A question of ideology
Under the pall of divisive public debates, a tragic sameness pervades India - it is the result of the demise of influential thinking outside of the political class and the fact that Indians, generally, have come unhinged from what we know as ideology

India has a special problem. Being a poor country that has struggled with distribution of resources, it has often relied on the Nehruvian version of Socialism. So, while India embraced reforms and economic liberalisation, the shadow of Socialism was always upon it. In time, Nehruvian Socialism moved away from building steel plants and dams and trying to provide jobs in a newly independent nation through state action -- do remember that back in 1944, the Bombay Plan prepared by leading industrialists of the time had said that it would be beyond the resources of private enterprise to facilitate equitable distribution of wealth and industrialise India and that the state should take vantage position here. That socialistic model has now been replaced with a mechanism that essentially formalises doles under the garb of productive labour. The MGNREGS is its most shining example, but there are others.

The answer to the question, how Indians are approaching larger issues of economics and politics is that they are having some trouble finding a pathfinder. The force of an ultra nationalist narrative has turned the focus on Indian thinkers. That means essentially guidelines for a way of life based on visions of a pristine past and a wide-eyed approach to ancient philosophy but not a model to deal with modern India. There has been talk of the need for a real shake-up, which has brought support for Modi's method of so-called disruption of the existing systems. In the terminology of the past, this might be described as an attempt at revolution.

Jean-Francois Revel, the prolific French philosopher who started out being a leftist but then became, according to The Guardian, “ferociously anti-communist,” and ended up as a theoretician for the right, had identified five pre-requisites for a revolution: there must be a critique of the injustice existing in economic, social and racial relationships; there must be a critique of management directed against the waste of material and human resources; there must be a critique of political power directed against its source and principles; there must be a critique of culture: of morality, religion and accepted beliefs, customs, philosophy, literature, art, of the ideological attitudes that underlie these things; and there must be a critique of the old civilisation-as-sanction, or a vindication of individual freedom.

As this shows, ideology has to do with politics and economics. However, out on the national stage in India it is straightforward choice on what will it take to win an election: would it be Hindutva or its opposite, Muslim appeasement. The Ayodhya movement delivered on the intangible of Hindu pride took away much that was dear -- precious lives. But, it gave the BJP a larger platform. It has been the same with Muslim appeasement -- it provided a sense of having an arm around the shoulder but Muslims received no tangible benefits.

Some notable examples of the absence of a sound ideology that impacts overall well-being are in order. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh drove on a Hindu agenda but had little of economics in it when it was first formed. This it included when the Swatantra Party, also right wing, was established. In essence it had been forced to have an economic policy, which it, incidentally, imbibed from the Swatantra Party. The base, evidently, was political survival.

Deprived of what we know as ideology, Indians are battling each other on other fronts. The most common being tolerance. In the current atmosphere, it means how well do we suffer others. This is the result of the environment that we live in. What is it at the common man's level? While applauding democratisation of news dissemination through social media, there has been a natural pulling down of the level of debate. Simultaneously, it has been accompanied by an accent on martial traditions and jingoism. Once again, this is not being able to impact well being. The results of the temptation to appeal to sentiments -- and raising passions -- to the exclusion of a cogent vision based on ideology are certain to worrisome.

What we are witnessing in the absence of a credible ideology -- and a credible ideological divide -- is the equivalent of the Barmecide's feast, the story from the Arabian Nights of a beggar who is invited into the home of a nobleman and is treated to an imaginary meal with empty dishes. The nobleman pretends that he is providing for an elaborate meal and the beggar consumes the imaginary meal. But, in the end, it does not improve his wellbeing. What India needs is a vision for well being without having to raise passions or be pushed by the need to win elections. There is little doubt that that vision will come from sound ideology.

Columnist: 
Ananda Majumdar