Democracy in a New Nation
In 1831, a twenty-six year old French nobleman by name Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville landed in America carrying a commission from the French monarch Louis-Philippe (of the House of Orlèans) to study the American prison system.
Tocqueville dutifully completed his mission and published his report on his return to France two years later where it is now gathering dust in libraries. He wrote another work based on extensive travels in the new country called De la démocratie en Amerique (Democracy in America) which appeared in two volumes in 1835. It has remained a classic. A point made by Tocqueville was that to Americans political freedom was inseparable from religious freedom.
Democracy in India: the Nehru Legacy
There is no single work on Indian democracy comparable to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. India of the 1990s was also vastly more complex than the United States of the 1830s— a multi-religious society with a power sharing hierarchy based on caste, while America was largely Protestant Christian but with significant social and economic differences based on landholding and slavery.
While there is no Indian version of Tocqueville’s book, the void is partly filled by two works that in different ways look at India in the fifth decade since independence. These are The Idea of India by the political theorist Sunil Khilnani, now at King’s College, London, and India: A million mutinies now by the well-known observer of India (and of much else), V.S. Naipaul.
It is not the purpose here to review this much-reviewed book, but examine the insights offered by serious thinkers of different backgrounds in the light of the experience of the succeeding twenty years, especially by Sir Vidia Naipaul who by any measure is a creative writer of the highest order who studies societies by looking at individuals in their historical environment.
A million mutinies now is Mr. Naipaul’s third book on India. It is not marked by the pervasive sense of gloom of his earlier works on India, reminiscent in some ways of the brooding genius of the Greek tragedian Aeschylus (or his modern counterpart Eugene O’Neill).
There is a hint of optimism— that one is seeing a civilization coming out a millennium-long historical nightmare. He even sees the Ayodhya movement and the 1992 demolition of Babar’s Mosque as part of this historical awakening. This has earned him the charge of being a ‘Hindutva spokesman’, but Mr. Naipaul has not relented from his position. (This is not the place to go into different sides of the complex Ayodhya dispute; those interested in archaeological and other facts relating to the case are advised to visit http://folks.co.in/blog/2009/11/10/the-evidence-at-ayodhya/)
It is not easy to describe a writer as versatile as V.S. Naipaul in a few words. His non-fiction works are often described as travelogues but that seems inadequate. (His fiction is not germane here.) This writer sees him as an observer of societies— of their ebb and flow against the background of their historical experience. Above all he looks for causes for the present in their past— the stamp of history on society. The Indians’ supposed lack of a sense of history is what infuriated him in his earlier books on India (Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization), while he sees signs of a historical awakening in A Million Mutinies Now.
In his non-fiction work Naipaul is said to adopt an ‘anecdotal’ approach— of describing societies and institutions (like caste) through the experience of selected individuals. This is only partly true, for he never loses sight of their historical background. As a result he is interested not only in the subject, but also the experience of ancestors going back two or three generations. In effect he portrays scenes using ‘case studies’— to borrow a term from business school parlance.
The result is wonderful literature especially in the hands of a master like Naipaul, but also one that can seduce the reader into thinking that the cases presented are typical of the class (or caste) as a whole. This may not always be so. Different individuals may share the same history but how they react to it can and does vary from case to case. This writer happens to come from the same region and social background (South India) described in some detail in A Million Mutinies but feels that the portrayals convey a society more rigid than the one his or even his parents’ generation were part of.
Philistinism of Dravidian Politics
The book rightly devotes considerable space to the influence of the Dravidian Movement, especially in Tamil Nadu. Mr. Naipaul has little to say on the philistinism of the Dravidian Movement, which is what strikes someone coming from a neighboring state.
Tamil Nadu has been one of the great centers of the performing arts: Tanjore, Chennai, Srirangam and other centers played a major role in development and nurturing of classical music and dance. Dravidian ideologues denounced them as ‘Brahminical’ replacing it with vulgar film music and dance. It is no coincidence that several Dravidian leaders, including M. Karunanidhi happen be closely associated with the film industry. In some ways the Dravidian Movement can be compared to Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
In attacking the fine arts and Indian tradition as ‘Brahminical’ Karunanidhi and his colleagues were taking a page out of a long standing tradition begun by Christian missionaries going back at least to Robert de Nobili in the 17th century.
