India needs a new ideological equilibrium. As we go through one of the darkest periods in the history of independent India, our republic needs to discover a new middle ground that can frame hope for a better future. We need to forge a new ideological consensus that can align public mood with our constitutional values.
This is neither easy nor exciting. Imagining a new world, free from constraints of here and now, is intellectually gratifying; forging consensus is messy. Chasing a utopia is politically thrilling; discovering middle ground is boring. Yet democratic outcomes hinge upon the middle ground. The fate of democracy, indeed the fate of our young republic, depends upon the possibility of shifting the middle ground. This is the most pressing intellectual and political challenge of our times.
The old consensus is dead
This challenge arises because the old equilibrium has collapsed and the new one is unsustainable. It is common to refer to the earlier one as Left and the new one as Right. This European parallel is inaccurate and misleading. For the first five decades, the ideological consensus in India was defined by a mix of liberal democracy with nationalism, socialism, secularism, social justice and modernism. Over the years, this consensus degenerated. Liberal democracy was reduced to populism, nationalism faded into an empty slogan, socialism meant privatising profit and socialising risk, secularism turned to political opportunism or deracinated posturing, social justice was limited to caste-based reservations and modernism became a cover for cultural slavery. No wonder, the public stopped subscribing to this consensus.
Over the last quarter of a century, the spectrum of public opinion has shifted away from this old consensus. The new mid-point comprises acceptance of soft authoritarianism, aggressive and parochial nationalism, market fetishism, brazen majoritarianism, perpetuation of caste hierarchy and obscurantism. Every Indian must worry about this because this deadly ideological mix is out of sync with our constitutional values. This is also unsustainable, as it would mean the end of India as we have known it. This is not a stable equilibrium.
Yet we cannot go back to the earlier “Nehruvian” consensus. The Left-Liberal-progressive politics wants to go back to it. That’s neither feasible nor desirable. The older consensus had degenerated. It side-stepped any serious engagement with issues of ecology, of caste and gender inequalities and of cultural and religious sensibilities of the people. Frankly, the older equilibrium was premised upon an elite consensus that shut the doors on the people. Those days are over for good.
We have no option except to forge a new middle ground. There is no ready-made recipe for this. But we can anticipate seven ingredients that the new consensus must have.
A new middle ground
First of all, the new consensus must be grounded in a positive and self-confident nationalism. An abstract internationalism or post-nationalism is not the answer to the shallow and shrill nationalism that dominates public mind today. We cannot look down upon nationalism the way European intellectuals do. The only viable response to the dominant rashtrawaad is deshprem, a positive nationalism that draws upon the best tradition in our freedom struggle. This would mean taking pride in India and giving substantive meaning to the idea of India. Externally, this would involve securing for India, along with our neighbours and other post-colonial States, a rightful place at the global stage. Internally, this entails an investment in the Indian model of national unity that accepts deep diversities.
Second, we need to evolve a secularism anchored in our cultural and religious ethos. Communal bigotry cannot be defeated by deracinated secularism; defensive minoritariansim is no response to aggressive majoritarianism. We need to disengage ourselves from Western debates on secularism as State-church separation. Our real issue is religious and sectarian conflict. We need a State that practices sarvadharmasamabhav: equal respect for, principal distance from and non-discrimination against all religious communities. At the same time, the State must be able to act in a non-partisan manner against any oppression or injustice within any religious community. Turning our back to religious traditions won’t help us achieve a secular State. We must learn to have deep and open-ended engagement with all our religious traditions.
Third, we need to work out some variant of market socialism that stands firm on the end-goal of last person first, while remaining flexible on the mechanisms for achieving this objective. Clearly, bureaucratic State socialism is no answer to the inequities and wastefulness of capitalist order. Markets are here to stay, just as State regulation is here to stay. Our economics must become ‘eco-norm-ics’: an integration of economic rationality with ethical norms and ecological sustainability. With changing times, the focus on welfare policies needs to shift from basic needs like food and housing to employment, education and health.
Fourth, we must foreground the issue of social justice while embracing a multi-dimensional approach to it. This avoids the pitfalls of identity denial and identity obsession that mark today’s politics. This would involve acknowledging and addressing caste inequalities in contemporary India, including modern urban India, in a more serious way than before. It would also involve recognising many other cross-cutting dimensions of social inequalities that require State policy response: gender, sexual orientation, class, region, religious community and locality (rural-urban). Responding to various forms of injustice invites us to expand the repertoire of instruments of social justice. Caste-based reservations must be fine-tuned and supplemented with other mechanisms. The issue of political representation and leadership of women and marginalised communities needs special attention.
Fifth, environmentalism cannot be kept at the margins of the political agenda anymore. We cannot live in denial of the enormous environmental cost, mostly for adivasi communities, of what we call development. Nor is climate change denial an option anymore. Movements for peoples’ control over Jal-Jangal-Jameen have laid the foundations for peoples’ environmentalism. This also calls for a reorientation in our agrarian policies and practices.
Sixth, our cultural policies and politics must be guided by the quest for Indian modernity that characterised our freedom struggle. This would save us from the shallow and imitative modernism on the one hand, and the defensive and inferiority-stricken traditionalism on the other. This would entail recovery and reconstruction of our deep civilisational heritage, while being open to learning from anywhere in the world. This would necessitate a focus on promotion of Indian languages, recognition of existing knowledge traditions and recasting of the school and higher education curricula to reflect our needs, our context and our intellectual resources.
Finally, we need to embrace democratic republicanism, both as an end and as means. This requires us to recognise that democracy is not just about crafting a constitution, creating institutions and holding elections. It involves, above all, the creation of a political community of equal, informed and involved citizens. This recognition takes us beyond the regular issues of liberal democracy: freedom of expression, institutional autonomy, procedural checks and balances, etc. It invites us towards deepening of democracy by way of decentering of political power, equal access to resources, and people’s direct participation in decision-making.
None of these elements is new, though their combination might be somewhat unfamiliar. The middle ground proposed here is not a brand-new ideology. This is merely an explication of what exists in our Constitution and an attempt to connect these to the public. In that sense, forging a new ideological equilibrium is not just an academic or intellectual task. It requires shaping and shifting the existing spectrum of public opinion. This is a political challenge.
Yogendra Yadav is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.