The topic is Modi Government and Public policy; and at the outset, I must issue a disclaimer, I’m afraid, which is to the effect that my approach to the subject of today’s talk is not that of an expert. I sincerely apologise if this disappoints you. But I claim absolutely no expertise or experience in policymaking, or for that matter even in studying policies in a thoroughly analytical manner as is usually done by a student or a scholar of policy studies. Instead, my approach is that of a careful observer of political developments and the temporal but critical role that policymaking as well as policymakers (including politicians and bureaucrats) play in it, as dispensers of public leadership. Whither are the society, the country, and the civilisation shepherded by the decisions and actions of public leaders who operate within various fields (academic, sociocultural, political) of human activity? As a student of philosophy, with a special interest in studying the Indic civilisation, this is the question that interests me most; and, as such, I approach the subject of today’s talk primarily from a civilisational (if not a philosophical) standpoint that consists of the principles and values on which our ancient yet re-awakened civilisation is founded.
By the end of 2019, it was apparent that the Bhārat Sarkār, led by the Hon’ble Prime Minister Modi, is very clear on its stance vis-à-vis upholding the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Bhārat. This is an immensely welcome development judging by the past records of previous governments prior to 2014, which have often displayed indecision and weakness when faced with several difficult challenges on multiple fronts at the borders, or on occasions when various heinous acts of terrorism were committed inside our country. But the responses given by the NDA government during its two consecutive terms in 2014 and 2019, to similar such attempts at violating our country’s integrity and sovereignty, have been decisive and bold on most occasions. For example, one may recall Bhārat’s response to the Uri attacks back in 2016, or the gritty response to the escalating tension in Doklam in the subsequent year. In this connection, the decision taken by the Union Government with regard to the Article 370 and 35A in the second half of 2019 must also be mentioned.
One must note that the attempts at violating our country’s integrity and sovereignty, from both within and outside of our borders, are ceaselessly carried out by such forces as are inimical not only towards the territorial entity that is Bhārat, but even more importantly the target of their physical, socio-economical, and psychological assaults is the very idea of Bhārat. In other words, the enemies of Bhārat are up against what our beloved country really stands for, as the legitimate inheritor of a great Bhāratiya civilisation which occupies pride of place among the various nations and civilisations of the world, both ancient and extant. That special place is not accorded to Bhārat on account of the superiority of her military or economic prowess alone, which she doubtless commanded in the days of yore and is steadily regaining in our own times, but mainly on account of the special mission that her re-awakened civilisation has always carried in her bosom: it is a fire handed down the countless successive generations by her unbroken sacred traditions. That fire of Bhārat’s special mission in the world has been kept aflame by a transcendental knowledge, a knowledge which other civilisations and nations of the world have spoken of only vaguely; but it is the Bhāratiya civilisation which alone has articulated it in the most unambiguous terms in her Upanishads. This, and for this reason alone, Bhārat deserves to be called ‘Viśva-Guru’ or the ‘Teacher of the World’s Nations’. It is important to note that such knowledge as can enable humanity to transcend the earthly bondages, the bondages of physical and psychological limitations that all humanity yearns, in one way or the other, to break free from, has not been sought in Bhārat from some extra-terrestrial paradise floating in the unknown regions up above, but in the deepest core of our being and consciousness: a realm of transcendence in the seclusion of the Human Heart, which our sagacious ancestors have called the Atman.
Therefore, when in May last year the Hon’ble Prime Minister Modi spoke of ‘Ᾱtmanirbhar Bhārat’, our hearts leaped in joy, for it was for the first time in decades that a prominent public leader of our country had re-introduced the notion of self-reliance in public policy discourse, and had moreover done so using precisely the term that form the very basis of a Bhāratiya philosophy of transcendence, the Atman.
