The ethical vacuum at the centre of the campaign for Narendra Modi

Courtesy Indian CAG
13 May, 2014

Narendra Modi’s much hyped Chai pe Charcha may have achieved less than it sought to, but it did succeed in putting the spotlight on the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG), a group of young graduates from institutions such as the IITs and the IIMs who organised the programmes on his behalf. Much of the reporting on the group has focused on its slick use of social media, which is no surprise given the background of those who form it. But far more than its limited electoral impact, the reason this CAG deserves scrutiny is because of what it says about the kind of young well-educated voters that Modi has attracted to his campaign.

In prose that speaks for itself, the group’s website informs us: “June 2013 it was when a group of few individuals consisting of a fresh Graduate, a Lawyer, an Entrepreneur, a Software Engineer and two investment bankers began to discuss the nation’s current state at a restaurant’s coffee table. What followed was a quick resolve not to just critique the actions of the government but to strive towards making a change for the better. Citizens for Accountable governance was born! A group of young and enthusiastic individuals with hope in their hearts and a dream in their eyes—a dream of making India a model of accountable governance. With this vision the group started its activities and people kept joining in. Today we are 45,000 volunteers and still growing …. Currently CAG comprises of over 60 full time associates from different parts of India.”

Under the banner “Who We Are?”—where the unnecessary question mark perhaps suggests an unconscious compromise between the straightforward “who we are” and the existential “who are we?”—the profiles of 85 young professionals who form the core of this organisation have been put up. It is easy to detect the lack of diversity: minorities—Christians, Sikhs and Muslims—but for an odd name or two, are largely absent, and the vast majority of CAG members are from the twice-born castes. Given that they are unflinchingly supporting Modi, this is no real surprise. What is of greater interest are their qualifications. Going by their final degrees, 38 of them are engineers; 22 are MBAs; ten have studied economics, commerce or allied subjects; five are lawyers; six have degrees in assorted subjects such as fashion; and only four, two in mathematics, one in English, and one in political science, have degrees in the pure sciences, humanities or social studies.

These are people who last encountered the humanities as far back as the tenth standard. Of their own initiative, some may have read a few books here and there, but in the course of their formal education and career, they have been largely unexposed to literature, the considered study of history or the creative joys of the pure sciences. These people presumably have little sense of the self-questioning doubt that lies at the heart of both the humanities and mathematics. Their certainties might well be born out of ignorance.

This predomination of technicians, to use the word in its old sense of a person well-versed in the techniques of engineering, management, law or commerce, seems representative of a large number of those who have lent their support to the Modi campaign. The very aim of this group, which desires accountable governance, is illustrative of their stress on processes, on their desire for efficiency. A scanning of their website reveals an absence of any stress on values. What kind of society is this accountable governance supposed to cater to? What are the aims of any good government? Are values such as plurality, diversity and tolerance of any importance?

We have heard echoes of the same absence from people across the country who support Modi. They say he will give us good governance, and when asked about his role in the 2002 violence or his failure to be inclusive, they turn around and reply, “Don’t repeat those tired old clichés.” This distancing of oneself from the values that underlie any government is the same absurdity that is present on the website. Important questions go unanswered in the same fashion. What is this good governance for? What is the point of it if it can’t deliver us the kind of society we need?

As an aside, this is why we have corporate India so loudly cheering Modi. Those selling biscuits don’t care whether they do so in tolerant or autocratic societies, but they do care whether there is an efficient government in place in these societies.

This abdication of values, this deliberate blindness to the most important aspects of Modi, also keeps his ‘non-ideological’ supporters from confronting the most problematic aspects of his rise to power. It keeps them from acknowledging their own culpability in what he does. Pressed on this point, they would take refuge in the constitution, in our institutions. But as we have already seen in Gujarat, when a leader backed by an apathetic (or sympathetic) majority marginalises an entire segment of the population, there is little that can be gained through a recourse to the constitution or our institutions.

Rather, the default values that come into play are the values that Modi does embody. He has come up from the RSS and he makes a point of emphasising this. The RSS, in contrast to his recently acquired supporters, is ideologically driven and clearly articulates a set of values it believes is necessary for the country. When Modi, very rarely in this campaign, was forced to respond to a question on values, as he had to in his interview to Arnab Goswami, when they discussed the issue of India being a natural home for Hindus anywhere in the world, he answered it the only way he could, as an RSS man. The “technicians” supporting him, whom we see as embodiments of a technocratic society—engineers, managers, economists and lawyers—have by default hitched themselves to the RSS worldview. This is the combination that Modi is riding to power, and this is the combination we will see define our country if he makes it to the post of prime minister.