Sunday, November 29, 2015

No gain from endless gripe

By Swapan Dasgupta

In his speech in the Rajya Sabha during the Constitution Day debate last week, the CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechuri expressed both concern and amusement that the BJP was inveigling its way into securing for itself a role in the freedom struggle. His speech mirrored Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s aside that those who had no role in the framing of the Constitution were now trying to appropriate it.

Battles over history are not uncommon in healthy democracies. At the time of Independence, it was not uncommon for Communists to be charged with a lack of commitment to the newly-established Indian Republic. This charge stemmed from the grim reality of the (then united) CPI unleashing a wave of violence—which they grandly proclaimed an insurrection—against the Jawaharlal Nehru government which was portrayed as a puppet of imperialism. In line with what was called the Zhdanov thesis that divided the world into two antagonistic camps—imperialism (bad) and socialism (good)—Communist cadres attempted to disrupt life screaming “ye azadi jhoota hai” (this independence is spurious). In Telengana, the Communists led a rural uprising that, in effect, complemented the Islamist Razakars who were trying to ensure that Hyderabad was preserved as a Pakistani island in the heart of India.

What was significant is not the Communist rejection of the post-Independence dispensation—in charitable terms that could have been explained away as a political miscalculation resulting from the belief that the ‘masses’ were ready for a revolution. Far more ominous was the fact that shift in the ‘party line’ from P.C. Joshi to B.T. Ranadive was effected almost entirely at the behest of Moscow. In 1951, when Stalin moved from “correctness to correctness”, the CPI abandoned insurrection and participated in India’s first general election.

Again, following the India-China war of 1962, the CPI split. There may have been differences between the two groups on the issue of the “progressive” credentials of the Indian bourgeoisie but underlying it all was the belief among those who constituted themselves into the CPI(M) that “socialist” countries such as China don’t wage wars of aggression. In short, while Indian jawans—thrust unprepared into battle by a callous Nehru government—were dying all along the eastern border, the Communists were dancing to the tune of the enemy power. No wonder the Nehru government—otherwise soft on Communists, particularly those who shared Nehru’s social background—felt obliged to detain many thousands of the comrades, to forestall the creation of a fifth column within India.

We could go along with this list of perfidious behaviour of the same folks who have positioned themselves as the certifying authorities for secularism—how during the Bangladesh war of 1971 the CPI(M) painted the walls of Kolkata with the slogan “Indira-Yahya ek hai”(Indira Gandhi and Yahya Khan are synonymous) and how the CPI became the intellectual Praetorian guard of the drift to ‘socialist’ authoritarianism after 1969, culminating in the ‘anti-fascist’ Emergency.

The reason for invoking these inglorious chapters of Communist history is not to undertake another bout of what has come to be known as ‘whataboutery’—Comrade Yechuri is too well versed in his movement’s history to need lessons in history. The purpose is to suggest that nothing can be meaningfully gained by unending bouts of recrimination. The CPI(M) has, over the decades and particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s turn to illiberal market economics, turned its back on the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and embraced social democracy. That is a turn for the better. It may serve the purposes of an undergraduate debating society to remind Communists that they are no longer upholders of a discredited dogma but it can hardly be the case for arguing that they undertake a bout of ideological regression and join the Maoist insurgents in the jungles of Bastar.

If Communists have moved away from their historical legacy, it is good and the trend should be encouraged rather than mocked. Likewise, if the Congress has turned its back—implicitly rather than explicitly—on some of the more dodgy facets of Indira Gandhi’s record, it is reassuring.

The point of the Constitution Day debate was not for MPs to point accusing fingers at each other—though some it is inescapable. It was to reaffirm faith in a Constitution that has granted and guaranteed personal and civic liberties for all citizens. To the sceptics—some of who will never be convinced—the Prime Minister’s speech fell short of expectations because he didn’t mention Dadri and the award wyapsi gang. However, in reaffirming his faith in the principles of the Constitution and locating its ethos in India’s larger intellectual inheritances, he was doing much more that.

It is a tragedy of India’s political discourse that people (and not least the media) hear only what they want to hear. What doesn’t fit into a pre-determined script is expediently ignored. Narendra Modi has often been at the receiving end of selective indignation. He will continue to arouse strong likes and dislikes. Those who opposed him unendingly since 2002, reaffirmed their opposition prior to the voting for the 2014 general election and have re-stated it in another garb after he became Prime Minister will not see virtues in his recognition of the contribution made by all governments since 1947. For them he is incorrigibly partisan and with no hope of redemption. But for common folk, this debate over ‘intolerance’—real or contrived—has gone on for far too long, and purposelessly. It is time to apply closure and move on to the more serious business of governance.

Dissecting history is a worthwhile intellectual pastime but creating opportunities for all Indians is a nobler endeavour. It is to this latter project that Modi must dedicate himself.  

Sunday Pioneer, November 29, 2015 

Have 'socialist' and 'secular' improved quality of public life?

