Saturday, May 24

Narendra Modi: new twist to Asian story, world history

It is amusing to read some of the invective both pre and post Modi win, and people sharing it on social media: the variety includes leftist intellectuals who still yearn for some socialist, subsidy-ridden state; human rights advocates, who conveniently forget years and years of Hindu-Muslim riots that happened all throughout Congress-ruled regimes in Gujarat, something that is no more there since the post-Godhra riots in the last ten years; those who are concerned about the growing strength of a religion, Hindutva, at the expense of sanatana dharma, a philosophy that defines India; environmentalists, who fear from a China-style development, which is supposed to look only towards short-term benefits; and, finally but the biggest quantity, those who haven’t lived in Gujarat, who simply read a CNN news article about Modi’s revoked visa or rights records and who don’t know what secularism is and assume it to be some unquestionable good, those who pitchfork themselves into the category of humanists and intellectuals. As always, some concerns are valuable, some others seem to be derived from flimsy grounds, and in many there are a few grains of white and few of black and a lot of grey. And yet, Modi has often been painted as black, univocally black.
But not by the populace of India. BJP couldn’t ride to this seat share even after the mandir chestbeating and VHP terrorism and interminable rath yatras in a Hindu-dominated country in earlier elections; rather, in an electoral campaign sans emotional issues and emotions, Modi has yet won a rare majority by himself. What does that say? One, at whatever cost, the people of India are mature enough voters now: the days of dynastic politics, nepotism and buying votes through subsidies and populist schemes are over in most of India. Two, the lack of anti-Congress vote divide, by and large, says that Modi does speak to them somewhere directly: thanks to the Anna/Kejriwal stunts, the people of India have started to interrogate themselves now and express their preferences. While there seems to be a dangerous political volatility (which though is not of that much concern, given the durability of India’s strong democratic institutions), as the citizens remain immature and easily swayable by the media, at the same time, the strength of media, while being a double-edged sword, also keeps all in the public eye now on their toes: all the more necessary when a party has a clear majority and opposition is decimated, an otherwise dangerous situation to be in for any country, for any system. Even a king needs to be aware of some covetous bastard child.
It is difficult to say where Modi will turn to, which wind will take him whither (or he will take which wind where): however, it remains now incontrovertible that India has turned a chapter, not just a page. It has taken its Westphalian nation-statehood seriously for the first time. Most Asian and African countries got independent at a time when statehood was already reaping fruits for Western nations, and on top of that when the Cold War did not let them choose to become states at all: rather, they had to choose camps (or try to please both, the path chosen by Nehru), try to survive, and just remember the hard-earned nationhood. Different countries took different paths. China’s early post-independence isolation ironically helped it to become a state much earlier than others could: whatever Mao’s policies were, and how much ever disastrous in the short term, it is undeniable that he always remained a flag-bearer of Chineseness. This ironically given that he had rejected the quintessential Chinese values of Confucianism: flung onto the little island of Taiwan (and now forgotten by them as well). However, we Indians forgot what Bhārat means: in our mad rush to speak English and become civil servants, the sarkari babus with all the perks and batti-vaali gaaRi. Yet, India has such varied pockets that homogeneity was impossible: so even if the English speaker was respected and white skin was (and is) venerated, it wasn’t everyone’s lot, wish or ability to imitate them. Countries like Turkey and Iran tried to steer away from Islam, an ideology to which political statehood is in itself an incompatible concept (a contested view by some, but according to me, the concept of ummah precludes loyalty to political state, unless if the spiritual caliph can be divested with political caliphate as well: an ongoing experiment of the ayatollahs in Iran, limited to the Shi’i); the miraculous1 leadership of Atatürk was able to do that, though Turkey would later return to Islamic leanings, while the US bungled and intervened in Iran, thus helping to prop an Islamic regime, ironically now one of those blacklisted by it. The worst lot was that of countries like Syria, and regions like Palestine and Kashmir: not helped by Saudi Arabia’s double-dealt hands, and too wise to lose its real independence by taking US aid, Syria has been fighting for survival as nation itself, whereas Kashmir and Palestine struggle for recognition as nations, forgetting that it would be easier (acceptable/face-saving to other entities) to make the fight that of statehood (only). In a world of colliding and collapsing entities, not just political but also human (e.g., social networks) and economic (e.g., the experiment of Bitcoin), nations may soon be an outmoded concept, to be studied along with the dinosaurs.
Such a background, though too much simplified, is essential to understand India at this corner of its story. It is also necessary to understand how Gandhi sided with the moderates; Savarkar’s viewpoint; why Godse killed Gandhi; and most importantly, what we have gained or lost, at least as much and as far we can judge, from independence, partition, the unnecessary wars we fought with China and Pakistan, and a secular constitution. Nothing should be unquestionable: nothing should be on a pedestal except the cleanliness in our heart and the ability of our mind to think through.
I will simply list a few paragraphs of the challenges ahead for Modi.

