And not in a good way
(Published on May 20, 2017 in Business Standard)
Flashback to 1950: After three years of care, consideration, erudition, eloquence, conflict, and consensus, the Constituent Assembly has hammered out a national document spelling out an inclusive, pluralistic vision of India. We celebrate this Constitution on January 26, 1950, our first Republic Day. The monster job of governing India takes shape slowly and painfully—through poverty, famine, rioting, war, and strangulating red tape, through losses, blunders, and heartbreak—but we are on our way. Fresh from the extraordinary traumas of colonialism, we have committed to life as a sovereign, democratic (and, later, secular) republic, pledged to justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity.
Those days must have been both so heady and nervy—the exhilaration of freedom, the excitement of beginning to create something new of our own.
Today, the euphoria and struggle of those first decades in which the bones of the Republic were forged, are forgotten. Parts of India remain shamefully backward and undeveloped, but much of it has entered the 21st century. My generation—midnight’s grandchildren—remembers booking long-distance phone calls that the operator might connect within a day or two—an hour or two if you booked the ‘lightning’ service; our children have never known a world without the internet and smartphones. The information and communications revolution changed the world, and India, beyond recognition. We still face numbing poverty, famine, rioting, war, and red tape, but we have also seen dizzying change.
We are empowered enough to know what we’re missing; ambitious about our own aspirations; brimming with creative energy; and out of patience with the corruption, self-interestedness, and inefficiency of the political class and bureaucracy. We came to the point where a long-suffering people, rightly fed up with political misdemeanour and negligence, wrongly voted in a man they hoped would free them from new chains of corruption and inefficiency, and change their fortunes.
Why wrongly? The Modi wave that swept the 2014 general elections expressed a groundswell of hope. It ignited a flare of excitement after years of cynical sameness. Maybe, thought many voters, he will finally free us to create, progress, improve. The problem is that those who elected this man overestimated his competence, and ignored—or liked—the fact that in his shadow we would let in a long serpent’s tail of entities, people, organisations, and ideas, that directly challenge the India that India signed up for. The Sangh Parivar is now also in power by proxy.
Three years in, hopeful excitement stands taxidermised in wooden acronyms and hashtags—3Ts, #StandUpIndia, #StartUpIndia #Cashless #LessCash India—dry monuments to economic disappointment. But that’s the good part, the part that may yet turn around. The worse part is that much of the hope now stands turned to horror as we watch the fabric of our society, already so ragged, being deliberately cut to pieces by homegrown terrorists posing as nationalists or religious and cultural guardians, and by bigots mainstreaming bigotry into education.
Over three years of the Modi government we have, like the proverbial frogs, congratulated ourselves on the balminess of our pond, failed to acknowledge the upward creeping temperature, and are now unable to admit that we are being boiled alive. We’ve been unable, or unwilling, to be vigilant about how the government and its proxies are changing the character of India. We have accepted public relations as fact, kept our heads down instead of risking our interests, and allowed militant chauvinism to define love of country. We have failed to safeguard our founding ideals, failed to aspire to the best version of ourselves. We have failed to defend our stake in a valuable idea.
And so now, three years later, we are back in a version of the 1940s, debating the idea of India, but not only in the assemblies of the people. We are being forced to debate it with knives and stones in the streets. We’re being forced to debate it in our kitchens and on our restaurant menus. We are having to debate it in our love lives and wardrobes and movie theatres. We are being forced to debate it in our universities, and in the arts and letters. We are being forced to challenge it in court.
Nationhood is always a work in progress, an endless accommodation between conflicting ideas, an endless tweaking in order to build. But three years into the Modi government, it’s the blueprint that is changing. Our founding ideals are up for grabs.
There are those who are grabbing them to trash them. It’s up to the rest of us to grab them back.