'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Friday, May 16, 2014
Siddharth Varadarajan - The promise, and peril, of Modi’s mandate // Peter Ronald deSouza - Sensex and sensibility
The promise, and peril, of Modi’s mandate
If the struggle of Narendra Modi for power is the struggle of forgetting over memory, his victory represents a collective leap towards an uncertain future.
Mr Modi’s remarkable election campaign may have been fuelled by unprecedented sums of money and magnified by the logic of the first-past-the-post system — which converted a 12 percentage point difference in vote share with the Congress into a 600 per cent difference in seats – but it has helped him banish, for all intents and purposes, the lingering shadows of a darker past.
Troubling questions about his record that were met earlier with menacing silence or anger, but never answers, can no longer be asked. With the absolute majority Mr Modi has now delivered for the BJP, a new ledger of accounts has been opened. Any audit of his record will henceforth be on his own terms.
Narendra Damodar Modi asked the electorate for 272+ seats and they have given it to him. He asked voters for a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ – an India free of the Congress – and they have handed it to him. So reviled was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and so terrible its record of governance that the party has justifiably suffered the worst defeat in its 129-year history.
The ‘Modi Wave’ left nearly 60 per cent of the electorate cold and failed to make a major dent in those states where regional parties still enjoy a high degree of credibility with voters like Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal but it has wrecked the Congress everywhere. The wave swept through Uttar Pradesh, where it also managed to draw away voters from the Bahujan Samaj Party if not from the Samajwadi Party, and of course Bihar too.
With the Congress winning less than 55 seats, the 16th Lok Sabha will not have an Official Opposition or a formal Leader of the Opposition. Ever reluctant to shoulder responsibilities in a competitive environment, Rahul Gandhi is once again off the hook. But the question of an effective opposition so essential for democracy is not merely a formal one.
Taken together, MPs from national parties like Congress, the Left and the Aam Aadmi Party will barely add up to 60. Regional parties like the AIADMK, the TRS and the Biju Janata Dal, which are non-ideological, or the Trinamool Congress, which veers towards populism but is essentially Bengal-centric, are unlikely to show much interest in, let alone challenge, the Modi government on a large number of crucial areas of policymaking.
Mr Modi will lack a majority in the Rajya Sabha for at least the next year so he will either cut deals with regional parties to ensure the passage of legislation in the upper house or look for ways to take executive decisions, especially in the economic and financial sphere where discretionary powers abound.
Indeed, BJP leaders close to the incoming Prime Minister have already drawn up a list of measures that could be implemented by administrative fiat. Spared the burden of filling his cabinet with allied parties, Mr Modi will have the freest hand of any Prime Minister since Rajiv Gandhi.
So far, he ran a ‘presidential’ style campaign. His style of governance is likely to be equally ‘presidential’. To the extent this streamlines decision-making, this will have a positive impact. But to the extent this concentrates authority in a ‘power vertical,’ his style could be harmful too.
While the Indian corporate sector and native and foreign investors in the stock market are justified in celebrating the arrival of a “right wing”, business-friendly government, this is not necessarily the side of ‘Modinomics’ that most BJP voters would like to see. Mr. Modi campaigned hard on a platform of economic development, job creation and an efficient administration, and the 40 per cent of voters who backed the BJP-led alliance did so because they believe he will deliver on these promises. But contradictions exist, especially in areas where satisfying the aspirations of a corporate constituency – for example in the area of labour reform – will perforce end up undermining the aspirations of voters for jobs and job security.
Another area to watch closely will be the Modi government’s attitude towards law and order, and especially the right of vulnerable citizens – women, minorities, adivasis and dalits – to security, justice and equity.
Mr Modi lost a golden opportunity during the election campaign to assure India’s Muslims that they would be safe under him when his attention was drawn to VHP leader Pravin Togadia’s suggestion that violence be used to evict a Muslim family in Bhavnagar that had bought a house in a so-called Hindu area.
