Viewing India’s Paradigm Shift Through the Right Lens

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

A red-carpet welcome extended to Prime Minister Modi by President Biden has caused angst in many a circle in the US. In Op-ed pages, academicians and activists have had a field day hauling Mr. Modi over hot coals by digging up, among others, old accusations of complicity to the communal massacre in the Indian state of Gujarat – accusations that multiple courts, including the Supreme Court of India in 2014 – and that the US denied him visa accusing him of complicity; the decision was rescinded by President Obama. They have quoted the World Press Freedom Index and Democracy Index – both “perception-based” measures as a rebuttal from the India points out – to paint a death of democracy in India. Not to be outdone, they clubbed a decision by Google to rescind the invitation to an Indian activist, and stupid isolated behaviors by members of the Indian diaspora and, essentially, attributed them to Mr. Modi. The list goes on.

“Mr. Modi has presided over the nation’s broadest assault on democracy, civil society and minority rights in at least 40 years”, writes Maya Jasanoff, a Professor of History at Harvard University, in an Op-ed published in the New York Times. It is interesting to note that Ms. Jasanoff chose forty years as the cutoff point, and not a more customary fifty years.  Five decades would include the two years of Emergency, a rather bleak phase in Indian collective memory, where civil rights were suspended, elections were canceled, the press was censored rather bluntly and habitually, hundreds were butchered in the name of law and order, and hundreds of thousands were rendered political prisoners, many were tortured. If the lawful removal of a grandson from the Parliament based on a conviction bothers somebody, but they mention nothing about The Emergency imposed by the grandmother, a bias stands naked for all to see.

According to Wikipedia entries, Ms. Jasanoff was not born in India; she grew up in Ithaca, NY. Both her parents were professors at Cornell University and she was educated at Harvard, Cambridge in the UK, and Yale. Her Indian heritage comes from her mother, Dr. Sheila Sen Jasanoff who moved to the US sometime mid-1950’s and was schooled at Radcliff – Harvard’s women’s college – and then Harvard. Ms. Jasanoff’s father Dr. Jay Jasanoff received undergraduate and doctorate degrees from Harvard, as did her brother. Both the elder Jasanoffs are professors at Harvard, just like Ms. Jasnoff. None ever held a private sector job in India, let alone be an entrepreneur who aspires, strives, struggles, and, hopefully, achieves.

The four years I spent at Cornell University overlapped with Jasanoffs, but our worlds could not be farther apart. I was born to parents who were both refugees from Bangladesh into India, and both, effectively, were raised as orphans. I grew up in a Railway Colony at a mofussil town far from the posh Ballygunge area in Kolkata where Dr. Sheila Sen Jasanoff grew up before she moved to Mumbai. My dad was a trade union worker and my mom, a clerk. I could not even dream of undergraduate education in the US; my choice of undergraduate education was decided by monetary support offered by a school, rare in India. I considered my four years of Ph.D. in Economics at Cornell as my key to the American Dream that I am still pursuing and shall pursue to my last breath.

I have seen professional activists and academics in subjects other than STEM or medicine by the hundreds, even – and especially – in India. These “intellectuals” are mostly educated in English medium schools, and attend to a few colleges in India where the accent of your English, and your affinities to certain music or literature, among others, define you. I personally was schooled in a Bengali medium school till I reached college, and never really bothered to lean intellectually.

What these academics and professional activists miss is a make-or-break experience in the private sector. Not counting years they spend in one or the other make-work work, they never were confronted with the possibility that failing to make a sales quota, e.g., can stop putting food on the hungry mouths at home, not to mention denying their children’s education or legacy. They never were in a place where their decisions could immediately mean death and dismemberment of their buddy, with whom they spent last few years bonding, training, and preparing for that very day. They were never in a place where they were entrusted with saving a life – be it in the operating theater, or in a dangerous alley or a burning building. They were never entrusted to maintain schedule or service levels – be it trains, buses, aircraft, or the ferry.

They were never asked to – except for short periods of life, maybe, that they would rather forget – shut up and do exactly as told, just because.

That brings us to why these so-called academic experts and professional activists are woefully out of touch with India as is, after a paradigm shift that is brewing for three decades. The old India was ruled by the English medium educated scions of those already elite, or at least very comfortable. Some of them did go into professional fields, the armed forces or the academia in STEM, law and medicine. But most of them –were “intellectuals,” academics, professional activists, and activist journalists – covering all touchpoints of the spectrum. As it happened in the US, they dominate all aspects of academia and think they deserve to dominate the psyche and the body politic.

