A Case for the Sentimental Indian

With the sun tucking itself beneath the six o’clock sky, voting machines across 41 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies received their final intimations. Chimes from theSandhya Aarti at the Kashi Vishwananth mandir mingled with the Azaan from the Alamgiri masjid in the warm and wearied air of Varanasi. The largest democratic exercise on earth has finally come to an end.

The 502 constituencies featuring in the first eight phases registered approximately 506 million voters – a number larger than the combined population of the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. The count of the aggregate voter turnout in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls is touted to be historic, expected to even surpass the record of 1984 – 64 per cent – just after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Indeed, hearty congratulations are in order – the Election Commission of India and our vast bureaucratic and security machinery have fulfilled the monumental task of ensuring the democratic franchise to greater than one-tenth of humanity. Thankfully, the process saw few instances of violence or violation.

However, our purpose here is not to get consumed in self-pride. Too much brouhaha has gone into gloating over the size and vastness of our democratic experiment. And, yet, all of this to serve what end? From the famished farmer in Saurashtra to the SENSEX-sensitive technocrat down Dalal Street, each vote, if anything, exposes us to the magnitude and nature of the tasks that we, as a nation, see ahead of us; more so, to the will of the Indian people to meet with them. The numbers, hence, speak not to itself but to the direction in which it is leading us into the future.

Among the many observations one could make on where we are headed from these elections, I encountered a particularly interesting and important one. This reflective piece is a case for the sentimental Indian – how the power of collective sentiment is shaping politics, as we know it today, and why we should care.

The context of these elections was cumulated in the developments of the last few years. An unprecedented slew of scandals followed by pronounced bouts of policy-paralysis left the common man seething with disgust. Our media began to stress on a word rarely to be seen in the likes of the west, but which is now frequent in our headlines: “anti-incumbency”. Politics virtually became a cuss word.

Anger was the dominating sentiment and it was anger that pressured the narrative to come forth with a ‘clean’ alternative in Indian politics. An almost instant outburst of public emotion, gave us the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – the third ‘national party’ in our electoral fray. To consider the example of the AAP is important. It reveals in great measure the tone and tenor of our present socio-political fabric. We will proceed to see why after acknowledging the backdrop of this case for a moment.

The Indian National Congress (INC) was fostered under the ideologies of revolutionary thinkers like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lokmanya Tilak, in its earlier days; Pandit Nehru and, of course, M. K. Gandhi in its eventual years. Similarly the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (now, the Bharatiya Janata Party) scripted its position by carefully crafted ideologies of those like V. D. Savarkar and M. S. Golwalkar. The Communists camp too derived its pertinence, of course, from its traditional troika (i.e. Marx, Engels and Lenin) and from latter-day thinkers like B. T. Ranadive and the Spanish Communist Santiago Carillo.

The interesting case of the AAP shows that it doesn’t share a similar intellectual legacy like those spoken of above. As mentioned, widespread public anger against the political establishment created the need for a new entrant. AAP appeared to have made a bid to fill that void. The speed of its entry and its quick ratification as a national party (a timeframe that started at Anna Hazare’s movement in 2011 and culminated in the party’s official formation in the end of 2012) has hidden its basic inadequacy – it lacks an ideology, a focal point, and a reference.

This casts strange doubts not just on the party’s credibility but also on those who are led to believe in the AAP. The only widely acknowledged stand that the AAP has taken is its commitment to root-out corruption. However, a coherent indication of its economic and social policy, its long-term agenda, its style of governance, etc., remains a function of guesswork. At best a voter’s faith is an educated estimate of what the AAP might stand for or, at worst, a desperate bid to vote against the present establishment. The disparity in public statements by leaders from the party ever since its inception vindicates the party’s arbitrary foundation.

The development of the AAP phenomenon in India, thus, tells us that the power of sentiment in Indian politics is pertinent, even central. As we proceed in this piece, I will attempt to demonstrate how.

One would recall that the AAP is not the first party to rebel against the establishment. Jayaprakash Narayan, formerly a member of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), founded the Lok Satta Party in 2006 in a similar bid to reform political culture. In fact the party possesses a very well-defined agenda, totally unlike the AAP. But the key difference between the two is that the Lok Satta Party lacked the context under which the AAP formed and flourished – an angry and clamouring electoral atmosphere. The logic of the narrative has yielded the Lok Satta Party, as of today, as an almost mute decoration in our political corridors.

Here alone, in the curious anomaly that is the Indian experiment, can one find the interesting marriage of a visionary leadership – tall intellects – that gave birth to a nation which has, over the last 67 years, fostered a citizenry that chooses to ride largely on sentiment and negligibly on intellectual stature. The memories of Pandit Nehru, Mrs. Indira Gandhi and Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, for instance, are co-inclusive with each other and, of course, with the present generation of the ‘Gandhi Family’. This is strange. Strange, I dare say, because a sound thinker may even be willing to overlook the difference between black and white when confronted with the comparison of Pandit ji and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi! And yet this is an imagery large sections of our electorate tolerate.

