Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Modi Phenomenon . . And what it means to me as an Indian

Narendra Modi. The name resonates many feelings (positive more than negative nowadays). But before the elections and from 2002 to 2014, Modi has been the centre of many a controversy. He has battled them all and has emerged as the Prime Minister of the country. But what does the Modi phenomenon mean for me? It means a lot. I asked myself this question – why was I so happy that Modi has practically turned the BJP/NDA around and has single-handedly taken over the reins of the country? How does it have any effect on my life and my routine?

Till I was in college, I was pretty much unaware of politics and the ramifications of the massive societal changes happening around me. The first recollection that I have of involving myself in political affairs in any form or manner was voting in 1998 for the BJP. I felt relieved (though I don’t know why) when Atal Behari Vajpayee was made the Prime Minister of India. He served a full-term and more till 2004. In that period, the Indian economy saw the telecom boom, the ITES revolution and the sudden expansion of the national highway network. Before nay-sayers begin booing; let me clarify that statement.

  • Though privatization of the telecom industry was commenced in 1991 under PV Narasimha Rao, real progress happened after the BJP government opened the flood-gates by privatizing VSNL. After Tata took over, it enabled private players to foray into the Indian market. After 2000, the government became much more liberal in giving licenses to foreign players. This was helped further by the New Telecommunications Policy, 1999.
  • Again, though the ITES sector was theoretically commenced after privatization in 1991, real progress came after the Atal Behari Vajpayee government set up the National Task Force on Information Technology and Software Development. It set up a lot of policies, procedures and benefits for indian IT players and brought the country up to speed with the rest of the world. The Information Technology Act 2000 further acted as a catalyst for increasing investor confidence in e-commerce and e-business. 
  • Expansion of highways is also largely credited (and rightly so) to the Vajpayee government. As soon as it was formed, the NDA government set up National Highway Development Project (NHDP) which commenced and was partly successful in delivering the ambitious plan of the Golden Quadrilateral. The plan took care of the main north-south and east-west connecting corridors and highways connecting the four metropolitan cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata) They have now been fully paved and widened into four-lane highways. Some of the busier National Highway sectors in India have been converted to four or six lane expressways. For example: Delhi - Agra, Delhi - Jaipur, Ahmedabad - Vadodara, Mumbai - Pune, Mumbai - Surat, Bangalore - Mysore, Bangalore - Chennai, Chennai - Tada, Delhi – Meerut, Hyderabad - Vijayawada and Guntur - Vijayawada.

In 2004, I was commencing my job at Wipro Limited. I was at a situation where I occasionally read the news, infrequently saw news channels and still more infrequently interacted with people who were interested in current affairs (I know; it was a sad state of affairs). I was also dating (my first relationship) and I was pretty much self-involved to the point of not caring too much about social issues plaguing India. I did not vote in the general elections of 2004. I remember feeling quite confident that with so much good work under its belt, the BJP was sure to win. I also remember feeling what difference would one vote of mine do? I was relaxed and confident that the BJP would come to power again and I could go back to my self-involved life without a care in the world. Other people would take care of the country’s problems and I wouldn’t have to bother. Most analysts believed the NDA would win the elections; this assessment was also supported by opinion polls. The economy had shown steady growth in the last few months and the disinvestment of government owned production units (a continuation of India's liberalization policies initiated in the early 1990s) had been on track. The Foreign Exchange Reserves of India stood at more than USD 100 billion (7th largest in the world and a record for India). The service sector had also generated a lot of jobs. The party was supposed to have been riding on a wave of the so-called "feel good factor", typified by its promotional campaign "India Shining".

Boy, was I in for a shock! The UPA, led by the Indian National Congress won 218 seats (an increase of 83 seats) and the NDA slid to 181 seats (a decrease of 89 seats)! I was flabbergasted.

Was performance no guarantee of success? Was merit no surety of reward? Was honesty (relative) no benchmark of political success and good governance? The ten years that followed solidified this feeling. In Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar and his coterie had begun making inroads into the political affairs of the state. Since 1999, Maharashtra has been ruled by the INC-NCP alliance; and they have wreaked havoc not only in governance but also in the cultural psyche of the Maharashtrian common man. The INC-NCP alliance has systematically side-lined values like honesty and meritocracy and instead inculcated values like racism (based on caste) and sycophancy. And the result is there for all of us to see. Maharashtra is a racist and hypocritical society. Maybe the INC-NCP is not the root cause of this behaviour, but it sure has promoted and used these tendencies very nicely to ensure that they stay in power.

Typically, I detest even mentioning castes in any of my posts but to make my point clearer I am going to have to do that in this particular paragraph. So ingrained are our racist tendencies that we automatically ask for the last name of an individual to gauge his or her cultural identity. None of us can deny doing that. In Maharashtra, a first name is no identity at all. A person will automatically bracket you into a “stereotype” right from being introduced to him/her by asking your last name. Marathas treat Brahmins with disdain, Brahmins are wary of Marathas, the “lower” caste hate the Brahmins, The Marathas are condescending and patronizing towards other “lower” castes and the venomous story goes on and on. I am a staunch atheist and I completely disregard castes, races and other stereotypes altogether. Despite this, I have been bracketed into a “stereotype” many times solely on the basis of my Marathi accent (which is characteristic of a particular type of caste and I can’t help that) and my last name. I credit the INC-NCP combine for taking advantage of this tendency of Maharashtrians and using it to the hilt to ensure that they keep the caste equation fizzing. And if the people in power do something, it is but natural that the same behaviour percolates down to all aspects of life. Racism is embedded in our society to the point of over-ruling individual identity and I blame the INC-NCP (the NCP more so) for this extremely vile aspect of our culture. The nadir of this tendency is reflected in the recent Kharda murder incident where a bunch of hooligans of an "upper-caste" ruling community tortured and killed a Dalit boy just because he spoke to a female member of the family. You can read about the incident here.

