National and International Issues

India: Beneath the Shining Veil of Maya

India is riddled with contradictions. To all appearances, it’s the world’s largest democracy, a bastion of secularism, and one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Its soft power — the multi-billion entertainment industry, yoga and meditation — holds a worldwide sway. But beneath this shining overlay of secularism, democracy, and hard and soft power, lurks the real, despicable India. Here is a democracy which over 70 years has turned its back on the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination and treats its citizens with pellet guns. Here is a secular state, where the members of a minority community are put to death on the slightest suspicion of eating beef. 



National elections are an index of the popular will and a pointer to the direction in which a polity is moving. By overwhelmingly reposing their trust back-to-back in a reactionary, bigoted and fascist BJP, the Indian electorate has sent out the message that it has been overwhelmed hook, line and sinker by a diabolical narrative and that it’s prepared to consign secularism to the dustbin of history and lap up Hindu nationalism. The apex court’s Ayodhya verdict should leave no one in doubt that Hindutva’s takeover of India is complete and that secularism is only a whisker away from coming to a sticky end.


India is home to the globe’s largest number of people living in abject poverty, squalor and slough of misery. It is on the cusp of becoming an information technology powerhouse but an enormous section of society remains mired in superstitions and is half the time ripped off by spiritual cons masquerading as babas, pirs, swamis, rishis and gurus. By the same token, the image of the prosperous society that the globe’s largest entertainment industry – which itself is bankrolled by the underworld – presents is conspicuous by its absence. Yoga and meditation — the ancient paths to salvation — are no longer a way of life in India; instead they have been reduced to foppish, money-spinning, stress-exfoliating techniques. 
Hence, for all its glamour and voluptuousness, glitz and publicity blitz, sumptuous pageantry and ostentatious lifestyles, extravagant events and lavish festivities, which for sure can leave any party-goer petrified with amazement, India’s much touted soft power can’t cover up the excrescence that exists in the shape of slums and shanty towns in metropolises. Here is a society which in recent years has seen a mushroom growth of the nouveaux riches capable of blowing the socks off anyone who worships at the temple of Mammon. Ironically, in the same society, farmers commit suicide in the face of bad crops and girls can’t marry because their parents fail to arrange a dowry or meet other marriage expenses. India also has earned the dubious distinction of accounting for twelve out of the most fifteen polluted cities in the world. 
India is a classic example of conspicuous consumption. As the economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term, argues, consumption not only satisfies physical or physiological needs; it also helps meet social aspirations. A four-wheeler, for instance, enables people to move conveniently from one place to another. At the same time, it is also a means to make a parade of their wealth. While any car can serve the physical purpose; only a top-of-the-line brand can be regarded as a status symbol. When, as in case of India, ostentatious appearance is deemed to be more important than utility; the manufacturer’s or designer’s logo is preferred to product performance; goods and services are bought not to satisfy the genuine needs but to avoid the stigma of being labeled as tasteless; purchase decisions are governed by the desire to leave others gaping; the acquisitive instinct is allowed to run amok in the name of the right to choose; or when a 45-minute concert costs three million dollars to mark the wedding of the daughter of the richest man of the country, where the per capita income is less than $2000 a year, there are unmistakable signs that the society’s scarce resources are being grossly misallocated. The result is tremendous social waste, which is out of kilter with avowedly the strongest feature of a capitalist society — an optimal resource allocation. 
Cultural characteristics of societies like India make them highly susceptible to conspicuous consumption. Such societies are characterized by high propensity to consume, high need affiliation (the desire to please others), and high need dependency (feeling inferior to others who are wealthier). In such societies, as a rule, prestige takes precedence over utility in determining the value of a commodity. The rich itch for showing off their enormous wealth and those lying at the middle or bottom of the economic heap are desperate to avoid the stigma of being branded as an underclass.
The traditional land-owning Indian elite — the rajas and princes — displayed their enormous wealth in three principal ways: a panoply of grand palaces, castles and châteaus; a collection of pricey and ostentatious ornaments; and a fleet of well-bred horses and, in some cases, awe-inspiring elephants. Industrialists like the Tatas and the Birlas, though rich, were culturally subdued. The businessmen had not yet become a role model. The era of socialism in post-independence India sounded the death-knell for the landed gentry. The châteaus were turned into tourist resorts.  


