When new India rubs up against ancient fault lines


And when electoral politics slips from remedy to disease

 Individual liberty, as an idea, is a toddler in the history of human thought. No surprise, then, if it periodically trips over and breaks a milk tooth. Civilization, ever a moveable feast, emerged out the belief that social order must take precedence, to protect and enhance the common good. Order searched for command; this quest evolved into institutions like chief, king or, in the worst scenario, despot.

Communities which valued individual freedom, both in mind and body, were pushed into margins. Lacking organization, they could not compete militarily or economically with the power of settled civic formations. Curiously, they still invited subliminal envy, sometimes expressed, positively, in romantic notions of ‘purity’. The alternative impulse was lust and exploitation, which has been the fate of Indian tribal societies.

Monarchy enjoyed a pretty long run, which was testimony to its merits. But as it drifted towards excess and self-destruction, often through the loophole of a pseudo-divine halo, the citizen was impelled towards a new polity. The answer, achieved in steps, was an all-purpose Constitution, hinged on democracy, the collective expression of individual will. Democracy believed that freedom could co-exist with order, and together ensure the prosperity of a modern nation state.

The Indian freedom movement, which reversed the tide of European colonization, split between the idealism of a composite, secular democracy and a fault line engineered by older forms of mobilization. The British sustained their rule by opening wounds inflicted by ancient disputations of faith and caste. A vital lesson from this experience was lost in the triumphalism of 1947: idealism, however courageous, is vulnerable to weak or manipulative governance in a land where the past is too much with us. In theory, shared prosperity, of which western Uttar Pradesh is an example, should be a powerful antidote to faith-based violence.

But India is pockmarked with graveyards of theory, stacked with corpses of the plague that descends when electoral politics slips from remedy to disease.

Those cemeteries could be also used to bury government alibis. Since they can never blame themselves, governments trot out the usual suspects to screen acts. A simple query fragments this curtain: if the suspects are usual, then it should be easier to round them up before a catastrophe. But if this is another alibi, then logic suggests the suspects are unusual. It is the enemy within who is the culprit, not the accused outside the fold.

Why did Akhilesh Yadav permit the Muslim panchayat and the subsequent Jat panchayat to stoke sentiment into a rage, and then slip on a mask of phony martyrdom when the flames went out of control?

There is a reason. Akhilesh and Mulayam Singh Yadav, and politicians of this ilk, cannot operate outside the tight arithmetic of communities, and their core base of Yadavs and Muslims. Ethnicity permits them to deal with Yadavs directly. They complemented this by appointing a Viceroy for Muslim affairs, Azam Khan, who then awarded himself plenipotentiary powers. The police cannot move in Uttar Pradesh, when it comes to Muslims, without the Viceroy’s imperial nod.

This politics of polarization, which peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, has become a blindfold for parties controlled by former Lohia socialists in UP and Bihar. They cannot see a new butterfly emerging from the chrysalis of changing India.

Change is never sudden nor complete. It appears in sporadic bursts, until it becomes substantive enough to determine the direction of social and political success. You can always see changing attitudes and mores in that great barometer called popular cinema. Even that big bogey of identity theft, that faith must be protected from dilution by external exhibition, is losing traction.

In political space, there is sufficient evidence that the young do not want to repeat the failures of parents, or the follies of grandparents. Faith and caste still have their adherents, but the polarisation which swings results is increasingly between order and disorder, decision and stagnation, governance and chaos, rather than Hindu and Muslim, or upper and lower castes. The young know that government’s lapse leads to economic collapse, and they do not want life to crumble before it has begun.

Mulayam and Akhilesh Yadav formed the perfect partnership 18 months ago in the UP elections. Daddy mined traditional seams; the son suggested recognition of new horizons. But Akhilesh Yadav never understood why he was in office. He lost his young constituency much faster than he had found it. He may not have lost the confidence of the legislature, but he has lost the trust of his people.

If there is sudden nostalgia for Mayawati in Lucknow, it is only because she delivered order. The UP had the same demographics when she was chief minister. It had the same potential for caste and communal volatility. It had the same administration. What it did not have was the same chief minister.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist.