January 23, 2020
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Mr Vajpayee's India

Central to Vajpayee's vision of India is its pluralism. And, unlike the parivar, he locates it in the non-doctrinal nature of Hinduism.

Mr Vajpayee's India
IT is a sad commentary on the state not only of the media but also of the new urban middle class, that Vajpayee's musings have been received with a measure of scepticism, and on occasion even incomprehension, by its commentators. The truth is that his 'musings' are Vajpayee's testament to the future. They come from a man who, in the past two years, has grown from an astute politician and fiery orator to a statesman with a vision for India every Indian can identify with.

Central to this vision is what he refers to as India's secularism, but may more accurately be its pluralism. "When I look back at free India's journey through the past five decades I am filled with pride...because we have been successful in preserving two ideals that are most precious to all of us: one, the unity of India, and two, our democratic system.... Few countries in the world, faced with the challenges of development and governance that India does, have so steadfastly continued on the democratic path. Similarly, few multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic societies in the world have presented such an exemplary demonstration of unity in diversity.... Diversity does not permit divisiveness or exclusiveness. Similarly unity cannot be achieved through uniformity.... India belongs equally to all her citizens and communities, not more to some and less to others.... Throughout her long history, India's unity (has been) nurtured by an ethos of secularism that teaches all her people not only to tolerate each others' customs, traditions and beliefs, but also to respect them.... Secularism is not a concept that we imported out of compulsion...it's an integral and natural feature of our national culture and ethos...(it's) India's social truth."

Vajpayee's understanding of the reasons for free India's success in nation-building is profound, but if anything too modest. India is not among the 'few countries' to have combined nation-building with democracy: it's the only country in human history that has done so. Indeed, it has gone one better and used democracy to tackle the political and economic challenges of nation-building. This is in sharp contrast to Europe, where the modern, Westphalian State was formed a full two centuries before the advent of democracy. So when European societies began to be torn apart by the stresses of industrialisation and urbanisation, most were already stable nation-states capable of moderating the conflict between the newly-created 'haves' and 'have-nots'. By contrast India, and some four score other countries that gained their freedom after World War II, faced all three challenges at the same time.

Nearly all these countries tried to reconcile the three national goals—consolidation of national territory, economic development and democratisation—but soon gave up and narrowed their focus to two of these goals. In eastern Asia, leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, Park Chung Hee and Mahathir Mohamed developed an alternate model of nation-building in which democratisation was deferred till the tasks of territorial consolidation and economic development were fulfilled. Elsewhere, notably in Africa, countries relapsed into authoritarianism without a murmur. Only India succeeded in pursuing all three simultaneously.

India succeeded as it adopted a radically different model of nation-building from the European one. War, conquest and the forced assimilation of minorities into the majority culture created the European State in the 17th century. When the nation-state was born two centuries later, due to the secession of ethnic groups from parent conglomerate empires, the pressure on the smaller ethnic minorities that still remained to conform to the majority culture grew fiercer. After World War II, nearly all the newly independent states adopted the European, unitary model of the nation-state. But the conflicts that were unleashed by the forced assimilation of minorities made economic development impossible, and more often than not frustrated the goal of territorial consolidation as well.

By contrast India adopted a pluralistic, decentralised model of nationhood in which territorial consolidation was achieved through political accommodation, with force being used only sparingly and as a last resort. This produced multi-layered ethnic federalism in which people were comfortable with several overlapping identities, for instance as Christians, Tamils and Indians. It was this success in achieving territorial consolidation peacefully through democratic accommodation that made it possible to pursue the third goal, of economic development, alongside.

This is the unity in diversity Vajpayee is so proud of. Needless to say, in order not to feel threatened by such diversity people have to accept religious, linguistic and cultural differences without question. Fortunately, India had a long tradition of such acceptance. Vajpayee's awareness of this is the key to understanding his linking of the Ram mandir movement in Ayodhya with the dargah at Ajmer Sharif and the church of St Francis Xavier in Goa. It also helps understand his powerful denunciation of the way that original impulse was hijacked to serve the purposes of Hindu exclusivism. And it's to the loss of that syncretism, under the impact of western education and a new-found self-consciousness among Hindus and Muslims, that he ascribes the tragedy of Partition.

Vajpayee's testament is intended only partly for the general public. Its other target is the Sangh parivar. Other than Gandhi no one's written a more impassioned defence of Indian pluralism and tolerance. And like Gandhi, Vajpayee has correctly located this pluralism in the non-doctrinal nature of Hinduism. His is a wake-up call to the Sangh to take stock of what they'll endanger if they pursue the goal of Hindu exclusivism without understanding the deeper rhythms of Indian civilisation.
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