E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker is said to be the founder of the Dravidian Movement, but the real founder was Robert Caldwell (1814 – 91), Bishop of Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. He created the Aryan-Dravidian theory claiming that Dravidians were the original inhabitants of India until driven south by the invading Aryans.
This crackpot theory has been discredited by archaeology and now genetics, but remains the lynchpin of the Dravidian ideology. Politicians like Karunanidhi have gone to great lengths to preserve this myth, even to the extent of generously supporting mercenary scholars like Asko Parpola of Finland to give it a veneer of scholarly respectability.
Notwithstanding his discredited theories, Bishop Caldwell remains a revered figure in Tamil Nadu today. At a conference in Bangalore a few years back, this writer objected to a scholar from Tamil Nadu heaping indiscriminate praise on Caldwell’s work. The speaker ignored the objections but later admitted in private that he had to praise Caldwell in order to survive in Tamil Nadu. This kind of politicization of scholarship is not unknown in other parts of India. In this respect, India remains a feudal society.
In A Million Mutinies Now Mr. Naipaul gives a vivid picture of the formidable E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (1879 – 1973) known as ‘Periyar’ (Elder) with all the contradictions of his complex personality. To begin with, this champion of the downtrodden was not a poor Tamilian but a Kannada speaker from a wealthy family. Ms. Jayalalithaa, the present chief minister of Tamil Nadu is also from Karnataka and a Brahmin to boot. Her mentor M.G. Ramachandran too was not a Tamilian but a Keralite born in Sri Lanka.
The most arresting part of A Million Mutinies Now is the description of the effect on the Muslim psyche of two major events— the 1857 uprising that led to the British takeover of the Oudh (or Oude) kingdom and the Partition of India in 1947.
The scene of Mr. Naipaul’s narrative is Lucknow, the last light of Muslim culture that was rudely extinguished by the British following the Mutiny. The Partition broke Muslim families resulting in disruption and disillusionment. Many migrated to the Land of the Pure (Pakistan) only to return, their refined sensibilities unable to cope with the crude materialism of the Punjabis. These included artists of the highest rank like the great singer Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. (He was not from Lucknow though Lucknow has a great tradition of classical music.)
The social loss following the Partition when much of the Muslim elite left for Pakistan is understandable, but what is baffling is the deep resentment still held against the British for destroying their dream city of Lucknow and the refined culture it represented as the capital of Oudh (or Oude). Mr. Naipaul gives a vivid and sometimes poignant account of the hurt still felt by many Lucknow Muslims at the loss of paradise.
He is in his element in describing the world as seen by them and its clash with reality (‘End of the Line’). One can understand their agony— their sense of defeat and dispossession, but the atavistic attachment to a world that disappeared 150 years ago is hard to comprehend.
Does one carry this hurt forever— a hurt that time seems powerless to heal? Is it a coincidence that the culture of Lucknow was Shia, with its own memory of the martyrdom of Ali and his supporters in the Battle of Karbala of 610 AD?
What a burden to carry!
India of Nehru’s Vision: A State without National Roots
As Nehru saw it, the Indian nation was synonymous with Indian democracy: to Nehru, nation building meant building India as a democratic state. In the words of Sunil Khilnani-
Nehru’s idea of India sought to coordinate within the form of a modern state… democracy, religious tolerance, economic development and cultural pluralism.
He failed to note that this was accompanied by a disdain for its ancient heritage as giving it a national identity.A question to be asked is why has democracy taken such deep roots in India? Even during the Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, people were prepared to oppose it and go to jail. One may dismiss the romantic notion that India had democratic institutions in ancient times and the experience was nothing new.
One should recognize that a power sharing hierarchy was part of society in the institution of varna. As far back as 1949, Dr. D.V. Gundappa pointed out that the system must have served some function for it to survive for thousands of years. As sociologist M.N. Srinivas pointed out, “caste” is always changing— it is not today what it was in 1949. This was pointed out also by the medieval historian K.S. Lal in his work The Growth of Scheduled Tribes and Castes in Medieval India.
For India’s economic development Nehru followed the Soviet model of centralized planning. Some scholars suggest that it owed less to Soviet Russia than to Europe. If so, Harold Laski of the London School of Economics was a major influence.
