The material and moral progress made possible by the Enlightenment is evident across a wide range of metrics, from human rights to life expectancy. But today’s political leaders seem inadequate to the task of managing the Enlightenment’s more troubling legacies.
If power were a prescription drug, it would come with a long list of known side effects. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can even make Henry Kissinger believe that he’s sexually magnetic. But can it cause brain damage?
Politics is inescapably emotional. Political ideas – such as freedom or equality – are often talked about as if they’re dry concepts, sandpapered down in a seminar room or a theoretical conversation. But political ideas involve feeling.
In the long history of misinformation, the current outbreak of fake news has already secured a special place, with the president’s personal adviser, Kellyanne Conway, going so far as to invent a Kentucky massacre in order to defend a ban on travelers from seven Muslim countries. But the concoction of alternative facts is hardly rare, and the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients.
Think tanks are odd institutions. Experts solemnly line up, often to defend a specific political or economic cause, and whether they represent the Heritage Foundation or the Brookings Institution, and no matter how fine the expert, his or her findings will, most likely, be in line with the ideological leanings of the institution.
In theory, statistics should help settle arguments. They ought to provide stable reference points that everyone – no matter what their politics – can agree on. Yet in recent years, divergent levels of trust in statistics has become one of the key schisms that have opened up in western liberal democracies.
By Rahul Sharma
Djibouti is not a usual tourist destination.
It is a small country on the Horn of Africa with a population of less than a million. Surrounded by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, it lies next to Africa’s badlands. The biggest advantage it has is its access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, which makes it a busy refuelling and transshipment centre.
The surroundings were at odds with a man who preached peace and non-violence, but there he was as he is in several countries—bald, round spectacles sitting on his nose, looking at a world where his teachings are still relevant and another that has left him behind.
Indeed, the Mahatma is omnipresent in afterlife. He is the most famous brand India has produced. The boost to the country’s soft power through his statues and busts that dot public spaces across continents is not only huge, but also enduring. He has now lived in the hearts and mind of billions for nearly 80 years since his assassination. And by the looks of it, he isn’t fading away soon.
His martyrdom eventually put him on history’s high pedestal and made him acceptable globally as an apostle of peace, ensuring his brand of politics remained relevant. In India, politicians, convulsing against his political thought, consigned him to school text books—bringing him alive on his death and birth anniversaries for formal ceremonies that involved the twice annual ritual of cleaning bird droppings from his statues and naming public schemes after him.
A different path
Frank Moraes, the editor of The Times of India, recounted a conversation with HSL Polak—one of Gandhi’s close associates in South Africa—in an article he wrote for the Foreign Affairs journal to mark the Mahatma’s 10th death anniversary in 1958. He asked Polak how much of Gandhi’s teaching he thought survived in India. “Ostensibly a great deal… In reality, very little,” said Polak.
That probably was a good reason why Richard Attenborough’s film on the man many Britons hated won the Oscar for best film. That probably was also the reason for the U.S. Congress to pass a special legislation allowing the Mahatma’s statute in Washington to be installed on government land.
Indeed, the metallic Mahatma is much in demand. Under a well-structured programme run jointly by India’s overseas missions, which work out the modalities of the placement of statues and busts, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) that pays the sculptors who make the statutes, replicas of the bespectacled apostle of peace are regularly shipped to the world.
Here, at home, he still has an occasional use. The stamp of moral authority that he has left on this nation means the Mahatma—though a Congress man—can be greedily adopted by other political parties when required. Modi’s effort to make him the face of his “Clean India” campaign is just another example of Gandhi’s use for political convenience.
By Rahul Sharma
There is a very good reason why Narendra Modi speaks to India’s young and exhorts them to vote the current Congress-led government out. He understands the simmering discontent among the country’s massive young population that is out looking for jobs and not finding any unlike other politicians who still believe only in politics of dole, caste and religion.
The state of the young in India is dismal and the mood gray. A slowing economy and high cost of living have only added to their woes. Add to that the fact that business sentiment will continue to be poor for the next several months in the run up to the elections – and even after that if a sustainable government doesn’t come to power – and you see a horribly potent recipe for social unrest.
Modi knows that if the young – a brand new, vibrant constituency — start believing that he will get those jobs and the financial sustainability that would let them buy all the gadgets, goods, automobiles and apartments, they would come out in throngs and help him win next year’s general elections.
Given the state of India’s shrinking job market into which 12 million youth trundle in every year, Modi’s call resonates well not only in large urban centres, but also the smaller towns where aspirations and opportunities have made traditional roles redundant.
So how badly off is the situation?
If you believe a new Confederation of Indian Industries-Economic Times (CII-ET) survey of India’s young, it’s pretty nasty out there. Of its 1.2 billion people, 800 million are less than 35 years old – and they seem to be really upset with the way things are.
According to the survey, findings of which were published in The Economic Times, three out of four of them believe that the economy today is worse off than it was in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crises. More than half say it is the worst time to look for jobs and nearly 60 percent have postponed buying a house, a car or having children. Worse, nearly 40 percent of the people polled in 28 cities said they won’t mind taking a pay cut if that improves their chances of holding on to a job.
It can’t get worse for the Congress; and it can’t be better for Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is still looking for that one issue that could change its fate and bring it out of its decade-long political wilderness.
“This is the most disturbing micro impact of the macro slowdown,” the newspaper quoted Rajya Sabha MP and entrepreneur Rajeev Chandrashekkhar as saying. According to him, educated Indians looking for their first or second jobs are hurting the most.
Thousands of engineering, medicine and businesses schools in India produce millions of graduates each year. But they hit a hard wall when they get into the job market. The impact is two pronged. Fewer jobs also mean there aren’t many takers for the seats in the graduate and post-graduate schools, many of which are beginning to shut down.
