This year has been a momentous one for India. In the general elections, the country gave a party with its origin in Hindu nationalism a sole majority in Parliament for the first time. This is the most striking fact, of course, about the new national government. Perhaps equally important in symbolism and practice, though, is that the current prime minister is the first to be born after independence. Most previous national leaders spent their formative years under colonial rule. Rajiv Gandhi, born just at the end of the colonial period, famously had a sense of the future, but was also the scion of a political family with its roots firmly in the colonial era elite. In this sense, Narendra Modi is a break with the past. Unlike previous non-elite-background prime ministers, his roots are not in freedom fighter politics or farming. He is, perhaps, the first Indian prime minister to embody another India, of urban small enterprise, an ethos that will surely dominate the country’s future as it seeks to become a truly developed nation.
In my last column, I discussed the practicalities and origins of the reform of the Indian railways that is now set to take off. This example perfectly illustrates how things are likely to change throughout India with the change in leadership. I pointed out that the previous government, led by an intellectual, who had become part of the ruling elite partly through that intellectual prominence, had commissioned a major and comprehensive report on reforming India’s transport infrastructure. India’s elites have always had a strong streak of public-spirited paternalism: after all, this is what leaders like Nehru provided in the independence movement. But their elitism has also meant a disconnect from the daily lives of the masses (I realise this is an oversimplified category, but useful enough), and a failure to translate paternalism into true mass welfare.
As we know, this was Mahatma Gandhi’s genius, recognised and admired by Nehru: Gandhi made himself a man of the people, and by doing so, did more than any other Indian leader to bring India out of colonial rule. But Gandhi was also a prisoner of rural nostalgia, perhaps sharpened by long years of exile, and his idea of India’s future was hampered by an idealisation of rural India. This extended to a tendency to want to protect existing industries based on existing skills, rather than re-skilling the population for an industrial future. On the other hand, Gandhi was clear about issues such as public and household sanitation, and worked to set an example in that dimension.
It is interesting to reflect on how, after almost seven decades of independence, some of Gandhi’s ideas received lip service, others were allowed to fade away, and a few eventually won out in transformed versions more suitable for a modernising country. Perhaps the best example of the last category is the ongoing process of strengthening local governments. Sanitation has also found its way back on to the national agenda, though spurred by foreign researchers more than anything else. And when Modi speaks of making railway stations as clean and comfortable as airports, he is, in a way, combining Nehru’s idea of modern India with Gandhi’s idea of mass welfare in a way that had not, so far, been clearly articulated. And the prime minister’s willingness to manage and implement his ideas stands in contrast to any past Indian leader.
Growing up, I read histories of India by professionals as well as amateurs, and more recently, commentaries on the country’s modern experience by social scientists as well as journalists. Thinking back to all of these, two ideas stand out. One was a form of determinism based on resource endowments (including climate) and another was the lock-in effects of social stratification. Previous Indian leaders have recognised to different degrees the need to overcome both these barriers, but sometimes have focused too much on one to the exclusion of the other. And those who have tried to deal with both have lacked the kind of knowledge or skill set that would make implementation successful.
The promise of India’s new government is a leadership that understands in large part what needs to be done to combine ideas of modernisation and ideas of mass welfare. The peril, however, comes from a different set of ideas, ones that rely on flawed interpretations of history to perpetuate insecurity and feelings of loss. These ideas also introduce new forms of social stratification, based on allegiance to a restricted idea of what it means to be Indian. The economic policy debate about state versus market has recently—to me at least—had a flavour of being a distraction: economists understand that material progress is based on combining both, each in their own spheres. The real battle of ideas will now come in the sphere of Gandhi versus Godse. For India’s new leadership, this issue still seems unresolved.
By Nirvikar Singh
The author is Professor of Economics, University of California, Santa Cruz