The world has changed. But it seems that it is not just Modi but all our politicians and political parties that have remained stuck in that old time warp.
Long years of political commentary have convinced me of two things. Countries that do better than others are those whose fundamental political idea is liberal democracy and whose fundamental economic idea is that free markets and free enterprise work better than governmental planning. My initial support for Narendra Modi was based on the belief that he shared these ideas. He said as much often. My disappointment with him came when he began to exhibit signs of extreme illiberalism and an extraordinary inclination to be an economic control freak.
Since the pandemic he has said some good things about allowing the spirit of private enterprise to flow through the economy. He has even said that it is unwise to believe that someone trained in the Indian Administrative Service would know more about running the economy than men who have built some of India’s greatest private companies. The Prime Minister, alas, has not noticed that when this message gets mixed up with his new slogan ‘Atmanirbharta’, it becomes confusing. Self-reliance is the only way to translate this long and sonorous word but in today’s interconnected world it makes little sense and comes as an unhappy reminder of Nehruvian socialist times. So haunted was our first prime minister by the East India Company that he decided that India had to make everything for herself. So, for decades we produced goods so shoddy that Indians developed an unhealthy passion for foreign goods.
The world has changed. But it seems that it is not just Modi but all our politicians and political parties that have remained stuck in that old time warp. It is election season again, so we are being treated to more than our usual sightings of the Gandhi siblings. Every sighting reminds me why Modi continues to have high approval ratings despite his failure to create the jobs he promised and despite middle-class families being currently crushed under the weight of the price of petrol and diesel.
Two sightings of the Dynasty’s heirs stumped me last week. The first was a video of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra picking tea (or pretending to) in an Assamese tea garden. A basket hung on her back from a strap balanced on her head and she smiled and chatted to a group of women tea-pickers. Later, she posted a picture of herself on social media with this caption: ‘In so short a time they made me feel I belonged. I touched their fingers, and they were filled with knots. My political duty is to bring comfort to them.’
This is a political idea that comes straight from Indira Gandhi. She loved the poor so much that she spent too much time comforting them with sweet words and too little time trying to rid them of their poverty by giving them the tools to do this. These tools are schools, hospitals, jobs. And roads to help them escape from their wretchedly poor villages to a better life. A tea garden example. In the 21st century why are Assam’s tea gardens not investing in technologies that would give women workers fewer knots in their fingers?
Then came my sighting of Priyanka’s brother as he talked to the economist, Kaushik Basu, and told so many lies about the political career of his grandmother that I wound up reeling with shock. He said the Emergency was a mistake and that his grandmother had admitted this. She never did. She only said that press censorship was a mistake. Rahul Gandhi then said that the big difference between what is happening today, and the Emergency is that today the institutions of democracy are being demolished by the RSS and that this did not happen then. Has nobody told him how the courts were packed with judges so obedient that on the Prime Minister’s orders they suspended even our right to life? Parliament was reduced to a rubber stamp because every major opposition leader was in jail. The Cabinet was whipped into such subservience that not one minister objected when Mrs Gandhi allowed her younger son to run the country.
It is extraordinary that the Dynasty’s heirs have learned nothing from defeat in election after election. Extraordinary how little they have learned about how India has changed since the days when their grandmother was prime minister. Every time an election season comes around and the sightings of the heirs to the Dynasty become more frequent, it becomes abundantly obvious why Narendra Modi continues to enjoy such popularity, despite not having taken India in a new economic direction, and despite bringing India to a political point when she has been demoted to being only ‘partly free’.
Modi’s acolytes and the bitter, mean-spirited trolls who shriek their support for him on social media have spent the past week declaring belligerently that in the ‘new India’ the views of western watchdogs like Freedom House do not matter. The belligerence of their tone indicates the opposite. And the Prime Minister himself has never concealed his joy when he is able to host the leaders of major western countries. If only he would learn from them that liberal democracy and free markets are the two main reasons why they have been role models for half-developed countries like ours. No matter how great the economic successes of China, it is hard to find more than a handful of Indians who see that country as worthy of emulation or admiration.