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India’s Great Educational Divide


A cutout of Narendra Modi adorning a bus at his party’s headquarters in Mumbai.CreditDivyakant Solanki/European Pressphoto Agency 

It is hard not to try to see in the politics of another country a version of one’s own. To match Democrat in America with Labour in England, or, say, Congress in India; to find an easy affinity between Republican and Tory, and now, perhaps, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pleasing as these symmetries are, and flat as the world may seem, they are false equivalencies. In fact, every society has a unique history of power, of which its politics are an expression.

In India, the Congress Party was liberal, left-leaning and secular; but it was also the party of the colonized elite. That meant that practically everyone who was rich, and educated, and grew up speaking English, was also invariably a supporter of Congress.

I say this because, if for a moment we suspend our own political affiliations, and look at the forces of left and right simply in terms of the one as representing class movement and change, and the other as defending the existing order, it would have to be said that the Congress Party behaved much more like an old-fashioned conservative party — clubbish and aloof — than anything we can expect from the left. This was the party ousted from power last year by the election of Mr. Modi; and yes, if social revolutions at the ballot boxes of big democracies excite you, it was thrilling.

I spent the duration of the election shuttling between its crucible, in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and the drawing rooms of Delhi, where the political elite of the city, a cozy cabal of like-minded journalists and politicians, quaked at the rise of Mr. Modi. I had grown up in this world, and it was one in which class mattered much more than political difference. Nor was its cynicism confined to any one party. I remember being present when the son of a B.J.P. chief minister, a woman now in trouble over corruption, was asked why he wanted to enter politics. “Money,” he said easily, and no one minded. That was the kind of world it was.

Mr. Modi posed a mortal threat to the safety and entitlement of this world, and it was part of his appeal. Nor was there anything sinister in the mandate. Given his background in Hindu nationalism, he was justly an object of suspicion. But when journalists from Delhi would prod voters into giving sectarian reasons for electing him, a majority would stoutly reply, “Why are you asking us about temples, when we’re telling you that we’re electing him because we think he’ll bring development?” That was the mandate. It was very moving, and like many, I held my breath.

I see now that I was focused too much on the world the election would supplant, and too little on the one it would bring into being. Because if the Modi election has made anything clear, it is that, one, a social revolution of a kind has already occurred in India; and two, the people, now in charge, might not possess the intellectual power needed to run the country.

The cabinet, save for the rare exception, is made up of too many crude, bigoted provincials, united far more by a lack of education than anything so grand as ideology. At the time of writing — and here the one will have to speak for the many — Mr. Modi’s minister of culture had just said of a former Muslim president: “Despite being a Muslim, he was a great nationalist and humanist.”

Some 10 days later, there was the hideous incident in which a Muslim man was lynched by a Hindu mob in a village outside Delhi, on the suspicion of slaughtering a cow and eating beef. It was a defining moment, the culmination of 16 months of cultural chauvinism and hysteria under Mr. Modi, the scarcely veiled target of which are India’s roughly 170 million Muslims. This ugliness is eclipsing Mr. Modi’s development agenda, and just this week, there was yet another incident in which a Kashmiri politician was attacked in Srinagar for hosting “a beef party.”

Poisonous as these attitudes are, they have much more to do with class than politics. They are so obviously part of the vulgarity that accompanies violent social change. If the great drama of our grandparents’ generation was independence, and our parents’ that post-colonial period, ours represents the twilight of the (admittedly flawed) English-speaking classes, and an unraveling of the social and moral order they held in place. A new country is seething with life, but not all vitality is pretty, and there now exists a glaring cultural and intellectual gap between India’s old, entrenched elite and the emerging electorate.

In other places, education would have helped close the gap; it would have helped the country make a whole of the social change it was witnessing. No society is so equitable that men as economically far apart as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — or as Ed Miliband and David Cameron, for that matter — would have attended the same schools. But, in England and America, there is Oxford and Yale to level the field, to give both men the means to speak to each other.

This is not true of India. In India, one class has had access to the best private schools and foreign universities, where all the instruction is in English; the other has had to make do with the state schools and universities Indian socialism bequeathed them. The two classes almost never meet; they don’t even speak the same language. It has left India divided between an isolated superelite (and if you’re an Indian reading this, you’re probably part of it!) and an emerging middle class that may well lack the intellectual tools needed to channel its vitality.

The prime minister himself — and his background makes Mr. Clinton’s poor Arkansas childhood seem like Greenwich — is a case in point. He’s no fool; his instincts are superb; but his ignorance is startling. Speaking to the journalist Fareed Zakaria last year, before his United States visit, Mr. Modi chose to answer a question, through a translator, on Russia’s annexation of Crimea this way: “There’s a saying in India that the person who should throw a stone first is the person who has not committed any sins.”

There is of course no such saying in India. The prime minister was unknowingly quoting the Bible — John 8:7 — to international audiences, and in the bargain giving President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a clean chit. It was hard to watch, hard not to ask the inevitable question: What else did a man who knew so little not know? And were his limitations not responsible for the most serious of the charges his government now stood accused of: the tinkering reforms, the ham-handed responses to dissent, the inability to control the fringe, the interference with education and, perhaps most damningly, of overlaying a still unchanged Indian reality with a lot of well-intentioned but empty talk?

In another society, with the benefit of a real education, Mr. Modi might have been something more than he was. Then it would be possible to imagine a place with real political differences, and not one in which left and right were divided along the blade of a knife by differences in class, language and education. But just as that other society does not yet exist, neither does that other Modi. Indians will have to make do with the Modi they have; and, as things stand, perhaps the cynics are right: Perhaps this great hope of Indian democracy, with his limited reading and education, is not equal to the enormous task before him.

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