India’s dire contemporary challenges

India’s dire contemporary challenges

It seems difficult for observers to abstract from the immediate hurly burly of daily political life and the fascination it evokes to focus on complex long-term processes of historic significance that occur periodically in polities. Contemporary India is an apt example of this predicament, with the unfortunate tendency of commentators preoccupied with the immediate obscuring vital issues that are unfolding. Indeed such perplexed incomprehension even hinders policy makers from making thoughtful inferences of the dilemmas they are encountering. They too get waylaid by the instant TRP obsessions of the media and intellectually limited observers. There is a real failure to perceive that contemporary India is experiencing a historic systemic transformation, hugely consequential for its ordinary citizens and elites.

India today is undergoing a two-fold transformation that cannot but prove difficult for many and painful for some. The justifiable glee over the repossession of Lutyens bungalows, illegally occupied by beneficiaries of unjust patronage, is only of superficial moment. Similarly, the end of the unwholesome bonhomie between the prime minister and the media during his visits abroad is welcome but only hints at a larger phenomenon of transformation. Many other changes, from the withdrawal of indiscriminate and hugely expensive security details for all and sundry to enforcing disciplined attendance at work, are symptoms of a much deeper process at work. And a fortuitous accident of fate has created in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the vehicle for implementing this far-reaching underlying change and the profound socioeconomic and political phenomenon that it implies.

What is actually occurring in India is the decisive curtailment of a system of state patronage with very long historical roots. It is also alluding to the rise of a more meritocratic order that threatens to undermine established hierarchies, stabilised by privileges of birth, which an impatient urbanising India is challenging. Some of the protest over caste reservations in Gujarat, Rajasthan and elsewhere is an aspect of the discontent unwilling to accept an order that has produced privileged new elites under the guise of social justice. The contemporary contours of the system of state patronage and privileges of birth may have been shaped after independence, but its socio-cultural antecedents are much older. Indeed it has dominated the Indian polity since the rise of Muslim power in India. And it endured in a modified form during British rule, when special preferment was extended to native collaborators who aided the continuance and operation of colonial rule.

Of course state patronage and associated privileges are always present in any polity, but likely to become the dominant mode of governance and social reproduction during foreign occupation because collaborators are created by extending special privileges. It also acquires prominence when the polity and society are unduly fractured and difficult to govern as a collectivity and the state authority remains vulnerable to disorder emanating from below. This is a situation vulnerable to patronage and compromises, designed to bind the polity together, however dysfunctional the result in the aggregate, which Indian reality highlights. Of course ideology and policy choices, like expanding employment within a public sector, can reinforce patronage as a method of manipulation, which also happened in independent India. Yet the inevitable paradox is that demographic and accompanying societal change will provoke tensions over state patronage, with the state unable to accommodate large numbers of newer claimants excluded from its pre-existing networks of privilege.

In India, there has since independence been an unceasing struggle between state patronage as a mode of governance and the dynamics of civil autonomy, particularly refracted through market relations, i.e. how the economy is organised and functions. The faltering of the economy and necessary outcomes to prevent a downward spiral of competition between claimants for shares of static resources prompted greater play being allowed to markets that empowered civil society as a result. The empowering of civil society in this context results in less dependence on state patronage and privileges to operate and succeed. It also creates space for meritocratic primacy though its operation in Indian society remains constrained by legal inhibitions of reservation policy to remedy historic inequities. But India’s constraints on meritocracy are a matter of degree. The private marketplace is outside the domain of reservation policies and merit and performance play a much greater role in dictating individual advancement in it. It goes without saying that the retreat of state patronage does not imply an irrelevance of regulatory intervention by it to ensure efficient and equitable functioning of markets that cannot in fact operate in conditions approximating to a fictive state of nature.