As Gujarat’s Chief Minister and Home Minister, Mr Modi could have reached out to the Muslim family and assured them – and by extension all of India’s Muslims – that they had the right to live and work wherever they liked in India and that he would defend their right to do so. Sadly, he made no such effort. All he did was tweet his disapproval of those “claiming to be BJP’s well wishers [who] are deviating the campaign from the issues of development & good governance.”
Will Mr Modi as Prime Minister be more concerned about the insecurity Indian Muslims feel than he was as a candidate for the job? Will he find a way to reach out to this crucial section of the population which today views him with distrust? Or will he regard any talk about addressing their concerns and fears as “appeasement”?
Mr Modi’s critics can be forgiven for feeling a knot in their stomach today but this is not the first time the Indian electorate has ignored the unpleasant baggage a candidate brings and been seduced by the dream of technology, development and corruption-free government.
In December 1984, Rajiv Gandhi won 404 seats barely a month after his Congress party presided over the mass murder of Sikhs in Delhi, Kanpur, Bokaro and other north Indian cities. Rajiv was an attractive figure for young voters who embodied the same kind of technocratic promise that Mr Modi does today. The mandate Rajiv received was even more decisive. He ran a government with virtually no checks and balances, and was the darling of the corporate sector. But as his failures mounted, the temptation to create diversions and play the politics of vote-banks proved irresistible.
This is the future an India under Narendra Modi must avoid at all costs.
The issue of sensibility should be at the top of the new government’s agenda because its attitude to freedom of expression will determine whether it is truly committed to the wonder that is India
The giddy rise in the Sensex is a measure of the anticipation that has gripped the country. Pundits have forecast a stable government and “those who know better” are predicting a period of growing prosperity. In such a period when reading the tea leaves is the prevailing fashion, let me add my own forecast to the many already on the table. I predict that the first test of the new government will not be in the area of public finance, or on the policies for economic growth, since measures that are to be taken to reboot the economy have already been identified, but will be on developing a policy framework on sensibility. The first test will not be on Sensex but on sensibility.
India’s essential pluralism
Let me explain. The new government will have to very soon pass what I shall call the A.K. Ramanujan test. This is a simple test based on just two articles that A.K. Ramanujan wrote on which the new government must take a stand. The first is: Is there an Indian way of thinking? For many members of the new government, the title would be enough reason for their cultural nationalism to be invoked. Of course there is an Indian way of thinking. Of course it is this thinking that makes us, as a people, superior to others because we have over millennia evolved a way of conceptualising our cosmos, and of our place in it, our Dharma shastras, that have been the basis of our grand civilisation. It is this Indian way of thinking, it is argued, that has produced the great Mahabharata and the Natya Shastra. This, Ramanujan would accept. But his position is more complex and more subtle than a superficial reading of the title may suggest, since he argues against a simple universalism, showing how, time, place, and community are all factors that qualify the moral law. The dharmic injunction is thus for anyone a combination of the universal and the contextual. Our challenge, therefore, is to identify the reasons why a particular combination is both relevant and right. Ramanujan’s reading serves as a powerful defence of the diversity of India, of the essential pluralism which is at the heart of Indian civilisation.
A stand on heterodoxy
Which brings me to the second article: “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.” If the Indian way of thinking is right then we as a society have produced 300 Ramayanas. What will be the new government’s stand on A.K. Ramanajun’s second essay? I have raised the core issue of a government’s attitude to sensibility because I anticipate that in the next few months we are going to see all the little hecklers — who have shown their faces in the last few years demanding censorship of books, articles, cartoons, paintings, plays, films, photographs, a music band, discos, film songs, and even casual remarks about premarital sex — come out of the woodwork. Textbooks will come under scrutiny. Cultural organisations will face protest. Art works will be vandalised. Universities will develop a moral police and self-censorship will grow. All in the service of restoring the glory of Indian civilisation from the depradations of pseudo-secularism. The censors, both political and social, will demand forms of expression that do not offend. Sections of the IPC, 295A and also 153A will be used to silence expression that self-styled protectors of Indian civilisation find objectionable. Aubrey Menen faced it in 1956. Salman Rushdie in 1988. Wendy Doniger in 2014.