In case of India, only a miniscule segment has been the driver, and the major beneficiary, of economic growth, while the rest of the society has been largely excluded from both the process and its outcome. Not surprisingly, international organizations frequently point towards India as a textbook example of highly skewed income distribution. 


In early 1990s, in line with the winds of change blowing across the globe, India began to open up its economy and tread the capitalist path. Thus emerged a new corps of the sky-is-the-limit industrialists and financers — such as the Ambanis and the Mitals — who were destined to be the trendsetters in the 21st century India. Though the new elite earned their wealth from capital and were supposed to be a harbinger of change, they retained, with slight alterations, the stately lifestyle of the land-owning class including its love for imposing residential structures and a highly cosmetic lifestyle. Whereas the princes of yore could impress only their visitors and acquaintances, the IT revolution has enabled the new wealthy class to have countless followers spread across the globe.       
If wealth creation is the basis of development, India is not far from graduating into a developed economy. But development is not synonymous with capital accumulation: building factories, upgrading infrastructure and creating wealth. Just as science is not merely a body of knowledge but also a way of thinking and an outlook on life; economic development is not essentially a game of numbers but is, above all, a cultural problem. In the course of development, the biggest challenge that a society faces is to evolve the supportive social values.


Any semblance of democracy that India had been left with under the BJP was washed out when New Delhi revoked the special status of the Muslim majority occupied Jammu and Kashmir earlier in August this year in breach of the country’s constitution as well as international treaties. 


In case of India, only a miniscule segment has been the driver and the major beneficiary of economic growth, while the rest of the society has been largely excluded from both the process and its outcome. Not surprisingly, international organizations frequently point towards India as a textbook example of highly skewed income distribution. According to the Global Wealth Report, 2019, a publication of the Switzerland-based Credit Suisse, 78 percent of the adult population in India has wealth below $10,000. At the other end of the scale, only 1.8 percent of the adult population owns a net worth more than $100,000 each. India’s Gini Index, a widely used measure of income or wealth inequality, is 83.2 percent, which is among the highest in the world. 
The UK-based Oxfam has recently taken a jibe at India for being “one of the most unequal countries” across the globe. The top 10 percent of the Indian population, Oxfam points out, holds 77 percent of the total national wealth. Of the total wealth generated in the country in 2017, 73 percent went to the richest one percent, whereas 67 million Indians comprising the poorest half of the population had only one percent increase in their wealth. The number of billionaires has multiplied from 9 in 2000 to 119 in 2019. These billionaires' cumulative wealth exceeded the entire budget of the central government for the fiscal year 2018-19. At the same time, every year 63 million Indians are pushed into poverty because of rising healthcare costs. The figure comes down to nearly two people every second. 



