India is at the crossroads. There is a new spirit in the air. A spirit of hope and salvation. India is not a country that can be manipulated by politicians anymore as it was done in the last seven decades. It has come to recognise that politics can never liberate India but thinking of a larger picture can break so many shackles. A picture that is inclusive, broad-based and democratic. If we start thinking of how we are an Indian first and not a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or any other religious denomination, we can salvage this country. No more should we permit narrow concepts and ideas to fester that threaten to divide us instead of getting us together to build a new India.
2020 will define how constitutional values and democratic principles in India will come into focus as never before. People want the power to sculpt the future and their idea of India. They are willing to fight for the idea of a secular India as it is going to define not just who they are but what India stands for in the world.
For the first time, the young in India want to be heard. They want to be a part of the political discourse. They want to be a part of the new India that they dream about.
2020 will see the entry of young politicians as they realise that it is the only way to bring in a change in the way the country is heading. Actually, it is high time, they did. Is it not ironical that 50 percent of Indians are 28 years old or less while the average age of Lok Sabha MPs is 55? The Rajya Sabha which is often used by political parties to accommodate those who may not win elections, the average age is 63! In a healthy democracy, they would be guiding youngsters to take charge. See the performance of youngsters in Lok Sabha and you cannot miss the point.
This is a generation that wants to move beyond the wounds of partition as they see the world moving ahead while India is virtually paralysed because of its lame political culture that has always concentrated on how to capture and retain power rather than work towards creating a new India. The politics of casteism and communalism that has been the leitmotif of Indian politics ever since independence is not something that the youth identify with and they definitely want to change this narrative.
It would be therefore foolish to dismiss the recent protests by students as one solely driven by Congress. If the Congress has so much hold on students, it would not have done so miserably in the polls. At one protest rally, Priyanka Gandhi was almost ignored as she had come there just to talk to television cameras. It seemed that way as she left after the soundbite was done.
The youth today want a better quality of life, want opportunities to rise and shine in their own country and not look abroad to go and live like an unwanted foreigner. They want better education, more educational institutions that can be compared with the developing world, and finally, job opportunities.
This reality is lost on a host of older leaders of all political parties whose mental bandwidth stops at how to win elections by creating rifts and insecurities. No wonder there is so much anger that is now erupting.
If the government of the day listened to the young, they would ride to power again. If they do not and feel that showing them the jackboot would crush them, it only shows that they do not have the ear to the ground. The paradox of Indian politics is not lost on today’s youth.
When the BJP rode to power on a landslide victory in 2019, many thought that since it now had a majority, it will not deal in majoritarian politics as there was no need to appease any community. Or for that matter, any coalition. And, they would focus on nation-building in terms of repairing the economy that had been shattered because of demonetisation. Or start building crucial infrastructure for speeding up growth. However, the focus seems to be on winning the 2024 elections by pandering to narrow caste and communal sentiments. It is easier to spread hatred than love and tolerance.
It did not help calm down sentiments when Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, recently said 130 crore people who live in India are Hindus. In an already charged atmosphere, this was uncalled for as it only strengthened the feeling that this is what the Bharatiya Janata Party and the government believes.
There were millions on the streets all over India even in the three-tier cities protesting against the government move to enforce the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizenship (NRC). We saw something that we had not seen since independence. But it is not just the CAA and NRC that got people out on the street. It was much more. It was the repressed anger that opened a valve.
It was about how minorities were feeling insecure. It was about lynching that was the new normal. It was the lack of jobs. It was the reality of the economy sliding and businesses closing down or suffering losses. It was how wrong priorities were being drawn out while the dream of a new prosperous India which was so real and evident just a decade ago had been blown into smithereens. It is about how political parties voted for the CAA in Parliament and later on said they had done it under pressure when there was a groundswell of protests. Above all, it was how their idea of India that valued diversity was melting away.
But, the government was not listening. More than anything else, it showed how it had an agenda and would go for it as it had a majority in Parliament.
Author Arun Maira who was also a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission pointed out that it was important to listen deeply to those who were not like us if we had to tone up the health of our society and nation. He said that we must listen to different points of view without the stereotype of that person’s clothes interfering with our judgment. If India had to achieve a vision of unity in diversity, we must stop insulting each other, he said.