a. Geopolitical: It has been an old school of thought in RSS circles and in fact in all revolutionary Indian circles to valorize the East. However, India had a shared Buddhist and trade story with Southeast Asia and China; that story no more exists, and religion isn’t the most trending thing among Chinese youth, or rather most youth anywhere in the world, today.2 Much has been talked of Modi’s eastward stance, but Modi would do well to be careful of China. While there is no need of incensing China unnecessarily,3 India must strengthen ties with Japan and Southeast Asia: the time is ripe for that in the background of: (a) China’s push to become a great naval power, and hence its increasing tensions with Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia (strangely, Taiwan is not on that list; the present Ma government4 with its China leanings is a danger for the whole region); (b) the US pivot-to-Asia policy, which may not be shelved even if Obama goes. While the US will keep playing double games for its maximum benefit—engaging with China, protecting Taiwan but not playing it off with China, and yet creating forums as part of the pivot to form some kind of a counter-hegemon against China, should the latter become belligerent—countries like India (or Indonesia), which are growing fast but do not have the resources to devote to defense (already India spends too much), should take care to create bilateral alliances with key potential allies like Japan and S. Korea (regardless of it being politically close to the US and culturally these days to China), rather than happily and dizzily jumping on board US-sponsored multilateral Asia-Pacific alliances, unless as observer. Though India is not an Asia-Pacific country, the US pivot is to Asia, not necessarily Asia Pacific: and hence an inevitable offer from the US at some point in the near future, and the danger of acceptance. China may resent India’s entry to such alliances, plus India gets bound by a multilateral forum’s restrictions: and it gains nothing. China is not looking for landward expansions, and will not turn belligerent towards India as of now, unless India acts really stupidly in some way (Dalai Lama, Arunachal/Sikkim, boasting). It would be good though if India could silently strengthen Nepal (i.e., economic or infrastructure aid).
Coming to Modi, he should be careful of inviting too much Chinese investment into India: rather, he should look further east (to Japan), north (Russia/Ukraine/Uzbekistan), immediate north (Afghanistan: critical for passage of pipelines), west (continue engaging with Iran, esp. now that the US is also softer), and especially inward. India is too service sector dependent: and it services Europe and US, the former of which seems to be an irrevocable downward trajectory. It is high time that India starts also on its manufacturing path on a larger scale, to match China’s to some extent: it is important to enter markets like Africa, as China is already doing (and as one Indian company, telecom major Bharti Airtel, has done), not just for services, but also for products manufactured at home.
A concern is the Tamils: Modi might be more friendly towards the Sri Lankan government, and while that is good for India in terms of politics, what about the voice of Tamils, who have been almost effaced out of the political picture in Sri Lanka? The redundancy of Tamil parties’ wins in the elections has presented an unsavoury conundrum for India.

