Indian politics and Mahabharat

Watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first parliamentary speech a single thought ran through my mind —the man deeply relishes the politics of development. He talks of development as if it is a finely cooked meal which he cannot get enough of. That’s a good thing. By their very nature such addresses are never partisan and always carefully weeded out for ideological acrimony. He did well to ensure that they remain so.

If there was an overarching theme to his speech—there were many sub-themes, of course—it was the idea of making national development a “people’s movement.” It was both an exceptional as well unexceptionable proposition coming from a new prime minister. He said just as Mahatma Gandhi made the campaign for India’s independence a people’s movement where individual Indians at all levels of society were inspired to feel a sense of belonging and stake in it, it was time for leaders across party lines to turn the idea of development into a people’s movement.

Mindful that he was making his parliamentary debut, Modi chose to keep the tone of the address above the fray with only a couple of digs thrown in. Particularly answering the justified criticism that he was drawing on some of the very development themes that the Congress Party has been talking about, he said it only meant they knew they were good but also implied that they chose not to do much about it.

I was particularly struck by his reference to what Duryodhan says in the Mahabharat about moral code of conduct and truth. Modi recited a Sanskrit shloka first which went ‘Janami dharmam na cha mi pravrutti (I know what is moral but I cannot bring myself to adhere to it or practice it). Although Modi did not recite the second line, it is equally relevant here. It says “Janami adharmam na cha mi nivrutti’ (I know what is immoral but I cannot retire/retreat from it).” Like everything else about the Mahabharat, this one too is a profound example of unsettling rationalism and clarity of thought in the epic which is so deliberately shorn of sanctimony.

The idea that Duryodhan knows what is right and wrong or moral and immoral and yet chooses to do wrong/immoral because it is natural to him is quite extraordinary and a uniquely Indian approach to life. I have said before that the Mahabharat is full of situational morality rather than overarching one. It believes in situational logic as opposed to absolute one. This is at the core even of the Bhagavad Gita. Those influenced by the Western idea of morality and immorality find this approach rather disturbing. I find it remarkably pragmatic.

In terms of Modi’s focus on development and his obsessive attention to it is something I have written about earlier. I did a piece on him on February 6 last year which is worth repeating:

All speeches by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi have a sanguine tone and are loaded with facts as he sees them as well as a comprehensive explanation about why those facts are the way they are.

Subtly and not so subtly he tries to lead you to the conclusion that he is the reason why good facts are the way they are and bad ones despite his absolute best to alter them. However, he is smart enough to cast all success as collective success and all failure as collective failure.

One may or may not agree with his dissertation but it is delivered with such flourish, joie de vivre even, that those receiving it leave feeling compelled about the content of what they have just been told.

As he seemingly prepares for a national role for himself, and by that I mean only prime ministerial aspiration, Modi may have given what in my assessment could be his most defining national speech yet towards that objective. The speech was given at SRCC Business Conclave in New Delhi to close to 2000 students yesterday.

Over the decades I have heard many politicians talk about development, growth, economy and governance but none as detailed and well-structured as Modi. The ability to relate everything to a single individual among his audience is as essential as it is rare among politicians. Modi clearly possesses that.

I have a reputation of being a strident, consistent and ultimately inconsequential critic of the chief minister. So much so that some of my childhood friends in Ahmedabad, most of whom are his ardent supporters, express a sense of profound betrayal when it comes to my views about Modi. I try telling them I look at Modi, just as I look at anyone or anything anywhere, in both a situational as well as an overarching context, with rational detachment. Of course, there is some conduct that is beyond the pale of rational detachment and Modi has come precariously close to being guilty of that.

In the narrow, situational context of this speech I think Modi surpassed himself in fleshing out the specifics of his vision for India via his accomplishments in Gujarat. One may question the veracity of his accomplishments in Gujarat but what one cannot doubt is his ability to brilliantly package and sell them to the unsuspecting.

