Since then, observing our public political life has felt like sitting through a movie made with the latest jump-cut, handheld camera techniques: jerky, murky, in fact just a bit too much like real life. Event and incident have assailed us regularly: three national elections, the bjp in office, Pokhran-II, war in Kargil, kaleidoscopic turns in our party 'system', natural and human disasters, the software boom, cricket scandals, literature a la mode, the penetration of satellite and cable television, Clinton's progress, and, through it all, the constant intimidation of fellow citizens and a narrowing of our religious and cultural freedoms, all in the name of Hindu nationalism.
The press and media have gratefully accepted this spectacular cornucopia, and have regaled us with images, comment, information, and surveys. As a nation, we are probably better informed than ever before—we know more about more. Yet can we claim to have a better understanding of our world, and therefore a better sense of how to act, of what to do? Are we better placed to judge?
One effect of all this information has been to induce—and not only among India's metro chic—a profound boredom with politics: who cares any more? One can't help feeling sympathy with such a reaction: politics in its narrow sense is very boring and depressing. But there is a rather looser, more urgent sense, which helps to remind us of the basic question of politics: how should we live, and how must we act?
None of us can exactly avoid the question. And no society, especially a noisy, disparate, ill-tempered and internally unequal democracy like ours, can ever hope to function on auto-pilot, in the belief that someone, somewhere, is doing the understanding on our behalf. It would be comforting but quite illusory to imagine that, just as there is a division of economic labour, so too when it comes to politics there can be a division of intellectual labour: that editors and commentators, political leaders or professional observers can think for us. Despite the confident assertions from practitioners of each of these black arts, does anyone in fact have the faintest clue how to understand what is happening in our politics? Think for a moment of raw, of the massed ranks of our social scientists, of our politicians—and think too, of our own dear, sporadically terrestrial prime minister.
Understanding what is happening around us is never easy and it is always heavily partial (who among us can claim to really know exactly why we act as we do?). Nor, often, is it particularly pleasant. But how well we understand is the singlemost important factor in deciding how things turn out. The reason is simple: because the content of politics today is human actions. Politics is about each of us acting, and tailoring how we act in strategic response to what we believe we know about the actions of those with whom we choose to cooperate or conflict.This is as true for individuals as it is for states.
Probably the most concerted practical attempt Indians have ever made to try to understand their past and future political possibilities was in the middle decades of the last century—from roughly the 1920s to the 1960s. What those generations did understand was not always very uplifting; and there were plenty of things that they clearly didn't understand. But they did leave us with a number of well-chosen instruments through which future generations of Indians could try to make sense of their political possibilities, and to actively shape them.
The most important of these instruments was a constitutional state which both gave legal and political protections, and secured spaces—Parliament, the courts, the press—where collective choices and actions could be deliberated and probed. In addition, they left us with a mechanism that could tap and channel flows of belief towards this state: the instrument of democratic elections. By bequeathing to us these tools, they placed upon us—present and future generations of Indians—the burden of having to think and judge for ourselves. That, above all, is what a democracy is.
The conditions of political life have changed in the past five years, the result of basic changes in the character of our state and the nature of our democracy. How do we begin to understand these changes? Take democratic choice. Within the past five years, we have had three elections—the highest ever concentration of polling in such a short period of time. Fortunately, each of these three elections has been more closely studied than any ever before. What do they reveal? Not, as one might be led to believe, that we live in a society deeply polarised by caste and religion. These fractures of course exist, as they ever have done, and they can always be made to become politically significant. But, despite the best intimidatory efforts of the bjp and its friends to make our political landscape riven with chasms and abysses, what the experience of recent elections in fact underlines is how molten and mutable caste and religion tend to be as forms of political self-definition.
We can detect, though, in the past five years, the coming together of a large social grouping based around prosperous, upper-caste Hindus in both city and countryside, a group whose membership crosses the boundaries of regional states. This social raft, well to the right of the political centre, is conservative in its beliefs about culture, economics and social policy, and it has shown itself to be easily seduced by a shiny, militarist nationalism. It could quite conceivably drift apart, since it is held together not by hard-headed calculation of common interests but by sentiment and resentment—very powerful emotions in politics, but precisely because of that also highly treacherous and pliable. Against this, the poorer and lower orders have failed to find a pan-Indian political form, and increasingly they tend to vote not for national parties such as the Congress but for parties which are regional in their base (but not, importantly, merely regionalist in their horizons). This has established the regional state as a crucial arena of choice and action.
The state has seen change too. In its primary function as a provider of security, there can be no doubt that it has weakened. One has only to recognise how sharply the levels of fear have risen in our society over the past five years.Each one of us has reason to be more fearful today of external threats—the level of risk has been raised immensely by the acquisition of nuclear weapons capability, by India and Pakistan, which when deployed would place missiles virtually tip to tip. Domestically too, those of us who have most need of state protections now have more to fear. Indians who are not Hindu, the lowest in the caste order, and the very poor are all today vastly more exposed to threat. We need a state that can provide more security: yet, and this is the irony, the bjp (a party which made great play in its manifesto—remember that?—of promising security) has by its choices in government depleted the state's ability to provide security to its citizens. To claim otherwise is simply a fraud.
For some, the expansion of the market and what is nebulously called 'liberalisation' is responsible for reduced security. There is no doubt that the growing acceptance of the scope of the market represents a fundamental change in how we think about our political possibilities. It allows a greater role to a mechanism that resists easy direction by intentional policy, one that disperses intention very widely. (Given the current levels of skill among our economic policymakers, we might be thankful for this). The increasing prominence of the market also opens the Indian economy to a fickle stream of international choices about where in the world to invest. And domestically, the market—while it generates wealth more effectively than any other known method—invariably redistributes such wealth in happy disregard of principles of justice or equity.
There are indeed risks in this. However, the idea that we can entrust more safely to the state or government all important economic choices is a still greater risk: the Indian state, and its elected and non-elected officers, can no longer claim to know best how to run the economy for its citizens. This follows not simply from recognition of the role of the market but also from the deepening of electoral democracy. With the entry of the poorest and lowest into the political process, more people than ever before are making and expressing judgements and choices about politics and economics.
We will, of course, continue to need governments to make economic policy—choices have to be made about the consequences which markets generate, about how to educate a workforce, and many more things. But the idiom through which such policy is discussed and arrived at will perforce have to be broadened, so that it is able to register the far greater range of beliefs and desires that now matter politically in India. Simultaneously, we will need to keep the state impersonal and impermeable to the religious and cultural beliefs of a vocal Hindu minority—this is essential if the state is to provide security to those who need it most. India will also need to fashion itself as an attractive destination for global capital. And, as the juggernaut of capitalism begins finally to rumble across the landscape, we will have to understand and quickly act to reduce its destructive ecological effects—if we are not to endanger forever the life chances of both current and future generations. And, as if all that were not enough to be getting on with, we shall need to think innovatively and very fast about how to reduce the hazard of nuclear catastrophe. These five compulsions by no means all cut in the same direction: on the contrary, each is in tension with the other.We will not have the luxury of dealing with them one at a time: they will—and are—coming at us all at once. This precisely makes clear what a difficult time we are in for—it establishes the tightrope we collectively will have to balance our way across in the next five years and beyond. No one knows how we can get across: we will together have to invent a way. Or, together, we can fall.
(The second edition of Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India was published last year.)