Polarised Electorates

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As India hits the election cycle, we are bound to hear about how polarised the electorate has become over the past decade or so. Blame will be ascribed to all sorts of things – the anonymity of social media, the reach of technology, the politics and psychology of fear. Yet in some ways, it is difficult not to see the present situation as the inevitable outcome of Progressive politics.

To briefly put that in context, Progressive politics in this case refers to the postmodernist strand of belief that traditions are invented, nations are dangerous make-believe, and that we are all free-defining minorities of the individual. By tearing away at the common fabric of society, conversations between opposite views are made impossible as there are no mutually understood and shared values.

Aristotle argued that any communication intended to persuade must have three characteristics: logos, the logic and reasoning of the argument, ethos, the character, credibility, and trustworthiness of the communicator, and pathos, the emotional element. The final element was achieved via eikṓs arguments, or what Anaximenes described as proofs derived from the audience themselves; they held for the most part but were not quantifiably true. Essentially, such arguments were supported by the audience’s ability to relate, their knowledge, experience, emotional predispositions, and behavioural habits.

Such rhetorical technique was common among the Ancient Greeks, even in serious circumstances such as legal settings. By appealing to common sense and shared values, Gorgias’ Defence of Palamedes and Antiphon’s On the Murder of Herodes, for example, try to create common ground and sway opinions. The speaker creates a bond with the audience with what philosopher Christopher Tindale called a shared cognitive environment. It is only with an interlocutor who is credible and defines the world as you do that the logic finally starts to matter.

This is not just some idle speculation of the Ancient Greeks – arguing from common ground remains an important part of rhetorical theory to this day. Recent evidence from neurology further suggests that there is just cause for this: since the mid-1990s, Portuguese neurologist Antonio Damasio has argued that emotions and feelings play a vital role in our ability to reason well. While the possibility of pure rationality has been a matter of fierce philosophical debate, Damasio brings laboratory evidence to suggest that people with impaired emotions suffer from cognitive disabilities and poor decision-making too. In fact, the scientist goes as far as to say that music, art, religion, science, technology, economics, politics, justice, or moral philosophy would not be possible without feelings.

Returning to the present quagmire of political discussion, it seems improbable that people with strongly opposing views could sustain a useful conversation for any length of time unless there is a belief that both are working towards the same destination. An enthusiast of a Savarkarite idea of India, for example, would discover little in common with someone who believes in the Gandhian mould even though they both have an idea of India; they might both see each other as staunch enemies of the national project. Both sides not only believe that they will lose a central component of their ethical structure but also suspect that the other is indifferent to the importance attached to this value. Any disagreement on superficial issues like Article 370, the Citizenship Registry, or Sabarimala is bound to remain pointless until the philosophical differences underpinning those differences are resolved and some common ground is achieved. It is only when both sides realise some shared values and develop some sort of bond or affinity that they will become more receptive of each other’s concerns.

The same is true with Brexit, Trumpistan, or any other polarised climate. Valid or not, Brexiteers fear that a lenient immigration policy will result in a flood of people coming in who will change the very icons of Englishness that have lasted for centuries; similarly, Trumpistas are worried that the (in)famous melting pot that is American society will dilute and dissipate the very characteristics of the country created by their founding fathers.

How do we walk back from this cliff? Polarisation will not go away overnight – after all, we did not get here overnight either. Decades of a Progressive agenda that has viciously neglected the concerns of those who disagreed has ultimately resulted in this backlash, and the pendulum is bound to swing back hardest at first. Yet unless there are serious conversations starting from first principles and reaching common ground, the public sphere is only going to get shriller.

The Election Season

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Israel went to the polls on April 9 and India followed it two days later in its multi-phase, five-week-long format. Though the dates are an interesting coincidence, the two demonstrations of universal adult suffrage have a powerful common theme running through them – in Israel as well as in India, the central issue in these elections is the personality and character of the incumbent prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared early elections after his ruling coalition collapsed at the end of December 2018 over disagreements on a bill that would abolish the exemption and require haredim to serve in the Israel Defence Forces like all other citizens. An electoral campaign this year, however, was inevitable as the Netanyahu administration’s term was set to expire in November anyway.

