The problem

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IT is not uncommon for most nations to be convulsed by episodic bouts of intense self-questioning, oftentimes resulting in deep self-doubt about and erosion of confidence in the nature of their collective enterprise. India too is no exception to this general trend. A relatively young country – seventy years as an independent nation – carrying the burden of a five thousand year legacy, its leaders embarked upon the audacious experiment of constructing a modern, egalitarian, democratic republic, confident that despite the widespread skepticism, particularly among foreign scholars, the nation had both the grit and ability to overcome the multiple challenges of population, poverty, illiteracy and a bewildering diversity of language, faith, ethnicity and customs. That we as a people were able to give ourselves a remarkable constitution, handle the complex and demanding process of welding both British India and hundreds of native principalities into a single nation, and not be overwhelmed by the trauma of the Partition, is testimony both to the values inculcated by the years of the freedom struggle and the sagacity of our then leaders.

In the journey since, there have been many inflexion points when it appeared that the country may not be able to hold together – the language riots and the reconstitution of internal state boundaries, restive borders needing the involvement of the armed forces to ensure the integrity of the nation, recurrent Hindu-Muslim riots, the challenge of left wing extremism, the Emergency, and the list can be expanded. But, be it violent breakdowns and extreme political and social turbulence or persistent everyday problems of hunger, joblessness, discrimination and non-inclusion, together stoking resentment and anger, both the political, administrative and constitutional systems have held on, though in many cases more enfeebled and hollowed out, despite valiant attempts at rectification via constitutional amendments and introducing institutional innovations.

Today, however, few would argue with any degree of confidence that our institutional architecture and modes of governance, representation and dispute resolution are sufficiently robust to weather the many new challenges continuously thrown up by altered local and global conditions. If anything, the progress that we have experienced, though unevenly spread across space, class and gender, has given rise to a far more demanding populace – younger, mobile, more aware – and one whose expectations appear far more difficult to satisfy in our given set-up. Little surprise that in our seventieth year as an independent country, the mood is somewhat sombre, if not bleak.

Anniversaries invariably give rise to soul-searching, a look back at what went wrong and what we might have done differently and better alongside a look ahead as to what awaits us. But unlike in the past, the mood this time around appears more charged and demanding. For possibly the first time in our brief history as an independent, democratic republic, we are facing the combined pressure of having to simultaneously address challenges arising from long-term secular shifts in markets and technology and issues thrown up by a radically different political dispensation, one which has fundamental disagreement with not only the previously constructed common sense about the idea of India, but also about how we as individuals and communities might live together despite differences.

Most dispassionate observers would agree, though with some quibbles and qualifications, that the earlier ruling political dispensation had become exhausted, unable to craft either a new narrative or bring to bear a fresh sense of purpose to the business of governance. Narendra Modi’s elevation to the post of prime minister, heading the first majority government in decades, was thus widely welcomed, even as many remained deeply concerned about his past. Many who voted the BJP to power likely did so because they bought into his promises of a new India, a substantial up-tick in growth and employment, an end to arbitrariness and corruption, and the instilling of a renewed pride in a country ready to assume its rightful place in the world. Nevertheless, it does appear that the anticipation of the initial months has substantially dimmed, as performance on most fronts has fallen noticeably short of promises – be it the economy or national security. The less charitable now call this government, already more than midway through its term, a government of announcements and media hype. Intriguingly though, none of this has so far dimmed the popularity of the prime minister, even as the approval ratings of his government are far less comforting.

Alongside are a few trends, both old and new, which are a matter of concern. The first relates to a major breakdown in intercommunity relations and social peace with substantial sections of those practicing minority faiths, the Dalits and the tribals facing escalated violence and continually made to feel under siege. And even though the last three years of BJP rule has not seen too many instances of major communal or caste riots (Muzaffarnagar being a major exception), there is no denying the increased incidence of a communalization of the state’s everyday practices, on the one hand and hate crimes aimed at enforcing a majoritarian ethnic/racial/religious political order, on the other. The inactivity, if not complicity, of senior political figures and groups associated with the ruling party in not controlling, possibly stoking, these incidents is not only resulting in the development of a dangerous vigilante culture but the construction of a self-appointed moral community operating on the insidious belief that it is acting as a guardian of ‘true’ Hindu faith and sensibility.

The second is the growing inequality of income, wealth and opportunity between sections differentiated by caste, class, ethnicity, gender and region. Even as real public expenditure on social sector and social security schemes faces severe contraction, one discerns a clear bias in favour of large corporates – increased subsidy, liberal tax breaks, a write-off of debt and so on – raising the spectre of a corporatist takeover of our polity. And since none of the many initiatives taken, so far, be it demonetization or introduction of GST, have helped energize the employment scenario or spur fresh investment, the disappointment amongst sections of youth expecting a rapid change in their circumstances is marked, adding to a growing demand for reservation and escalated social unrest.

The third is the trend towards increased authoritarianism and control of dissent, be it directly through the ‘misuse’ of the coercive apparatus of the state or indirectly by hollowing out institutions of accountability. It also appears that the story of institutional decline is somewhat more general, with scores of institutions either lying headless and understaffed or placed in charge of individuals of questionable competence. While some of this is a reflection of continuing neglect and misuse of office, there is growing suspicion about the concerted attempt, largely ideologically driven, to change the character of these institutions. Though most marked in institutions of education and culture, equally alarming is the effort at ‘disciplining and curbing the autonomy’ of the judiciary and injudicious attempts at a politicization of the armed forces, particularly at the senior levels. Also worth noting are the changes in the media scape, both print and TV. The increased concentration in media ownership, including cross-holdings, by corporate houses seems to have resulted in an ‘imposed’ uniformity in news coverage and opinion pieces, further eroding space for dissenting imaginations, and thus attempts at holding the establishment to account. Rarely has the common citizen felt as disempowered vis-a-vis the state, helpless in the face of greater intrusion in everyday life and living.

Regime changes are usually accompanied by a shift in priorities and programmes. This is as it should be in a democracy. India, unlike, many of its neighbours has so far not experienced any violent contestation over electoral verdicts or any serious questioning of the legitimacy of the new incumbent. Unfortunately, the last few decades have witnessed the emergence of a political culture that has significantly reduced space for dialogue and evolving consensual middle ground. An acrimonious and fractious political culture wherein opposition political parties believe that ‘the job of the opposition is to oppose’, and ruling parties attempt to impose their choices without due consideration of either the context or the merits of the case, only results in suboptimal decisions. Together, as a country, this leaves us less capable of meeting the challenges thrown up by a rapidly changing environment.

It cannot be anyone’s case that all our weaknesses and problems can be laid at the doorstep of the present regime. In substantial measure they can be traced both to initial design faults and to a political practice which has remained blind to the demands and aspirations of sections of our society who rarely enjoyed equal citizenship rights, alongside a deep-seated reluctance to reform institutions and practices such that the hitherto neglected sections of society would develop a feeling of belonging. Nonetheless, the current regime does mark a radical rupture. Far more ideologically driven, convinced about the correctness of its understanding, and far more ruthless in its pursuit of power, it has further deepened the trend towards intolerance and authoritarianism. One fears that the culture being promoted by the current regime, and the institutional arrangements it favours, may further erode our collective ability to weather the emerging challenges. This issue of Seminar engages with these and other concerns in an effort to interrogate the mood of the nation at this crucial juncture in our history.