A casual reading of India’s post-Independence history may well prompt the belief that the republic was born to be Leftish. From the time Nehru warded off the challenge of the orphaned followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the early 1950s, the buzzword has been socialism. This deification of state control with its attendant inefficiencies and the celebration of centralised planning persisted into and through the tenure of Indira Gandhi.
Besides institutionalising sluggish growth, creating a bloated, venal state, and driving honest entrepreneurship into oblivion, Indira, who entered into a marriage of convenience with an opportunistic Marxist Left, distorted the vocabulary of Indian politics. Unlike Nehru, who transplanted the genteel traditions of upper-class British socialism into the discourse, his daughter borrowed from the sloganeering language of pro-Soviet intellectuals. Denunciation of “right-wing reactionaries” became a feature of the political landscape. Its high point was the Emergency, when the preamble to the Constitution was modified and replenished with the terms ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’.
The liberalisation process initiated by P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991 was an important trigger in breaking the Left consensus. Hitherto, the so-called Right had existed at two levels: as a traditionalist critique of a nationalism that was insufficiently mindful of the cultural moorings of India, and as an alternative to statist economics. The two strands, initially represented by the Jana Sangh and the Swatantra parties, remained on the margins. It was the Ayodhya movement and economic liberalisation that created the conditions for a viable Right, so far a work in progress.
For the Indian Right, the general election of 2014 presents the greatest opportunity to rectify the ideological imbalance. The rise of Narendra Modi as a pan-Indian challenger to dynastic politics and the Left consensus is located within a definite context. First, thanks to the UPA government’s hesitation in carrying forward the reforms, India’s growth rates have slipped alarmingly. From being a rising world power, India has lost steam. Second, the BJP, with its emphasis on infrastructural development and the promotion of entrepreneurship, has emerged as an alternative to the Congress’s well-meaning but inept welfarism. Finally, a steady dilution of the rough edges of ‘cultural nationalism’ has meant that the Congress’s attempt to paint the BJP as a party of the lunatic fringe is bringing diminishing returns.
These trends have coalesced around the personality of Modi for many reasons. As a three-term CM of a rapidly growing state, Modi has had the opportunity to demonstrate an alternative approach in action. Despite his commitment to a ‘minimal state’, Modi isn’t a classical Thatcherite. Rather than dispense with state-sponsored initiatives—a difficult proposition in a country marked by economic and social inequalities—he has
focused on doing away with needless controls and demanding efficiency. His enthusiastic promotion of technology has sold a dream to an India no longer content to remain stuck in the Third World. He has whetted the Indian appetite for modern governance draped in an Indian flag. A formidable communicator with a larger-than-life persona, Modi has used Gujarat as the launch-pad for an audacious attempt to make a parliamentary election ‘presidential’.
Two emerging trends are likely in the Modi campaign. First, his governance style and approach to economic management will be agressively showcased. Those wishing for a manifesto commitment to large-scale privatisation and the abolition of the Planning Commission could be disappointed. But their enthusiasm may well be kindled by an assurance that the days of big government are over. Second, the projection of Modi may well be aimed at elevating him from the humdrum of party politics. A distinction between what Modi stands for and what the BJP represents could well be reflected in the next few months.
The outcome of Modi’s campaign will prove crucial in determining whether or not Indian politics can be recalibrated to reflect the changes in the country over the past 25 years. Yes, India has changed unrecognisably, but its politics is still stuck in a rut. Modi represents the most coherent bid to bring governance and politics into the 21st century.
The voices stifled after 1947 are awaiting their moment.