October 20, 2015

Educated Indians' support for Modi is a sad let down (Prabhat Patnaik)

The Telegraph - 20 October 2015

A glaring failure
- Educated Indians' support for Modi is a sad let down
Prabhat Patnaik

Opinion polls from Bihar only confirm what one already suspected for the country as a whole, namely that while the peasantry is not much enamoured of Narendra Modi, the urban middle class is. Since the weight of the educated segment is greater among the latter, it would appear that Modi has considerable appeal even among the educated, a fact that is also confirmed by the kind of reception he gets from professionals of Indian origin in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere who are basically urban-educated émigrés.

This appears intriguing at first sight. The educated segment in any society is supposed to defend, more than any other section, the foundational principles of that society -principles around which the constitutional order of that society is built. In the current Indian context, this segment would have been expected to be the one most concerned with the preservation of democracy, secularism, fundamental rights and the autonomy and sanctity of academic institutions. No matter what his precise culpability in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, Modi had undeniably presided over it and has never expressed any remorse for his lapses. Given this fact, one would have expected the urban-educated elite to be the group most sceptical about him. No doubt a considerable section of it is; but not, apparently, the bulk of it.

Indeed, even without going back to 2002, the recent spate of attacks on the secular fabric of modern India, including the horrendous lynching in Dadri of a member of the minority community for allegedly eating beef - an incident over which Modi, for a long time maintained a deafening silence that was entirely unbecoming of a constitutionally-appointed prime minister of the country - should have made the educated sections stand as one in holding him to account. Such, alas, has not been the case.

People may differ in their politics and I have no problem with those among the educated elite who may choose to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party. What concerns me is that their enthusiasm for Modi does not appear to be tempered by any disquiet over the threat to our secular order that is building up under his dispensation, a threat towards which his attitude, even by the most charitable interpretation, has been one of benign neglect.

Those who currently hold Modi in adulation may soon change their attitude as the hollowness of his promise of "development" becomes increasingly evident, which inevitably would. But such a change would then have occurred for an altogether different reason from the one I am discussing. The abdication by the educated elite of its role as keepers of our constitutional conscience would not have been negated by it.

On the occasion of Modi's America visit, over a hundred distinguished academics located there, both of Indian origin and others, had sent a letter to the leaders of Silicon Valley companies, voicing their disquiet over recent developments in India under Modi's leadership, and requesting them not to support his Digital India initiative. The Silicon Valley executives, however, who played host to him, did not respond to this letter in any manner, not even to the minimal extent of saying that this was a matter they preferred not to get directly involved in. This, at least, would have shown that they were worried about the attacks on secularism. Instead, they ignored it altogether. The unmistakable impression one got is that the attack on secularism was, for them, not a matter of concern at all. Like the members of the educated elite located in India, the Silicon Valley professionals too expressed no anxiety over the treatment of the minorities, and the threat to democratic rights in Modi's India.

This brings me to the crucial question: how can one explain this enthusiasm for Modi among significant sections of the educated elite? One answer that is often advanced is that the preceding corruption-ridden Manmohan Singh regime had become so repugnant that there was hardly any alternative to Modi, and that even members of the educated elite were forced to hold their noses and vote for Modi despite his dubious record on secularism. This answer, however, simply would not do, for we find very little evidence of noses being held. What a large chunk of the educated elite feels towards Modi is not mere sceptical tolerance but unabashed enthusiasm, which also means that contrary to what one normally expects, the support of much of the educated elite for secularism and universal democratic rights is less than lukewarm.

This to my mind has to do inter alia with our educational system: its structure, orientation, and the nature of student intake. The obvious structural problem in our education system relates to the poor quality of the humanities and the social science disciplines. These disciplines are neglected, starved of funds and treated as inferior. All over the world, it is the social science disciplines, rather than the natural sciences, that have propagated a progressive social outlook and have stood for democracy, human rights and secularism. There have undoubtedly been individual scientists - from Albert Einstein to J.D. Bernal - who have plunged themselves actively into the struggle for a humane society. But scientists as a rule have tended to keep aloof from such struggles.

Not surprisingly, dictatorial regimes throughout the world have always actively discouraged social sciences in their respective countries. The disproportionate emphasis on science and engineering disciplines in contemporary India has thus tended to keep the elite produced by the education system relatively unconcerned about issues of secularism and democracy. It has kept large sections of this elite trapped within their inherited caste and communal prejudices.

The problem with the orientation of our education system consists in our apotheosizing the role of education in producing merely skilled personnel as commodities to be sold to the highest bidder in the market rather than socially-sensitive individuals not exclusively absorbed by their own material self-interest. This is something that I have already discussed in an earlier article ("Learning and intensity", Sept 4), and shall not repeat here.

The issue to my mind is simply the following. It is not the case that only social scientists should be concerned with society and not scientists and engineers. "Nation-building", to use that clumsy term, is a matter that concerns everybody and not just those engaged in the humanities and social sciences. Everyone, therefore, and not just those studying the humanities and social sciences, must be exposed to, and must engage with, the basic constitutional premises underlying the modern Indian nation. This, precisely, is not what is being done.

Finally, in the matter of student intake, the representation of Muslims, Dalits and other oppressed castes and the economically poor remains woefully inadequate. Some years ago, notwithstanding the fact that almost a quarter of the population of West Bengal consisted of Muslims, the proportion of Muslim names in the list of successful Class XII students hardly exceeded two per cent. I doubt if the situation has changed much. The same is true of Dalits and other oppressed castes. What is true of West Bengal is even more resoundingly true of the other states.

In other words, the composition of the educated elite has been heavily biased in favour of those coming from the upper castes, the upper and upper-middle income groups, and from the majority religious community. The prejudices these class members imbibe from childhood are not broken in the course of their passage through the education system of the country, which explains why their commitment to the founding constitutional principles of the modern Indian nation remains less than lukewarm.

This is an extremely untenable situation. Antonio Gramsci had emphasized that a new social order required its own group of "organic intellectuals" for its sustenance. The purpose of the education system in post-Independence India should have been the creation of a group of "organic intellectuals" of the post-colonial order who would have remained committed to the basic agenda of the anti-colonial struggle that was enshrined, in however refracted a form, in the Constitution. A glaring failure of post-Independence India has been that it has not created such a group of "organic intellectuals"; and this poses a serious threat to the sustenance of a democratic and secular polity.

Shortly after Modi came to power, an American professor of philosophy had remarked that his success was, above all, an indictment of the Indian education system. She was right. And the persisting enthusiasm for Modi among large sections of the educated elite, that too after a year marked by serious attacks on the secular foundations of India's polity, constitutes an even more damning indictment of the Indian education system.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi