governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

A Foreigner in Delhi

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Foreigners aiming to live in Delhi must first get acquainted with its culture. It is they who need to adapt. No one, not the Mughals, the Brits, the entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees from Pakistan, the rich but rude, Haryanvi landowners, the clever South Indian Brahmins, desperate Bangladeshi refugees, the skilled Bihari, Eastern UP and Oriya migrants, the Christian tribals from East India nor the educated migrants from the North East, have managed to bend the robust spirit of Delhi, characterized by the five Cs: (i) Contempt for the law and rules: “sab chalta hai”. “Dilliwallahs” make the rules. (ii) Car; the bigger and higher the better, preferably black or white, with multi-coloured beacons, flags and a sign board on the front bumper (iii) Cut: variously, a cash payout from a deal involving public funds; short-circuiting a queue by using status; changing lanes frequently on a road, to get ahead of others. (iv) Cutlet: a westernized and tasteless kebab or a foolish friend and (v)  Carat: which is self-explanatory as jewelry, opulent clothes or a more generalized measure of quality.

The colonial Brits were adept at mastering this game. Many, not surprisingly given their choices, went “native” and integrated. Living examples are the journalist, Mark Tully; actor, Barry John and wildlifer, Belinda Wright.

Of course, the most recent examples are David Cameron and his wife, participating enthusiastically in Hindu rituals during Deepawali (clearly with an eye to the huge and rich Indian community in the UK) and the less strategic, but more genuine and endearing, “Indian”, Prince Charles, worshipping the Ganga in Varanasi. It is a measure of their maturity, that no one in the UK objects, to their leaders participating in the “foreign” rituals, of a minority community. The Americans are no different. President Nixon famously complained that every Ambassador he sent to Delhi became more Indian than American.

Modi must learn from the Brits. If he is to live in Delhi, he has to publicly accept the glorious Mughal and Muslim part of Delhi’s composite culture. It is a pity that Modi is vegetarian otherwise good sense would have got to him via his stomach.

The kebabs, korma and biryani, handed down from the Mughals, are mouth-watering. But he could feast on the succulent Shahi Tukda and reflect, on whether it is such a bad idea, to don a skull cap after all.

No one can argue that Modi is wrong. Of course, Indian Muslims have willingly been used as political pawns and “secularism” converted into a political tactic. Just as clearly, Hindu fundamentalism is misplaced in India. The BJP won the battle in 1992, but erred deeply in demolishing the Babri Masjid with the Congress looking on from Delhi. The Congress erred in supporting and feeding the fundamentalist Bhindranwale into becoming a cult figure for the Sikhs. It subsequently tarnished its image further, by having to destroy the Golden Temple, to get rid of him. Give politicians of any hue a cleavage and they shall play with it. No pun intended.

Hindus were massacred by Sikh terrorists in Punjab (1980s), Muslim terrorists in Maharashtra (2008) and got killed in the post Babri Masjid riots in Mumbai (1993). They have put the past behind them. Sikhs were massacred by Hindus, the Police and the Army (1984) but they have put that behind them. Christians have been sporadically killed in Odisha but they have not given up on the idea of India. Muslims have been massacred in Uttar Pradesh (1980s and 2013), Mumbai (1993) and Gujarat (2002). They, similarly, need to put this behind them.

Clearly the Hindu-Muslim religious tension is enhanced by the memories, albeit fading now, of the horrors of partition (1947). The continuing, intentional, overt support by Pakistan to Muslim fundamentalism in India does not help. Nor does the international, institutionalization of Islam in politics, evidenced by the rise of Islamist parties in the newly democratic countries of North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Democratization inevitably throws up what people actually believe in. If citizens are deeply religious, democracy is unlikely to lead to religious neutrality. In India we know that religion is entwined into culture and life and cannot be separated from State action, in the manner it is done in the West.

But we also know that 15% (or more) of our population is of Muslims who are poorly led since the traditional elite migrated long ago to Pakistan and other countries. Indian Muslims are defensive, as only a minority can be and are gradually being pushed into a tight corner by all parties, to become the obscurantist, backward looking political pawns they are made out to be today. A case of life imitating fiction.

Modi is against appeasement of anyone just for votes and who can argue against that stand in distinguishing him from the others. However, he needs a Bill Clinton moment when he comes out openly and pulls the average Muslim into the warm embrace of the national mainstream.

He can do this by rising above Advani’s brand of fundamentalist Hinduism. He can also do this by consciously playing to the development needs of the minorities and the marginalized: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhist, Jains, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.  

Here are three suggestions:

First, be the caring elder you claimed to be in Patna. For the marginalized, the biggest concern is security of life and property. Set up an all India 24×7 call-in number and website which would counsel them if the local police are not taking sufficient or appropriate interest in their case and monitor the most outrageous cases of neglect. Law and order is a State subject, but it is within the Central governments powers to monitor and ensure that basic human rights are implemented by state governments.

Second, be even handed. Extend the scheme of reservations (positive discrimination) to the marginalized, who are currently excluded (Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) but with an additional poverty criterion. With a downsizing government and growing private sector this is a sop but it does establish equity as the corner stone of state action.

Third, make democracy truly representative and kill identity politics by killing the potential for fracturing the vote. This is the most important reform. Change the existing electoral system under which MPs and MLAs get elected just by polling the largest number of votes, which is sometimes not more than 20 to 25% of the polled vote. Introduce a system of runoffs so that the elected candidate represents at least more than 50% of the polled vote, including the NOTA votes. This will ensure that the voice of minorities is not ignored.

Skull caps and Astrakhans are just a symbol. Donning one will not put off Modi’s supporters. The Gujarati voters cherish him, not for the Gods he worships, but for the development he delivers. 

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Comments on: "A Foreigner in Delhi" (2)

  1. I can’t wait to read more of your writing. I was living with professor husband and his architecture students in Ahmedabad for 4 months at the beginning of this year. I have very strong pro-feelings about Mr. Modi and his miracle in Gurjurat especially after traveling through incredible India for a month. I thought you might like to read my post. There are several others on Mr. Modi as well. I posted all the replies, negative and positive. Namaste. . . http://talesalongtheway.com/2013/08/30/mr-modi/

  2. What a thoughtful, elegantly written piece. Namaste. . . .

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