The rise of Modi is a structural and existential threat to their air of superiority. Modi exudes charm, confidence, a command over his surroundings, a grasp of issues most critical at the grassroots, a master politician’s eye for danger for self and his party, an unparalleled capacity to navigate in and out tricky situations, and a mastery of diplomacy that mesmerizes global leaders as different as Biden and Trump. Modi assembles a fantastically loyal, and hard-working, team of bureaucrats and functionaries that are professional and skilled and they know Modi holds them to a demanding delivery expectation. Modi commands the stage, and the airwaves in his radio show “Mann ki Baat,” holding forth on complex social and political topics with language and commentary that make sense even to the semi-literate. Modi does all of these despite his low caste, lack of an academic pedigree, no English medium schooling and an upbringing that is said to be so poor he hawked tea at railway stations as a kid.

Modi is everything the old guard never could be, without being anything they are. Can you wonder why they are mad?

The rise of Modi coincided, nurtured and was nurtured by, rise of a very large silent majority who have had enough. They used to watch with amazement while riches were made and shared amongst those who belong, largesse were thrown on people without ever bothering to motivate them down the path of success and habitual sleights of those outside their circle became increasingly more vicious and demeaning. At a point in the early 2000’s, technology became the big leveler – it gave everybody the same access to info and influence, and those previously at the pinnacle proved no more masterful at adopting, and adapting, than anybody else. A simple game of numbers they ensured that the previous dominating voices in the media are to be drowned out in the cacophony of the hundreds who always wanted to, but were too afraid to ask.

Structurally Modi did things that meant little to the old elite. Massive infrastructure investments have become the norm now, made possible because Modi government championed private-public partnership, bringing capital and technology from everywhere. Access to pure drinking water is a key deliverable for the Modi administration – not mega-sized dams, but localized last-mile solutions. Fed up with endemic corruption, Indian masses welcomed the Aadhar scheme that soon facilitated massive digitization of banking, commerce, and everyday transactions even at streetside vendors. Political changes forced upon by the Center brought tourism and other investments trickling in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladkh; over time this will eliminate economic incentive for a wayward young man to seek out a path of destruction under instructions from across the border.  Aspirational India wants more, wants to do more, is prepared to reach out of the designated corners because doing so is necessary for a bigger slice of the pie. Aspirational India is anathema to the old guard because one of their aspirations is toppling of the old cabal and make it a more level field. They are the backbone of Modi’s support.  Maybe the old elite is afraid because they should be.

Modi is essentially unchallenged at the Centre precisely because the opposition is in a shambles. Jasanoff forgets to mention that the same grandson is bequeathed presidency of his party by his mom, an Italian-born who in-turn got her role as a consolation prize after murder of her husband, son of the queen of the aforementioned Emergency. Modi rose up the ranks starting at the very bottom, went into hiding during the Emergency, over time he built alliances and cultivated cheerleaders. His alliances won him support within his party – pushing away old guards including a former Prime Minister. He cultivated his voting base and yes, some people under that umbrella might appall you. No different than in any democratic country. Nobody says Modi is a saint. He is a politician, and like all, he makes enemies, chooses friends. He is not invincible either – he has had his fair share of electoral defeats, including recently. Modi understands Inda’s democracy better than any today, because he lived or died inside its chaotic boundaries all his life.


I understand why Jasanoff has trouble accepting Modi as a rightful leader of India. It is about privileges. Academics, and activists, are granted some privilege to step aside, yet expect to be comfortable. We do need champions of course-correction remain on the outside. Some take this onus too casually, and veer to obstruction and destruction for no good reason but deification of self. Or, as maybe the case for Ms. Jasanoff, these privileges were bred into their blood so much that they can never see a world beyond, even when they claim to spend hours and years supposedly studying commoners. They never really belong to that world of the common man or woman, and never wanted to. It comes as a surprise when they are caught with their pants down, so to speak, and they lash out.


Understanding the new India as is requires a shift in POV, at least an acknowledgment that being beholden to an Oxbridge cabal would never understand why Modi remains popular, despite obvious missteps and a pandemic that wreaked havoc on the nation. New India does to be given government jobs but they want the opportunity to create one themselves. New India looks at the private sector for the delivery of many of the things the government would crowd others out before. Even in areas of public good – like infrastructure or water access – New India is more comfortable to see a collaboration with private entities, as that surely improves quality. New India wants a muscular and confident projection outside, a far cry from the begging bowls in front of multilateral agencies and the right alliances in a multi-polar world. New India wants handouts, when, to reach the final consumer and not get siphoned away by corrupt functionaries.  New India is none other than the (not-so) silent majority that was too used to be exploited at voting booths and forgotten till the next election. Modi understands this instinctively and embodies the same, even when he is wrong.


You will never hear anybody chanting “Modi is India, India is Modi” as was the slogan around years of the Emergency. Maya Jasanoff could say “Mr. Modi has captured the imagination of the nation, its civil society and its aspirational core more than any in at least 75 years,” and she would be right. If you learn to view India’s paradigm shift through the right lens, Modi’s rise is a riddle no more.

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