What also surrounded the announcement of elections was the shadow of corruption charges against the prime minister – Netanyahu is facing indictment in three corruption cases on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to 13 years in prison and a fine.

Additionally, Israel is no stranger to the global backlash against liberalism. The country has for long been at odds with the international – American – Jewish Diaspora over several issues of identity such as women at the Kotel, the Orthodox Rabbinate’s monopoly in the personal sphere (marriage, divorce, burial, conversion, kashrut, olim, etc.), as well as over policy such as towards the Iranian nuclear programme, Gaza, and the Arab inhabitants of Judea & Samaria. However, these differences over identity with the Diaspora go back much further than the Netanyahu administration or even the foundation of the State of Israel.

The key question for Israel’s elections, therefore, was the personality and character of the prime minister. Even critics of the current administration agree that the economy is doing well, tourism is booming, and Netanyahu has handled his relations world leaders admirably, balancing ties with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, reaching out to some of the Arab states in the region, and opening up more of the world to Israel. Most importantly, no one in Israel, Left or Right, has a better solution to the intractable problem of Palestinian intransigence on the peace process or Iranian ambitions towards regional hegemony.

Predictably, the Opposition’s core message during their campaign was that they were not Netanyahu; on everything else, they closely echoed existing policies. Ultimately, this was not enough to swing the Israeli voter away from a known figure to a coalition of, at best, imitators, and at worst, unknowns.

India’s elections indicate a similar stamp. As in Israel, India’s economic and security indicators are generally as healthy as can be expected though things can always be better. For all the arguments around the policies of the Narendra Modi government, the core issue most people are voting on is identity. Modi is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the face of a resurgent Hindu nationalist identity that could transform the Indian republic. To his detractors, pace all the courts in the land, Modi will never escape the ghosts of the riots in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning incident in 2002.

Interestingly, many of the prime minister’s supporters are lukewarm about his identity agenda – because they only see symbolism in place of action over the past five years – than his critics are vociferous in denouncing it. Regardless, although conversations in India are ostensibly about economics, security, and other issues, most soon collapse to the Sangh Parivar’s idea of India. The battle for India’s soul, like in Israel, goes back much before the current administration. Yet the Modi government has been by far the most powerful voice for an alternative vision of the India republic.

The Indian Opposition, as in Israel, has little by way of new ideas to challenge the incumbent’s narrative of development or security. The platforms of the various parties seem to be largely lifted from socialist tracts of the 1960s that have failed several times before, interspersed with a dose of the contemporary politics of victimhood. There is little clarity on India’s greatest security threats – cybersecurity, intellectual property lawfare, terrorism, China, or Pakistan – except to say more of the same. While the Modi government has not necessarily distinguished itself on these fronts, the alternative offered is a recipe that has been tried before and found wanting.

The victory of the religious Right coalition was a foregone conclusion in the Israeli elections though how well Likud would fare, especially if the attorney general issued the indictments against Netanyahu, was up for debate. In the final outcome, the Likud emerged the largest party and increased its tally in the Knesset though overcame its rival, the new agglomeration Kahol Lavan, by the skin of its teeth. Similarly, most polling pundits seem convinced that May 23 – the day the results of the Indian elections are announced – will still see Modi in power but the fortunes of his party and coalition are in question.

One advantage Netanyahu had is that Israel’s population and politics have shifted to the Right in recent years and are broadly centre-right. In terms of the broader view of peace in the Middle East, Left and Right are mostly aligned, which is why neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas expressed any interest in the democratic ritual. India’s population, however, is more mercantile. A weak nation held together by a beleaguered state machinery, the majority of Indians are more concerned with quotidian social and material hurdles in their lives. Hence, Modi’s success cannot be as confidently foretold as observers could with Netanyahu.

Pretend as you will, India will vote over the next five weeks on Modi as Israel voted on Netanyahu. Securing his fifth term in office, the Israeli prime minister is on track to be not only the country’s longest-serving prime minister but in all probability the one with one of the strongest legacies. Only time will tell if a similar fate awaits Modi.

