India is a land full of ideologues – which according to my definition, describes someone who is so committed to their principles that they treat facts which challenge their ideology with utter contempt. Ideologues, of course, come in all shapes and sizes: we have our commies and our market fundamentalists; liberals and conservatives; Hindu nationalists and Naxalites; the right wing hawks and the left wing doves; the libertarians and the bureaucratic babus; the localists, the nationalists, and the globalists; and a bunch of others who defy definition and convention. In fact, there are probably few Indians (including myself and the others at IEB) who could credibly argue that they are not ideologues. As Amartya Sen so astutely observed, arguing about our beliefs (sometimes blindly) is basically part of our blood.
The only problem is that our discordant national discourse is not genetic – it is a direct function of our collective desire for a better India. It is also a reflection of the freedoms we enjoy and jealously guard. It has been argued by some that there is nothing which unites India aside from territory and cricket. And as political scientists like to remind us, democracy only works when there are some set of fundamentally shared beliefs and aspirations.
In India, ideologues dominate the political landscape (notwithstanding our current PM), and the endless bickering between the extremes has the perverse effect of creating a seeming absence of any sense of shared values. Indeed, for democracy to be able to move a society forward, there has to be a basic direction that all sides agree on – and the argument ought to be about the best way to get there.
Shared values and aspirations are of course closely tied to the relative size of the middle class. A growing middle class shifts the balance of politics – because leaders are then compelled to work in the interests of a larger share of constituents – mostly in order to keep their jobs. The direction of economic policy becomes easier to sustain as more and more people’s fortunes get intertwined with it.
Therein lies the challenge for both India’s economic ‘left’ and ‘right’. For those who believe in the virtue of the free market and the necessity of further structural reform, the challenge lies in ensuring that the gains go to the middle and the bottom, and not just the top – it is both a moral and a practical imperative. Similarly for the left, the challenge is to articulate an economic direction for the Republic. Is the goal simply to remain reactionaries – trying endlessly to dampen the excesses of the market? Or is it more practical – to use the market as a means to end poverty and want?
Unless these two seemingly irreconcilable views can coalesce, we may be destined for perpetual political gridlock. We will be resigned to the unfortunate position of being a nation of ideologues, without any ideology.