What sort of modernity do voters want?

While people want material progress that ‘modernity’ implies, they also want respect for their religious and cultural traditions

Published: 07th June 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th June 2019 01:08 AM   |  A+A-


Having obtained a legislative mandate from the electorate in 1952, the ruling Congress systematically demolished the old order in the name of modernity, defined as socialism, secularism and egalitarianism. Expropriation, nationalisation, punitive taxation and land ceilings levelled the “old rich” consisting of princes, zamindars, large business houses, urban and rural rich. By 1956 the idea of linguistic identity was transformed into linguistically homogeneous sub-national states. However, the dominant culture and religion mitigated the fissiparous tendency of linguistic nationalism.

Subsequent elections were fought mostly to elect members of dominant castes in the 75% of general seats; the rest was reserved for SCs and STs. In the former, the broad four castes-as-varna dominated electoral politics. The Congress placed great emphasis on the public sector, which slowed down after the traumatic Emergency and the party’s subsequent loss of power in 1977. In 1991, liberalisation ushered in market capitalism and the public sector’s gradual decline began. The process of rapid market-led growth began; a “new rich” class emerged. As a mass ofpeople got rich, they also became politically conscious and were mobilised based on narrower social identities.

By the late 1980s, specific jati-based political parties agitating for the fruits of political and economic power, preferential employment and distribution of free or subsidised goods and services for their members acquired power. Jati-based politics disrupted national parties. Varnabased politics ended. There was a need for a political formation at the national level, which could hold the country together as the social and economic change accelerated and created both dynamism and chaos.

While the idea of casteas- varna was effectively delegitimised, caste-as-jati was given critical importance politically and socially. The contradiction between “unacceptable” and “acceptable” versions of caste was obvious and needed reconciliation. Religion had been redefined as ideology rather than as a way of life practised by ancestors, validated by the passage of centuries, accepted by all as a way of making a community. The idea of the country as a Hindu community and polity was systematically attacked or ignored.

The “social” and “religious” reform aimed at the Hindu majority was presented as a shift from medieval practices and superstitious beliefs towards “modernity”. For minority religions, this did not apply as their religious practices, however “medieval”, were protected by the Constitution. This contradictory approach to religion needs resolution. As the country became increasingly urbanised, 40% of the population who lived in urban areas became detached from their age-old village disciplines, preferences and prejudices. With the loosening of social responsibilities, urban areas experienced increasing civic chaos.

The collapse of the old social and moral order in urban areas extended back to village society through increased mobility, access to cinema, TV and mobile phones. Mass media canvassed and marketed American consumption habits and products to the masses. The elite even adopted American lifestyles, which are disruptive and anti-social in this traditional society. One striking fact is hopeful: admiration for American material superiority is not extended to American morals.

This applies to all religious groups, especially to the Muslim minority, whose doctrines are also under attack by Western notions of “modernity”. As a late 19th century Japanese writer put it: “Order or disorder in a nation does not depend upon something that falls from the sky or rises from the earth. It is determined by the disposition of the people. The pivot on which the public disposition turns towards order or disorder is the point where public and private motives separate. If the people be influenced chiefly by public considerations, order is assured; if by private, disorder is inevitable.

Public considerations are those that prompt proper observance of duties; their prevalence signifies peace and prosperity of families, communities, and nations. Private considerations are those suggested by selfish motives: when they prevail, disturbance and disorder are unavoidable. As members of a family, we must look after the welfare of that family; as units of a nation, our duty is to work for the good of the nation. To regard our family affairs with all the interest due to our family and our national affairs with all the interest due to our nationthis is to fitly discharge our duty, and to be guided by public considerations.

On the other hand, to regard the affairs of the nation as if they were our own family affairs—this is to be influenced by private motives and to stray from the path of duty.” A polity should respect and protect the cultural and religious beliefs of the population. Real change comes when individuals feel the need and not when legislators, judges and bureaucrats force them. It is better to let people be what they want to be and allow them to change gradually.

Policies driven by alien concepts of “modernity” are unlikely to work in societies with age-old traditions. While voters want material progress that “modernity” implies, they also want respect, sympathy and support for their traditions. Superseding all previous considerations they have exercised their will in the last two general elections. Non-interference in religious and cultural traditions along with an emphasis on the achievement of general economic well-being and progress is what they want. The vast political and social energy wasted on imposing a “moral modernity” is best spent on achieving a “material modernity”. The message is loud and clear.


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