The vast, panoramic festival that is an Indian national election, the largest such exercise in the world, it is often forgotten that it is ideas that, finally, win elections in democracies. It is because of the power of ideas in politics that Arvind Kejriwal could sweep an election in the Indian capital only months after a historic poll brought Narendra Modi to power in 2014; it is the power of ideas that propelled Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in the elections in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, even in the aftermath of demonetisation and its impact on the informal and rural labour market.
So, in this essay I want to argue that apart from all its instrumentalist manifestations and analyses, we should see elections, and especially elections in India, as ideas, and through the prism of the history of ideas.
In this trajectory of course some elections are more important than others—the first election after independence and its rarefied exuberance of the idea of a one person, one vote (shocking at that time even in many parts of what we would today call the developed world), the defeat of Indira Gandhi which ended in a sense the era of a dominant singular idea of India that has stretched on since independence in 1947, and of course Modi’s own victory in 2014, a sign of the massification of the age of ideological pluralism in India—it was an election that ended what seemed to have become a medley of consensus among all political parties on what India was and how it ought to be run.
To write this essay I went back to read a 1928 talk given by the philosopher Krishna Chandra Bhattacharyya who taught at Calcutta University. It is called Swaraj in Ideas.
This short but illuminating text, I believe, is most useful and illustrative in understanding the 2019 election in India from the perspective of the history of ideas.
In this essay, Bhattacharyya argued that swaraj or self-rule and independence from colonial rule as a political project would be incomplete unless a new framework of the assimilation of ideas in the public sphere is understood and absorbed in the public sphere and in the hearts and minds of all Indians. “Man’s domination over man is felt in the most tangible form in the political sphere. There is however a subtler domination exercised in the sphere of ideas by one culture on another, a domination all the more serious in the consequence, because it is not ordinarily felt,” wrote Bhattacharyya. “So long as one is conscious of a restraint, it is possible to resist it or to bear it as a necessary evil and to keep free in spirit. Slavery begins when one ceases to feel the evil and it deepens when the evil is accepted as a good. Cultural subjection is ordinarily of an unconscious character and it implies slavery from the very start.”
This should not be read as some kind of provincial xenophobia of unfamiliar ideas. Bhattacharyya is in fact very clear that he thinks that assimilation of ideas is not only good, but it is necessary. “There is cultural subjection only when one’s traditional cast of ideas and sentiments is superseded without comparison or competition by a new cast representing an alien culture which possesses one like a ghost. This subjection is slavery of the spirit: when a person can shake himself free from it, he feels as though the scales fell from his eyes. He experiences a rebirth and that is what I call Swaraj in Ideas,” wrote Bhattacharyya.
What is happening in India is that it is undergoing a swaraj in ideas, a period when, finally, after nearly three decades of prosperity, since economic liberalisation in 1991, enough number of people—as opposed to a few enlightened elites—possess the confidence to see and embrace the world on their own terms and through the lenses of their local relevance.
There is more questioning of the servile assumption that something must be good because it originated in some part of the world. You see this in everything from the empowered demand for local product tweaks and iterations of global brands to subtle but significant changes in everyday cultural habits. From the fact that Indian television anchors no longer feel that formal wear worthy of a studio only means a suit and a tie to an opinion shift in the way India ought to respond to terror attacks to the hyper success ofkhadi products—there is a mood makeover that connects all this, a demographic difference that weaves all of this together, there is a bigger story that we are not talking enough about.
In his talk, Bhattacharyya had complained, “Our education has not so far helped us to understand ourselves, to understand the significance of our past, the realities of our present and our mission of the future. It has tended to drive our real mind into the unconscious and to replace it by a shadow mind that has no roots in our past and in our real present.”
India’s prosperity has brought about a generation that sees itself as producers and not merely consumers of mass culture, a generation which is renegotiating its relationship with the past and which is questioning hand-me-down knowledge about its identity (and indeed the identity of the country).
No doubt there are failings in this age too—sometimes there is too much bluster, sometimes the braggadocio is not backed by material strength—but there is little doubt that something vital has changed.
And this change seeks leaders that will articulate its yearnings—not in borrowed, cut-and-paste terms, but in an idiom that it can embrace as its very own.
This is the importance of India’s 2019 election—and its place in the history of ideas.