According to the U.S. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith who was close to Nehru, “the center of Nehru’s thinking was Laski” and “India is the country most influenced by Laski’s ideas”. It is mainly due to his influence that the LSE has a semi-mythological status in India. He was a revered figure to Indian students at the LSE. The most influential of Laski’s Indian students was Nehru’s favorite V.K. Krishna Menon.
India was not the only country influenced by Laski. He attracted a large number of students from third world countries who went home to apply his ideas to their newly independent countries often leading to political instability and economic ruin.
While there is no denying Laski’s influence, Nehru’s admiration for the Soviet Union is a matter of record that should not be swept under the rug. In his Soviet Union, Some Random Sketches (1926) Nehru wrote:
Russia interests us because… conditions there have not been, and are not even now, very dissimilar to conditions in India… Much depends on the prejudices and preconceived notions… [but] no one can deny the fascination of this strange Eurasian country of the hammer and the sickle, where workers and peasants sit on the thrones of the mighty and upset the best laid schemes of mice and men.
Curiously, Nehru’s admiration extended even to the Lubyanka— the notorious Moscow prison with the beautiful name. Nehru wrote-
It can be said without a shadow of a doubt, that to be in a Russian prison is far more preferable than [sic] to be a worker in an Indian factory. The mere fact that there are prisons like the ones we saw is in itself something for the Soviet Government to be proud of. [Emphasis added]
For a man who could admire Soviet prisons, it was not hard to admire and adopt the Soviet system of planning. Did Indira Gandhi share his admiration during the Emergency when she threw thousands into prison?
To give shape to his economic plans, Nehru turned to the highly regarded statistician P.C. Mahalanobis. Mahalanobis was as much an institution builder as a scientist (and self-promoter). He was the force behind the Planning Commission as he had been of the famed Indian Statistical Institute. The ISI though owes no less to the contribution of others, notably mathematician C.R. Rao and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane. Mahalanobis succeeded in convincing Nehru that his tour de force, a mathematical magic box that he modestly called the ‘Mahalanobis Model’ could be the answer to the economic analysis needed for the five year plans.
Like the legendary Kama Dhenu of Hindu mythology, the Mahalanobis Model could grant any wish in the form of numbers: one had only state one’s wish and it spat out the desired numbers. Armed with his ‘Model’, Mahalanobis went on to become Nehru’s soothsayer and number cruncher. It attracted little foreign investment—if anything it did the opposite with several companies closing their Indian operations—but attracted droves of economists.
Another legacy was a feudal system of favored ‘experts’ to advise the government like Mahalanobis, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai (another scientist turned numerologist), and most recently Sam Pitroda and Montek Ahluwalia. Their legacy is still being felt.
Twenty Years After: The State of the Nehru Dream
India is a post-colonial state, even a Nehruvian state. This state has existed only since 1947, with frontiers and institutions largely as the British had left them. Even the Indian Constitution owes much to the 1935 Government of India Act. The Indian experience has shown that democracy is compatible with Asian cultures— at least with the Indian culture. At least some of the credit should go to the hierarchical power sharing built into varna. After all, every state is a hierarchical system or it is anarchy.
The Congress fortunes were artificially boosted in 2004 by the performance of its allies in two southern states— Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Elections over the years suggest that voting patterns no longer strictly follow caste patterns although the point is debatable. Or we should perhaps say that caste has changed in response to democratic experience and no longer fits into the pattern prescribed by vote bank calculations.
Shortly before his death in 1999, sociologist M.N. Srinivas edited a book he called Caste: Its twentieth century avatar. In a lengthy introduction Srinivas, India’s greatest sociologist and the foremost student of the role of caste in society observed that caste is a dynamic system and should not be treated as fixed for all time.
But then, this was how caste and Hindu society in general were portrayed and analyzed by Western scholars and Indians who took their cue from them. A feature of the post-Nehru and post-Indira era was the emergence of caste and community based politics and political parties. This was captured by Srinivas in the phrase ‘vote bank’— a term he coined in 1955.
In all this, there was an implicit assumption that caste and community loyalties remain frozen and can always be tapped for votes. An often ignored fact is that caste parties like the SP and the BSP only capitalized on the caste and community-based political paradigm (or vote bank politics) introduced and institutionalized by the Congress. They did not innovate it. C. Rajagoplachari (Rajaji), a critic of Nehru had observed as far back as 1963:
What the Congress Party does speaks far louder than its preaching. Communalism is at the root of all the decisions of the Congress Party… Instead of allowing and encouraging a natural synthesis of castes and communities in a developing continent, the coming together is directed to be brought about through political affiliation to Congress and through that means alone. The result is instead of casteism disappearing, a new and worse caste has been created— the caste of the ruling party.
