Before Narendra Modi swept to power a little over a year ago, there had never been such excitement about the formation of a government in India, nor an eager anticipation of its anniversary.
Indeed, there was a lot at stake. Modi’s campaign was not only about setting expectations for sweeping economic policy change, lifting the country out of the proverbial policy paralysis. It was also an opportunity to test various hypotheses about Indian politics, morality and society, and the new model of the politics of hope.
After the Gujarat riot, accusing fingers were pointed at Modi. The denial of a visa by foreign countries, including the US, added to his humiliation. He would soon launch a campaign to makeover his tainted image: the new Modi was a man of action and delivery, growth and governance.
What this PR campaign actually experimented with is whether Indians would accept the proposition that personal welfare and national development are more important than the ethics of coexistence and the security of human life. It was a call to erase certain elements of the past, and march towards a future where particular social identities would be irrelevant.
The political commentators of liberal and critical ilk secretly longed for such a possibility and imported the concept of “aspirational society”. The more critical ones might have added the caveat of risk to it. Nevertheless the diagnosis was universal. The bane of India was its identity politics — the politics of affirmative action and appeasement, which perverted the modern norms of efficiency and merit. The institutional structure was corrupt and moribund, with layers of intermediate rent seekers, which distorted the rational allocation of social and economic resources. Bottlenecks along the chain of production and distribution led to the scarcity of resources and jacked up the base prices. If aspirations guide us, then we would agree to the expansion of the market and the smooth supply of inputs, which would create opportunities to fulfil those aspirations. It was a call to change our orientation to the future.
The massification of Indian democracy over the last three decades was predicated on the recognition of historical fault lines of society and the consequent discrimination, exclusion and humiliation of marginalised groups. The leitmotif was participation in politics, making institutions inclusive and becoming empowered in that process. The Left sought distribution of land and welfare goods, whereas the Dalits and Other Backward Classes wanted to use the instrumental power of the state to change the institutional arrangement, exit from traditional occupations and seek amity in social relationships, which formed the foundation of social justice. Taken together, these were demand-driven, here-and-now politics, with a historical rear-view mirror in the front.
Indian Press Information Bureau/EPA/AAP
Capturing the aspirations of the people
The parallel liberalisation of the Indian economy in early 1990s put a spanner to this democratic development. It created a condition where these distributive demands looked less attractive than sharing the spoils of economic growth. The instrumentality of the state became much more powerful in distorting the market and creating cronyism than re-aligning social relationships and changing institutional practices. Instead of widespread distribution, a section of the backward groups or certain dominant groups within the marginalised benefited from the expansion and distortion of the market, creating new internal fault lines. Many smaller groups on the wrong side of these fault lines were successfully drafted onto Modi’s ship.
This lure of economic growth perfectly converged with the logic of electoral democracy.
Elections are an exercise in weighing the collective strength of a group, but it is also a frame for fantasising collectively and offering promises. The politics of hope is assembled around this frame. Unlike the older conservatism, this is a politics without any enemy. Its adversaries are the institutions and policies which impede the movement of the capital and mobility of the individual. It is a politics based on the individual, who would be liberated from the number game of coalition politics and the attendant Shylockian bargains that India had seen in the recent past. It displaced the concept of merit by competency, a more pedestrian and tangible concept. If merit has a ring of inherited privilege or divine gift, then competency is something that accrues through learning and perseverance – a chaiwala (tea seller) can aspire to become the prime minister.
The new egalitarianism would be based on universalising the opportunities for becoming competent, which develop capacities to participate in the market. Modi’s campaign projected such a “positive” and youthful program. At the strategic level, it not only drafted the rebel and dismayed marginalised groups, but surreptitiously continued with its communal politics and deployed its orthodox religious wings to mobilise its traditional voters. The emphatic electoral victory of Modi has proved the hypothesis that identity politics is under stress and a new pan-Indianism has emerged.
One year into Modi’s five-year term the dominant feeling is “meh” rather than “wow”. The turbo reboot of the economy never took place, rather older policies are being repackaged and recycled. But it would be wrong to read this disappointment as despair. If Modi’s accelerationist politics of hope looks implausible with the continuation of global economic gloom and internal resistances, then it would survive in its populist form.
The populist politics of hope shares the same egalitarian thrust — moving away from problematising historic social identities. It propounds a new and paradoxical social justice. Instead of focusing on the individual, it brings back the “social” in the calculation of justice, but does not promise to change social relationships. It promises the dream of a dignified life, in whose search people migrate to the cities. At the minimal level, it assures survival in the city with impunity. The populist politics of hope shares the same urban-as-the-future imagination with its accelerationist big brother. A few radicals might still dream of encircling the cities with villages, but the urban has already become omnipresent.
This range of politics of hope is powerful. If the accelerationist variant tries to actualise a fantasy, the populist one creates a realistic possibility.
For the new populism, it is no longer true that the basic needs of the people must be secured first, and after that distribution of affluent goods can be considered. For populists, people are not poor, they need not gradually come out of the waiting room of history. They are “common”, a simulated sense of equality is created, and from that position, they have equal right to claim colour televisions, laptops, and free wifi along with subsidised rice, water and electricity.
The politics of hope returns a flickering sense of humanity, a sense of belonging, by making available a range of goods. It considers consumerism as a reality and does not make a value judgement on commonly lived life; hope touches desire. This then forms the ground to extract the consent to expand the market economy.
Once the accelerationist and populist politics of hope propels the country on a futuristic plane, they make the Left and the radicals look like a melancholic, rear-guard and stagnant force, denying them a possibility to represent the nation as such. The latter are strategically pushed to become localised and site-specific resistance mobilisations, converting them into a moral voice against underconsumption and underdevelopment. Can there be a counter politics of hope? Can hope be countered?
Swagato Sarkar does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Authors: The Conversation