India after 2014: Review of Parakala Prabhakar's 'The Crooked Timber of the New India'

Parakala Prabhakar’s collection of essays on the state of democracy in India today is useful but it glosses over some key pointers  

This is a collection of articles on ‘New India’, by which the author means to capture political developments in the country since 2014. In The Crooked Timber of New India: Essays on a Republic in CrisisParakala Prabhakar, a Hyderabad-based commentator, engages with a diverse set of topics, ranging from the rise to power of the BJP to the now-withdrawn farm laws. However, there is a thread that persists, and that is the pernicious effect on India of the dispensation that governs the country presently.   

Parakala begins with the arrival in Delhi of Narendra Modi in May 2014, with a promise to undertake inclusive development and end corruption, significantly through consensus and not majoritarianism. There is an interesting analysis of the Independence Day speeches made by the Prime Minister over the years, with the author wanting to show that the early promises can only be seen as flattering to deceive. The speeches turn sectarian, even if not menacing, as Modi’s tenure proceeds. This is also reflected in the legislation, with the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act enacted early in the second term. By then, the regime had begun to bare its fangs, reflected in a clampdown on the freedom of the press and the use of central investigative agencies, notably the CBI and the ED, to muzzle the opposition. Throw in the suppression of free speech in universities, particularly in Delhi, and you have all the accoutrements of a repressive state. The author sees himself as speaking truth to power, and in this he succeeds. But in suggesting that what we see in the new India is a far cry from what was promised in 1947, when India was intended to be a secular and democratic polity with wide-ranging civil liberties, he is also trying to awaken the electorate, presumably in time for the 2024 elections. 

Politics of Hindutva 

It is possible to agree wholeheartedly with Parakala’s description of the state of democracy in India today and the danger it portends, as I do, without taking on board his understanding of how we got to this benighted state. For the author, this reflects the population’s conversion to Hindutva. As the BJP is committed to the politics of Hindutva, such a conclusion may appear inescapable, but it is not. First, the BJP has never received even 40% of votes in the Lok Sabha elections, and has a clear majority in only a few States. This does not exactly reflect a population’s endorsement of its ideology. An electorate also votes on the basis of performance and their assessment of the potential of the parties in the electoral field. If ideology alone mattered, we would not have seen the fluctuating fortunes of Indira Gandhi, who signalled a clear ideological commitment.  

The BJP’s rise began with the disaffection caused by Rajiv Gandhi’s cynical check-mating of the Supreme Court ruling which had affirmed the right to alimony of a divorced Muslim woman. Thirty years later, Modi was, almost single-handedly during the electioneering, to take advantage of the perception of corruption in high places and a weak Prime Minister during UPA II. The rest is history. Parakala credits the RSS with too much in the entrenchment of the BJP.  

There is no mention in his account of the dynastic character of the Congress, the principal opposition party at the national level. India is a young country, and there is an unwillingness among its youth to go by the record of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and give a carte blanche to their progeny, who are seen as exerting an unearned authority over the Congress. A certain philosophy of history accords overriding importance to social forces. There is no role in this for individuals and random events. The author gives the impression on relying on such a view. There is no reason to believe that Modi cannot be matched by an opposition leader of equivalent shrewdness, determination and aggression.  

Money power 

There is, however, one factor that gives him the edge. Central parliamentary elections require vast financial resources. Going by the anonymous contributions in the form of electoral bonds, as demonstrated in this book, the BJP gets the most. But here too a united opposition can circumvent the need for any one of them to have matching financial heft.  

Authors are free to choose what they wish to bring to the table but they must engage with all the related aspects. There are four elements of India after 2014 which do not figure in Parakala’s account. The first is the “new welfarism”, a term coined by Arvind Subramanian to refer to the distribution by the central government of private goods, with an eye on electoral gain. The second is the fanning by all political parties of a divisive caste-based identity politics, seen most recently during the Karnataka polls. The third is the lowering of environmental standards in a bid to achieve growth at any cost. Finally, there is the extraordinary empathy shown by the justices of the Supreme Court towards India’s sexual minorities in the face of the unrelenting hostility of the state and the pusillanimous silence of the political class.