Friday, 9 May 2014

Liberal India's Fear Of The Unknown

Why is Narendra Modi's possible victory causing so much dread in so many Indians?

Is it just a mindless fear of the unknown, as some have suggested? Or is it the insight from Organisational Behaviour that culture is always more important than strategy?

The latter idea takes a bit of explaining. It is the observation that an organisation with a healthy culture will have the wherewithal to adapt to circumstances and try various strategies until it finds what works. A organisation with a brilliant vision and strategy but with a toxic culture will ultimately fail. It will lose customers, it will be punished by the stock market, and its executives may even go to jail.

This wisdom about culture trumping strategy every time is as true of countries as it is true of corporations. A country with a tolerant, pluralistic culture can leverage its diversity to its advantage. Its elected governments learn to be inclusive and fair, pursuing balanced growth over unequal development. In contrast, a society that pursues "purity" (by whatever ideological criterion) risks not only losing the advantages that diversity brings with it, but even weakening itself. Germany exemplifies the latter, where a popular vote in favour of strong leadership in 1933 resulted in utter devastation in just 12 short years. Historical analysts have written tomes about the various reasons for Germany's catastrophic fate, but ultimately, the reason can be stated in a nutshell. The cause was the German populace's willingness to cut corners on culture because they were impatient for a leader with a vision and strategy.

This is the real reason why many Indians fear the advent of Narendra Modi, his fervent followers, and all that they represent. This is not primarily about the 2002 riots, although one could view that as a symptom of what is to be feared.

It is the general mood of impatience, and the willingness to cut corners to achieve objectives. It is the elevation of strategy over culture.

India's culture of pluralism and tolerance did not come about with the adoption of a democratic constitution in 1950, or because of the moral leadership of Mahatma Gandhi in the couple of decades before that. Rather, the inherent culture of India from time immemorial has always been pluralistic and tolerant. In fact, this culture is what shaped the philosophy and strategy of leaders like Gandhi. It is this culture that made a progressive, secular, democratic constitution an easy fit for a country with such an ancient civilisation. But today, this very culture has come under threat from the grassroots up. There is a chill in the air, an increasing intolerance of dissent and criticism, with friends and clansmen turning against one another with rare hostility over political difference. Even during the Emergency of 1975-77, one could trust one's close friends and relatives when criticising Indira Gandhi's government. Today, hundreds of thousands of friendships have been strained (most visibly on social media) because of political difference. Many more people are choosing to maintain a discreet silence rather than voice unpopular opinions.

In this stifling atmosphere, one mollifying mantra is chanted to drown out all others - Development. Development will heal all the wounds that intolerance may inflict, so the theory goes. Elect a "strong" leader, suppress all contrary opinions, watch the country grow at a rapid pace, and finally everyone will benefit, majority and minority alike. It's an appealing argument. Unfortunately, that's also the classic fallacy of neglecting culture for strategy.

The toxic culture of intolerance for dissent that we are witnessing has been commented on by many writers, including Sagarika Ghose and Aatish Taseer. And ironically, the invective that is heaped on such people in the guise of rebuttal serves to underscore their arguments. India is sliding towards a more dictatorial culture, one personified by an emerging political leader but also one that is eagerly fanned by his willing followers.

Indira Gandhi had to pay goons to silence her opponents. Modi's goons (of both the white collar and the blue collar variety) do the job willingly, out of righteous conviction - the conviction that the ends (a strong economy) justify the means (a markedly less liberal society). Such stories do not end well in either fiction or in history, as JK Rowling and 1930s Germany can tell us.

And this is why liberals fear for India. 

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