As per the most recent data available at the World Inequality Database, top one percent of Indians account for 21.3 percent of national income and 30.7 percent of national wealth. The share of the top 10 percent in national wealth and national income is 62.8 percent and 56.6 percent respectively. On the other hand, the bottom half of the population accounts for mere 6.4 percent of national wealth and 14.7 percent of the national income. This obnoxious economic model, which is a breeding ground for intense social tensions, is hard to sustain in the long run. India thus has all the characteristics of economic and sociological dualism. As culture underpins development, it is likely to remain a backward society for decades. 
India is officially a secular state, and logically so. The Indian National Congress (INC) had ranged against the creation of Pakistan on the ground that the partition of a multiethnic India on the basis of religion would be “dreadful.” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who spearheaded the movement for the establishment of Pakistan, earned excoriation of the advocates of a united India for what they called injecting religion into politics. 
The Congress Party, the successor to the INC, at least in theory, remained committed to secularism. In the first three decades of independence, there was little credible opposition to the Congress — and by implication there was little danger to secularism as a matter of state policy. The situation took a turn for the worse with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it, the BJP’s roots can be traced to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or the National Volunteers Corps, and its political arm the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) or Indian People’s Association. The BJS was wedded to rebuilding India into a strong, unified state fashioned on Hindu values or Hindutva. Formally set up in 1980, the BJP inherited the BJS mission. 
For the BJP the defining moment came in 1990 when its president L.K. Advani spearheaded a nationwide march to pull down the historic Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in India’s largest and politically most important state of Uttar Pradesh and building a temple in its place. For secular India, the event turned out to be the thin end of the wedge. The campaign galvanized religious sentiments of the majority Hindu community and culminated in the demolition of the mosque in December 1992. 
That fateful event has had a three-fold significance for Indian politics and society. One, it provided a perfect platform for the rise of the BJP. In the ensuing 1996 parliamentary elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party and formed its first government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Two, it set the stage for Hindutva to replace secularism as the dominant ethos of the Indian polity. To date the building of a temple in Ayodhya, and all that it signifies, remains the kernel of the BJP’s politics. The party’s 2019 election manifesto reiterated that promise. In its recent judgment, which drew the curtain on a protracted legal battle, the Supreme Court of India ruled that a temple would be built on the Ayodhya land, thus meekly caving in to the long-standing demand of extremist Hindus. The verdict, which is a reflection of the growing power of Hindutva, will in turn strengthen the BJP’s cause as well as exacerbate communalism at the expense of secularism. Not only that, it has exploded the myth of the independence of the judiciary in the world’s largest “democracy.”  
Three, the mosque’s demolition ushered in the reversal of the fortunes of the thitherto dominant Congress Party, which espoused secularism. In 2014, those trends combined to bring about the resounding electoral victory of the BJP under Narendra Modi, the man widely seen to be behind the 2002 carnage of Muslims in Gujarat communal riots — and has earned the sobriquet “the butcher of Gujarat” —  and the worst ever defeat of the Congress. Five years later, as Hindutva went from strength to strength, the electorate handed an even heavier mandate to the BJP.
National elections are an index of the popular will and a pointer to the direction in which a polity is moving. By overwhelmingly reposing their trust back-to-back in a reactionary, bigoted and fascist BJP, the Indian electorate has sent out the message that it has been overwhelmed hook, line and sinker by a diabolical narrative and that it’s prepared to consign secularism to the dustbin of history and lap up Hindu nationalism. The apex court’s Ayodhya verdict should leave no one in doubt that Hindutva’s takeover of India is complete and that secularism is only a whisker away from coming to a sticky end.  
An alternative narrative has set down the complete ascendency of the BJP and the rise of Modi to the Congress being a prisoner of dynastic politics. The essential argument is that industrialization and economic growth has brought in its train an enormous urban middle class for which upward social mobility and meritocracy are the prime virtues. Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi represent the two ends of the social spectrum. The former has risen to the top by the sweat of his brow; while the latter owes his status to being a scion of the nation’s erstwhile ruling family. It goes without saying that Modi, and not Gandhi, is the logical choice of a changing India.
Such an argument is a red herring. Despite all its demerits, dynastic politics is not the difference between the Congress and the BJP. It would have been had the BJP thrown up a progressive leadership, which set aside communal politics and expressed its commitment to preserving the essential secular credentials of a remarkably multiethnic India. Instead, the BJP is riding the crest of popularity on the back of a leader who is a picture perfect personification of its Hindutva narrative and all that it signifies.  
On economic policy, there is little to choose between the Congress and the BJP. Both parties are exponents of a liberal economy. It was the Congress government that in early 1990s set in motion the reforms that aimed at transference from a state-controlled to a market economy. In many ways, the economic policies of Modi have been a continuation of those of his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. Nor did the Indian economy fare much better under Modi. During the BJP’s tenure (2009-14), the economy grew on average 7.5 percent per annum, while the average growth rate recorded during the Congress’ last term (2009-13) was 7.4 percent. In fact, the economy sputtered in the last two years of the BJP government, which cast its pall on job generation. In a word, it’s culture, not economics, that underlies the changing contours of the Indian politics. Few other societies match the religious diversity of India. So being swept by Hindutva can prove to be a kiss of death for the country. 
Any semblance of democracy that India had been left with under the BJP was washed out when New Delhi revoked the special status of the Muslim majority occupied Jammu and Kashmir earlier in August this year in breach of the country’s constitution as well as international treaties. The move is aimed at squelching an indigenous popular movement for exercising the right to self-determination, which India itself promised to the people of Kashmir seven decades ago. Since then the occupied territory has been under complete lockdown. Kashmiris have been stripped of the freedom of movement and the rights to expression and assembly, which people enjoy as a matter of course in a democracy, and are instead subjected to detentions and torture.


E-mail: [email protected]
Twitter: @hussainhzaidi
 

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