23 Jan How Modern is Modern?
In our previous post (The Degeneration of Politics) we picked up a thread on dynastic politics in Ramachandra Guha’s new book (India after Gandhi, 2007) and commented that in India (and, by extension, South Asia) “the modern and the medieval exist at the same time” and that “the future of Indian politics will depend largely on the proportion of people left behind in medieval times.”
Amongst other things, this was triggered by Guha’s reference to a remark by Amartya Sen that as “inequalities intensify, half of India will come to look and live like California, the other half like sub-Saharan Africa.”
We have received interesting feedback from a reader that enables us to try and push the argument further:
Perhaps the one qualification I would make is that even the small segment one might call modern has never experienced anything like the Enlightenment directly, so that culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors. Sadly, even the younger generation appears to have taken to a sanitized religiosity.
If we leave religion aside and focus solely on modernity with respect to dynastic rule, I think the younger generation in urban areas is much more modern in this sense than our generation and I think the younger politicians too – often the sons of older politicians – entering the fray are very much more modern in this respect. I don’t think the younger generation will be as tolerant of dynasties. Of course, this is a small minority but it is growing. So, I think one might conclude that it may not be so much of a reversal from modern to medieval but a temporary downturn until the new generation comes in.
The second argument seems easier to dispute. We see little evidence that the new urban generation is less tolerant of dynasties. In fact, most of the people inheriting their positions in business and politics are members of the new generation. Nor do we see, much of a protest against the continuation of such practices from other members of the new generation who are not in the fortunate position to inherit much by way of assets or privileges.
The first point is a much more tricky one and also a great deal more interesting from the perspective of ideas. Clearly, we were amiss to conflate modernism with living in California and medievalism with living in sub-Saharan Africa. The economically “modern” (in the sense of a sharing an advanced standard of living) could coexist quite easily with the culturally “traditional” (in the sense of worldviews and belief systems).
So, the question really is how culturally modern is modern society in South Asia and what constitutes this modernity? We are struggling with this question and need a cultural sociologist to weigh in with greater expertise than we have at our disposal.
What we feel to be correct intuitively is the observation of our reader that “culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors.” And we also feel that the trend is in the “wrong” direction based on our agreement with the observation that “even the younger generation appears to have taken to a sanitized religiosity.”
We can perhaps illustrate our unease by picking up on another comment from Guha’s book (page 736) where, with reference to the 2004 elections, Guha quotes the political analyst Yogendra Yadav as saying: “India is perhaps the only large democracy in the world today where the turnout of the lower orders is well above that of the most privileged groups.”
Lower orders? Without being able to put our finger on it, this formulation seems to represent a worldview that is profoundly un-modern and one that Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book (The Burden of Democracy, 2003) holds responsible for the limitations of Indian democracy.
Going by our limited knowledge there has not yet occurred the kind of break point in Indian society that can be compared to that Cartesian pronouncement of “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”—a pronouncement that can be used as a marker of the separation between the traditional and the modern worldviews. This separation would characterize the fading away of the belief in a divinely ordained world (made up of lower and higher orders, to take one example) to a modern perspective that sees all arrangements as social outcomes that are amenable to change and improvement based on rational thought and action.
We are quite well aware that we are in deep waters here and would welcome a more informed discussion.