February 22, 2020
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Ideas In Slumber? Switch To Praxis

From the near-paralysis of Nehruvian socialism to a de-ideologised pragmatism is a long way to go

Ideas In Slumber? Switch To Praxis
In November 1993, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew said, "Good government includes the pursuit of the national interest regardless of theories or ideologies." In the same month six years later, Atal Behari Vajpayee said that the "central message of the 13th Lok Sabha elections was about governance". Later, L.K. Advani confirmed this unconditionally, subordinating the demands of ideology to the even more compelling demands of good government. Here then we have the extraordinary situation in which the Singapore brand of pragmatism, unqualified by theory or doctrinaire convictions, is recognised in the Indian context as central to the process of national development.

From the near-paralysis of Nehruvian socialism to a de-ideologised pragmatism is a long way to go. Yet it represents an attitudinal change from which a national transformation can emerge. True, the new formulation can turn out to be only a form of words. But so far, circumstantial evidence suggests otherwise. Over months, the bjp scene has been one of the party and government—the first partially, the second almost completely—moving away from the rss' ideological fetters.

At the core of this withdrawal is a rejection of the parivar's criticism of the government's economic policies and also an assertion of the view that the parivar has no right to "meddle" in policies and administrative decisions. Allied to this and representing another sea change is a growing though belated realisation that populism and good governance can't go together. These shifts in perception and attitude have combined increasingly to identify the party and specifically the government with a reinvigorated Indian middle class.

This is the class whose technological aptitudes have made it so visible. It is a class whose motivational spirit is one of "getting things done" and to whom the extremism of ideological extravagance is repugnant. The achievements of the Indian diaspora, particularly in the US, have helped position the middle class in the vanguard of the movement for change. The bjp is unique in that it believes in the power of belief and the commitments that spring from that belief. Mr Vajpayee's point, and it is a central one, seems to be that doctrine alone, separated from the compulsions of good governance, can lead to the same kind of stagnation that overtook Nehruvian socialism.

Yet another feature of the newly-emerging Indian political scene is the agility with which the Vajpayee faction has exploited the government's coalition status to its advantage. Coalition as a recipe for weakness has been transformed into a recipe for strength. To every broadside from the extremist wing, Vajpayee has retaliated with the nda agenda. That is the agenda which has empowered the bjp, to enable it to seize the middle ground, to push forward economic liberalisation, to adapt thoughtfully to the needs of globalisation, to acquire the confidence to cope with Kargil and to organise Pokhran.

The underlying message is that it's the party that wins and uses political power, not ideologies. What's being demonstrated under Vajpayee is that finally it's the dog that wags the tail, not the other way round. But can this promise of ongoing change be fulfilled within the present political structure? bjp proposals for a constitutional review suggests the party doesn't think so.

There is babudom waiting to be reformed. There is the need to shift the emphasis from judicial activism to executive responsibility. There is the need for a system under which the nation is managed and not just administered. There is the constant need to move away from statism and to institutionalise change. Taken together, these things add up to a new image of India. There is the spectacle at home of the various states competing for Bill Gates' benevolent attention. And there is the even more arresting spectacle of the new equation with the US.

At the fag end of the Clinton administration, Vajpayee's presence in the US created a climate of Indo-US euphoria that could carry over, such is the momentum it has gained, into the new administration. In short, as Karl Inderfurth has put it, "the hyphenated relationship between India and Pakistan is no longer appropriate". For the external affairs ministry, this means a foreign policy no longer obsessively centred on Pakistan and Kashmir. The message for the incoming Washington administration: if you want an Asian ally that shares the values appropriate to the 21st century and is a force for stability in the region, here we are.

As for consumerism, once a dirty word in the Indian political vocabulary, it is now seen as one source of the energy required for more and more national change. This is an index to how basically old prejudices are being swept aside. Slowly yet less dimly, this is beginning to be registered globally. And at the same time, the picture of the bjp in the West as a "collection of proto-fascist fanatics whirling in religious ecstasy and intolerance" no longer has a firm hold. The Indo-US story then has latterly been and continues to be one of mutual discovery that the Vajpayee-led bjp has managed so far with singular success.

(The author is a former editor of The Times of India, Bombay, and The Statesman )
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