Winning elections in pursuit of power became the be-all and end-all of the Congress leadership, everything else became secondary. This was a natural corollary of Nehru’s idea of nationalism as democratic expression through elections. Rajaji was remarkably prescient when he predicted:
…this new caste has come to be a worse type of the old feudal tyrannies and caste dominations. Corruption and disintegration are the natural corollaries of this domination of a new caste.
Nehru’s idea of the nation as a democratic state must bear a share for this.
Even Rajaji, for all his vision and experience did not foresee the dominance of the party and the nation not by a new caste but a nouveau riche family headed by a European woman with no record of service to the nation, or experience in public life and her feudal court.
Nehru’s nationalism was buried for good when the Congress surrendered itself and the nation to Sonia Gandhi in 1998. For the moment, she had won the “contest for the ownership of the state” as Khilnani puts it, and all the perks and privileges that go with it while giving little in return. Narrowing nationalism to mean democratic pursuit of power led to this, aided by the accident of marriage.
How would Nehru have reacted to this? We have a pointer. When the last Maharaja of Holkar died, Nehru refused to allow his son to succeed to the largely ceremonial title because his mother was an American. Was this because Nehru was a xenophobic chauvinist as those questioning Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s fitness for constitutional office have been called?
Ever since Mrs. Sonia Gandhi gained control of the government in 2004, corruption escalated manifold. The degradation of Nehru’s India reached a new depth when the ‘distinguished economist’ Manmohan Singh used his position as prime minister to bailout Mrs. Gandhi’s partner, the Italian swindler Ottavio Quattrocchi.
Another development is the bankruptcy of Nehruvian secularism to the point it is now little more than a dirty word. Nehru himself started the debasement by introducing the Haj Bill in 1959 for providing financial subsidies to Muslims going on Haj Pilgrimage. The idea of Haj subsidy goes against the principle of secularism as well as the teachings of Islam.
Sonia Gandhi took it to a much lower level when she humbly accepted the ‘honor’ of the King Leopold Knighthood from the Belgian Government—instituted by Leopold, a mass murderer who puts Hitler in the shade.
During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi introduced the word ‘secularism’ into the Indian Constitution without defining it. Ever since that time, ‘secularism’ has been invoked in the service of vote bank politics— to justify the unjustifiable. At the same time, the nightmare scenario of communal polarization predicted by many has not come to pass.
Urbanization and better communications like satellite TV and mobile phones, the Internet and social media have brought about rapid changes in caste and its role in society. The results of the last several elections—not just the latest—suggest that voters are looking beyond caste in selecting leaders. In 2007, Mayawati came to power in U.P. on the back of a caste coalition. But her failure to rise above caste considerations and poor performance resulted in a resounding defeat five years later. The victorious leader, the 37 year-old Akhilesh Yadav appealed to all constituencies and emphasized effective governance and development.
If recent results are any indication, the days of the Congress party are numbered. The not-so-youthful Crown Prince Rahul Gandhi has shown himself to be singularly inept and unequal to the task of reviving the party’s fortunes, but no alternative is in sight. Family monopoly has come back to haunt the party. As the 2012 U.P. election was getting close, a comedy of errors was enacted with Rahul’s sister Priyanka accompanied by her little children hitting the campaign trail soon followed by her husband Robert Vadra. Neither had any experience in public life but felt qualified because of the family connection. Anywhere else it would be called nepotism but the Indian media described it as dynastic charisma. But the Indian voter who showed he was capable of looking beyond caste showed himself capable of seeing through dynastic pretensions also. You cannot fool all the people all the time.
Only time will tell whether this is a harbinger of things to come. Caste has two faces— social and political. As India becomes increasingly urbanized, and urban ideas make their way into the villages, the social aspect of caste may be diffused by economic and educational considerations. This is already happening among educated urbanites.
Politically, caste may not altogether disappear but may continue to serve in its age old role of ensuring that no one group becomes oppressive by cornering all the resources. In short, it brings us back to Srinivas’s observation that varna is an essential feature of Indian society, but not something frozen in time or space.