The significant positive outcome of a retreat of state patronage, as the dynamic in society, will be the creation of a more autonomous citizen. Such a citizen’s future will be less dependent on engaging with the goodwill of a corruptible state system. And it will reduce the automatic imputation of outcomes and failures to the state, making governance of the polity a less fraught task. A society that is less politicised on numerous axes also has a better chance of achieving greater social harmony and creating more unity of purpose. But the transition from a society in which state patronage dominates to one in which civil society attains greater autonomy also precipitates instability and conflict. The process creates losers and winners and the former suffer greater setback than winners. The winners may be more numerous, but gain modestly as individuals and will not be motivated to exert themselves overly in favour of the transition. By contrast, the losers, as erstwhile wielders of political, socioeconomic power and authority, are in a position to fight hard to retain the privileges they enjoyed under state patronage.

It is this situation of a deadly domestic contest that India under Narendra Modi is encountering and finding difficult to adequately address. A collateral aspect of this struggle is the contemporaneous international dimension associated with the transformational retreat of state patronage in India. The local domestic resistance to change becomes entangled with the international. Domestic opponents of the transition from state patronage will use all
means at their disposal to thwart the ensuing transformation and international adversaries of India will combine with Indian domestic discontent to achieve parochial national goals in relation to the emerging resurgent India. And this phenomenon has been laid bare by recent political upheaval in India. What is increasingly visible is that the erstwhile leading political class, advised by foreign agencies connected to governments and local assets of India’s adversaries, Naxalites and the Jihadi elements, are acting in concert to provoke disorder.

The incumbent elites, political class and bureaucracy and the vast retinue that benefited under state patronage, is understandably aggrieved and unwilling to give up their privileged status, in favour of some putative higher purpose. From bureaucrats, furious at the curtailment of bribery income that funded their handsome life styles, to the previously dominant political class itself resisting and reversing the juggernaut of change is virtually a matter of life-and-death. Having failed to thwart Narendra Modi at the polls since the emergent new India has also created a growing constituency favouring the imperfect transformation to end state patronage that has begun haltingly, a more radical strategy of disruption to stop his programme change is being adopted. If that also fails, the assassination of Narendra Modi, on whom the end of the era of state patronage apparently depends, becomes a real threat since many in the BJP would also prefer a quiet life by making a deal with beneficiaries of the status quo.

In the meantime, the age-old subterfuge of rulers, always so effective in India, is to identify and inflame extant or dormant societal fissures and fault lines. Caste and religious identity are the most promising of these and signs that they were being overlaid by newer concerns of Indians everywhere, with governance and economic aspirations, have prompted an urgency to arouse animosities latent in both. There is a regional and linguistic dimension lurking as well that is evident in the renewed attempt to prompt dissensions over language and region, in Karnataka and, in recent days, between West Bengal and Assam over illegal migrants, whom the CM of West Bengal has chosen to champion. One mundane aspect of the gross provocations being sponsored by the Congress party and its allies is the ease with which alleged leaders can be created, bought and patronised to instigate social chaos through violence. One critical dimension of the situation is the hope that relatively modest instances of street violence can be turned into major conflagration of damaging proportions if the authorities make an ill judged response, as occurred in the 1980s Punjab.

The experience of the Punjab during the 1980s also highlights a salutary lesson about the ability of India’s foreign adversaries to interfere in such crises, indeed play a role in instigating them. The key external players, each for their own reasons, are the Sino-Pak alliance and of course the historic foe of Hinduism, the church, infinitely duplicitous and matchless in its sophistication for skulduggery. In the case of the former, especially Pakistan, derailing India’s economic advance that threatens to relegate it and its ambitions to a minor footnote in history, is now an imperative. In this project Pakistan has the solicitous assistance of China though the latter outwardly dismisses India as an economic competitor, viewing it through the prism of its ancient racial prejudices, now deepened by its own extraordinary economic advance. But the church, despite all its manifold internal schisms and conflicting identities, remains the primary origin of bottomless enmity towards the civilisation of Indica. Discreetly rejoicing at the decisive extirpation of its historic enemy of Jewry the church is hoping to disempower and destroy Brahmins, the source of the detested remaining coherent intellectual challenge to the primacy of its world-view, underpinning ascendancy of people of European racial ancestry.

