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India, 2020: A cautionary tale

January 15, 2015 11:30 IST

'If Modi arrived like a juggernaut, he left like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were being dismantled bit by bit. It was as if India had seceded quietly from him.'

Shiv Viswanathan's social science fiction about India in 2020.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh


When the Modi regimes came, the old elites faded away. Politics became open to philistinism. India felt strangely ungummed.

Elites are odd groups. People and masses hate them but are often in awe of them. They wield power in little clubs and families making decisions few hear of and even fewer understand. But elites are like cultural gum, their sense of values keep a social fabric together.

Today only botanists and taxidermists seem to love them. When old cults built around the academe, business, bureaucracy fade away and the new elite takes time to emerge, a nation State become an assortment of conflictual possibilities.

The tragedy of the Congress defeat was not its disappearance, but the death of the old elite. A style of science, a bureaucracy which felt committed to governance as stewardship, the old business families -- all disappeared.

At one time we would recite the names of old bureaucrats who became legends and businessmen whose ethics made them household words. Bajaj, Tata, Mudaliars, Pandeys, the Iyer clans were names to be proud of.

When the Modi regimes came, the old elites faded away.

Politics became open to philistinism. For the old elite, Nehruvianism was a composite of elitist, socialist, cosmopolitan, aesthetics values. We lost all this as the elite moved to the margins. Old families were now linked to tourist havelis and forgotten streets which the new populism had no place for.

India felt strangely ungummed.

The ungumming of India, according to Kautav B, an old ardent storyteller of the elites, began with the Nehru regime. He claimed that the old value system died and a nihilist new age talked of culture as if it was a set of vitamin additives.

It was a culture with no sense of myth, full of secular terms like governance, development, globalism without realising that these were only fashionable footnotes of a bowdlerized history.

He claimed these were new chartered accountants who confuse ethics with accounting. Every CA knows that falsification was a problem in science and ethics but never in accounting.

Our new middle class was aspirational. For all its nationalism, our citizens were diasporic at heart. Give them a US visa and they would be happily patriotic in the USA as the TV display at Madison Square Garden proved. It was the Diaspora who realised that Narendra Modi was a modernist, a man whose modernism was like plumbing.

He was ready to dismantle India to repair it. Modi was a man with no regrets. He shrugged of the Planning Commission as if it was a pack of cards. The pity is he had not heard of butterfly effects.

The mistake he made was that he thought of planning as an economistic managerial act performed by technocrats especially economists after the last INLAK epidemic. INLAKS was a scholarship where the elite used to reproduce itself.

Unfortunately, the current standards of Oxbridge and LSE were such that these were pale imitations of their ancestors. As Nirad C Chaudhuri complained of England, these epigones did not even speak English with flair and idiosyncrasy.

The failed copies that joined the World Bank and the think-tanks could be brushed aside, but planning was a style, a patrician idea and the old planners whether Mahalanobis, Pitamber Pant, Saha, Subramanium, Sen, Swaminathan were legends because of the values they proclaimed.

Planning provided a framework of values for economics. It provided the political in the economy to establish wider continuities. Values were inherent to the social sciences disciplines and it was values that made social science an aristocratic exercise.

When you removed planning, you removed a halo from economies, a sense of the sacred; you turned planning from a visionary act of shamans to a philistine act of management.

I remember the new vice chairman of NITI, an academic from Columbia, claiming in a seminar that development always causes suffering. It was the task of the planner to decide who shall suffer. Suffering sounded like temperature and it was clear the economist preferred calibrations and measures to lived life.

I remember an old cartoonist who designed a swank new NITI building and put a series of gaping skulls as its new emblem. He was more prescient than he thought. I still remember the title of the cartoon 'The house that Panagariya built.'

The first moves were 'gung ho' announcements greeted with acclaim by the corporations who had nothing to lose but their CSIs. Three laws, quickly enacted swung the tide.

There was the land acquisition act, the national projects clearance act and the new sedition laws passed against environmental groups. Discussions of climate change were declared taboo. One realised that this was a regime not dedicated to feeding middle class aspirations but corporate greed. The Aam Aadmi became the Aam Corporation.

The consequences were slow to seep in. The first reports of violence were kept out by media friendly journalists. There were reports of tribals destroying themselves like hemmings mourning the loss of a mountain, of shamans being mowed down by BSF guns.

The reports were presented more like encounter deaths not quite Naxalite because these tribals had no weapons. They appeared like desperate acts of protest, of sacrifice, of despair, a joint sacrament where mountain and the soul of the shaman died together.

The dignity of dying was impeccable as drama, a shaman ritually dressed, with weapons discarded, completely vulnerable. The BSF recruits who witnessed this remarked that it had the power of the old Dandi March.

The BARBA foundation -- a joint Indo-Korean enterprise -- brushed it off, clear that shamanic sacrifices have no entry in annual ledger columns.

