Nothing could expose the bankruptcy of India’s public life more convincingly than the reported announcement by the Uttar Pradesh government spokesman, Sidharth Nath Singh: “There is one biggest OBC leader with us and his name is Narendra Modi.” Reducing the Prime Minister of 1.3 billion Indians to the level of a mere sectarian chief in order to woo voters highlights both the fracturing of Indian unity and the appeasement for political purposes of society’s lowest common denominators.
No doubt we shall see and hear much more of such counter-productive propaganda as the electoral cycle starts in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur next month and winds its weary way, infecting crowds that ignore all social distancing precepts, to Gujarat in December. The ruling BJP’s recent leadership losses in Uttar Pradesh might be the Samajwadi Party’s gain.
But, overall, the loss is to India as a whole as contestants for power fight out even legitimate battles with weapons that bestow legitimacy on the most primitive urges and raise the spectre of vicious Mandal-style quarrels.
It would make sense if the mobilisation of forces were on the basis of factors like job creation, housing, education, civic welfare, urban renewal, public health or improved communications. Instead, Yogi Adityanath blatantly sought an 80-20 Hindu vs Muslim polarisation, which surely is in violation of the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct?
Elsewhere in the world, rational impulses find expression in sensible demands. British Columbia, for instance, refused to join the Canadian confederation until the government agreed in 1871 to extend the Canadian Pacific Railway to the province so that trade and tourism could prosper. Even India has experienced sound sense in public life. The Rs 75 lakhs that the East India Company demanded in 1846 to recognise Maharaja Gulab Singh as sovereign of Kashmir was modest compared to the additional demand that he should also “present annually to the British Government one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female) and three pairs of Cashmere shawls”. Pashmina was (and is) wealth. Kashmir boasted 7,000 looms and 17,000 weavers in 1846, but shawl production was valued at nearly Rs 50 lakhs four years later when the trade engaged nearly 50,000 workers. Napoleon’s “nation of shopkeepers” knew well which side its bread was buttered.
Such pragmatism seems unthinkable in today’s India, with the Centre squandering about Rs 13,450 crores on the Central Vista Redevelopment Project whose only purpose seems to be to feed political egos instead of coming to grips with the surging Covid-19 pandemic with an effective public health strategy.
Official policy on the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs and other supposedly disadvantaged groups has also only created a vested interest in backwardness. Although proud of what they call their 5,000 years of uniquely unbroken civilisation, the Chinese are also convinced that their present economic success and scientific and military prowess flow naturally from those 5,000 years.
They proudly show tourists the narrow lanes and courtyard houses of Beijing’s Ming and Qing era hutongs but do not build them now for contemporary habitation. Nor do today’s Chinese men sport pigtails or women bind their feet.
But Dharma Sansads of the kind that were recently held in Haridwar and elsewhere seek to perpetuate the limitations and inhibitions of the past. As the letter by five former chiefs of staff of the armed forces and more than 100 others, including veterans, bureaucrats and prominent citizens to President Ram Nath Kovind and the Prime Minister stressed, “repeated calls for establishing a Hindu Rashtra and, if required, picking up weapons and killing of India’s Muslims in the name of protecting Hinduism” seem designed to drag India back into an era of bloodthirsty medieval ignorance.
UP’s incensed thakurs no doubt regarded foiling dalit attempts to instal an image of the late Dr B.R. Ambedkar at Ravidas temple at Shabbirpur as a major victory. In turn, dalits protested vehemently against a thakur procession to celebrate Maharana Pratap’s birth anniversary. Both events may have some symbolic value but little contemporary relevance.
Neither can contribute anything towards developing the scientific temper that Jawaharlal Nehru rightly regarded as the sine qua non of a modern republic. Tragically, symbols have acquired all the substitute value of substance under leaders who splash out on the circus of gigantic statues, riverside corridors, lavish bhoomi pujans and ostentatious temples to mythic heroes instead of the bread and vaccines people need.
Not that we have achieved nothing. India may not be able to oust China from Ladakh but our Mukesh Ambani has toppled China’s Jack Ma, former boss of the Alibaba Group, from the pedestal of Asia’s richest man. An Oxfam report claims that India’s richest one per cent holds over four times the wealth of 953 million people who make up the poorest 70 per cent of the population. Covid-19 and the consequent lockdowns, curfews and closures have pushed 230 million Indians into poverty although India now boasts the third largest number of billionaires globally. The 15-month farmers’ agitation, which is now in abeyance, might flare up again if the suspicion is not dispelled that the new dispensation the government wants will benefit most Mr Ambani and Mr Gautam Adani, who is also believed to be close to the Prime Minister.
Anticipating this turn of events, Winston Churchill, arch imperialist and bitter opponent of Indian independence, noted newspaper reports in 1931 “of the crowd of rich Bombay merchants and millionaire millowners, millionaires on sweated labour, who surround Mr Gandhi, the saint, the lawyer …” He believed that they were “making arrangements that the greatest bluff, the greatest humbug and the greatest betrayal shall be followed by the greatest ramp” so that “nepotism, back-scratching, graft and corruption in every form will be the handmaidens” of self-rule.
Opinions differ on the extent to which that grim prophecy may have been fulfilled. But there can be little dispute over the disarray of the political landscape, caused largely by the powerful emergence of identity politics. The strength of individual caste and sub-caste lobbies even within the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh unit compounds the challenge that groups like the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and an invigorated Congress present to Mr Adityanath’s hopes of repeating his party’s impressive performance in 2017. What matters far more than the fate of any political party is the threat to social cohesion in an India that is finding it increasingly difficult to contain its many discontents.