The desperation of ruling parties like Congress, communists and other episodic political actors, sponsored from abroad, threatened with termination is understandable. Their willingness to collaborate with external subversion to survive, although it would also grievously injure their own country as a result, is unsurprising and happens routinely elsewhere in the world too. With an existential threat to their entire way of life, sources of sustenance and social status, many Indian political parties are seeking help from adversaries of India for whom creating chaos and territorial losses are the principal goals. The fate of the Middle East and in fact the USSR as well after 1990 is an illustration of the dangers, with the US and its NATO allies wreaking permanent devastation on these regions. Foreign intervention to assist political forces resisting India’s transformation from a system of state patronage to a high performing economy and unified society takes many subtle and obvious forms. The acquisition of important stakes in the Indian media by Christian fronts is but one important example of blatant intervention to impact local political outcomes.

The most important external agencies active in creating disorder are the myriad surrogates of the Sino-Pakistani alliance and evangelists. The latter, in conjunction with Washington, has embedded itself in Indian society especially since 1999 with a degree of durability from which it is problematic for India to extricate itself. It is now clear that Manmohan Singh was chosen as PM by Washington and there is eerie indication of Union Cabinet ministers, some of them clandestine religious converts, being nominated by evangelist organisations in conjunction with the US government. The idea that Indian journalists, of no particular standing except high exposure on television channels and as op-ed columnists and some minor fixers like Niira Radia, were recommending candidates for ministerial office to the prime minister on their own initiative alone is unsustainable. They were essentially fronts for significant external agents. In any case, the Sino-Pakistani alliance also directly controls entire political movements and one of the most prominent in UP assisted terrorists in 2005, according to a senior RAW functionary.

India is massively infiltrated by external foes and many Indians abroad have been suborned by agencies of the countries where they reside. Virtually all social scientists and humanities academics abroad are ideologically hostile to India. The hostility stems from profound cultural and personal socialisation, which is not based on some claim to ethical concerns and intellectual cognition, but entirely hollow. One can hardly take virtually anything they posit seriously, echoing as it does the motivated op-ed columns associated with government agencies. But the real explanation for the illogical and bizarre views some of the most prominent regularly express is more mundane. They are often agents of foreign governments or victims of blackmail, as recent exposure for sexual peccadilloes by a host of them in US universities highlights. The recent attempt by hundreds of Indian-origin academics in the most hallowed portals of international academia to subvert India’s engagement with Silicon Valley to achieve its mission to digitise is but one example of their perversity and willingness to cause harm to their country of birth. And it is shocking to observe some of these individuals enjoy extraordinary access to the most senior politicians and bureaucrats in India.

The future of India currently hangs in the balance, with established parties fearing political oblivion in the 2019 general elections, effectively declaring war. Their willingness to countenance civil war by provoking caste and communal violence, in association with foreign agencies, is an indication of the climactic moment India has reached. Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar inviting Pakistani help to thwart Prime Minister Modi likely lacks substantive connotation, but has enormous symbolic significance. Hinting as it does on the removal of the elected Prime Minister of the country it underlines a huge danger for India. An attempt to assassinate of the Prime Minister remains an ominous threat that must be taken seriously. It will plunge the country into civil war, exactly as its sworn enemies, China and Pakistan hope and cause huge setback to the promise of national economic advance and greater social harmony. The evangelists take a long-term view and would regard chaos in India as an opportunity for a massive wave of conversions, a scenario they have taken advantage of during Nepal’s civil war, converting a third of the population. The failure of the Indian state to grasp the nature of the threat and its uncertain response to it should alarm its supporters.

Featured Image: (Plan for Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh) The Hindu

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Gautam Sen

Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for over two decades.