b. Domestic: Key concerns after these elections are Assam and Kashmir; both have thrown up polarised results, and I am not confident about Modi’s ability to handle them, unless by ruthless measures, which is no measure at all, since suppressed wounds fester and become venomous grouses over time. It is a good beginning that Modi has invited Sharif and other neighbouring leaders for his swearing-in, and he must continue in the same dialogue mode with local leaders, and remove Army from Kashmir and the Northeast, and rather focus on creating economic prosperity. Material well-being, when equitably distributed, is the most effective means, usually, of promoting harmony.
Modi’s Cabinet also is a concern: while it is not yet formed as of the time of writing, there is hardly anyone in the ranks of BJP that inspires much confidence. The Vajpayee cabinet was hopeless, carrying on the legacy of Congress. And it may be by and large the same Cabinet in place. The one good ally that Modi has got is Chandrababu Naidu, and Modi must ensure that Naidu remains strong and influential in his government.
Modi may also be a target of more terrorist activity in India, especially at the beginning, in a bid to hustle him or test his mettle. That he is not the dearest for Islamists would not be a discovery. If the US forces do withdraw from Afghanistan, it will be a challenge for both India and Pakistan to fight Taliban and allies both inside and outside their countries, and keep the region safe.

c. Development: If high-speed rail links and expressways mean development,5 then Modi is on a wrong track, and he may have to face the same public ire that Congress did this time. Fast connections are good, but when people can drink clean water, have a roof on their heads, do a job and earn respect, not just money, and send a child to a real school, not just some arrangement to get the child fed. A country where there is no education is not developed: and education does not mean churning out engineers and doctors in lakhs. It means the ability to think, the capability to stand on your own feet: to give that confidence, that experience and those skills. You must not tell what to think: you must inculcate a habit of thinking, of questioning. For even thinking is a habit: it is gained and lost through habit and ill habit (as Hermann Hesse said in one of his works).
Development needs to be also targeted to a country’s needs. In a country where the GDP per capita isn’t a great figure, who will take the high-speed rail, particularly when the ticket difference won’t be much when compared to airfares? Rather, encourage small and big players in aviation industry, but don’t give so many licences that the existing ones are not able to run on profits; build more airports; give tax breaks and incentives to airlines; make cities that fall on global trade routes like Delhi or Chennai transit (and shopping) hubs like what Doha or Dubai are. That will encourage small businessmen to fly, make India more connected, and increase by leaps and bounds India’s economic well-being. And let the Indian rail be as it is; just make it more accountable and efficient, and lay electric rail lines through the Deccan plateau. It is the freight sector that needs attention rather: modernize wagons (introduce proper cold storage), re-lay those lines where freight is more, so high-speed lines can be there for freight, and focus on safety of passengers. Re-introduce some now-disused narrow-gauge tracks (e.g., the track that used to go from Madurai to Tenkasi and onward in western Tamil Nadu)—conversion of narrow gauge to broad gauge is not modernity. Instead, if properly marketed, these narrow-gauge lines can bring you lot of foreign exchange through rail fans.

