The burden of centuries-old history weighs heavily on current Indian politics

An excerpt from John Zubrzycki’s ‘The Shortest History of India’, in which the journalist-author analyzes how the discussion around righting past ‘wrongs’ has come to dominate the political narrative in BJP’s ‘New India’

The pandemic has exposed the gap between government promises and performance. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Considered against the nearly five millennia that have elapsed since the beginnings of Harappan civilization, the existence of India as an independent nation is a trivial error. Even two centuries of colonial rule count for little more than a footnote in this broad historical sweep. The Mauryan, Gupta and Mughal empires still come out on top in terms of longevity – some would say even glory. No one can dispute India’s achievements during these golden ages, whether in the fields of philosophy or literature, mathematics or medicine, architecture or the arts.

As India looks beyond the seventy-fifth anniversary of its independence in 2022, the burden of history and the desire to restore that past glory weighs heavily on its politics and society. In the early 1700s, India was the largest economy in the world. By the time the British left, India’s share of global economic output had fallen to less than 4%. Newly independent India was synonymous with starvation and deprivation. Despite the progress made since then, India has yet to shake off these stereotypes or reach its full potential.

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China takes the lead

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For the first time in 300 years, India’s main strategic and economic rival, China, is poised to turn the tide against Western dominance. India sees its rightful place as being alongside China in reasserting the pre-Renaissance status quo. On some measures, India is slowly moving up the world rankings. Even taking into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is on track to overtake Japan to become the world’s third largest economy by the early 2030s. It will become the most populous nation on the globe in the middle of the current decade. It is also expected to retain its third place for military spending.

But on nearly every calculation aside from population, China is racing ahead: building aircraft carriers that will expand its strategic reach, increasing its share of global trade and attracting the bulk of foreign investment to the world. ‘Asia. China has successfully rolled out its Belt and Road initiative to all of India’s neighbours, projecting further into the Indian Ocean region and intruding into New Delhi’s strongest sphere of influence.

With the Indian political landscape firmly dominated by the BJP, the discussion around righting the “wrongs” of the past dominates the political narrative. Leadership positions in formerly politically neutral institutions such as universities, scientific and cultural institutions are currently filled by government appointees. School stories and curricula are rewritten. Even sport is not immune to this rampant xenophobia. In late 2021, seven Indian Muslims from the state of Uttar Pradesh were arrested for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s T20 World Cup victory over India.

Far worse has been the recent spate of lynchings of Muslims suspected of consuming beef or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the beatings and abuse being broadcast on social media drawing little or no condemnation. from the government. BJP critics, both domestic and foreign, are also firmly in the party’s sights. In early 2021, pro-Modi protesters burned effigies of climate activist Greta Thunberg after she tweeted her support for striking farmers in Delhi. A few months later, Twitter came under pressure to remove posts criticizing the government’s handling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

No other event in post-independence India has cast such stark light on India’s failed governance, the pitiful state of its health services and the plight of informal sector workers. Before the pandemic, India prided itself on being the largest supplier of generic drugs in the world. As countries rushed to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines, India touted itself as the nation that would ‘save humanity from a great disaster’.

Pandemic fiasco

In February 2021, the BJP passed a resolution proclaiming that “the capable, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi” had defeated Covid-19. Two months later, India has become the global epicenter of the virus. Mass rallies during the religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar and political rallies during state elections have exploded into superspreader events. Images of parents begging for oxygen to save their loved ones, funeral pyres lit in car parks as crematoriums ran out of space and swollen bodies of Covid-19 victims floating in the Ganges will haunt global perceptions of the India for many years to come.

The Shortest History of India by John Zubrzycki
India’s Shortest Story by John Zubrzycki, Picador India

More than anything, the pandemic has exposed the gap between government promises and performance. According to one estimate, the Covid-induced lockdowns have seen an additional 230 million people fall below the national poverty line. Half of all women working in the formal and informal sectors have lost their jobs. In the 2020/21 financial year, the economy shrank by 7.3%, the largest contraction in the country’s history.

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Even Modi’s staunchest supporters have accused him of hubris and complacency. A once-compliant outlet posted reporters outside hospitals and morgues and found evidence that rates of Covid-19 infections and deaths were up to ten times higher than those revealed in official statistics. A concerted vaccination campaign from the second half of 2021 helped stem the pandemic, but at the expense of other sectors of the country’s creaky health system.

Drift to the right

Although its consequences have been devastating, the Covid-19 pandemic is unlikely to curb the entrenched rightward drift in Indian politics. A Pew Research Center poll released in 2021 found that while a large majority of Indians see respect for other religions as an important part of their identity, they display a strong desire for religious segregation, particularly in relation to marriage. and acceptance of people of certain faiths. as neighbours. This innate conservatism, combined with the absence of a coherent political opposition, will continue to work in favor of the BJP and its allies.

Nicknames such as ‘New India’ and ‘Second Republic’ are entering mainstream discourse as decades of secular nationalism based on cultural pluralism are replaced by cultural nationalism based on a majority religion, namely Hinduism. The 21st century mantra of self-reliance is weaponized in a way that has little to do with Gandhi’s concept of swaraj. Supermarkets replace spinning wheels. Middle-class Indians prefer to shop at H&M outlets than at government-run khadi co-ops where handmade clothes are sold. Rather than seeing itself as a balancing power, India now aspires to be a leading power – a move the United States welcomes as it seeks ways to counter China’s influence in the world. region.

(Courtesy of Pan Macmillan India)

John Zubrzycki has lived and worked in India as a foreign correspondent, diplomat and tour guide. His other books include the best-selling Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India and The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy.