India poised for a rebirth?

In this photograph taken on May 16, 2014, Indian supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) look on near a rangoli decoration bearing the image of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the map of India at Shri Kamalam, the BJP Gujarat
In this photograph taken on May 16, 2014, Indian supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) look on near a rangoli decoration bearing the image of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and the map of India at Shri Kamalam, the BJP Gujarat's new headquarters in Gandhinagar, some 20 kms from Ahmedabad. Bharatiya Janata Party leader and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi stormed to victory at the polls in India's general election throwing the left-leaning secular Congress from office and handing his party a powerful mandate for promised sweeping reforms. -- PHOTO: AFP 

India’s last rebirth took place in 1991 with the Oxbridge educated economist, Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation policy. The Nehruvian era of protected economy drew to a close and leftists and sundry Indian nationalists cried foul at the thought of the open economy eroding the country’s cultural ethos, which was presumably one of penury and abstinence. I was a student then and watched the changes unfold with the excitement of the uninitiated. But after the initial euphoria of shopping for a bottle of Heinz ketchup (earlier we called it tomato sauce) in the air-conditioned comfort of a mall it brought little real change in my life: the buses in which I commuted remained crowded and my mother equally worried about her household expenses.

Now it is India’s turn for yet another rebirth – a rare chance cast her way by fate and a phenomenon called Narendra Modi. As the victory messages came pouring in over the weekend (‘NaMo! NaMo! NaMo!’ wrote my friends with uncharacteristic ebullience) and I watched the victory marches, the air thick with saffron and incense, my soul, now of more advanced years, knew a moment of fear. I have just completed writing a book on Myanmar where on the eve of the military rule in March 1962, the nation’s dailies had celebrated the advent of the army with some careless abandon, hoping it would bring an end to bureaucratic corruption and initiate a period of economic stability – the two stilts the army would consistently use to propel itself forward for the next half a century. Pardon me if momentarily I was struck by an unhealthy similarity.

Arguably and as Mr Modi reiterated during his election campaign, India appears poised on the cusp of a multiyear growth cycle. The return of the single party implies less spending on subsidies, often a compulsion of a fragmented coalition, and a faster decision making. In the long run this would translate into lower risks of credit-rating downgrades by international agencies. The BSE Sensex surpassed the 25,000 mark on the day of the victory, the rupee traded at a considerably higher rate and strategists have been busy revisiting the GDP growth forecast figures for FY15 and beyond. After the creeping financial figures of 2012-13 when PM Manmohan Singh’s economic policies seemed to have all but spluttered and died, this sounds promising indeed and it is easy to be swept away as the petty entrepreneur on Delhi’s streets roars, “Narendra Modi is India’s lion!” over the din of the victory drums.

My gripe is about the ‘lion’ bit. The fact that today the Indian media is awash with pictures of Mr Modi holding up his fingers in triumph on the banks of the river Ganga in the ancient Hindu city of Varanasi. During his election campaigns he consciously underplayed his earlier image of a Hindu fundamentalist and yet on the 17th with little apparent hesitation tweeted to his impressive number of followers his gratitude to Baba Vishwanath and Ma Ganga - the twin Hindu deities of Varanasi. His current relationship with Hindutva is scarier because it is understated; it is almost as if Hinduism today is the sole mainspring of Indian culture - its unquestioned monopoly makes overt reference redundant. The minorities are just that – minorities – grateful for every stray bit of acknowledgement.

I wonder what would be the status of yet another minority group under Mr Modi’s government – the women?  Notably, the Women’s Reservation Bill featured prominently on the BJP’s election manifesto which mandates for a 33% reservation of seats for women at the parliament. Mr Modi has actively campaigned for higher political participation of women and it can be hoped that the bill will soon be passed (though its implementation is dubious since out of the 543 MPs only 62 or a little over 11% are women). But what kind of women does the BJP bring on board? There is the vociferous Sushma Swaraj, bedecked with sindoor and other traditional trappings of matrimony and Smriti Irani, best remembered for her role as an ideal daughter-in-law in a Hindi TV soap. A new addition of course is the ageing Hema Malini, once serenaded as the dream girl of India, today an outdated embodiment of male fantasy. The image remains the same, an image dulled by a monochrome of Indian-ness and tradition with a certain tendency to trivialise itself. And it nurtures a certain environment of spontaneous feminine sacrifice where Mr Modi’s long abandoned wife’s statement on national media that she does not “feel bad” about being cut off from his life fits in without much ado.

It is this image of rather aggressive Indian nationalism which leaves little scope for multiple individualities which is worrying, a worry sharpened by Mr Modi’s associations with the pro-Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which over the years has acquired quasi-military overtones.

It remains to be seen if the country’s rebirth will take it towards new horizons of fearless discovery or towards a Hindu society of “invincible force” as touted by the RSS website.

The writer is the author of A Gentleman’s Word: The Legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose in Southeast Asia and the forthcoming Female Voice of Myanmar; Visiting Scholar at Asia Research Institute, NUS