India teaches the world a lesson starting this week. Hope it learns one too.
Bharatdas Darshandas is a famous man today. Do not feel bad if you never heard of him. He lives far, and far away from the nearest maddening crowd. Living alone deep inside Gir Forest, he emerges every four years as
Something mad and grand started this week in India. Over the next six weeks, twelve million election officials will cover close to one billion miles in all forms of transportation, some walking for days on foot, to reach within two kilometers of each of 900 million eligible voters. They will lug with them over million and a half machines which record votes both in print and electronically. No other election comes even close.
What’s at stake is just as far reaching in consequence. Heart of the world’s biggest democracy is beating hard these days, and some would call it hyperventilation. On one side is a larger than life Modi who has molded the ruling BJP as an extension of his own self. On the other are emaciated Congress and a motley crew of newly resurgent regional parties. BJP has always made its own reading of nationalism its calling, this time no exception. Opposition is still searching for a common plank that does not begin or end with “not the other one”.
In both, BJP and Modi might be closer to reality in India than the other ones.
Reality of India’s democracy is different from the chaos people would like to believe. Ask any Indian names of three Prime Ministers without a blink. Three names that invariably pop up are Nehru, Indira and Modi. One was a leader of freedom movement and a darling of India’s urban elite; second was a calculating scion of political dynasty who wrote her own swan song in an ill-advised Emergency, and the third is the current – a Chaiwala who aspires to be the next Chowkidar of India’s dreams. You will not find names of PV Narasimha Rao or Dr. Manmohan Singh, duo widely credited to champion India’s shift to market economy after disastrous decades of experiment in Control Raj. What gives?
Reality is that all three are strong leaders. Each of Nehru, Indira and Modi had mandates in elections that brought them to power, and each behaved like they had – right or wrong. They are strong leaders not dependent on a bench for their rise to the Office. In many ways Modi is a torch bearer for the legacy of Nehru and Indira who had mandates.
We often miss the point that in shifts away from feudalism, how much of power still rests in the Executive, and for good reason – governing a country is a tough job that requires a firm hand even in the best of circumstances. Constitutional checks and balances are structured to function independently of – and I would argue, because of – a strong mandate in the Executive. To wit, they do not require a fractured mandate, or a shadow Prime Minister. A strong executive induces the Judiciary to rise up and take exceptions where Executive stretches the envelope; regional forces provide checks and balances in the absence of a strong national opposition.
Rise of Nationalism is not unique to India. Nationalism is about finding its place in the world – “inflamed desire….to count for something in the cultures of the world”. Contrary to expectations, today’s connected world makes one more aware of their “own place among nations”; it whets a desire for – and awareness of – what could be if things were “different”. Modi – representing a nationalistic core of India – has company in Trump of US, Putin of Russia, Erdogan of Turkey, Orban of Poland, Bolsonaro of Brazil and Brexiteers, among others. Today’s technologies are not bonding people across borders as in a Utopia, but giving rise to herd mentality by helping herds to reach a critical mass.
Modi’s India is a clear signal of an India that has arrived in this world, not an India that is beating a retreat. Modi’s India has nationalism and strength as its two pillars, while economic efficiency and growth completes the triad.
What is missing is an inclusive Nationalism.
No, that does not mean Modi has to be personally held responsible for Godhra, especially after Supreme Court gave him a clean chit in 2012. Or that, he is responsible for cow-mobs directly. But the buck must stop with him and he needs to move the levers that make it happen that his vision of Nationalism means All of India. In 2014 he needed to get the Majority come to his side, in 2019 a splintered opposition gives him the chance to expand his base to include a bigger coalition. If that Mandate does not include all of India, Modi will have lost all of India – and soon his claim to a lasting legacy.
And that is the lesson India can learn from its past, and teach it to the world.
[Partha Chakraborty is CEO of Switchboard Systems. All opinions are of the Author alone and do not necessarily represent that of Switchboard Systems. The author alone is responsible for any error or omission.]