From an era where the great warrior king Shivaji was able to bring together all people of all castes to fight against the Mughals; from an era where the extremely capable Peshwa Bajirao I (Thorle as he was called) laid the foundations of a mighty Maratha empire which under the Peshwa rule, stretched right up to Peshawar; from an era where Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak brought together a dysfunctional Indian society to rise against British imperialism . . . to an era where we squabble amongst ourselves on the basis of caste, fight amongst ourselves over a scrap of the reservation quota, allocate assembly seats on the basis of caste rather than performance and debase the very concept of unity in this vast democracy. We’ve sunk a long way. And we have the INC-NCP to thank for that.

The basis of this racism is the assumption that your small-knit community is more important than someone else’s small-knit community. It does not take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out what happens next. Shrinking the community concept even further, the INC-NCP promoted nepotism like never before. The result is there for all to see –

  • Indian National Congress – The Gandhi family
  • Nationalist Congress Party – The Pawar family
  • Shiv Sena – The Thackeray family (The Shiv Sena would have been a slight deviation had it favoured Raj over Uddhav; but it was sadly not to be)

Each family favours its progeny and its coterie over member of another family and their coterie. Sharad Pawar pushed his nephew Ajit and his daughter Supriya into important political positions. Narayan Rane pushed his sons into politics. Murli Deora automatically paved the way for his son Milind Deora. Shankarrao Chavan similarly paved the way for Ashok Chavan. Maharashtra politics is basically about families who have ganged together like bands of scavengers in prehistoric times or like feudal families who lorded over their territories in the Medieval Ages.

Since 2004, I have seen so many of these examples in all walks of life. I have seen honest people pushed out of the system. I have seen upright individuals being shunned as too rigid. I have seen law-abiding citizens derided as losers. This has percolated down to our personal lives as well. I see people take for granted the fact that your caste is your identity. I see educated people practice racism in their lives and think nothing of it. I have seen these examples all around me. The perception that meritocracy is dead in India had firmly seated itself in my psyche. I continued to act honestly in my own personal life. I would (and still do) stand at red lights when vehicles all around me are jumping the gun. I didn’t (and still don’t) litter in the streets when people around me were (and still are) throwing trash willy-nilly. I was (and still am) as honest as possible in my dealings with people around me. I avoided (and still do) lying to the point of it becoming a problem. I did it. But I was a pessimist at heart. I was bitter.

The last straw for me was Narendra Dabholkar’s death. Why was he killed? All he did was advocate freedom from superstition. The utter futility of his death and the callous way in which the INC-NCP alliance has run its investigation boils my blood. I met the man. I have worked with him. He was nothing but honest. He personified rationality in all he did. He was simple, humble and he had the one trait that Maharashtra so badly needs – integrity. He fought against religious superstition all his life. And he was gunned down in broad daylight. This is the religious intolerance that the INC-NCP has bred in our culture. This is now Maharashtra’s culture. By the time Modi was made the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP, I was a complete cynic. Not just a cynic, I was (still am to some extent) a misanthrope.

Against this backdrop, Narendra Modi arrived on the national stage as a sign of hope. A man who had risen from humble origins and was yet the Chief Minister of Gujarat. A man who transformed a state from a riot-ridden stink-hole to one of the fastest growing states of India. I was cautiously optimistic. But I was still cautious. I wanted to be sure of myself before endorsing him (even in the limited social circle that I mingle in). In August last year I and a friend of mine took a road-trip to Gujarat to observe basic infrastructure and form a prima facie opinion of his handiwork (superficial as it may be). I was impressed. You can read about my road-trip here. After years of believing that all hope was lost for Indian society, here was a man who meant business. No scandals against his name. No progeny to favour. No wealth from illicit means. No personal agenda except one – India. I then proceeded to read as much about him as possible from all possible sources. From his worshippers to his detractors. I read everything I could lay my hands on. And slowly I was convinced that he was the right choice for us all. I hoped that he would win.

Since that time, all his actions have confirmed to his stated goals – India first. The strong way in which he banished the absolutely bureaucratic concept of GoM (groups of ministers), the decisive way in which he sent a signal to the civil services about punctuality, his well-thought nationalist stand regarding the WTO trade deal (you can read about the whole mess here), his media-savvy strategy of creating a BRICS block as a viable option to American hegemony in world affairs have all sent the right signals to the world. That meritocracy is back in India. Once more, the thinker is more valued than the operator, the honest is more valued than the corrupt. There is still room for me and people like me in this country. Room to live a life that is guided by moral principles. 2014 is the year of revival. Of resurgence. It is the beginning (I hope) of a new era in Indian social transformation. We must not let this opportunity go to waste.

From being a cynic and a pessimist a couple of years ago to today; where I am optimistic about our country, our culture (non-religious), our potential and our abilities, ‘tis is indeed a big change. And if I can change, so can we all. We must banish the green monster of racism, religion and lacuna from our hearts and rise towards the best within ourselves. We must nurture that part of us which wants to rise above what we are today and become better every day. The part of us which thinks about right and wrong. The part of us that disregards stereotypes and thinks rationally. The part of us which is impartial and honest. The part of us which makes us hold our head high and proclaim patriotism all year round, not just on one day. We must nurture that part. Only then can we begin to collaborate in the grand vision which our forefathers lay down in the idea of India and which Modi so passionately proclaimed yesterday on occasion of India’s 68th Independence Day. Of a society that is based on mutualism and cooperation. A society that is based on performance, merit and honesty. A society that is based on rationality. A society that we can call Incredible India. And mean it.

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