The mere fact of size and geography assured India’s diversity and an underlying fractiousness. It has long been fragmented by religious difference between Hinduism and Islam as well, though the consequences were not uniformly negative over time. Yet the absence of fundamentally estranged rival divine beliefs among the majority prevented the deeper alienation that characterised pre-modern Christian Europe and the major religious identities within Islam.
The politicisation of caste in India is a relatively modern phenomenon, implanted by British imperial policy, subsequent struggles for equality and competition spawned by reservation privileges that accentuated multiple fissures. And of course, linguistic and regional tensions also surfaced as nationhood posed the delicate question of linguistic primacy. But this prologue fails to capture the dynamics that have unfolded in post-independence India and seem poised to change India durably, as Hindol Sengupta recently suggests.
In the aftermath of independence, Indian social and political consciousness remained quiescently local but a sense of national identity subsumed under the afterglow of the freedom struggle prevailed. The regional, linguistic, religious and caste identities had not yet become assertive. This is was the era of Jawaharlal Nehru, the principal emotional and psychological legatee of the fruits of the independence struggle though other more fissured identities were not totally dormant. But the Congress Party under Nehru managed to mostly negotiate and overcome their potentially divisive consequences by submerging them within an ecumenical Congress party that managed to mobilise regional leaders within its fold. Of course, the success of this strategy was incomplete, as the drifting away of Kerala from the Congress fold by the late 1950s demonstrated. It was after Nehru’s death in 1964 that the dormant reality of political division and its stark consequences reared its head.
After the hiatus of political succession that witnessed conflict over economic policy in the backdrop to war in 1965 and serious food shortages, the preceding dynamic of a degree of national political consensus reached a watershed. Mrs Indira Gandhi emerged as supreme leader in 1969 in the aftermath of a political coup that scattered the old guard of the Congress Party that had gathered around her father for two decades. She sought to create a new alliance of political forces to find a constituency to which she could appeal over the heads of regional Congress satraps and also find a novel national basis that would supersede regional loyalties.
Mrs Gandhi, emboldened by her successes in the 1970-71 war, embraced anti-poverty as her economic policy, overturning a brief Congress high command flirtation with economic liberalism in the late 1960s. And she sought to forge a national coalition of the depressed classes and a Muslim vote bank. But the genie was out of the bottle and the dormant forces of regionalism surfaced with vengeance, though outwardly there was often a pan national ideological veneer, like communism in Bengal. Indira Gandhi never truly managed to overcome truculent local leaders. India became a nation of regional governments and coalition government despite brief exceptions at the national level. India’s underlying diversity on multiple axes became the reigning reality of India’s political identity.
Yet there was an important and relatively unnoticed churning beneath the surface that had unleashed inexorable forces of change within Indian society. A potent mirror of this dynamic was the Indian film industry that had produced somewhat sombre social reality films in the 1950s and the 1960s, in part, for the better-educated, anchored in the aspirations of the independence struggle of national unity and mass economic well-being. There was a subsequent dramatic levelling with more popular films that entertained a growing mass audience, with relatively little novelty in conception or depiction, combining standard dance routines with villains succumbing to dashing heroes.
But a newer genre was also quietly becoming established of thoughtful film productions with more demanding plots that entertained both the immediate senses and the mind, filmmaker, Aamir Khan its popular Bollywood exemplar. What it highlighted was the emergence of a more significant strata in society of the urban and more urbane, educated and with weaker moorings in regional consciousness and language. This is a class more motivated by national identity, pragmatic in their interests and ideologically more complex and less one-dimensional.
This cohort has grown is size with rapidly expanding cities and media communications that were always significant in India, but rendered irresistible by the Internet revolution. They are scheduled to reach 600 million in the next decade and are the beneficiaries of India’s steady growth spurt since the mid-1990s.
The political culture of this very important enlarging group also impacts the consciousness of their less-educated peers from their own local society. They unavoidably locate their pride in their own history and civilisational achievements, as similar social groups everywhere do. For the overwhelming majority of these hundreds of millions that past is about the real or imagined greatness of Hindu civilisation, its travails and historic struggles. To them the idea of secularism, as the depiction of their society may be the everyday practice in which they engage in reality, but is not wholly meaningful. Abstract secular ideology cannot provide an account of thousands of years of history rooted in their epics and ancient texts, which, in the bargain, exhibit, intrinsic intellectual fascination and merit. The urbanised Indian is also understandably exercised about good governance and rankled by the routine corruption in society that hits them in their pocket daily.
Any political movement that grasps this profound change is destined to dominate India’s political life. And it is vital to recognise that mere slogans that articulate grievances about daily life and denounces dishonesty are past their sell-by-date.
Deceptive subterfuges can no longer distract a major part of the electorate, well informed as it is and highly critical of lapses and proudly disrespectful of authority. The modern urban Indian has arrived and his identity is increasingly national and, for better or worse, it does not wish to see the country bested by either enemies of friends abroad.
Parochial India is gradually coming full circle and espousing an Indian identity, with money in the pocket as the norm that creates self-confidence. It is unlike the Arab Spring because it hasn’t been corroded by instrumental foreign intervention though it shares a somewhat parallel pining for the good life, fuelled by a demographic transformation that portends far-reaching consequences in many developing countries. Yet in the Indian case, the religious culture is reflexively pragmatic and the absence of a cataclysmic millenarian world-view promises a benign impact on the wider world.
Views are personal.
The author taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for more than two decades and was a member of the Indo-UK Roundtable.