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  Opinion   Columnists  14 Aug 2023  Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | India’s mood conservative after 76 years of freedom

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | India’s mood conservative after 76 years of freedom

The author is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst
Published : Aug 15, 2023, 12:01 am IST
Updated : Aug 15, 2023, 12:01 am IST

The question arises about what happens to the sense of freedom when Indian society is turning conservative.

This year, the government has quietened down quite a bit, and it leaves people the breathing space to reflect on what Independence Day means. (PTI)
 This year, the government has quietened down quite a bit, and it leaves people the breathing space to reflect on what Independence Day means. (PTI)

This Independence Day, 76 years after we attained freedom from British rule, should be of a quieter kind after the excessive enthusiasm that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted to generate to mark 75 years of Independence last year with its loud and frenzied “Ghar Ghar Tiranga” (Tricolour in every home) slogan. The 75th anniversary of freedom was indeed a milestone but people went about their own way as the government sought to hyper-ventilate the patriotic feeling. This year, the government has quietened down quite a bit, and it leaves people the breathing space to reflect on what Independence Day means, and how three quarters of a century of Independence have fared.

This has always been a journey of hope beset with challenges, and as each decade passed the hope persisted and the challenges changed. So, by the time India’s Independence turned 75, the hope has survived and it seemed that there are possibilities of better days. But it’s an accumulated national capital that strengthened the hope. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, which happens to be in power, wanted to make much of it. But the people let the day pass as any other day even as they faced the day-to-day crises of rising prices and the hunt for jobs. India was indeed a different place on its 75th anniversary of freedom from where it started out in August 1947. The country’s economy was at a much prosperous level, a culmination of the incremental improvements that came about through tardy and radical policy measures, changes in the world and the opportunities that had opened up as a consequence. It does not matter that Mr Modi and his colleagues will want to take credit for taking the Indian economy into the bracket of the top five economies in the world.

This has been mainly due to the 1991 economic reforms that had opened up the markets in India. The decades leading up to 1991 had sort of prepared the ground for the 1991 take-off of the economy, as it were.

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), which were set up in the 1960s on the American model at a time when the Soviet-inspired planning era was at its height, produced graduates many of whom migrated to the West, but these institutions had laid the foundations of an internal revolution in services. At the other end of the higher education spectrum, came India’s nuclear, satellite and space programmes which put the country into the circle of high energy and high technology orbit. And India’s universities, with all their limitations and flaws, began to churn out technical undergraduates and graduates to man the revolution in the information technology-related communications services sector. It would seem that there has been a certain serendipity in how things worked in India’s favour though the foundations were laid at a time when the bright future was not easily discernible on the horizon.

The 1960s and 1970s were buffeted by enormous economic crises even as India’s stable future was being shaped. And the education system and the related services sector came to the fore in the 1980s and 1990s when the IT sector assumed the leadership of the economy, and India gained prominence in the launch of satellites with their communications potential. The rocket launches that made possible putting the satellites into geo-synchronous orbits opened up the prospects of India getting into space exploration, and the beginnings of the Moon and Mars missions.

It is in the late 1980s that India and the world came to recognise the existence of the large Indian middle class which turned the tables in favour of India. An estimated 300 million comprised the Indian middle class at that time even as 40 per cent of India’s population was struggling below the poverty line. In the decades since then, the middle class had stabilised and even expanded a little, but more people came out of the poverty trap and moved into the new middle class, which the BJP was quick to recognise.

The emergence of the new middle class, the poor who moved up from below the poverty line, happened in the years between the middle 1980s to around the middle of the second decade of this century, say from around 1985 to 2015, a span of 30 years.

And herein lies the political transformation of the country, from being a country with a majority of people living in poverty till the 1980s under ostentatiously socialist-oriented Congress governments at the Centre to that of the middle class-oriented economic reforms-minded governments of the Congress, the BJP-led NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Congress-led UPA government of Dr Manmohan Singh. This prepared the ground for the emergence in 2014 of a right-wing ultra-nationalist government of Mr Modi, with its associated majoritarian ideology of Hindutva. The political changes in India seem to follow the economic changes, where the programmes of economic development have given way to economic expansion, and it also changed the class character of Indian politics. The poorer classes have migrated into lower middle class status with aspirations. The BJP and Mr Modi are appealing to the sentiments of this class which are culturally and politically conservative.

The question arises about what happens to the sense of freedom when Indian society is turning conservative. There is a desire for freedom to enjoy much more in terms of material advantages and pleasures, which is a marker of progress in the country’s history. At the same time, there is not much desire for freedom to break barriers in social and cultural terms. There is less zeal to change things.

But there are sparks of confrontation and conflict as the new segments from traditional Indian society join the ranks of the new lower middle class, and lay claim to the same material pleasures and advantages. The BJP, which is the ruling party, is following the path of least resistance, and trying to take advantage of society’s conservatism and sidestepping all the fault-lines. The emancipated Indian middle class and the lower middle class is yet to set out on the adventurous journey of seeking new horizons. It needs a streak of rebelliousness in imagination and a sense of daring in physical terms. It could happen sometime in the future and then the country’s politics will move away from its present conservative moment.

Tags: prime minister narendra modi, independence day celebrations, bharatiya janata party (bjp)