“The following set of numbers shows the young have read the grim job market right. Andhra Pradesh has over 700 engineering colleges and 350,000 seats – the highest in any Indian state. But just 200,000 seats were filled up this year. Why? Because just 20% of the class of 2013 have got jobs. When young Indians give up the chance of getting an engineering degree, you know there’s something very wrong,” the Economic Times wrote.
The other, bigger, impact is on the consumer, automobile and real estate markets, which are now losing their sheen as poor demand pulls the economy down. No wonder, the government is being forced to ask state-owned banks to offer cheaper loans for consumer goods and two-wheelers to boost demand in an otherwise depressing economy.
These are problems only politicians can address. There is a need for a fresh thinking and new policies that could create more jobs, both in the manufacturing and services sector. There is a need to lift business sentiment so that investments on hold can be channeled into infrastructure and other industries that would create jobs. These are issues that can’t be solved overnight, but if you have a large chunk of your population that is either unemployed or underemployed, you have a huge problem on hand.
If you believe Modi, then he probably understands the issues better than other politicians. The Congress doesn’t seem to have a solution, nor can it explain its lethargy in fixing the situation in the 10 years that it has ruled India. The grand old party is not even talking about jobs – at least not yet. A disgruntled youth is not good for politicians and the country. The leader who can show a way to the youth stuck in between a rock and hard place is likely to win the next election.
It is up to politicians and the next government to take the right steps.
By Rahul Sharma
More than two years ago a taxi driver in Kerala told me that he would vote for Narendra Modi if he ever got an opportunity. A year later – and this was before Modi won the Gujarat state elections for the third time – a hotel doorman in Chennai said the same thing. And earlier this year a young engineer working with a technology company in Bangalore echoed similar sentiments.
In the two years since the Kerala cabbie voiced his support for Modi, the perception that the Gujarat chief minister (and yes, he continues to be in that role) is a strong administrator, decisive, incorruptible and a man who keeps his promises has only strengthened. In New Delhi, in Kolkata, in Lucknow, Bhopal, Jaipur and Mumbai, Modi looks down upon us from posters and billboards – half smiling, half mocking, challenging everybody – especially the Congress that seems to merely follow his political agenda.
Never has an Indian politician been “branded” as Modi has been. We have NaMo phones, we have NaMo tea stalls, there are already two biographies out in the book stores and a biopic is underway. We also have a NaMo kurta, and probably many other products to come as the election temperatures rise.
Pitched as Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) potential prime ministerial candidate after the 2014 elections, Modi is setting himself up against a much younger, yet non-branded, Rahul Gandhi – the scion of a political family that has either ruled or helped rule India for a very long time. A perception battle between the two – amplified by the media – is probably the most top-of-the-mind dinner table discussion these days and one that Modi seems to be winning, at least for now.
As Modi launches his political blitzkrieg, mowing miles with his first-mover advantage, it is amply clear that he is working to a sharply targeted multimedia strategy put together by a war room that is propping him as a leader who can change India. The early start bodes well as it will give Modi and his team enough time to convert the fence sitters and break away those charmed by the Congress.
The media is helping by headlining every word Modi utters and television panel discussions are only cementing his position as a man who matters. Slowly, but surely, Modi’s image of a steely leader is getting entrenched into the political and social frequency of an election that is still some months away.
On the other hand, Gandhi seems weak, indecisive, and battling his own party, as he tells people his mother was upset with his choice of words when he interrupted a party press conference to oppose a proposed ordinance allowing convicted parliamentarians to keep their seats that was cleared by the prime minister and his cabinet.
Set up against a wily politician and an orator who can transfix the crowds, Gandhi’s image of a reluctant inheritor only gets a fresh shine every time he speaks.
The battle is between a man who thinks on his feet and seemingly wants to lead this large and diverse country, and another who still doesn’t seem to have made up his mind about whether he wants the job. In the public relations battle, Modi has won the first set. He’s still got to win the match though.
The shift in perception since the days when the national media called Modi a “murderer” after the deadly 2002 religious riots in Gujarat has been slow but huge.
No longer is Modi the pariah he once was. No longer is he hated or reviled as he was. No longer is he a political embarrassment (to many) as he was. No longer is he in the headlines for the “wrong” reasons as he was. Feted by the industry, the youth seeking jobs and a middle class frustrated with the Congress government over poor governance, dynastic politics and inflation, Modi seems to have grabbed people’s imagination and emotions.
Gandhi is sincere, but he lacks the power to hold the crowds and veer them to see his point of view. That’s because while Modi is all over, Gandhi pops in and out with statements that only raise more questions. New Delhi’s political citizenry is widely convinced that the young man wants Congress to lose badly so that he could then clean up the grand old party’s corrupt, wobbly script.
I remember watching Modi make the crowds dance during his election rallies in his home state back in 2007. Thousands of people wearing the “Modi Mask” followed the slow wave of the man’s hand from left to right – hypnotized by the sheer power of his oratory and stage theatrics. It scared many a political pundit. Gandhi is no match. In fact, the entire Congress party is made of weak speakers who sound unconvincing even when they mean business.
But let’s remember that a few months is a long time in politics and a lot could happen between now and the elections due by May next year. Winning a public relations and a perception skirmish is only part of the larger battle that Modi has to fight to help the BJP return to power after a decade in the wilderness. Voters might love Modi, but they might still choose not to cast their ballot for his party.
Eventually, Modi will have to make people believe that he is not as divisive as many believe him to be if he wants the top job. That’s easier said than done. The posters and potshots are fine for now. The winner in the public relations battle between Modi and Gandhi will only be announced next year – the day the votes are counted. Until then, watch the political theatre and enjoy.