Some of us remember from our schooldays the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” This is not only the most famous beginning of an English novel but it also captures the contradictions in our present-day life in India. Let me illustrate with two recent events.
We celebrated ‘the best of times’ at midnight on Friday, June 30, when what seemed like a distant dream became a reality as the goods and services tax (GST) replaced 17 state and central taxes to make India one common market. It was a visionary constitutional moment as our states voluntarily gave up some sovereignty in taxation for the common good.
Ironically, when the English are fighting for symbols of sovereignty, Indians chose a mature path of ‘pooled sovereignty’ based on a sobering recognition that freedom to act independently in our interconnected world is an illusion. The GST is not perfect but it is good enough to get started.
A week earlier, it was our ‘worst of times’ as we mourned helplessly the killing of 15-year-old Junaid Khan. He came to Delhi to stitch a new suit but never got to wear it. On the way home, he was attacked by a mob that accused him of being a beef-eater. “He was a child… How could they hate us so much to have killed him so brutally?” asked his father. Junaid’s slaying is the latest in a string of anti-Muslim attacks by anonymous, bloodthirsty mobs, who form randomly in different parts of the country and are thus harder to prevent.
How does the mind come to grips with these two conflicting events? Charles Dickens wrestled with a similar dilemma posed by the French Revolution, which offered a ‘spring of hope’ by ending an oppressive old regime but also brought in its wake death and destruction in a ‘winter of despair’.
In India today, we are struggling with a moral dilemma between development and secularism. But why must we choose — why can’t we have both secularism and growth? Unfortunately, the Congress party will give us secularism but not growth and Modi’s BJP will give us growth but not secularism.
Congress has historically promised both but only delivered secularism because of its flawed economic model. As a result of the cumulative impact of the reforms post 1991, it did preside over high growth between 2003 and 2011. But then it promptly made a false trade-off between growth and equity and predictably GDP growth plunged after 2011, destroying millions of jobs.
As a result, Indian voters booted it out in 2014, and brought in Modi, who promised a more credible path to growth via job creation. Many in the middle-of-the-road who voted for the BJP were aware of the stain of Gujarat 2002 but felt theirs was a calculated risk.
Since then, economic recovery has been slow, the promised jobs have not yet come, and we face the risk of sacrificing another generation. The sporadic attacks on minorities, meanwhile, have wounded our civilisation’s foundational value of ahimsa.
It seems odd to morally equate the ideals of secularism and development. Writer Ajaz Ashraf says it is a ‘leap of moral imagination to establish equivalence between the Gujarat riots and the imperative of creating new jobs’. Ethical theories measure morality based either on ends or means. Utilitarians and political leaders, who seek ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’, judge an act based on consequences or ends.
Thus, Vidura, the royal counsellor in the Mahabharata, tells the king that he should sacrifice a person for the sake of a village and the village for the sake of a nation. The opposite theory is based on duties and judges morality on the actor’s motives. Since killing undermines the duty of ahimsa, duty-based ethics would choose secularism over development while utilitarians would do the opposite.
Ethical dilemmas are not easy to resolve. Platitudes are cheap — ‘means matter more than ends’; ‘one life is worth more than lifting millions out of poverty’. When there is a conflict between duties, utilitarian ethics is more useful. If a party emerged one day which would deliver growth and secularism then our moral dilemma would disappear. In the meantime, each of us must make an informed but unhappy choice.