The norms of Indian society seem to have changed. Our priorities are different now

Sunanda K Datta Ray

India will never be the same again. Not because vicious vituperation sank to a new low in this election but because the norms of Indian society seem to have changed. We live in an age of irrelevance where Hamleys toys and Rafale fighters matter more than jobs, housing, education, health, medical care and all those other indices of well-being in which we now have to compete even with Bangladesh.
Whether it’s the mystery that still surrounds the murder of Haren Pandya, Gujarat’s former home minister, or Mukesh Ambani’s latest $88.5 million toy or the spat in the three-member Election Commission, the well-springs of thought and action could not be farther removed from what is lovingly thought of as the Indian ideal.
Ironically, well-meaning observers abroad hailed the verdict of the hustings five years ago as a much-needed return to national grassroots. Their case was that ruled by the Congress Party and its variants and offshoots since 1947, India still moved on the momentum of the British Raj. Jawaharlal Nehru even described himself (perhaps with a touch of pride?) as the last Englishman to rule India. But his successors also had to work with and through practices and precedents that the British had left behind. The expectation in 2014 was that Narendra Modi would achieve what Atal Behari Vajpayee did not even attempt and create an altogether new narrative to reflect a creative native identity.
When we read of new school and college syllabi, of the transformation of existing institutions, of people singled out for promotion or doomed to be discarded, and of bizarre scientific and medical theories, it does sometimes seem as if the prophets were right. But, then, I am reminded of the claim by South African social scientist Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni that “the ‘post-colonial’ is yet to be born”. As he elaborated, “This is because colonialism, if it was ever buried, it was buried alive.” In other words, to adapt the old European monarchical chant, “The King is dead. Long live the King!”
Narendra Modi might pay highly publicised visits to Kedarnath and Badrinath and have himself photographed ostentatiously meditating in a cave, but these are not fundamental departures from the past. Modest brass plaques — if they haven’t been robbed or vandalised — on the front pews of Christ Church in Shimla reading “Viceroy” and “Commander-in-Chief” are reminders that the highest in the land in British India did not neglect the deity they believed in. As the French say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The difference between now and then is not that we have reverted to some authentic indigenous type but that we have made a different selection from the same international smorgasbord that has always been on offer. But whereas the items picked up under the influence of leaders like Nehru were chosen with intelligent and educated care, the selection now reeks of crass wealth and the desperate desire to dazzle. Mr Modi’s monogrammed coat is not the only example of showmanship, although his sartorial elegance does betray what rightly or wrongly is regarded as the Indian ideal. When he describes himself as a “faqir” who will pick up his “jhola” and go, he is tactfully acknowledging the austerity and simplicity that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi identified with India. Our public interlocutors have become so sycophantic that no one points out the gulf between practice and profession.
Pandya’s murder and the Gujarat government’s decision not to allow the CBI to prosecute D.G. Vanzara, the former deputy inspector-general of police, could be the replication of a passage from the history of Chicago in its years of turbulence. While the chief election commissioner cannot be blamed for not acting as Ashok Lavasa would have had him do, the decision not to acknowledge his dissenting voice violates all democratic procedures. What should cause most concern, however, is not something the government explicitly does but something that it tacitly encourages — the crass consumerism that spawns crony capitalism and distorts the liberalisation that P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh ushered in.
The alacrity with whic Indians have taken to the capitalist road makes one feel we were all hypocrites when a socialistic pattern of society was supposed to be the model. The Rafale contract indicates that even a major public sector undertaking like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd must yield to the private sector’s profit motive. We live in parlous times. Foreign direct investment is falling. Mr Modi’s “Make in India” has had little or no impact. The GDP has declined from 7.8 to 6.5 per cent. Unemployment at 6.1 per cent is higher than it has been in the last 45 years. It has been calculated that a mere one per cent of the population owns 58 per cent of the national wealth while 60 per cent of 1.3 billion Indians languish below the poverty line.Yet, miraculously, the economy has played little part in this election campaign. The official emphasis on security, Pakistan and terrorism has enabled the BJP to distract attention from unsatisfied basic needs. Meanwhile, the purchase by one of the Prime Minister’s favourites of Hamleys, the loss-making British toy firm that has been owned in recent years by Icelandic, French and Hong Kong Chinese, must set a new mark for irrelevance.
Mukesh Ambani, reputedly Asia’s richest man, can’t be told what to do with his money. Certainly not if brother Anil is allowed to make all those Rafale aircraft. But the question may well be asked: When the ordinary Indian who is still reeling from the impact of demonetisation wants a job, will he be offered a Hamleys toy or a Rafale fighter?