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India At 69: Where The Hindu Gods Jostle With Mammon

15/03/2016 8:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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A pedestrian walks past a Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M) window display at the Select Citywalk mall in the Saket area of New Delhi, India, on Friday, Oct. 2, 2015. The Swedish retailer, which has more than 3,600 outlets worldwide, opened its first store in India today. Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An uncle of mine--aristocratic, suave and intellectual--forebodingly articulated a gloomy prognosis for India over lunch at his Delhi home. "Polarization has taken a turn for the worse in India. I fear the worst, especially for Muslims. There may be rioting of an unprecedented scale here," he stated. I tried to argue--half heartedly though--and asserted that, in this day and age, and especially for India that seeks great power status and validation from the West, becoming hostile to a community was rather improbable and the ugly possibility carried economic costs. My uncle looked at me and said, "I hope you are right".

After lunch, I went for a saunter and hit one of the ubiquitous fixtures in New Delhi: a swanky mall dotted with upmarket stores and international brands. I wandered from store to store, struck conversations with sales persons, the security guards, assorted people and even autorickshaw wallahs who, mistaking me for a Westerner, solicited me for a ride in their "tuk tuk". While the footfalls in the malls were not huge, they were not sparse either.

Will consumerism be the solvent of ideology? Or will ideology reign supreme?

Here were two Indias on display.

One was the India that my uncle was so morose about: an India which gyrated to the rhythm of Hindutva - where ideology was sought to be reified in the country's institutions and political Hinduism made central to its civic, social and political life. The other was an India where consumption and consumerism--both the conspicuous and pedestrian variety--were the norm or were at least sought to be elevated - a departure from socialist and autarkic shibboleths of the past.

Gods of the Hindu pantheon jostle and jockey with Mammon in contemporary India.

The question is: which will predominate in this contest? Will consumerism be the solvent of ideology? Or will ideology reign supreme?

Consumption and consumerism, broadly speaking, are correlated with the salience and rise of the middle class(es) and the formation of middle classes is held to be a cathartic and salubrious counterpoint to extremism or, more accurately, ideology-fed extremism. This is the theory and in the West - the progenitor and crucible of this modernization theory - this correlation and its denouement has turned out to be rather correct. Will this pattern hold in India?

Maybe or maybe not.

India, as some éminences grises have rightly pointed out is also Bharat, the nation of the toiling masses, peasants and other assorted peoples where tradition and forces of conservatism are predominant themes. Moreover, while consumption and consumerism are, in some senses apolitical - that is, neither accord power nor a sense of power to a person - politics or political power does. And as, Thomas Hobbes reminds us, power may be an elemental human quest.

Complemented by asymmetries in... purchasing power in "Bharat", a condition that inflates community pride and begets chauvinism may well emerge.

Political forces in India may get aligned and configured in such a way that the middle-class consumer could seek his/her "thymotic" pride in a polity that elevates his/her community at the expense of others. Powerlessness at an individual level could be compensated by power or an illusion of power at the community level. Complemented by asymmetries in consumption patterns and purchasing power in "Bharat", a condition that inflates community pride and begets chauvinism may well emerge. This psychic condition could seek a collective demon and the admixture of power and rage could be vented on minorities, giving short shrift to the conventional modernization theory and turning it on its head.

All this is speculation, which hopefully will remain in the domain of the speculative. But, it should not mean or entail complacency.

As a friend of mine pointed out, the 2014 Parliamentary elections, which brought the far right forces to power, was a watershed event, in the league of perhaps formative and even determinative events. India is on the cusp of far-reaching and deep change. What the nature and form of change is remains in the domain of the "unknown unknown".

[A] multi-speed India could collapse in the vortex of violence giving short shrift to the idea of progress, amity and co-existence...

All we can do, at this point in time, is hope that this uncertainty-laden and fraught period in India's modern history does not devolve into an ugly fracas. If it does, India's major fault lines will fracture and the country will descend into what may be called "ordered disorder" - a condition that will have repercussions and reverberations beyond the "initial disorder". This would be regressive; a multi-speed India could collapse in the vortex of violence giving short shrift to the idea of progress, amity and co-existence and in the process proving the proponents of the two nation theory right. India will then be back to square one with the 2014 elections being that determinative moment when the "chickens came home to roost".

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