(Kunal Patil/HT)
(Kunal Patil/HT)

Opinion | On truth as a casualty of politics more than economics

If secular values in India are under strain, economic forces are less to blame than critics contend

Not since Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out hit theatres has the darkening of a dream frayed so many nerves, which is why it’s perhaps a good time to ask an ironic if blunt question: Has the liberalization of the Indian economy failed our liberals?

Mumkin hai. As in, possibly.

Almost three decades on, a generation that strove for freedom is all but lost to us, fraternity is increasingly about frat packs, equity has more to do with asset choices than social equality, and Bollywood appears to have given up on lovelorn eyes for fist-clenchy cries. In an “Information Age" given to outright lies, high drama and low vision, even Mahatma Gandhi’s image seems warped out of shape, reduced among multitudes to a pair of spectacles at the service of Swachh Bharat amid talk of cleansing and jai-jaikars to Bharat Mata. Or so goes one critique.

Some argue that we opened our economy up to global capital and market competition a bit too early, given our rigidities of caste and elasticities of truth, both of which distort things like allocative efficiency and price signals that are expected to make Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand" work like a good ghost for the welfare of one and all. Jawaharlal Nehru’s priority was to open up minds rather than markets, they say, and achieving a “scientific temper" was still a work-in-progress in the early 1990s. Today, as they like to rub in, it’s amply clear that not only do the country’s better-off have it much better, the worse-off have it significantly worse.

That sounds plausible, but are reforms really to blame? Well, competition is up, consumer choice has widened and Big Tech has grown hypnotic. But power in general has also got re-centralized (of late). Even so, while a few state-ruled and “network effect" sectors of business may have turned monopolistic, other fields boast of such stiff rivalry that success is all about gaining an edge; and a sales spiel that engages the popular pulse is often half the war won. In at least one arena, the adrenalin of it has seen such a surge among a bulge of youth that a 133-year-old “real thing" of liberty seems hapless against the flighty josh of a century-younger rival raring to lock horns this summer.

Coca-Cola versus Red Bull, that is… What else could it be?

Yes, India’s electoral arena is more ferocious than ever, but the dominant party here owes its most distinctive aspect to a rightist ideology that gatecrashed politics back when reforms began. If secular values are under strain, economic forces have been less of a cause than critics of an open economy contend. Instead, it is arguably the Congress that let liberals down by losing sight of the effects of rapid expansion, be it the ravages of fiscally-fanned inflation or a wave of neo-middle-class aspirations.

Consider the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s “Mumkin Hai" slogan. Inflected with the gung-ho attitude of sneaker brands that say “impossible is nothing" and urge you to “just do it", it cleverly resets the limits of all that’s doable without specifying what. Achievement of a goal? Mastery of war? An India of guts and glory? It doesn’t matter. So long as the campaign gets hormones gushing, it’s effective enough.

Even Dalal Street appears to bear signs of its efficacy. Witness the exuberance of our Sensex snorting itself bullish at over 26 times earnings, and that too amid an economic slump. Hot money is being bet on the outcome of India’s general elections, apparently. Not all of it looks rational, and that suits market timers who spy an easy buck in this bull run. But then again, the rules have changed, we’re told; what’s thinkable now is not what it was five years ago...

The BJP slogan is impressively versatile, too. Among other things, it lends itself to armchair punditry. Geography is destiny, it used to be said. For rightist ideologues, the subcontinent has long been sacred, but the term mumkin offers the ruling party leeway for a shift of emphasis to “possibilism", an academic theory which posits that a land’s destiny pivots on cultural rather than geo-given factors. It scoffs, for example, at the notion that folk in colder climes forged ahead because they got their minds whirring on how to harness energy—oil, steam, electricity and so on—just to stay alive and unfrozen, while inhabitants of warm places with easy food got too darn lazy because survival was no big deal. Such a “high-funda" story could still be spun in the party’s favour, possibly.

Ah, but here’s the thing. The West’s great leap over the East a few centuries ago was the result of an Age of Reason stirred up by a great orgy of ideas across the Mediterranean once the twain met. It was diversity of minds that did it, made people sit up and think, just as it was an emphatic “naah" to all that’s false for the sake of truth that sparked off modern science (in a sense).

In an India full of sound and fury, it seems self-evident that the one bazaar that must always stay open to everyone for India’s eventual emergence is the one, above all, for ideas. A variety of thoughts need to be traded in forums free of state control.

On this, Nehru and Gandhi appear more relevant than ever. The first prime minister’s stance on openness is well known. Going by the record, Gandhi’s faith in “Satyamev Jayate" was almost never at odds with an imperative to reject falsehood, as in “naa anritam" of Vedic vintage. Such unifying basics, alas, appear at peril.

Let’s face it: reforms call for the shedding of delusions. And truth, like love, needs fresh air. This, ultimately, is what’s at stake.

Aresh Shirali is views editor, Mint.