'Modi Has Intense Desire to Do Something, But Lacks Imagination,' Says Ashis Nandy

The celebrated social theorist and political psychologist spoke to The Wire about Modi, demonetisation and the state of Indian democracy.

Ashish Nandy. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Ashis Nandy. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Celebrated social theorist and political psychologist Ashis Nandy views Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation programme as a quick fix economic ploy that may yield immediate electoral gains but is unsure if it will last till the 2019 general elections. Nandy is scathing when he says that Modi and his small, closed coterie of decision-makers are completely removed from Indian reality, with little feel on how the country runs. He is equally dismissive of a pliant opposition, political parties of all shades, which are driven by self-interest rather than ethics or principles. He also sees a lot of similarities between Modi and Indira Gandhi, with their authoritarian interventions in governance and among people. Looking at the future, Nandy pleads for a society and government that draws from the best of the available knowledge and which represents the diverse views of political groups and ideologies. He is also hopeful that India will have its own Wikileaks soon.


What do you think has prompted this whole exercise?

This [demonetisation] is the [decision of] ‘quick fixers’, which is a group of people who are presently running the country and who feel it necessary for image building, through the manipulation of the media world. This is an abstract battle, not a real battle – a struggle to capture the imagination of the people. But it is a real attempt at political affairs, governance, though built with a narrow empirical base, with little feel for the way this country is organised; nor do they understand the diversity of the country. More than 80% of the people have no access or insufficient access to banking facilities, and you will only push whole communities, like the tribals, towards destruction. And who says that all unaccounted money is black? Farmers keep cash, their life savings in jute bags, because they may not trust banks. All this shows Modi’s distance from social realities.

Isn’t it bizarre coming from the person who has used his ‘chaiwallah’ image to woo the poor?

Modi is not distant from the people, otherwise he wouldn’t have become so popular. I am not talking in absolute terms, but he’s definitely fixed on his entourage, and not a very open entourage. I hear even his colleagues have no access to his decision-making process. It was a model tried out in Gujarat, but India is not Gujarat.

Is this part of a mid-term course correction?

Modi must have noticed that most prime ministers, including Indira Gandhi, Rajiv (Gandhi), have had problems half way through their term as they have had to fulfil their promises. He has made many promises too and he doesn’t want to go that way, so he’s taking precautions. Demonetisation is one of the props he wants to build his record for the next elections, not just in the coming polls in UP and Punjab but also in 2019. However, right now, people are still surviving on slogans, they still think he’ll do something which in the long run will be beneficial for them. It may work in UP, but will it last till 2019, I don’t know.

Is it worth all this economic distress?

Modi is expected to give sops to the poor, it’s very much in the air, but how far it will help the poor is doubtful because you have not tackled the real causes of black money. Today, the banks may be flush with money but there will have to be huge investments to secure electronic devices, like lakhs of ATMs, super computers to handle electronic payments. Also, with the pitch on national security, defence expenditure will sky rocket, so too will other kinds of expenditure. Naturally, the prosperity of banks will be short-lived. Soon, it will lead to nepotism – who you give loans to, who you deny. It will never reach the bottom of society.

Opinion writers have called Modi’s demonetisation move fascist. Do you agree?

[Fascism] was far more ruthless, there was genocide, blood flowed. This is ‘developmental authoritarianism’. It is the record of every South East Asian leader who has tried to quicken development. They love to believe in the Singapore model, it is something I had predicted 35-40 years ago, in my books.

Has anyone attempted this before?

Yes, it was tried in small measure by Indira Gandhi, with her son Sanjay, who tried to quicken the pace of development, and it moved them towards some degree of authoritarianism and ruthlessness. It always leads to discrimination, patronage, nepotism. In fact, the narrowing of the decision-making process is the first clue of this creeping authoritarianism, and it looks like it has been set in motion here.

How do you see it play out?

Modi has been pushed by his intense desire to do something, but he does not have the imagination or wherewithal to do it. No doubt he is energetic, hardworking and driven to do something positive, as everyone wants to leave a mark on history. Even George Bush wanted it, Donald Trump would like to do it.

Do you believe the comparisons between Modi and Indira Gandhi are correct?

They both know how to manipulate democratic systems [in a way] that allows them to make authoritarian interventions in society, Mrs Gandhi did it and Modi is doing it. Modi’s governance model is partly like Mrs Gandhi’s, but nobody can blame him alone for damaging the structure of democracy because the BJP has not passed a single law till today. These are all Indira Gandhi’s laws, the BJP is using the same laws passed by earlier regimes against opponents today. There was obviously something wrong with our democracy earlier too. They didn’t like the criticism then too, and that shortsightedness has come home to roost.