d. Culture: This in fact is where Modi can contribute most critically, but will he? He must be ruthless this time—in dismissing leftist intellectuals’ voices. But careful that he does not slide into Hindutva.
In a country where more than 80 percent of people are Hindus, we do not know our own works of philosophy: religion is taboo in schools, though not so in missionary schools or madrasas, where Catholic masses are sung quite proudly and the Qur’an is taught as the first thing to learn. Modi must not veer to Hindutva, but where is even Hindu in this country? We live in some kind of perpetual apology: of what? Of being numerically dominant. We do not know the rich web of Jain, Hindu and Buddhist thoughts, and neither Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) or Aquinas at our schools. We are fed rote materials, not debate and discussion and frankness. We never talk about dvaita and advaita; and we squirm in strange notions of our own sanatana dharma: feeding milk to Ganesha, thinking not eating meat as “religious,” and boasting of how “scientific” our ancestors were. We do not know the erotic poetry with Krishna at its center; thankfully, for its anti-institutional tones, we can read Kabir at least. And our students learn French and Spanish as foreign languages on top of the three-language formula, but the UP person does not learn Tamil, a classical language with rich literature, and no one is bothered about the Tibeto-Burman languages of Arunachal, or knowing what does a little boy in Kashmir eat for breakfast. No one learns Dogri, and no one learns Tulu. India must learn to appreciate and take joy in its own richness: India is a Hindu land by its traditions and thought processes. That is far from Hindutva.6 Everyone is welcome here and everyone is absorbed in this land and new thoughts come, new practices come, new syntheses occur. Sometimes there is smooth sailing, sometimes there is friction. Yet the Indian mentality remains as it is: that of fatalism, detachment, leaving everything to what “the one above” or “the fate” wishes or does or desires, alms-giving, monkhood, openness to every thought and un-thought, personal honesty. Irrespective of which so-called religion you follow, it is these that define India, just as Hindu, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism or Christianity, in the mouths of the wise and in the acts of the generous, all boil down to simply a perennial philosophy—sanatana dharma—of striving for truth, of not fearing suffering but of striving to reduce suffering, of thoughtful action. India now must begin to learn satyam shivam sundaram. In the name of secularism, we do not have to shy away from it: it is our right, our duty and our fate to learn and seek, avidly and widely.
There will be a lot that Modi will leave undoubtedly undone out of this, and maybe he will do some good things not thought of by me. And maybe some bad things. He remains a politician, an opportunist, and his allies remain corrupt leaders and misguided RSS cadre. However, India is only now independent: free from an apologetic tone of existing. We are quiet, and that’s good; we are humble, that’s better; but we need to be wise, always looking to grow. The path may be long, but at least it has begun, maybe in fog, but yet dark has dispelled.

1 Every statement always carries two, or even multiple, faces: and so do all of mine. Turkey has also lost a lot of its culture with modernisation, with the agressive secularisation of Atatürk. Also, Turkey has also been guilty of not being so warm to other ethnic groups, as was the old Iran towards Azeris. There is nothing right; nothing wrong—just as Modi is neither white, nor black. Politics, and human life, is a game: it is only each instant’s greater right and greater wrong that we can recognise. And even then, our judgement may falter, be occluded, or even be on a stroll in the park.

2 So, now alliances can be nothing beyond economic: China in particular is not much interested in spiritual sharedness, though Chinese tourists can of course increase on the Gaya circuit, again bringing some forex.

3 It is Dalai Lama who uses us; what do we earn in return? China’s enmity is not worth having. China’s stance is unfortunate towards Tibet, but the Lamas have also been feudal landlords of the spiritual sort. In a political game between the two, one a big fry and the other a tiny one, India has unnecessarily caught itself up in between. Modi should distance himself from Lama.

4 This can change rapidly; China’s recent (as of the time of writing) tensions with Vietnam can inflame the region as a whole, and Ma Ying-jeou may have to change tack (subtly). Ying-jeou is letting ROC (Taiwan) be a pawn in the game for the island chain in the Pacific: Taiwan is never going to control them, so why supporting China? In the end, ROC itself will end up soon being part of PRC if it continues likewise.

5 We must not go the way of China: we may develop very fast when we pollute our lands and waters with unlimited investments and then fighting others to eye more markets so our industries can keep running; even more fast, when we can have one language, one religion and one culture (Mandarin, atheism in China, and nationalism at the expense of many other cultures, one of the main sufferers being Confucian values), but of what use is development where we can read all day about fascinating stuff on our smartphones but actually don’t have it? No, we must not become intellectuals!

6 Hindutva means treating Hindu as some religion: excluding other thought systems and ideologies, blindly and unquestioningly adopting certain aspects of the Hindu traditions and thought (basically adopting the conservative text of Manusmriti, and excluding everything else from Hindu thought), and becoming intolerant, agressive and non/not-truth-seeking. Valuing the widespread branches of Hindu thought and learning about them is however not Hindutva: we are a Hindu land.

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