But as we can see we are not willing to listen. A police officer in Meerut reportedly asked protesters to go to Pakistan. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath went to the extent of declaring revenge against protestors. See where that statement led to as there was a police crackdown. Many died and many were injured in the violence. Parts of the state looked like a war zone. Transpose it with another police officer in the same state who gently listened to protesters and how they heeded his requests to stay peaceful. Lexicon matters.
Forcing those who vandalise public property to pay for the losses is a fantastic idea and should have been done years ago as protests on various issues have destroyed property worth thousands of crores. But, to force people who have nothing to do with the violence is not going to cool down matters. There must be justice and it must be seen to be done. Having said that, there must be a uniform law enforced all over the country to make rioters pay for the property they destroy.
This is not about opening doors to those who have been discriminated against because of their religion in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. If it was so, we should also be generous to the Ahmadis who are exploited and discriminated in Pakistan. What about Tamilians in Sri Lanka? Our lens cannot be coloured according to our prejudices. That is certainly not the kind of country our freedom fighters gave their life for.
Hindus and Muslims fought for Indian independence and those Muslims who chose to stay behind in India when there was an option to move to Pakistan did so as they were comfortable with the idea of India that was pluralistic, democratic and tolerant.
There is no end to xenophobia. When encouraged, it will take forms that we cannot even imagine today. Tomorrow, it will not be Muslims or Christians or other minorities. It will be regional chauvinism that will raise its head. It will be Tamilians only in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtrians only in Maharashtra, Bengalis only in West Bengal, Kashmiris only in Kashmir and so on.
Look at the richness of diversity in India today. Where else in the world will you find it in such richness as India? Look at how each community that speaks a different language, eats different food, has a different culture and value systems blends seamlessly in another state. Imagine a Mizoram girl working in Bengaluru. Or a Marwari in Chennai. They adapt so easily as they respect diversity. They richen the land they have moved to in terms of economics and culture.
Thousands of Hindi speaking labourers from West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh are all over Kerala today working at construction sites, restaurants, hotels and other enterprises. What would the state do without them? What would they do in their home states that cannot offer them a job at a decent wage? Kerala offers the highest wages to carpenters, plumbers, painters, and masons. Thousands of impoverished homes in the ‘Bimaru’ states have benefitted as their family members could move to other states. What happens if Malayalees tomorrow say that jobs will only go to them and not to “outsiders”?
We have already seen political parties talk about this in various states of India. If not nipped in the bud, this will spread and create havoc in the life of millions working in states that they were not born in.
In some way or the other, most Indians are immigrants. We have moved from our home states as there are opportunities elsewhere that we want to exploit. We have done well because we had the courage to immigrate to another state.
Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in their book, “Good Economics for Hard Times”, show how economic migrants are hungry for opportunity and make the most of it especially when the locals do not want to do those jobs. Land owning Punjabis got labour from other states in north-India to work on their farms helping both to prosper. As migrants work hard, they also infuse a lot of economic activity in the areas they move to with their earnings by buying clothes, foodstuffs, daily essentials and so on. Let us look at the larger picture. These realities do not whip up jingoism or xenophobia and so no political party talks about it.
Let us not forget that millions of Indians prosper in other countries that are not Hindu dominated. Many of them are in Muslim-dominated countries. And, many in Christian-dominated countries. These countries have accepted them and even given them citizenship. They have allowed them to do well and even send money back home. What happens if the whole world decides that their individual countries will ask all the immigrants to leave. How many Indians will have to return home?
A large majority of India sees that love can triumph over hatred. It can see the dangers of a polarised state. It can see how the world is watching us. There cannot be growth if there is no peace. Foreign investment does not come in when there are fires flaring. The economy does not stabilise if there is uncertainty.
All over the world, there is a sense of something that is horribly going wrong. India can do better with all its democratic values if it concentrates on giving a better life to its citizens with a horde of actions. A government with a majority can easily do this as it does not have to compromise with coalition politics and the kind of pressures that come with it. But, the moot question is if it would have the sense and wisdom to pull India out of the morass it has slid into.
(Published on 06th January 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 02)