For instance, our sedition laws should have been abolished long ago – we have had liberal governments right from Nehru downwards, but we didn’t throw out the law, we didn’t even revise it; the Supreme Court has revised it somewhat in its interpretation, but even that doesn’t work. Governments have used the sedition law in villages where thousands of people have been arrested under it. The poor, hapless villagers don’t even know what sedition means, it’s Kafkaesque. This did not begin during BJP’s time, it began earlier, there’s continuity.

So, for those criticising Modi today, it is not good enough?

I’m saying it’s not just good enough, it is self-serving. They did not do anything different, nor do they want to change anything. The attacks on NGOS started long ago. The Gandhi ashram in Chattisgarh was destroyed before the BJP came to power at the Centre.

Where is the duplicity and hypocrisy of so-called ‘liberal’ governments in this country?

I think in keeping the imperial structure alive. It’s self-serving, it helps them protect their own interests, both of the bureaucracy and the middle class. The middle class has been complicit in this duplicity, they have always been shouting for more disciplined and efficient governments. They want obedience and orderliness, without understanding the nature of this country. Singapore’s PM, Lee Kuan Yew, is very popular among them and the business community, he has been invited, feted and adored by them, and they have been looking for a Yew here without saying it. People wanted it in 2014, it was the rhetoric then and during the Emergency too, that we are disorganised, indisciplined, not martial enough. At that time the middle class was small, but today they are much bigger and have a much bigger impact on politics.

Do you believe an Emergency-like mood is in the country today?

Yes, that kind of mood is coming back, there are clear indications of it. However, it’ll not get worse because people are more alert this time. A huge number of people will actively intervene to ensure it does not happen again.

What is required to challenge Modi?

To know India a little better, to self-confront and find out what makes us complicit with this kind of solution to our problems, because we’ve asked for it.

Can the Opposition rally against Modi?

There’s not much to say about the Opposition. It’s not because they are not organised, because in this country, you don’t have to be organised to produce charismatic leaders. Those who have become prime ministers have handled India very well; we have Shastri, Rao, even Manmohan Singh in his first term, as good examples. It will come automatically. However, it is up to the Opposition to decide on what they want to fight. Unfortunately, the Opposition seeks power as ardently as the present BJP government and both are willing to go for power using legal and illegal means. Electoral funding is a big cause for corruption in politics but the Congress did not try to reform funding when it was ruling, neither is the BJP doing anything now that they are in power because the BJP thinks it has an advantage today – that’s the way it goes. Work and coalesce for self-interest, as they did after the Emergency when totally disparate groups came together to form a government, even the Communists and BJP. What more can you want?

What do you think of the Supreme Court’s decision on the national anthem in cinema halls?

It’s a shortsighted decision because the Supreme Court does not make a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. I’ve also written about this 30 years ago, that there’s a big difference between patriotism and nationalism . Patriotism is biologically given, even cats and dogs are territorial. The judges obviously believe nationalism is good, but the idea of nationalism does not work in India because we are not a nation, we use the English word ‘nation’ but it is not Indian. Rabindranath Tagore had almost 12 to 15 words for patriotism, but when it came to ‘nation’, Tagore used the English term ‘nation’ in Bengali form. So, patriotism is territoriality, a sentiment; nationalism is an ideology, and like all ideologies, it is constricting, it lacks vision, and as the record of the 20th-century shows, ideology can be a great killer.

It is a warning to all ideologists, from communism to nationalism to feminism, ideology blurs and narrows your vision, it gives you a format, through which you see, screen the world, so your capacity to respond to problems which you may intuitively sense, and need a different kind of solution, is blurred because you cannot easily integrate with your ideology, and that creates a problem. Also, ideologues always hate the targeted beneficiaries of their ideologies. Marxists have always been disturbed by the fact that the masses are not adequately revolutionary, they often see the people as loyal to the older systems and age-old practices, Marx even terms peasants as a bag of potatoes.

Nationalists don’t think Indians are nationalist enough. A Pew survey of 10 years ago said Indians are the second most nationalist in the world, Pakistanis are even less, so are the Chinese! But the nationalists are still not satisfied by our nationalism.

Do you believe we are seeing a backlash against political correctness?

