Societies respond to changes in two major ways, either passively adjusting to change or taking conscious charge of the situation. The nationalist movement and Nehru’s India were periods when the country and its leadership were imagining and giving shape to society, economy, culture and polity. Indira Gandhi in a period of crisis largely reasserted the Nehruvian paradigm, albeit in a populist and authoritarian mode. But it was soon followed by a long period of rudderless drift, merely adjusting and responding to larger forces of change. What seemed to be a game changer led by Narsimha Rao was actually a response to the new global economy and polity nudged by a serious balance of payment crisis. Narendra Modi is once again trying to offer a new imaginary picture of the Indian nation and a new development direction to shape the future of India. It is a big challenge. Without large popular support such projects inevitably fail under a democracy. The 2014 elections followed by a series of successes in many states, the latest being the spectacular performance in Uttar Pradesh, gives Modi an opportunity to remake India. Will he succeed and what will be the state of the country he wishes to realise?
It is obvious that after independence the nationalist fervour would slowly die down and it soon dawned on the people that ideals don’t matter. This is almost a law of history. Modi’s major achievement is to recreate that passion and zeal that animates nationalism. He did this by claiming to purify and reimagine the idea of India. His appeal lay in his critique of the earlier imaginary picture of the Indian nation; it failed to create an emotional oneness and unquestioned loyalty; it was too divisive and diverse and it lacked a common culture to hold the country together. Most important it made India a weak country. Modi injected a strong masculine strength to the idea of the nation by highlighting a sense of siege the majority suffered from. It seemed the enemy is not outside but within the country and they will have to be fought back decisively. Modi thus raised the hopes and aspirations of the people, which make this kind of nationalism so fervent.
This kind of unifying and essentialist nationalism would also ensure a stable and long term majority in any election, which is a must in modern democracies. It was also a period of the decline of traditional identities and cultures like caste or region; they were only useful for instrumental reasons like reserved seats or jobs. Hence since the Ram temple movement the BJP was trying its best to forge a new Hindu identity and a nation whose essence would be Hindu. The Ram janambhoomi movement did not yield long term electoral advantage to the BJP. It was Narendra Modi who was successful in creating a militant and political Hindu identity in Gujarat and then he is trying to replicate that model to the rest of India. It gave a sense of empowerment and pride to the majority. Plurality, diversity and dissent were seen as signs of weakness and had to be dealt with sternly.
The UP elections clearly show the decline of caste based appeals and identities. The Hindu identity appeals especially to this young, vernacular middle and lower middle classes. The second import of Modi’s rise is the assertion of these classes against the old English speaking elites, which makes this nationalism populist and anti-elitist as well. Most of the emerging leaders from Modi, Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath to the numerous babas, mahants, sadhvis and pracharaks belong to this cultural milieu marked by a lack of higher education or any exposure to the world of ideas. They see intellectuals and universities as sources which undermine our culture and tradition and hence the nation itself. For this class a cocktail of Hindu heritage, modern technology, skills and nationalism gives them a new identity and a sense of power and pride.
Thirdly, the strength of this populist cultural nationalism is cemented by Modi’s vision of rapid industrialisation making India the manufacturing hub of the world. This alliance not only seeks to root out any divergence or dissent from this nationalist essence but is equally firm against any opposition to industrialisation or other economic activities, be it from NGOs like Greenpeace or radicals resistance to mining or land acquisition. With the help of this majority Modi seeks to discipline intellectuals, universities, media and other public institutions including the judiciary.
Will this strategy make India strong or will it drain away the best of our civilisational ethos, including our plural religion, our democracy and our Constitutional institutions and philosophy? And what would be the future of such an order? These are two key questions which face the country following the rising power of Modi.
For ages Hindu religion and its extended family were immensely diverse and plural without any central authority in the form of any text or institution. In spite of Brahmanical hegemony the beliefs and practices of the people could not be unified or homogenised. This instead of being a weakness was an immense source of intellectual and cultural richness, which enabled our culture and religion to survive more than a century of conquest and colonisation. Secondly, the nationalist elites imagined a new India which had space for both unity and diversity. Finally, this elite wrote a constitution which was democratic, secular and promised justice. This is the primary reason why in the postcolonial era Indian democracy, the nation and the state survived whereas most third world countries faced civil wars, dictatorships, famines or revolutions. A look at each of our neighbours would confirm this. India was truly an exception, of course there were exceptions within the country as well, e.g in Kashmir or the North-east but they were the product of the erosion of democracy and autonomy.
The permanent majority that Modi seeks to build based upon cultural national unity could give us immediate strength to counter all diversity or dissent to ensure large scale industrialisation. India could emerge as a potential super power, get a seat in the United Nations Security Council and Modi could remain on first name basis with global leaders. If Gujarat was Modi’s first successful experiment it seems he is looking at Yogi Adityanath to make the second experiment in the largest state in our heartland. If the Yogi succeeds the next parliamentary elections would promise the same all over the country. Will that hold us together, maintain our democracy and civilisational ethos or we shall also, a little belatedly, follow the sequence of dictatorships, civil wars or revolutions? If this were to be the fate of a country of India’s size and diversity it would put the partition violence into insignificance. This is the reason why free intellectual debate and democracy is so essential to imagine a better, just and peaceful future for India.