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Dear Mr Modi: Doing good doesn't always require doing

Kiran Batni http://kiranbatni

Updated: August 16, 2014, 1:38 PM IST
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Those carefully chosen words yesterday, repetitive at times but emotional and patriotic to a fault, did not come from a faker. Narendra Modi really wants to do good to India. If there's one Prime Minister who takes his job seriously and has the ability to convince listeners of his ability to deliver, it's him. But what India needs, in its current position on the march to becoming a real democracy, is not Prime Ministers who can deliver but a dream-team of statesmen who can rewrite the Constitution clarifying what is none of the Prime Minister's or central government's business to talk about or deliver.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of Independence Day is that it convinces almost everyone that independence has been achieved: when a billion and a quarter celebrate an event, it must have occurred. However, what we've really achieved is not independence as in Gandhi's Swaraj, which is what it was supposed to have been, and which is what many think it is when the Mahatma's name is thrown in a speech or his portrait garlanded in a school. What we've achieved is independence as in no direct British control of the British system of politics and economics established in India. In a country as diverse as India, 'alien government', as Rabindranath Tagore said, is 'a veritable chameleon. Today it comes in the guise of the Englishman; to-morrow perhaps as some other foreigner; the next day, without abating a jot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen'. The next day has arrived long ago.

Modi took the idea of celebrating the status quo to its height by declaring that 'a national festival is an occasion to refine and rebuild the national character'. But there isn't any such character. It's a term that joins its empty cousins such as 'the national language', 'the national bird' and 'the national sport' in a nation of languages, birds and sports, becoming valid simply because it is uttered in New Delhi by men quoting ancient texts such as the Rigveda.

Modi should have rehearsed sangacchadhvam samvadadhvam at least to the point of pronouncing it correctly, but that is the least of the problems with his choice of mantra. The need of the hour isn't asking 125 crore Indians to march ahead, like hell become an army, or to speak or think alike, but asking the political establishment to respect India's diversity. He would have done that if he had quoted, instead, the invocation verse of the Ishopanishad: purnamadah purnamidam - that is complete, this is complete; everything is complete or purna. If Modi had been introduced to this mantra, and not told 'of only one mantra during the Vedic period', perhaps, he wouldn't have ditched his mother tongue, Gujarati, in favor of what still gets blatantly called the national language: Hindi. Getting rid of the bullet-proof glass shield was a good gesture, but getting rid of the idea that Hindi's importance is more than one's mother tongue's would have been better: it's a glass ceiling more than a billion Indians are suffering under. Hindi isn't more purna than Gujarati or the dozens of other major Indian languages. Modi let go of a golden opportunity to tell the establishment that a national festival is an occasion to refine and rebuild the nation's character - not the national character. It's high time the establishment respected India's linguistic diversity instead of considering it as an unnecessary evil, a threat to India's unity and integrity. It's high time we started tailoring the system to suit the people and not vice versa. In fact, even sangacchadhvam samvadaddhvam could have been interpreted as 'let us go well, speak well' - but that requires Modi to have had a different alma mater, it appears.

The status quo celebrated by nationalists of all hues, including the RSS, isn't just diversity intolerant; it also requires brute force to be invoked from New Delhi to give the illusion of progress of any sort. Since it isn't the people who are required 'go well' or 'speak well', since they would only take the nation in too many directions speaking too many things, New Delhi has to constantly cook up monster after technological monster to give the impression that it's doing something good to the people.

Take, for example, Modi's trying to posit digital technology as the next railways - Lord Dalhousie's biggest boast. Did he forget that the railways were essentially a British innovation put in place to suck the lifeblood of Indians spread far and wide and transport it to London? It sounds all so nice to the present elite of India that our Prime Minister is so tech savvy as to want to use broadband internet to 'give long distance education to the schools in every remote corner'. But why should education be given by teachers sitting at a distance? Why should the central government have any say in the matter? Why bring the brute technological force of an illusory wave that can travel even in vacuum, when tangible teachers can be right there in each village, right next to the students and teaching what is to be learnt locally, in the mother tongue?

Or consider Modi's assertion that every well-off Indian, 'after a full day's work', should introspect 'whether his or her actions have resulted in safeguarding the interest of the country or not, whether the actions have been directed in country's welfare or not'. The more important question to ask is this: why did this well-off Indian, during the full day's work, deviate from that which is in the interest of those around him, the poor, in the first place? That is not what Modi asks, but essentially says, instead: 'okay, go ahead and deviate and leave it to the establishment in New Delhi to rectify'. Is this the India we want to see? It is certainly not what Mahatma Gandhi wanted to see, for he went on record to say: 'I am so constructed that I can only serve my immediate neighbors, but in my conceit I pretend to have discovered that I must with my body serve every individual in the Universe'. Well, it makes not much of a difference if you replace universe with country: India is host to a sixth of the known human population of the Universe.

What Modi is taught to be his service by his alma mater in this context, therefore, is really disservice. The only thing good about it is that it suits the status quo; it suits the idea of trying to tailor the people to fit the system. Instead of conforming to the idea that supermen ought to come to power in New Delhi to set in motion lifeless technological monsters, it would have been better of the Prime Minister to let people lead the lives they want and serve the people immediately around them. The central government doesn't have a role to play in everything. In a democracy, it must often gain respect by refraining from action; in a diverse nation, invariably when it comes to all matters internal.

But Modi is not the one to refrain from action. He sees the lack of it as the problem with the previous government and wants to go to the other extreme: hyperaction. Consider, for example, his idea that bank accounts for the poorest of the poor are a form of help, and Debit Cards a form of empowerment. The first and foremost problem with this is that Modi thinks that action by the central government can help here without any knowledge whatsoever of ground reality - something which the state governments can come close to estimating. What else can be debited from the poorest of the poor who have lost everything to New Delhi, Mr. Modi? Here we have a farmer out to commit suicide, and you want to give him an insurance of Rs. 1 lakh. So that he can die in peace, relieved that New Delhi has been able to husband and father better than himself? Is this the India we want to create? Supermen and their political parties might think they can sustain their power only by promising hyperaction and delivering on it, but in reality, it isn't action by the distant which helps; it's inaction, it's letting go, it's discontinuing the status quo which requires monstrous technological, financial and political innovations that create the poverty in the first place. Stop doing, Mr. Modi, and a lot will improve. It's your doing which harms the poorest of the poor, not your keeping quiet. If only members of parliament didn't orphan villagers by taking all power away from them by promising heaven, there would be no reason for them to now adopt villages and continue to spread the illusion that the Provider sits in New Delhi. And no, restructuring the planning commission and renaming it won't help, because that only changes the temple in which they're asked to prostrate before the same Provider.

Another thing Modi wants to do is develop a skilled workforce. This again, is none of the central government's business, and there are serious consequences if considered so. Where will he develop this workforce? Where there's a greater concentration of these youngsters in the first place, i.e., mostly in the BIMARU states in which their population is also growing at faster rate than, say, in the South. Already, South India is being inundated with workers from the North. The South's problem is not that it cannot find a good driver or plumber, but that its driving and plumbing jobs are being taken away by Northerners. Now imagine Modi's army of skilled workers from the North marching southwards - the picture is too gory to describe. Yes, the driving and plumbing could get done faster and better, but on the graves of Southerners. Of what use are quick transport and working taps then? Is this really what Mr. Modi wants to do? I don't think so, but this is what will ultimately happen, given the fact that the states have no control on migration. This has to change. But this isn't what someone out to build a Statue of Unity has time to worry about. One Indian is no different from another for Modi's school of thought; what matters is that the driving and the plumbing gets done - with 'zero defect and zero effect'. Who cares about the effect on those who aren't performing? Weed them out and bring the performers in, because everyone is the same anyway - one people, one nation.

Or take the seemingly innocuous idea that the central government ought to encourage exports and discourage imports. There seems to be nothing wrong with it. Except, of course, that if Karnataka buys everything from states like Gujarat, it is only not termed import; in reality it is. All the skill development and manufacturing that Modi wants to bring to India has to be rooted somewhere - inevitably where he can deliver most. And that is the problem. Southern states such as Karnataka, which are suffering due to what Harish Damodaran calls as a 'Vaishya vacuum', and the states of the East, will only suffer further from such moves. The idea of India which Modi represents hasn't ever cared to double-click on this thing called India: there's diversity inside, and any action neglecting is sure to destroy it and with it, close to a billion lives - all amidst what Modi calls development.

Finally, Modi might mention 'casteism, communalism, regionalism, discrimination on social and economic basis' in one quick breath, but that doesn't make them all of one kind. What Modi calls regionalism is, indeed, nothing but the democratic aspirations of the several nations of India. In fact, what he understands as nationalism is the one Indians must learn to recognize as true regionalism: it is putting the upper-caste Hindi-speaking population before everyone else - just what the status quo of The Pyramid of Corruption requires. And no, neither this problem nor that of casteism, communalism, or any sort of discrimination will go away with all the focus on development that Modi calls for: development will be shaped by them all, and the only way Mr. Modi can stop it from happening is to drop the idea that doing good always requires doing by the central government. Every problem he's worried about, and which is also a real one, can be solved in a better way by the states.

First Published: August 16, 2014, 1:38 PM IST