This writer has recently been studying the subject of how empires, regimes and dynasties have collapsed in different parts of the world and in different ages. This is truly a Herculean task and has attracted the attention and energies of much more eminent scholars than yours truly. However, I believe it is necessary to keep at this task and to bring certain perspectives to it that professional historians may not have done fully.
The immediate stimulus for this exercise has been the risible “last moments” symptoms that the current ruling dispensation in India has been displaying. Admittedly, it is not yet the death rattle that we hear but something pretty much resembling it. Moreover, the Congress and its allies have shown such remarkable dexterity in the past to come out of near-death experiences that many observers are still reluctant to certify the desi GOP as a terminal case.
In fact, the more appropriate focus in our study should be how the Congress has survived so long. How is it that such a tainted, moth-eaten, venal and inefficient system managed to thrive and prosper over the last 7 decades and more, when it should have met its divine maker many times during this period ? Certainly, the old Indian National Congress (INC), which had such a glorious history in its initial five decades, died an inglorious death in 1939 when M.K. Gandhi and his cronies conspired to force out Netaji Subhas after the Tripuri Congress session. Earlier, when Netaji had soundly trounced Gandhi’s candidate Pattabhi Sitaramaiyya to become the Congress President, Gandhi, in an astounding display of pique, lamented that “Pattabhi’s defeat is my defeat”. This was when the INC started its inglorious march to perfidy. The transformation was complete by the late 1940s, when Nehru managed to neutralize Sardar Patel, the last of the true nationalists.
Therefore, we must logically ask the same question that Edward Gibbon posed when he penned his epic treatise, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In the context of the Italianate ambience of our country these days, this is as appropriate a historical canvas as anything else. What Gibbon could not understand was how the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did, and did not collapse much earlier. These are his words:
The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long.
The only caveat that this writer has is the notion of “immoderate greatness” as applied to the Congress at this juncture. Earlier greatness, yes. But, let us not quibble. The rest of the analogy is accurate; the prosperity of the party and its ruling cabal has certainly “ripened” the decay. And the readers will certainly identify all the other similarities. Some other resemblances from Gibbon’s study are stark and will easily strike a chord in readers today.
Let us spend a little more time on the analogies, with the current equivalents in parentheses. The other reasons cited by Gibbons included the adoption of Christianity (“secularism”) as the official religion, and a “decline in civic virtue”. The huge cost of maintaining bridges, roads and aqueducts over such a vast territory” (the Indian bureaucracy and other mammoth white elephants of the Indian state) has also been identified as a contributing factor, as has the expense of maintaining enough legions (police, paramilitary and military) to control the empire.
Increases in taxation were also highly unpopular, while increased trade with India and China, through the Silk Route, may have caused a crippling trade imbalance.The rising cost of ever more spectacular gladiatorial games (tamashas and soap-operas of the desi government in the form of various official functions) has also been posited as a theory for the decline. The once-invincible Roman army was weakened by factional fighting and its ranks were diluted by the introduction of large numbers of Germanic tribesmen. One can go on for a long time with these comparisons, but readers will surely be able to see the gist.
While the collapse of the Roman empire provides valuable socio-economic insights, other parallels nearer our times must also be analysed. The French Revolution is the classic model of the overthrow of an utterly despotic, corrupt, decadent and inefficient regime, whose resemblance to the current Indian situation is remarkable. And it is to this momentous event that we must now turn our attention.
Modern studies of the French Revolution have placed a lot of emphasis on one factor that traditional historians have not fully appreciated. This is the concept of the “de-sanctifying of the monarchy” in the period just before the revolution. For this writer, this is a very interesting perspective. Because, what we are witnessing in recent years in our shores is also the de-sanctifying of the Congress, its “legends” and its “ideology.” Instead of the hagiographies that Indian historians (aided and abetted by utterly venal official institutions like the Indian Council of Historical Research) had produced in the last five decades, there is now a generation of historians and social scientists who are prepared to call the bluff. Admittedly, they still face fierce opposition from the old coterie but they have been increasingly more victorious in the bitter wars that are being waged in Indian academia.
To return to the events in France in the years preceding 1789, what the country saw was a new understanding of what “public good” meant and the growing belief that “thinking” citizens might seize the state and fundamentally restructure it. The overall situation was also conducive to a revolution. In theory at least, the country was an absolute monarchy, an increasingly unpopular form of government at the time. In practice, the king’s ability to exercise his theoretically absolute power was constrained by the power and prerogatives of the nobility and the clergy, two remnants of feudalism that were also detested by ordinary citizens. To add to the instability, the peasants were deeply resentful of the relatively greater privileges enjoyed by the urban population.
The large and growing middle class, as also some of the nobility and the workers, had absorbed the ideology of equality and freedom of the individual, popularized by scholars and philosophers like Voltaire, Turgot, Diderot and other theorists of the Enlightenment. The events in America a few years earlier had proved that the ideals of government structures proposed in the theories of the Enlightenment were plausible and could be put into practice. This coalition of forces and groups attacked the undemocratic nature of the government, pushed for freedom of speech, and challenged the Catholic Church and the prerogatives of the nobles.
