Narendra Modi has promised a sea change in governance in his first few months in power. His election campaign was fuelled on the buzzwords of efficiency and the dreams of unlocking India’s economic potential. The promise of minimum government also signals a hitherto unseen urgency in providing essential services and reducing bureaucratic hassles from getting in the way of results. With this in mind, the government has already promised a hundred new cities, inter-linking of rivers and subsequent overhaul of irrigation projects, more FDI and private sector engagement in key public projects, a dynamic foreign policy and a second green revolution. His record suggests that he will try to approach these herculean tasks on the shoulders of the bureaucracy and true to form, he has already organized what some have called a pep-talk, with the top secretaries in different departments.

In short, Modi promises to unleash modernity.

The philosophical underpinnings of this massive project have been put to insufficient scrutiny in recent times. Positivism is an approach to society that aims to uncover social laws and to predict human behavior. It produces knowledge that makes the more efficient administration of society possible. With the results of social scientific inquiry at their disposal, those that administer the social world can have greater confidence in their ability to steer society. This may seem like exactly what we need. Indeed, many philosophers and economists thought so and therefore craved the unprecedented ability to predict human actions and the unique capacity to control unanticipated consequences. Would it not lead to an expansion of human freedoms?

The consensus today is a resounding No. The project of logical positivism cannot keep faith with the ideals of Enlightenment. Nehru and Ambedkar shared this belief in science and its emancipatory capacities – they wanted to build India on the pillars of its dams, its technical institutes and a scientific, planned approach to modernization. Perhaps the greatest example of the failure of this model was the Soviet Union. Contrary to that, the Gandhian ideal of progress was something which would find favour with those sections of the country which modernity has left marginalized in its wake – the tribals, the “Maoists” in the Red Corridor, the North-East, the displaced people and the voiceless Dalits. Ironic as it may sound, but the RSS shares the Gandhian beliefs in economic nationalism and a more modest attempt at conquering nature. However the neoliberal project that Manmohan Singh inaugurated has acquired a momentum of its own and now it has its most strident champion in Narendra Modi.

The main problem with this style of governance is the erroneous belief that objective knowledge of society is possible while the reality of moral preferences is often subjective and arbitrary. It leaves human beings at the mercy of those with the power to use knowledge to administer social relations and to maximize economy and efficiency. This philosophy offers no challenge to what Max Weber called the “iron cage” in which the inhabitants of modern society seemed destined to be trapped because of the dominance of administrative rationality. This instrumental rationality is the greatest threat to the project of emancipation. Do people want a 100 more cities? What about those already living in urban slums? Do people want nuclear reactors in their neighborhoods? Is it fine to push for flexible hire-and-fire labour laws? The interest of the greater good promises a very seductive justification for choices that are not ours to make.

The triumph of instrumental reason was the main achievement of the Enlightenment, but greater success in mastering the physical world had the effect of extending the political control of society and diminishing human freedom. Individuals have become subjects to increasingly bureaucratized and disciplined forms of life. How then should Modi proceed when it is impossible to have knowledge of the ends and ideals that human beings should promote? How do we ground moral claims about freedom and how do we ensure that political efforts to promote human freedom do not degenerate into cruelty and domination? How can a commitment to human freedom inform social and political inquiry?

The short answer is – read Habermas. Or maybe if he prefers swadeshi intellectualizing, he could turn to that eminent advocate of a capacity-based approach to human freedoms, Amartya Sen.

Habermas argues that the only way to preserve actual social relations and for imagining improved social relations, is to recognize the importance of language and communicative action or deliberation. The commitment to open, public dialogue that recognizes each person’s formal right to express views is the exception, not the rule, in human history. We definitely need to be an exception. Habermas’ idea of ideal speech (in which all humans have equal rights to express their views about matters which affect them, in which all have equal possibilities of success and where decisions will be made on the basis of the force of the better argument) provides a way of highlighting major deficiencies in social life and of encouraging public debate about how such defects can be removed.

The conviction that underlies this approach to society and politics is that human beings can learn how to replace relations of domination and coercion with relations of dialogue and consent. There can be no better template for Modi’s project. Perhaps the Prime Minister could start by abrogating Sec. 66A of the IT Act!

(Ashish Kashyap graduated with a Masters in Computer Science from IIT Madras and is currently at IIT Bombay. He spends his time wishing he could write like Milan Kundera.)