“A New Idea of India” – A Must-Read for Every Indian

BookA New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State
Authors: Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri
Publisher: Westland
Price: Rs 799 (Amazon.in lists the latest price of the Hardcover as Rs. 570)

Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri’s book “A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State” is a must-read for every Indian who wants to know about India in all its facets from independence to the current times we live in. The book is an evidence-based intellectual tour de force, which starts out by giving us the right perspective on how to conceive of India and goes on to lay bare the ill-conceived Nehruvian ideologies and policies of pseudo-secularism and socialism that impeded India’s economic growth while at the same time impairing the harmony of our social fabric. They also point out how Indian polity has been extricating itself out of this morass slowly but steadily since the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s.

They make a smart move by beginning the book with the heading “Eschewing Certitude, Embracing Skepticism”, and point out that Hinduism has a “sceptical tradition” within its metaphysical aspects. This correct view of Hinduism allows them to facilely tackle all the other controversies with regard to Hindutva and secularism, and establish with credibility the claim that “India is a civilisation [and not just a post-colonial entity] [with a remarkable–and unique–cultural continuity across space and time] which is transforming into a ‘nation’ through the instrumentality of a sovereign, democratic state”. Then they go on to talk about the distinction between State and society, “true” secularism and individual rights within this framework. Towards the end, they underscore the importance of “a strong and honest but limited state” while still pursuing capitalist policies and prescriptions, and go on to discuss the reforms needed in the economy, education, bureaucracy, judiciary, and our mindsets when it comes to our polity.

These days when the so-called Right Conservatives and Left Liberals are at loggerheads with each other, the authors have achieved the seemingly impossible by showing in their book why that need not be so. They say that the false dichotomy is largely due to the conceptual “confusion between the State and the Society.  … The opposite of secularism is not communalism but theocracy, for secularism is a feature of the State; nation-states can be secular or theocratic. Communalism is a feature of all societies.” In fact, they state very clearly that “the State must not discriminate based on identity”. They also welcome “the creation of non-birth based, idea-driven networks and communities”.
They rightly point out that the Nehruvians in their attempt to seem “secular”, and “guided by narrow electoral interests”, became “deniers of India’s heritage”. So much so that they viewed India as “a post-colonial state with multiple groups that had to be reconciled in a collective pursuit of peace and progress”.

Indian civilisation, they say, is “best encapsulated by the word ‘Dharma'”, and “India is already largely a Dharmic nation and society”. I wholeheartedly agree, as would most of you, with their conception of an “ideal polity” as a “State that is ideational and not just territorial, and a State that sees all citizens as equal individuals”. This ‘idea of India’ is one most likely to inspire Indians. We should be aiming at that, and not have a State that sees people as “members of (different and often warring) groups and not as individual citizens first”.

They bemoan the fact that there is no Indian intellectual whose work resonates with the public. These intellectuals have not been equal to the task of correctly interpreting Hindutva given that their philosophical pronouncements derive from predetermined political positions. The authors make a strong case that “Hindutva is a civilisational movement [seeking to] conserve and defend Indian civilisation” but also at the same time “radical” in breaking from traditional Indian society on questions of caste and gender.

They are for reservations (with a sunset clause) being based on caste but not on religion because “religion unlike caste can be changed”, and can act as an incentive for religious conversions. They support “ending [religion-based] discrimination in the education sector, ending government control of Hindu temples, and dissolving religion-based welfare and shifting to an economic-need based approach”, which again would be keeping in tune with the correct spirit of secularism because “secularism [means] State treating all individual citizens as equals, irrespective of their religious identity.”

When it comes to the economy, they feel that “The economic system most compatible with India’s spiritual heritage is capitalism that works towards equal opportunity and social mobility, for such a system both accepts and allows for a collection of pathways towards the end goal of self-realisation.” Lest you start to feel that they are smuggling in some religious spirit into the economy, it has to be pointed out that for them “profit is not a dirty word”. In fact, they celebrate this state of affairs that comes about through such profit-seeking: “When the domestic help of an urban upper-class family shop on Flipkart and Amazon or watch movies at a multiplex just like their wealthy bosses, it erodes the class divide. This is the new India, built by private entrepreneurs in a liberalising environment.” They show that “[liberal economic] policies that promote choice and competition … are beneficial for both growth as well as social equality.”

When it comes to sectors like education, bureaucracy, and the judiciary they point out the current problems in the way they are functioning in the Indian milieu and suggest some practical remedies, though it would seem to require bold and visionary political will to implement them.

Finally, it has to be said that Harsh and Rajeev have presented a new face of India that is resurgent, confident, self-assured without being smug and haughty, and on the verge of taking its rightful place in the comity of nations.

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