To my mind, in doing so, Prime Minister Modi has acted as the initiator of a very important debate on the meaning and virtues of Ᾱtmanirbharatā or Self-reliance, which should make inroads into the mainstream public policy discourse sooner rather than later. Genuine gratitude is due to him for bringing the idea ‘back to life’, in a manner of speaking. Even a few years ago one would have imagined that all talk related to ‘Self-reliance’ belongs to a bygone era, specifically those decades that immediately followed India’s independence (roughly the three decades between 1947-1977) when we were desperately trying to obtain a decent level of self-reliance in terms of our food production and our ability to provide basic nutrition to our people, in scientific enquiry and technological innovation, in military strength, in our actions and judgment in the domain of foreign policy (which, as it happens, used to be articulated by aligning India to the non-alignment movement) and so on. But a principle and indeed a virtue such as Self-reliance goes far beyond the temporality of historical contingencies or the mere materiality of day-to-day needs of an individual citizen or the state. Most of all, we should recognise, that the significance of initiating the journey of the existing generations of Bhāratiya-s towards Ᾱtmanirbharatā exceeds the necessary but insufficient step of the individual or the community attaining financial and economic autonomy. Economic self-reliance is necessary, and therefore important, but it alone cannot help us fulfil our true potential as Bhāratiya-s (and not just ‘citizens’ / ‘subjects’ / ‘human resource’ belonging to a state) and thereby find the freedom that we utterly seek and inspire others to seek – sometimes consciously but most of the time unconsciously – in order to live a meaningful life, both as an individual and as a nation. Beyond its apparent economic and material aspects, we have to recognise that Ᾱtmanirbharatā has an inwardness and a transcendental side to it; it springs from the first principle of the major Bhāratiya Darśana-s, namely, the Atman or the Self (which can be denoted by a capital ‘S’ to differentiate it from the times when we speak of the ego-bounded self in general; or, as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to illustrate before his disciples the difference between ‘choṭo āmi’ or the small or egoistic self and the ‘Boḍo Ᾱmi’ or the Ego-transcending and hence the Bigger Self). By drawing people’s attention to this aspect of the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s slogan of ‘Ᾱtmanirbhar Bhārat’, one can immediately motivate an individual to become reliant on one’s Self in every sense of the term, either materially or spiritually. Therefore, in my reading, PM Modi has set a very worthy and lofty goal before ourselves, which is absolutely becoming of the ideals and aspirations of the inheritors and inhabitants of a civilisational state such as Bhārat. We must rise to the call of this fundamental principle and virtue of transcending the material and seeking the Atman in every sphere of our activity in this life, an ideal that the Hon’ble Prime Minister has alluded to.
And so, it is up to us – that is, the inheritors and inhabitants that I have just mentioned – to work out the contours and the details of this goal, namely Ᾱtmanirbharatā, and articulate its fuller and bigger implications in our public and private lives as the ambassadors for our Bhāratiya civilisation.
The high-modernist ideology, which dominates the thinking and policy decisions of the Modern States the world over like a ghost possessing a person (to borrow Ᾱcārya K.C. Bhattacharya’s phrase), provides the state with a strong desire and incentive to implement a modernising project which conflicts with the civilisational experience of Bhārat. To give an example, the high-modernist ideology prescribes an ever-growing role of the state, enabled by greater access to and control of information, with far-reaching implications for the social and private lives of its citizens. In the Bhāratiya context, this implies a rapid shrinking of the roles played by the family and samāja in the social sphere, as well as a gradual erosion of the centuries-old indigenous (and inexpensive) modes of dispensing local governance and justice, such as at the congregation of villagers presided over by the elders of the village community. In short, an ever-growing role of the state is bound to diminish the reach and power of the more organic forms of human association (which have, in addition, traditionally played a significant role in mediating between individuals / local communities and the state) and replace them with more artificial forms of human association such as the political party.
Let us try to identify and locate (on the World’s Map of Ideas, so to speak) the source(s) of this high-modernist ideology and its various avatars which majorly shape the outlook of the Modern State in today’s world. The Late Sir Roger Scruton, British philosopher and author, liked to praise the Western civilisation by evoking its unique contributions to humanity as well as its capacity and capaciousness to contain and absorb elements from diverse cultures and traditions of the world. This, Sir Roger believed, was an evidence of the universal quality of that civilisation. But in doing so, Sir Roger failed to appreciate the distinctions between appropriation and universalisation. The latter of the two may be understood as a function or characteristic property of universal ideas, which may be anything from a spiritual influence to a scientific theory, or the discovery of a hitherto unknown geographical territory or field of knowledge, or the repercussions of a revolutionary technological invention. However, the former, viz. appropriation is a political weapon which is wielded either by force or deception or both. Hence, we must keep the distinction between appropriation and universalisation in mind at all times. Failing to do so always invariably leads to what Ᾱcārya K.C. Bhattacharya has called ‘political and cultural subjection’. (Bhattacharya 1928)
Nowadays we frequently speak of a ‘civilisational state’ in opposition to (or at least in comparison to) the concept of ‘nation-state’. Over time, this particular debate has gained prominence and in recent decades it has spilled over the narrow discipline-specific boundaries of political theory in keeping with the steady rise of Asian giants (especially China) and the concomitant unfolding of certain economic and political events in the world arena. In the past century, we had seen Japan’s encounter with the West: a remarkable affair in which the former attempted to meet the Western civilisation on the latter’s terms, producing mixed results. We are yet to see the final outcomes of China’s ambitious strivings. But what about the other colossus of Asiatic civilisations, namely, India? Whither are we bound?
This query brings to my mind a particular passage from Ramchandra Gandhi’s essay Indian Satyāgraha. Therein this twentieth-century philosopher asserts:
“But are we in India today self-confident and self-conscious, the conjunction of which has always been in actuality or as aspiration the foundation of our civilisation? Is an imitation of the Japanese or Chinese imitation of Western civilisation in its liberal or communist incarnation a valid Indian way to self-confidence, and is a violent internalisation of norms of western rationalism so-called and humanism so-called and secularism so-called a sane Indian way to self-consciousness? They are not, they are destructive even at their best of our repressed but real sense of ṛta, cosmic order; dharma, social order; karma, personal order, which still animate our souls and in a bold new unfurling and development in the light of historical experience alone can preserve our distinctiveness as a civilisation without cutting ourselves off from the world or from our own roots” (Gandhi 1984)
Ramchandra Gandhi presents a powerful critique of the Western Civilisation in the short passage quoted above. He identifies three strands from the value-based framework which is essentially Western and which informs and animates the Modern State. These three strands, as enumerated by Gandhi, are western rationalism, western humanism, and western secularism. It is important to add the qualifier ‘western’ before each of these three terms because the understanding of the concepts they represent and their evolution through time and space are rooted in the historical experience of the West. These historical phenomena are: the Enlightenment, Reformation (within the Christian religion in Europe), the Industrial Revolution, and Colonialism. Ramchandra Gandhi questions the very process through which these three strands are internalised by non-western civilisations and cultures. He calls it a “violent” process. Such characterisation is not due to any bias against the Western Civilisation on Ramchandra Gandhi’s part. Instead, it is due to his panoramic understanding of Western history as well as his command over the philosophical concepts and cultural movements which drove that history. In addition, the paragraph quoted above demonstrates that Ramchandra Gandhi is also acutely aware of the catastrophic sociocultural consequences and the steep human cost of the imitation of the Western Civilisation or the “violent internalisation” of an essentially western value-based framework attempted by two Asian civilisations/cultures: first Japan and then China. One may add that such internalisation may be characterised as violent on grounds other than economic, political, and sociocultural: the epistemic violence of replacing one set of values, ideas, and ideals with another “without comparison or competition” attacks the very spirit of a civilisation and is by no means less serious; as a matter of fact, some thinkers, such as Ᾱcārya K.C. Bhattacharya, would argue that such epistemic violence is more insidious, harmful, and hence more serious than the other kinds. (Bhattacharya 1928)
Therefore, I’d argue that such policy formulations and implementation as would act in furtherance of this high-modernist ideology and its various avatars (capitalism, liberalism, neoliberalism, socialism, communism etc.) will be detrimental to India’s traditional institutions of samāja, family, and her own unique civil society which is formed at the intersection of these two, and above all, it will be detrimental to the very civilisational character of India. We should understand that the conception of the state and its role in the high-modernist framework is
“[F]undamentally opposed to the Indic conception of the state and its role – wherein the state has been designed in such a way that it remains subservient to the overarching structure and institutions of the samāja. Here, the state becomes a functional instrument of the samāja; and it is the samāja which takes care of education, healthcare, and even public works to a considerable extent through its various institutions, of which the principal ones are family and svadharma. This characteristically Indic relationship between the higher-order samāja and the lower-order state is something that has been clearly articulated in the literature of our smriti, and the same thing has been articulated for the Modern (i.e., post-British invasion) Indian by none other than Rabindranath Tagore in his Bangla essay Svadeśī Samāj, written in 1904.” (Krishna and Datta 2020)
Here in this essay by Tagore, we come across a full theoretical and historical treatment and interpretation of Ᾱtmanirbharatā or Self-reliance “in the profoundest sense of the term, when the samāja would not have to look up to the state for each and every essential service that it requires. Such dependence only breeds weakness and that weakness paves the way for tyrannical power and all forms of perverse corruption in the state machinery.” (Krishna and Datta 2020) According to this worldview, politics is subservient to (or only a second-order supplementary organ, if not a mere contraption, compared to) the more organic first-order principle of Dharma, of which the trio of family, svadharma and samāja are the instruments.
The keen observer may also identify “echoes of the same Indic formulation of samāja and the state in Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj as well. There’s absolutely no doubt that we need to invest a good deal of thinking and action in state-building exercises”, because, after all, “the state is an essential instrument for safeguarding our dharma and our civilisation”. (Krishna and Datta 2020) But we must never lose sight of the fact that the state that will serve our purpose and fulfil our civilisational mission – the fire that our ancestors have long kept aflame through countless generations – must be the kind of state that has definite Bhāratiya civilisational underpinnings, as interpreted articulately by authoritative civilisational thinkers of Bhārat – from Yājñyavalkya and Vyāsa on one hand to Cāṇakya, Tagore, and Sri Aurobindo on the other – that is, Rishis possessing a direct and intimate contact with the transcendent, men and women who derived their authority not from a pursuit of material power, but from a pursuit of excellence guided by Truth. Vande Mātaram!
Bhattacharya, Krishna Chandra. Swaraj in Ideas. Calcutta, 1928.
Gandhi, Ramchandra. I Am Thou. Pune, 1984.
Krishna, Raghava and Sreejit Datta. “Book Review of A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State.” 2020. Accessed: 2021-08-12 Url: http://swatantramag.com/book-review-of-a-new-idea-of-india-individual-rights-in-a-civilisational-state/
(The author is Assistant Professor and Director of Centre for Civilisational Studies, Rashtram School of Public Leadership. The article is based on a talk delivered at SPMRF in August 2021. The views expressed are the authors own.)