Does Narendra Modi Have A Foreign Policy?

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Over the past five years, analysts have bickered over how much of a divergence the Narendra Modi administration has exhibited in foreign policy. As with all things Modi, opinions seem to lie at both ends of the spectrum with plenty of room in the middle.

On the one hand are those who believe that the prime minister has merely tinkered with the policies of his predecessors and there is nothing remarkable about Indian foreign policy in this ‘era of Hindu nationalism’ – the pragmatic elements of running a state has tamed the exuberant rhetoric out of the Modi and his foreign policy team.

On the other hand are those who see a distinctly new foreign policy path being charted out by this yugpurush of a prime minister. A sea change in attitude is posited in relations with India’s neighbours and partners, and incidental events are fielded as evidence of a Modi doctrine that fundamentally alters the basic structure of Nehruvian foreign policy.

A closer study of Modi’s foreign policy indicates a third position – of a desire to not repeat the errors of the past yet constrained by a hidebound bureaucracy and the intellectual shortcomings of India’s foreign policy apparatus. More out of necessity than design, the Modi administration has chosen a gradual divergence from India’s non-aligned past but promises a much greater variance to come.

The sharpest example of this small yet radical foreign policy shift is seen in India’s ties with Israel. For decades, even after the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1992, Delhi treated Jerusalem like a mistress, accepting favours without recognition. Modi pulled the curtains on the relationship with a stand-alone trip to Israel in 2017 but his embrace fell short of wholehearted as India continued to vote against Israel in the United Nations and maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv; moreover, India has kept up its paeans to solidarity with the Palestinian people, which serves little purpose other than as an annoying vestige of Gandhian moralpolitik.

In some ways, the relationship with the United States is even more intriguing. Most of the foreign policy commentariat accepts that America is India’s most important partner in the foreseeable future, yet there remains in Delhi a symbolic sliver of stubborn anti-Americanism. As India makes bigger, more sensitive defence purchases from American vendors, enters into logistical agreements with the US military, and resuscitates the ‘Quad’ grouping that also includes Japan and Australia, it still sits with Russia and China in a trilateral that is at odds with the rest of its strategy. Delhi’s ambivalence sends mixed signals to international capitals about Indian intentions and its reliability as an ally in case the balance of power gets worse in East Asia.

A third major departure from Nehruvian guidelines has been in Modi Sarkar’s handling of the threat from Pakistan and its terrorist proxies. Like its predecessors, the Modi government has used diplomatic pressure against Islamabad, arguably with greater success, yet has not hesitated to use military force against terrorist camps across the border and called Islamabad’s nuclear bluff at least twice now while remaining open to peace initiatives.

On the other security front, with China, India stands far behind in most benchmarks of development and power. In preparation for the worst eventuality, Modi has focused on substantially improving infrastructure near the border without concern for Beijing’s sensibilities. This has been a glaring weakness in all previous administrations’ resolves since 1947 that this administration has ameliorated. A glimpse of the new infrastructural ease was seen during the standoff at Doklam. At the same time, India has been less hostile than the West to Chinese business to avoid provocation and to encourage a fruitful conversation.

It is true that India under Modi has kept all doors open in its dealings with foreign powers in a manner that some might misconstrue as more non-alignment. The prime minister has not substituted inaction for recklessness, understanding the arguments for India’s behaviour so far. However, it is in the boldness of his actions that a new picture emerges that not only outlines a different mode of thinking from the moribund Nehruvian school of Indian foreign policy but clearly indicates the early makings of a Modi doctrine.

While excessive moralising and equivocation were the hallmarks of the earlier era, the prime minister has introduced a dash of vim into Indian foreign policy. Modi’s interjection, however, is no novel creation – it is merely the country’s awakening to machtpolitik in international affairs and a desire to wield some of it. To this end, the administration needs a vibrant community of aides, bureaucrats, and researchers free of old ideological commitments to consider the full implications of its bold new policies. It is this lack that has so far inadvertently camouflaged the Modi administration’s foreign policy intentions and led many to underestimate the potential of what has passed over the last five years.


This post appeared in the Hindustan Times on March 30, 2019.