The nearly hour-long speech was full of what Modi is known for—utter certitude about what people need and why he is the one who should be delivering it. To be sure, he does not say it in so many words but the implication is clear. More than a politician he is someone who treats politics as a performance art and knows exactly what hooks to cast. While he said many things during the speech, let me cite a few of them to underscore how he is able to package and present development and governance in a manner that hits the mark.

Early on he talks about two different ways people look at things. He holds up a glass of water which is half full and makes you believe that he is about to recycle a cliché. He does, in fact, do so but then adds his own dimension. Some say the glass is half full, some say it is half empty but Modi has a third (and by implication unique) view. He says he sees the glass is full with both water and air. That is inevitably followed by a strong applause.

He speaks of his development policy for Gujarat as being one third agricultural, one third services based and one third industrial as a model that hedges between the three if one of them fails or is slow to deliver. He then speaks of the five Fs of his agricultural policy of “farm to fiber, fiber to fabric, fabric to fashion  and fashion to foreign.” He is, of course, referring to the state’s cotton output which he says now stands at more than 12 million bales.

To make it more palatable he says he is certain that the milk that people in Delhi use in their tea comes from Gujarat, so does okra (quaintly called ladies’ fingers) in Europe or tomatoes in Afghanistan. “Aap Afghanistan jaav aur tamatar khav to likh lena ke woh tamatar Gujarat se aaya hai,” he declares with such confidence that you would think there is no scope to contest that claim. What such declamation does is create in his audience a sense of relatable accomplishment. Of course, there is an element of hype in what he says. It is not as if every tomato in Kabul comes from the farms of Gujarat but it serves his purpose rather effectively.

Take a point he made about animal husbandry, for instance. To think that a large hall full of college students in the heart of the capital would be interested in animal husbandry in itself requires gumption. Modi goes a step further in explaining why animal husbandry has a direct impact on the purchasing power of a marginal farmer and hence on the economy generally. He claims that because of his government’s focus on animal husbandry more than a 100 kinds of cattle diseases have been completely eradicated. This in turn means an increase in the yield of milch cattle which leads to a rise in even a small farmer’s income and therefore results in a higher purchasing power. And who can contest that a higher purchasing power for a marginal farmer is good for the economy?

Another example that stood out for me was his reference to Gujarat setting up a university focused on security and forensics. In that context he spoke about the quality of policing and why it was so abysmal as manifest in recent cases of rape in the capital. “How is the police recruitment done? It is done based on the body size. If he (a prospective recruit) is six feet, then he is recruited. He is put through a regimen for six to eight months (He used a far more casual expression in Hindi calling it “Idhar udhar daudate hein”, made to to run here and there), handed a rifle, given a uniform and taught some law and order stuff,” he said. In contrast, the university in Gujarat, he said,  prepares students aspiring to be in law enforcement careers in a comprehensive fashion. He spoke how even at the constable (beat cop) level the new training aims to make them “techno savvy.”  

He spoke about how his vision was to export millions of well-trained teachers from India. “We export everything, why not teachers?” he said. And then to make it more compelling he added, “When a businessman goes to another country or exports to another country he captures pounds and dollars. But when a teacher goes he captures an entire generation. That is the power (of a good teacher).”

Everything that he said in his speech was by design structured to enunciate a vision which is at once broad and yet specific. As I said earlier one may seriously question the veracity of his many claims about the transforming  growth in Gujarat. What is hard to question is the effectiveness of that vision. Of course, Modi firmly conveys that all his claims are borne out by facts on the ground and it is possible that much of it is.

My point is mostly about a rare Indian politician, even a political performer, being able to weave a narrative which is overarching and specific. I have watched and read enough of his speeches to say that his default temperament is one of sanguine self-assurance and raging self-belief. It is true that every fact in a democracy has two sides—one the factual side and the other expedient side. A crafty political performer alternates between the two effortlessly.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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