic" rightwingers as against the more sluggish dispensation presently in power? Among industrialists -- and the journalists who are so often their proxies -- it's taken for granted that if the government unconditionally supports the generators of wealth then everyone will be better off, and therefore Modi is the right choice. But history tells us this claim is sometimes true and sometimes false, so I would say it remains an open question. It's quite possible that in today's India the sluggish dispensation will, like the proverbial tortoise, actually get there faster for the people who need it most.

Still, I'm betting on Mr Modi to win the top position next year.


ahannaasmi said...

I think one "feature" of the Nehru-Gandhi family you did not mention is the inexplicable protection they enjoy from scrutiny by media and or government agencies. Consider for example the recent Khemka-Vadra affair. And the late Rajeev Gandhi was perhaps the biggest "preener and posturer" of them all (cf. his "The earth shakes when a big tree falls" comment in the aftermath of the Delhi riots).

Also, I don't think Sonia Gandhi's behavior after 2004 deserves being called graceful: it was more akin to a sleight of hand. Of course, the grounds on which the BJP protested against her being appointed as the PM were rather ugly (as you point out), but the spin of "sacrifice" that her party tried to put on the performance that ensued was also not very "graceful". Within weeks of having "sacrificed" the PM's chair Sonia Gandhi was appointed the chairwoman of the newly formulated NAC, and given all the facilities and emoluments of a Cabinet Minister, sans the public scrutiny that goes with being one. I certainly wouldn't call such shenanigans "graceful".

Neelima said...

Some of the support for Narendra Modi arises for the same reasons that support for Ms Thatcher arose, as detailed in your post above, independent of BJP's religious agenda, viz. a version of economic development that benefits a certain class. It is also useful to justify the religious agenda subconsciously held by those who swear to be secular.

However, nations do survive every type of leader, government and policy, and ours certainly has. Hopefully, that will work once again.

mathematicus ignis said...

sir, sonia gandhi was incapable of becoming a prime minister.if she had , she would had to represent india a important summits like SAARC etc, with her foreign counterparts etc and she wasn't capable of dealing with that because. there are many other administrative duties of PM which requires knowledge ,skills and experience she has none except fluency in english!