No end to history: The Indian context

On the question of liberal democracy and its future in India. 

The 2014 elections in India were remarkable. Noteworthy not only for the majority that it produced for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi but also for the fact that the BJP dominated nearly every social category divide. The BJP came up the winner on urban/rural, rich/poor, across age groups and between castes. The Hindu vote was consolidated across these divides. The only category split that it did not win was the Hindu/Muslim vote where the BJP won only 8 percent of the national vote share for Muslim voters. These elections produced a majority for the BJP on its own and also together with its pre-election allies that form the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).


The elections are also noteworthy because they set up the possibility of a different idea of India. For the seven decades since Independence, India has been dominated by what one might call the “Indian National Congress” idea of India. Even though Mahatma Gandhi might have been the chief ideologue of this vision, this has become well known as ‘Nehruvian’ after its protagonist Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Sunil Khilnani in his seminal book entitled the Idea of India, says that the Nehruvian idea celebrates “the mongrel character of India’s peoples and their histories: instead of hankering after purity, it sees the moments of mixture as the most creative and imaginative ones. It is a view that insists that what was distinctive about India’s past was its ability to transform invasion into accommodation, rupture into continuity, division into diversity”.

In the early part of the 20th century and prior to independence and nationhood there were several alternative conceptions of the idea of India. One was a communist idea considered to suit a poor, large country like India well. Soon after the Russian Bolshevik revolution, SA Dange (who went on to found the Communist Party of India) published a pamphlet called Gandhi vs. Lenin, in which he concluded that Lenin’s vision had greater hope for India than Gandhi’s. Ranchoddas Lotvala, a businessman from Bombay, funded Dange’s activities including the launch of India’s first Marxist publication, The Socialist. The communists in India were in regular contact with the communist party in the Soviet Union. In 1951, a clash between a middle of the road path to communist power versus a more violent “Chinese style” path was settled by Stalin himself in favour of Dange and the middle path.  Partly because the British were very vigilant against Marxism in India and partly because Gandhi had turned the idea of independence into a mass movement by then, the communist idea of India never gained major traction.

An alternate idea was born in the 1920’s in Nagpur. Keshav Hedgewar, a doctor in the city, set up the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) along with a small group of Hindu nationalists. It was founded as a social organisation to provide character training and to unite the Hindu community in overcoming caste based divisions. It is chartered to uphold Indian culture and civilisational values. One of the other original founders Babarao Sarvarkar (brother of Veer Sarvarkar) wrote a Marathi manifesto for nationalism called Rashtra Mimansa, which was later abridged into an English book called We, Our Nationhood Defined by the second leader of the RSS, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. Golwalkar’s long tenure as the leader of the RSS from 1940 to 1973 defined the role of the RSS and gave root to many affiliated organisations such as the Jana Sangh, the BJP and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh.

In ‘We’, Golwalkar lays out his alternate idea of India thus; “Hindusthan should mean the Hindu Nation – satisfying all five essential requirements of the scientific concept of a nation in the modern world. Consequently, only those movements are truly national as aim at re-building, re-vitalising and emancipating from its present stupor, the Hindu nation.” Golwalkar’s book has been largely forgotten in today’s India, but many streams of thought, collectively called Hindutva, continue into today’s BJP. The Hindutva idea has remained in the background initially because of the dominance of the Congress and its leaders. Even in recent years it has remained contained because until this very election the BJP had not received a parliamentary majority.  The historic election of 2014 changed all this.

Enter Narendra Modi. Modi has portrayed himself on the national scene as a leader with a development agenda and a carefully cultivated “non-ideological” platform.  His 2014 electoral campaign showed great focus on development and masterful restraint on issues of ideology. Based on his background and on his record as a Chief Minister of Gujarat, there are three potential faces to Modi. The first Modi is a pragmatist focused on development, concerned mostly about India’s progress and prosperity, and a nationalist in foreign policy terms. The second Modi is an authoritarian. Most strong chief ministers in India run authoritarian regimes, almost feudal in character.  Modi was no exception in Gujarat and some of his tendencies at the Centre (such as attendance rolls for all officers) suggest he has not left it behind. The third Modi is an ideologue. In a Gujarati book Modi wrote in 2008 called Jyotipunj, he celebrates the lives of 15 mentors from the RSS. Chief among them was MS Golwalkar.

Modi’s six months as Prime Minister have been noteworthy more for foreign policy than domestic policy. Drawing from this thin evidence he has largely been a pragmatist and gradualist reformer. He has reestablished India’s links with many countries near and far. He has allowed limited labour reform and aggressively promoted a behind the scenes deal on the Goods & Service Tax (GST). He is actively changing how the government works. However, he has not intervened when the RSS has sought to influence the curriculum for schools. Modi’s own ideological slip appears to be his constant refrain about “1200 years of colonisation”. This reference is quite different from the alternate representation of India that refers only to the British as colonialists.

India’s tryst with a liberal democracy1 was born in the early 90’s. But suspended, some may say hijacked, by an ineffective corrupt 10 years of UPA rule beginning in 2004. Modi represents a different view of India. Modi, the pragmatist, may well turn out be a liberal and a reformer. If however Modi the authoritarian or Modi the ideologue dominate, India’s path will take a very different contour.  

(1 Yet another idea of India, a true conservative movement called the Swatantra Party, was born only in the 1950’s.  The Swatantra Party made a short and sharp rise, but was not able to sustain its influence after its protagonist, C Rajagopalachari, died.)

This is the second of a two-part series on the question of liberal democracy and whether it will become the world’s dominant political system. The first part appeared in Pragati and discussed the same with respect to the world.

Photo: C/N N/G