New India – Like Gujarat, minus the sugar


Is Covid-19 an inflection-point in Indian history? And if so, what direction does it presage? Why should this “cough-cough” moment be considered significant? Three reasons appear plausible.

Political consolidation

First, the Modi government is settling into a comfortable additional medium term – ten year – political run all the way to 2029. Enough secondary support from state governments where the BJP rules singly or in alliance gives it enormous constitutional and political clout unparalleled in the past six decades. This ability to make constitutional changes is enough firepower to redraw fuzzy constitutional lines and map India differently.

The shrinking pool of dissent

Such remolding may be distasteful to a small segment of the established elite, which hold traditional liberal ideals dear – think undiluted versions of freedom and equality. But most Indians have not demonstrated similar ideological commitments, possibly because they have not benefited as much from our liberal constitutional framework.

Many would be quite willing to trade in these abstract values for food in the thali every night or decent jobs. Passive acceptance of a move back towards a big and intrusive State, sets the stage for constitutional changes bringing in a framework more closely aligned with the realities of India rather than the high sounding but skin deep and artificial nature of our guiding principles.

The Indian elite itself has changed since 1947 partly because of the rapid expansion of merit-based opportunities. Elite Indians now take pride in flaunting adherence to traditional rituals and cultural practices. Faith in religion has deepened.

Global and traditional Hindu beliefs converge

Of course, the globe itself has changed. One no longer needs to be proficient in languages – our handsets translate on the fly – and the number of diners at the high table who cannot use the right cutlery has increased. Power now flows out of the barrel of a gun (US, Russia and China), down the wire (US, China) or through a pipe (US, Saudi Arabia and Russia) and no one cares whether or not you slurp your soup. A big, growing market counts for a reserved place. And we are the biggest you can find.

Order and discipline being ingrained as default instincts

Second, Covid-19 marks a turning point for India. The free-wheeling chaos which stood for order has been tamed. Indians, it appears are as amenable to discipline and order in their homeland as they are overseas, if the State shows credible enforcement powers.
The five-month lock-down of Kashmir last year and the two-month lock-down now, of the entire country, with its severest version practiced in the larger urban areas (population 500 million) without any perceptible opposition, illustrates that people are willing to trade in “freedoms” for tangible benefits.

Big State a default norm

Third, the lockdowns have shown how governance must be transformed for government to be effective. The global cynicism about the heavy hand of the State -predominant in the intellectual discourse since the 1980s- gained urgency after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. It now seems to have run its course. National governments need to be the key players to wrest global advantage in a world which is shutting down on free trade and investment, migration and managing the global commons.

The Triad for Change

Combining these three drivers for change – raw political power at national and state level; our recent experience where “strong” government action resulted in decent results (low disease spread and low deaths) and dissolution of the global consensus on markets, not governments being the arbiters of progress- makes a heady cocktail for reassertion of State power.

For India it is less dramatic. If truth be told, the government never really went away. One-third of the value-added is by the aggregate public sector.

New India – social attributes

So, how might New India be different? The State would adhere more closely to the hitherto neglected segments of the constitution – “protection of the cow” would evolve into an aspirational goal of vegetarianism. This is anyway a global trend particularly amongst uber environmentalists. Prohibition of alcohol is also a near certainty with most women supporting it.

Hindi gaining currency

On language, Hindi is resurgent. An Hon’ble representative from Mizoram, who does not know Hindi, sat through an entire high-level meeting recently in New Delhi, without understanding anything.

Hinduism key Indian religion

On religion, Hinduism remains the majority religion by a long shot. Minority religions shall continue to have the right of practice. But, unlike earlier, they will no longer be viewed through a magnifying political lens because Hinduism, with enhanced political glue, will be politically unassailable. India will remain a cultural kaleidoscope but with Hindu culture and practices as the predominant theme, much like Europe or the United States, retain a Christian ethic.

Non Hindu composite culture in boutique destinations

Kerala xmas

Expect people to vote with their feet and settle in contiguous zones of cultural and religious comfort. Call it ghettoization or culturally affiliated migration. The bottom line is live where you feel at ease, not necessarily where you were born. This is tough for embedded elites. But one fourth of India does this already for work.

If u are small u are dead

The days of subsidized, small business are numbered as are the days for subsidized, small independent farmers. Consolidation, scale and corporatization will leaven efficiency and higher productivity into the production of goods and services.

Public budgets for social-net funding & limited infra finance

This transformation will change government budget allocations significantly towards social protection for workers – unemployment subsidies, pensions, health and education benefits. Improved contracting and project management practices will facilitate enhanced provisioning by the private sector in infrastructure, health and education.

Big business lines up to deliver visible public benefits – East Asian style

Big Business

Big business has never been far from the core of political power since the days of the freedom movement. The difference now is that it must explicitly demonstrate public benefits in return for State favors – much like South Korea or China.

As an illustration of the new version of State-led capitalism, consider Jio’s successful bid at disruptive innovation of the telecom market. It captured a 35% market share in just three years even as retail consumers benefited from low prices at the cost of the public exchequer – lower future revenues from a reduced appetite for spectrum purchase and reduced private gains for its competitors – Airtel and Vodafone Idea.

The ongoing sharp elbowed Jio-Facebook bid for disrupting e-commerce will similarly not be sans public benefits. Possibly, the primary beneficiaries could be the presently disgruntled, intermediate suppliers, many of whom also double up as shop keepers (kirana stores). They could get sweet deals, forcing competitors Amazon and Walmart to also cut their own supply chain some slack.

A model of New India already exists in Gujarat, albeit minus its addiction to sugar. Self-confidant, prosperous, urban-oriented and globally networked in a defensive, culturally preservative way. Non-Hindu, composite models exist in Kerala, Goa or Panjab although admittedly on the fringe. Mainstream variants in Odisha, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu will likely develop as the template deepens.

Also available at TOI Blogs May 5, 2020

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