Continuing a little on the Congress party strain, the AAP is not alone in its ideological estrangement. The Congress party is facing a similar situation. A party that was initially committed to Socialism was the same one that gave us a liberalised market economy. Ever since then, the party has been tangoing curiously between the left and right. This is manifest in its policy offerings over the last ten years. The Congress pushed hard for Keynesian Welfarism through legislations like the National Food Security Act and the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. In the same timeframe it was equally aggressive in removing the 51 per cent cap on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into single-brand retail outlets, permitting 100 per cent foreign investment in the sector.

The secular legacy laid by the founding fathers of the INC is not entirely exemplified in today’s Congress party either. For a party that claims commitment to secularism, one would wonder why they consistently appear to use religious minorities as ‘vote-banks’. Seeking endorsement from the Shahi Imaam of Jama Masjid was an instance that made me wonder whether the Congress supposes that India wants to be secular because its minorities want it to be secular. India, to my mind, is secular because all sections of society – that includes the religious Hindu majority – want it to be so.

Yet such inconsistencies in the Congress’ position is something our electorate at large is willing to forgive. In fact, perhaps such inconsistency may not really matter to larger electoral sensibilities. Sentimental value of India’s grand old party, its history and the ‘charisma’ of its ‘First Family’ are what sustain it at best today. But, needless to say, this has been brought into serious question with large sections of public sentiment directed elsewhere.

The evolution of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bolsters and seals the case for the sentimental Indian. No phenomenon in post-independent India has successfully created a mass cult like Mr. Narendra Modi has. And what is behind Mr. Modi’s popularity? Good governance? Development? Hardly. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum one occupies, an objective academic assessment will show that Gujarat is not a model of development under any stretch of the imagination. Multiple summary indices – the Human Development Index (HDI), Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), Composite Development Index (CDI) or the performance index put forward by the Raghuram Rajan Committee in 2011-12 – all place Gujarat in rank 9 among 20 states. In fact Tamil Nadu and Kerala have ranked far higher.

But Mr. Modi’s brilliant public relations machinery has made sure that it could spin mass support from lies. In H. G. Wells’ book, ‘Tono-Bungay’, a seemingly harmful tonic emerged as a hit in the market by merely advertising it incessantly to the public. Similarly, in Mr. Modi’s case his ‘Development’ narrative has been put time and again before the public to the extent that the minds of many have been conditioned to believe exactly what he wants them to believe.

But make no mistake, it wasn’t Mr. Modi’s supposed good governance track record that won him his fame. His ‘development’ image took centre-stage because he was able to whip up public sentiment in ways that facilitated the successful fabrication of “The Gujarat Muddle” into the “The Gujarat Model” (in the words of Prof. Jean Drèze).

Like how the AAP rose from sentiments of anger and resistance, the ‘Mr. Development’ image was built on the public frustration over the lack of good governance given by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Anger, thus, helped build Mr. Modi to what he is now. And Mr. Modi, if anything, has ensured that through the course of the election season, he kept the public anger alive. He consistently hurled scathing insults and accusations at his opponents, all wrapped up in very charming phrases and rhetoric – a winning recipe of words, indeed. In addition to going about making people angry, strongman machismo and consistent linkages to nationalism were two more emotive spells cast by Mr. Modi.

There are states that have performed far better (on the development count) and their Chief Ministers have certainly not been able to build a mass cult around their report cards. Mr. Modi’s ability to invoke the right sentiments at the right time over the right issues whipped up a charged environment for his ‘Mr. Development’ image to inflate virally.

It is thus abundantly clear that these elections, its trends and stories, indicate that the single largest “wave” in Indian politics, if any, is the wave of public sentiment. Intellectual stature, factual records of good governance, statesmanship, etc., matter only if it invokes favourable mass emotion. On the other hand, an average track record is quickly rendered irrelevant if the emotion card is played well.

This fact may not be exclusive to Indian politics; it is perhaps the case with every electoral democracy.

Necessarily, the overriding power of emotion over reason is worrying. Observing this, celebrated journalist, Mr. H. L. Mencken once remarked that “democracy is the pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.” Cynical, maybe, but this reflects our present condition.

It is for this reason that I opened this piece by urging the reader not to get lost in the cacophony and chest-thumping of post-poll rhetoric. Momentous occasions like these call for celebration, of course, but also for honest reflection. There is no other way we can move forward in achieving our salvation as a nation and a people.

I leave the reader with a prudent reminder from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The message encapsulates the credo of leadership that went into the making of modern India; it would serve us well to remember:

“We must guard against being swept away by momentary passion, whether it is religion misapplied to politics or communalism or provincialism or casteism. We have to build this great country into a mighty nation; mighty not in the ordinary sense of the word… but mighty in thought, mighty in action, mighty in culture and mighty in its peaceful service to humanity.”

My hope in the future of this great country remains high. How could it not? Hope is that stubborn thing that insists, in spite of everything.

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