I have placed the issue of sensibility at the top of the new government’s agenda because its attitude to freedom of expression will determine whether it is truly committed to the wonder that is India. Let not the professions of loyalty to Bharat Mata, by the hecklers demanding censorship, deceive us. The truly loyal are those who appreciate the six schools of Indian philosophy, who see not just the Brahmana but also the S´ramana traditions, the Sufi and the Bhakti movements, the Syrian orthodox practices and the metaphysics of Kashmiri Shaivism, as part of our culture.
The list of what is to be included is too long to be presented here. But it must be noted that they are all a part of Indian culture. Faiz’s lamentations and Tulsidas’ prayers are as much a part of our tradition as Periyar’s scepticism. The new government will have to take a stand on such heterodoxy. Sensibility, as an aesthetic disposition, as a culture of appreciation of the diverse forms of cultural life, is what the new government will have to nurture and protect. Sensibility has to become a treasured national resource for the new age. Sensibility sustains society more than the Sensex. Man truly does not live by bread alone. We ignore this basic truth at our own peril.
The signs of the last few years are not encouraging. Lest the last three sentences are seen as being too rhetorical, more political bluster than philosophical depth, let me get scholars whose scholarship on Indian philosophy and culture is unquestionable to echo my views. I quote from the introduction of the first volume of the 20 volume series on History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, whose General Editor Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya sets out the seven principles for inclusion of articles in the encyclopedic project. Elaborating on the second principle he states, “we try to show the linkages between different branches of learning as different modes of experience in an organic manner and without resorting to a kind of reductionism, materialistic or spiritualistic. The internal dialectics of organicism without reductionism allows fuzziness, discontinuity and discreteness within limits.” Organic evolution, no reductionism, fuzziness, and discontinuity, all keywords that lead India’s intellectual life into a comfortable heterodoxy.
Freedom of expression conflicts
I mention this authoritative scholarship because I see the censors reappearing. Fortunately we have a new Chief Justice of India who has assumed office just as the new government will take its oath. In one of the first decisions of his term in office, he has recommended for elevation to the Supreme Court two outstanding senior advocates and ex-solicitors general of India. The Court is where the emerging Freedom of Expression (FoE) conflicts will have to be decided and direction given on the core principles of India’s constitutional democracy. If Indian civilisation is as plural as scholarship suggests, and if this plurality grows because of non-reductionism and organic evolution, and if we are to be enriched by the great dissenting traditions such as Buddhism, and if we are to nurture, for our civilisational benefit, some present day Ca¯rva¯kas, then the court must move beyond seeing FoE disputes only through IPC 295A and 153A and read them through 19(1)(a) and 19(2) of the Constitution. We need a new jurisprudence for a vibrant India and such jurisprudence must be a friend of FoE.
Democratic societies across the world have produced impressive case law on FoE, the most extensive being the United States where in defence of the first amendment fine distinctions have been made on content, intent, place, procedure, offence, etc, of hate speech. The Court has to go beyond asking for a report from the Law Commission on hate speech and be prepared to see FoE as part of basic structure. It must be prepared to act suo motu. We need to build first amendment type case law in India. We need to do so urgently. Soli Sorabjee, in an article titled “Freedom of Expression and Censorship: Some Aspects of the Indian Experience,” published in the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly of 1994, concludes with the words of Madison endorsed by the SCI that “it is better to leave a few of its noxious branches to their luxuriant growth, than, by pruning them away, to injure the vigour of those yielding proper fruits.”
Which brings me back to the point that the new government must develop a policy on sensibility. If they fail the A.K. Ramanujan test then, as good Indians, we will give them a retest. And always in such cases the retest will be more difficult.