There was nothing like true liberalism in India. Marxists were as hegemonic in conception, there was nepotism – who will they appoint in courts, academies, institutions, it is a game played by everybody, so if you have an ideology of any kind, you believe you are morally superior over those who do not hold that ideology. Marxists automatically believe that the commitment to Marxist Leninism is supreme, though by definition it believes in a police state, and therefore, a police state is better than a non-Leninist worldview. So if you’ve to appoint an economist, they would look for a Leninist-Marxist rather than a good economist – he may be third-rate, but he is morally and ethically superior after all, and that’s the problem.

It is why I disagree that JNU is a bastion of liberalism. I don’t believe it ever was liberal, individuals may have been liberal but there was no tradition of liberalism. I’ve seen the worst face of their illiberalism.

What about the intellectual atmosphere in the country today?

It is illiberal and pointless. It is to protect the political interests of a small group of people who do not have the adequate number of intellectuals to give them better access to the realities of a contemporary world. The BJP can actually mobilise good economists because there are a good number of liberal and conservative economists but they have not done so; the government also has reasonably good strategic and defence experts, but unfortunately they are all biased, which is why I’ve used the term ‘reasonably good’. There are respectable names in the list they use, but most of the disciplines are totally unrepresented, and they have no clue about it.

How should the Modi government create an intellectual profile for itself?

At least after the demise of Mrs Gandhi, other parties learned to live with intellectuals from other ideological persuasions. I’m pleading for a philosophy that a society must know what to put in politics and what it should not. You cannot, for instance, put a person who has no idea of child welfare to head an institution for children. I’m not talking about ministers but institutional heads. You must be able to draw the best from the knowledge that is available in society, represent the diverse views of political groups and ideologies, and if you do not do then you are not in touch with the reality of India. This is not just the problem of the Left but also of this Modi regime.

Something on the lines of NAC?

NAC was a good effort, but it was an accident. Sonia Gandhi was not the prime minister, we are talking about prime ministers here, and none of them has set up an NAC.

Would you like to see an NAC-like body?

No, I don’t believe it has to be institutional, I am looking for a philosophy of life that can incorporate all ideologies. Society must have the psychological capacity to tap people who have other points of view. What was wrong if Amartya Sen, who was critical of the Modi government, was on the board of Nalanda University? This is a 2000-year old university which you are trying to revive, he was an appropriate person to be there. It gives the university a dignity, not some ‘tuppeny ha’penny intellectual’ you draw from party rank or sympathetic to your ideology.

Hindu nationalism is from 19th century Europe, nothing Indian about it. It is a pathetic mimicry of 19th-century European nationalism, in the 21st century. So was Marxism, for that matter, it is an ideology of mid 19th century. Is it any wonder Marxism is in such a sad state? The Left here looks absolutely bewildered by the world today.

Where did the Left go wrong then?

India had a thriving Marxist movement, a large trade union base at one time. But this did not let them use their experience or encourage them to look at Marxism in a new way, or a new way of using their insights into the ideology. It only encouraged them to mechanically apply colonial Marxism, which is an imported view. Everything imported for Marxists was better than from Third World.

The best-known history of Marxism is written not by an American or West European but is Kolakowski’s history of Marxism. There’s only one Indian mentioned, M. N. Roy, who started a radical movement here. No Marxist thinks he was a Marxist, but Kolakowski thinks he’s worth mentioning, which tells you all about Marxism in India.

What should this new world view incorporate for 2017?

It has to have a lot of elements, say environment. Look at the new Pope, the Roman Catholic Church had once underwritten colonialism but it has changed and now talks about environmentalism. I’m not saying the church is liberal but there’s a new ethical perspective. That’s very important. Similarly, there are some very good works of Marxism today. People have come to know how to use Marxism without deifying it. Our Left, in the beginning, said all this environmentalism was an American conspiracy!

Is Nehru’s idea of secularism irrelevant today?

India has a long tradition of celebrating differences. Yes, Nehru was messianic, but that was a transitory phase. He was a democratic socialist of the 1920s and his concept of development etc. came from this ideology. He had no critique of development, he had no idea what do with tribals. Almost 60 million tribals have been displaced in the last 65 years, for large development projects. We must think about this, ask what kind of development are we pursuing? Yes, people are fighting it, citizenship is changing. Solutions will emerge from the people. The democratic system is still reasonably intact, it has many flaws, but a deepening of democracy and enriching it is our task. India is more open to surveillance and secrecy, one day we’ll have our own Wikileaks.

Are we ushering in the idea of a new democracy?

In the West, communities have disappeared and the only link between the state and individual is when you vote every fifth year. New democracy pits the individual directly with the state. And the individual feels safe only when he sees television or writes an angry blog. That’s the way new democracy works today.