The first underlying reports connecting points of trouble came from a Greenpeace report from London. One was tempted to laugh it off but the detail, the matter of fact ethnography, the sacrilege of the sacred, the poisoning of water described as 'brown brackish, contaminated' reminded people of the old Vedanta era.

It was not the facticity, the flat tone of the reports piling fact on fact that created trouble. It was rumours that tribals were refusing to celebrate festivals. The tourist departments were complaining that something was wrong. Even this report would have been lost, if RSS teams had not highlighted them in Panchajanya.

Now this was not a report by an underground tremor threatening the stability of the regime and stability is one word corporations understand. Stability is more important than current forfeit because stability smells of the continuity of profit.

RSS unions, groups working in agriculture, mining unions of the BKU, shakhas focusing on conversion reported hostility, even assaults on pracharaks. Daily shakhas brought in news from other areas.

The RSS is a peculiar organisation. It is as modern as any Jesuitical enterprise; it is as orthodox as any Hindu priest.

Its ideology wants to construct a nation State. In fact, for it the nation State is its new semitic God, its monotheistic creation. And yet it is animistic about nature, and about nature as culture in its sense of food, well-being, and agriculture.

In that sense the RSS is a split level entity. It is orthodox and ascetic and it has little sense of the aspirational class. For it biotechnology is an anathema and BT brinjal is a sacrilege.

It will modernise the army, celebrate Diasporas and still believe in secret groves and food taboos. It loves Hinduism and hates castes.

Remember it was the Communists that Ambedkar called a bunch of 'old Brahmin boys,' not the RSS.

It was RSS groups like the BKU, especially farmers and miners that joined the battle against development. These were not urbane groups from Mumbai and New Delhi, but shakhas from little towns who had watched forests die and local markets shrink.

For them one could not have an India without forests and farms. For them Modi seemed a distant creature, a digitalised icon whose sense of nature ended with a hologram.

Modi appeared like the PM of an alien race. The development battles had created contradictions between the RSS and BJP where the RSS held onto the nation while the BJP got stuck with the State.

It was an inner contradiction no Marxist could have dreamt of. Inner contradictions are stuff of scandal, rumour and gossip that overt external contradictions with their dreams of objectivity and objective conditions cannot claim.

Narendra Modi was busy holding forth at Davos on relation between business and security in India. He looked suave. There was a gravitas about him which the new American president envied.

The Abe-Modi strategy had worked, at least on the geo-political front. There was something Germanic in style, in the twining of these leadership strategies, a deep sense of nationalist pride which combined Japanese management strategies and Indian markets. Time magazine had presented these two leaders in a cartoon as Siamese twins. Economists more understated just orientalised -- Modi trimming his beard into a few Confucian whiskers.

By 2020 the economic miracle called Singapore sounded listless and Russia driven with dissension, too fragile to count. The coming battle between Muslim fundamentalism and orthodox Christianity was haunting these territories. The spectre haunting many of these nations was the new religious cults, millennial groups which had their own idea of development and salvation.

The first clashes between the RAF, BSF and the new protest movements were one sided. Our security forces were armed to the teeth. Yet as tribal groups and khakhi-clad shakhas fell before the bullets, India responded with indignation.

We like being a nation State, enact adolescent plays about security and development, but deep down, every Indian knows that his Linus blanket is his civilisation, that cosmic sense of religion, the comfort of tradition that envelops him with warmth and confidence.

Modernity appears like a kind of nudity. It lacks warmth; it can only provide heat without conviviality. A poor solution in the winter of discontent.

One must admit, that it was not civil war that produced great casualties. There was a lot of violence and lot more vandalism. It was not deaths India had to contend with, but symbolic wounds that Modi's development model had created.

There were causalties, but they were more from developmental model than from wars, the struggles that followed. Ecocide destroys the countryside, erases a people like a ruthless epidemic. Resistance is desperately fragile after that.

The RSS met for one of its longest session in the Nagpur of 2020. Mohan Bhagwat still walked erect and was still starched and stiff about his ideology as about his khaki pants. The RSS knew that its electoral strategy had blown up in its own hands.

Amit Shah and Modi and the aspiring upward class forces had drifted away from its core ideas of culture. Culture in a civilisational sense was battling consumerism in a market sense. It wanted to prevent civil war, it was too committed to the nation, but it knew Modi has to go.

The decade of Modi had become as appalling as the era of Manmohan Singh. Governance had become an ironic word.

By the next election the BJP was being defeated by forces within it. If Modi arrived like a juggernaut, he left like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were being dismantled bit by bit. It was as if India had seceded quietly from him.

A coalition of regional parties emerged to challenge the old federalism and the technology of development. It was a peaceful takeover with only one monumental act of destruction.

The Sardar statue was vandalised by angry mobs. The police moved into action, but little could be saved. Watching its debris, one sensed a feeling of loss, an era like the monument had collapsed.

Everydayness returned, but it was unkind to such attempts of monumentality.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

Shiv Viswanathan