Byline by M J Akbar: A Wealth of Questions
I just may have discovered the solution to communal conflict. Greed. For a long while — make that a couple of decades of reporting violence — I was under the illusion that peace was a logical human need. Conflict never made any sense, good, special or common. But when has good sense been the decisive criterion of human behaviour? The instinct of hatred needs a far more powerful antidote. It could have found its answer in greed.
One of the more remarkable facts of the last fifteen years is that there have been only two major communal riots in this period, the violence that followed the destruction of the Babri mosque; and the carnage in Gujarat after the Godhra incident. There have been minor incidents, but nothing horrific. The Eighties were an endless litany of sorrow: Moradabad, Meerut, Bhagalpur, Delhi, to cite but a few cities from the top end of memory. Ahmedabad and Hyderabad were centres of endemic violence, not just one conflagration of slash-and-burn, but a daily drip of dagger and poison that ate into flesh and nerve.
The transformation could not have come because Indians on some magical day suddenly grew angelic wings under their armpits. The answer could lie in the new culture spawned by economic reforms that were put into play by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh a decade and a half ago. Dr Singh might be a doctor in economics, but Rao was a master in politics: he persuaded a "socialist-protectionist" Indian elite to appreciate the virtues of entrepreneurship and self-help wealth.
An industrialist friend was remembering the Mumbai of the Sixties and the Seventies. No one discussed bank accounts. That was considered crass and vulgar. Status had other attributes. These days, it seems the principal job of every public relations agency is to advertise the personal value of its client. If you are not among the billions, leave the high table. Mumbai always had a stock exchange, but it was never quite the shock exchange that it has become today. Companies made profits, and money offered a reasonable return in the old dharma. The stock exchange has now become a rocket on steroids; it must continue to defy the law of gravity and never come down. It is a lottery with no losers as long as you have managed to get a ticket.
The moral of the story, or maybe the amoral of the story: Mumbai can either have communal riots or it can have a steroid stock exchange. It can’t have both. Violence means a huge net loss. The movers and shakers of the city cannot afford violence anymore, which is extremely good news. Peace is not the absence of old hatreds; it is the presence of new desires. Long live money. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Is Gujarat an exception to this rule? Not really. Narendra Modi realises that he cannot get investment if Gujarat lives constantly on the edge, threatening to descend into bloodshed every month. Communal riots were not born in Gujarat six years ago. For a decade in the Eighties, when the Congress was the only star in the political firmament, Ahmedabad suffered chronic, daily spells of rioting. It was a disease whose tentacles were wider than the breadth of the city. Violence is not a partner of profit.
It is a question worth investigating: has economic reform created a new mindset that can eliminate the noxious effects of India’s worst curse?
There comes a moment in any investigation when one must argue against oneself. Every part of India is not booming in the manner of Mumbai and Gujarat. Why have communal riots come down elsewhere?
First, the exception: Bengal. The CPI(M) did not need economic reforms to learn the virtues of communal peace. Its ideology was secular. Bengal, a partition state with a history of communal conflict far worse than Punjab’s, has been peaceful ever since the Marxists came to power. There are those who still remember how the present head of the state CPI(M), Biman Bose, personally stood at Calcutta’s street corners, along with his cadres, during the vicious pogroms of 1964, to prevent Congress thugs from setting Muslim localities to torch. The performance of the Left Front in Bengal is evidence that if a government wants to, it can always prevent communal tension from boiling over into a riot.
The mother of all paradoxes, of course, is that economic reform brought a hint of communal tension to Bengal in 2007, rather than reverse it. Being conscientious the Marxists have begun to implement a radical educational-cum-economic programme for minorities, crafted by Prakash Karat and the Bengal party. This virtual manifesto could be the most important benefit that Bengal’s Muslims have got since independence. In political terms: last year the Marxists in Bengal could not have escaped defeat. Elections this year will be a different story.
What of the great Hindi heartland, battlefield of a thousand complexes and indeed complexions?
The easy answer is that the Yadav-Muslim alliance created by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav ensured the peace that had disappeared during the previous decades of Congress rule. This is only partially true. What is certain is that these Yadav leaders honoured the compact with Muslims by ensuring their security. The Congress in UP and Bihar took Muslim support for granted and then, without the least tremor of conscience, betrayed the community. But the Muslim vote has shifted partially, to Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and the old plague has not returned.
Mayawati and Nitish Kumar are not in the Congress, so they maintain the tradition of amity set by their predecessors. But the real answer may be in the behaviour of people rather in the predilections of politicians.
The agenda of the Indian voter has changed. He, and more importantly she, is no longer easily swayed by emotional appeals to crude forms of identity, whether it is religion or caste. Caste and religion peaked with Mandal and Masjid between 1990 and 1992; fifteen years later, there are signs that both volcanoes are finally still. Narendra Modi did not promise a temple at Ayodhya to win in Gujarat, and his attacks on Muslims were comparatively muted. He swept ahead on good governance. The Mandal maestros, Lalu and Mulayam Yadav, have been defeated. If Mulayam Singh Yadav is reviving in Uttar Pradesh it is because Mayawati is slipping on governance. If Lalu Yadav is still in the dumps, it is because Nitish Kumar is delivering on governance.
Obviously this is not a uniform reality. India is too complicated a polity for one formulation to cover all electoral nuances. But good governance is the expanding motivator. The traditional talisman is dead. The voter now keeps a balance sheet in front of him. When he hears that the Indian economy has grown by nine per cent he wants to know if an extra nine rupees has gone into his pocket for every hundred that existed.
Tough question. But you can’t have the right answer without the right question.
The poor may not want an insurrection against the daily millionaires of the stock exchange, but they are not going to be minused from wealth creation, or remain content with that infamous trickle that the World Bank has allotted to them, and which India’s World Bank clients in the present government think is sufficient for the poor.
Wealth is like knowledge. If you do not share it, it disappears.