If revolutionary ideas could be propagated so successfully in an era where there was neither the net nor electronic media, one can visualize how the situation is currently panning out in our shores and indeed in many other countries. The other resemblance is on the economic front and it would be worthwhile to ponder a bit on this theme. The economic inequalities in pre-Revolutionary France were appalling, as is the case now in India. Some segments of the population, like the nobility and the clergy, were exempted from taxation (it is scarcely necessary to point out the Indian equivalent) and there were private tax collectors who extracted more taxes than the government’s requirement, the additional amount being pocketed by them. “Consumption” taxes (similar to our indirect taxes like excise, VAT and Service Tax) were arbitrary and unequal. All these problems were aggravated by a severe food shortage, particularly that of bread. No need to press the similarities further.
Bread brings us to the unfortunate story of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, the vastly unpopular Austrian-born wife of the king, Louis XVI. Her notorious “if they can’t get bread, let them eat cake” statement, although universally attributed to her, was not definitively proved. Yet, such was the antipathy of the people of France to their foreign queen, that they were quite willing to believe that the atrocious remark was authentic. In this country, too, we have had the experience of the loyal courtiers in the Congress making monumentally-asinine pronouncements that more than equal the Austrian woman’s gaffes more than two centuries earlier. And their genuflections and odious displays of servility to their foreign-born chief are faithful replications of what happened in a distant country long ago.
And the foreign empress syndrome brings me to the third case-study in this essay, which is the Russian Revolution of 1917. The social and economic scenario was very similar to that of France in the late 18th century. In 1916, almost 75% of the Russian population comprised peasants who lived and farmed in small villages. Although serfdom (which allowed peasants to be owned and traded by landowners) was theoretically abolished in 1861, their condition had hardly improved. They were given small tracts of land that were barely cultivable and they were obliged to pay the government a sum of money for their “freedom”. The result was widespread indebtedness, poverty and subsistence-farming among the farmers. Large-scale immigration of farmers to urban areas was the natural outcome. Half the farming families had one member at least who had left the village to find other work in the towns. As the central Russian population boomed, land became scarce. The appalling life-standard of the peasants was in sharp contrast to that of the rich landowners, who held 20% of the land in large estates and were often members of the Russian upper class.
In the industrial sector, the situation was equally dismal and here again there are many similarities to the Indian scenario. The industrial revolution came to Russia in the 1890s, much after it had come to western Europe, and the industrial sector, therefore, was not very advanced or extensive. Russia’s cities began to expand and large numbers of peasants moved to the cities to take up new jobs. By the turn of the nineteenth century, millions of Russians were in these tightly-packed and poorly-planned urban conglomerations, experiencing problems like poor and cramped housing, bad wages, and limited rights in their jobs. The government was afraid of the developing urban class, but more afraid of driving foreign investment away by supporting better wages, and, therefore, the country never saw any serious legislation for reforming the awful economic system that prevailed. It should also be stressed that the urban work-force continued to retain close links and ties to their agricultural families.
These workers swiftly began to grow politicised and resented government restrictions on their protests, thus forming a fertile ground for the socialist revolutionaries, who moved between cities and exile in Siberia. In order to try and counter the spread of anti-Tsarist ideology, the government formed legal, but subservient, trade unions to take the place of the banned popular outfits. In 1905, and 1917, heavily-politicised socialist workers played major roles in the national upheavals, although there were many different factions and beliefs under the umbrella of ‘socialism’. To add to this explosive combination, was the criminal mismanagement of the economy by the Tsarist government and the horrendous impact of the First World War, in which the Russian troops suffered mind-boggling casualties.
The Romanov Tsar Nicholas II had a simplistic answer to any popular political upsurge – a return to the seventeenth century of Peter the Great and the resurrection of a late-medieval Russia – instead of reforming and modernizing the system. To add to his woes, he had his wife, the German-born Tsarina Alexandra, who was a perpetual albatross around his neck. This overview of another foreign-Empress syndrome is bound to be deeply embarrassing for the factotums in 24 Akbar Road and 10 Janpath. Alexandra was deeply contemptuous of her adopted country and retained strong pan-German feelings. She also firmly believed in autocratic rule and always asserted her husband’s divine right to rule Russia. She was dismissive of those political advisers of the Tsar who were loyal to him. Hysterical, and morbidly suspicious, she hated everyone except her immediate family and a series of crooked or lunatic charlatans, like Rasputin, who offered comfort to her desperate soul.
Suffice to say, that both the foreign-born spouses, Marie Antoinette and Alexandra, were important factors in their spouses meeting violent deaths, when revolutions swept away their respective dynasties and regimes.
While wrapping up this first segment of a continuing analysis of regime changes and end of dynasties, I would like to conclude with a brilliant analysis of systemic changes and their repercussions by the last renaissance figure this country has produced. And I am sure that there will not be more than a minuscule number of readers who will accuse me of quoting Tagore merely because I am a Bengali. Here is the savant in “The Crisis of Civilisation”, written just a few months before he passed away :
If in its place they have established, with baton in hand, a reign of ‘law and order’, in other words a policeman’s rule, such mockery of civilization can claim no respect from us. It is the mission of civilization to bring unity among people and establish peace and harmony. But in unfortunate India, the social fabric is being torn into shreds by unseemly outbursts of hooliganism, daily growing in intensity, right under the very aegis of ‘law and order’
The wheels of fate will some day compel the English to give up their Indian empire. But what kind of India will they leave behind, what stark misery? When the stream of their centuries’ administration runs dry at last, what a waste of mud and filth they will leave behind them!
The sage was, of course, referring to the end of the British Empire in India. However, replace a few words in the above text by others and you will read the titan talking about contemporary times. Now you know why I call him the Renaissance Man.
The author is a Delhi-based analyst in corporate laws and finance.