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are individuals in history whose true worth is acknowledged posthumously. Bhim Rao Ambedkar was such a man. Despite his varied contributions, he was overshadowed in his lifetime, first by Mahatma Gandhi and subsequently by Jawaharlal Nehru. But the country has made amends and the parliamentary debate commemorating Constitution Day seems an inspired way of celebrating his rich contribution to national life.

Of course, the Constitution is much more than Ambedkar. Whether we view it as just a rulebook that defines the bounds within which India conducts its public life or see it, as Nehru did, as a statement of the country’s “national philosophy” is a matter of inclination. What is important is that after 65 years and some 100 amendments, it is accepted as a ready reckoner of the dos and don’ts of national conduct. Yet, the Constitution carved in stone. The Constituent Assembly recognised that modifications would be necessary and specified the demanding processes that would both facilitate change and guard against succumbing to knee-jerk impulses.

The Constitution may have begun life as the property of a legislature dominated both at the Centre and the states by one political party and, by implication, its leader. Yet, over decades, there have been three significant changes.

First, Indian politics has become fiercely competitive and reflect a diversity that was unimaginable in 1950. It is highly unlikely the circumstances that enabled Indira Gandhi to introduce ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ into the Preamble of the Constitution at the height of the Emergency in 1976 will prevail in the foreseeable future. Political fractiousness may well have its down side, but at least it is a guarantee against fashion prevailing over considered judgment. Indeed, it is worth asking whether the injection of these two terms into the Constitution has enhanced the quality of our public life. ‘Socialism’ certainly seems a needless prescriptive principle of economic management, observed more in its violation than adherence. As for ‘secular’, has its codification injected conceptual clarity or added bitterness to the preoccupations over national identity? Would India have been a less wholesome place had we persisted with the 1950 Preamble? In trying to codify attitudes and approaches, the country may have unwittingly injected an extra note of divisiveness in the political arena.

Secondly, over the decades it has been shown that the judiciary has assumed for itself the role of the Constitution’s oracle. Legislative authority has been tempered by judicial pre-eminence. Whether this was intended by the Constitution-makers or was a subsequent act of invasion is a matter of debate—and a very legitimate one at that. What it does suggest, however, is that the idea of the Constitution is constantly evolving.  Those who feel improvisation should be countered with “blood on the streets” are somewhat unthinking in their fundamentalism.

 Finally, in her intervention last Thursday, Sonia Gandhi taunted those who have “no faith in the Constitution (and) who have not contributed to its making.” The strictures against those lacking “faith” were, alas, not directed at either the secessionists or the Maoists waging a civil war. But it is the second theme—that the Constitution is the private property of the party at the helm during its making—that is far more worrying. In 1950, there were forces in India that were unreconciled to the new Republic. These included separatists group in the North-east, the Dravidian movement and even the Communists who undertook an insurrection at the behest of Moscow. It is one of the successes of India that most of the early sceptics have now committed themselves to the Constitution. There are others who, while adhering to the Constitution, harbour misgivings over certain provisions—such as Article 370. To therefore exclude India’s non-Congress inheritance from common ownership of the Constitution smacks of perverse entitlement.

India’s achievement of freedom was a result of many divergent struggles. The one led by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress was only one—perhaps the most important—of them. To now reduce the richness of that experience to a family inheritance is a pointer that the wayward rewriting that took place during the Emergency is a danger that hasn’t entirely gone away. If you imagine that nationhood equals the Constitution, the temptation to legislate the national mind proves irresistible.  

Sunday Times of India, November 29, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Modi must now assert his authority

By Swapan Dasgupta

With the Bihar Assembly elections over and Prime Minister Narendra Modi having completed his long overdue visit to the global capital of Anglophone liberalism, it is not surprising that the heady rhetoric of “intolerance” and “Hindu Taliban” has quite abruptly receded into the background.

Maybe there are no more awards to return and more pressing issues than the silly deletion by the Censor Board of a deep kiss in the new James Bond film. Whatever the reality, the overdose of excitement that India experienced in the past six months has yielded way to issues that seem normal — not least of which is a controversy surrounding Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar’s single-handed demolition of the conventional understanding that Pakistan is a foreign country whose involvement in India’s domestic affairs is unsolicited.

While the past six weeks have been cruel for the Government, the concerted assault on the Modi Government has also served a purpose. Apart from exposing the fact that the ancien regime is alive, kicking and unreconciled to the May 2014 general election verdict, the revolt of the intellectuals has exposed the vulnerabilities of the BJP and, by association, the Prime Minister.

At a political level, the experiences of both the Delhi and Bihar elections have shown that it doesn’t take much to whip up feelings and consolidate the ranks of those who are in any case looking for opportunities to give the BJP a beating. In Delhi, it was the largely manufactured reports of attacks on Christian churches that was the trigger for en masse minority voting against the BJP; in Bihar, the impression of cultural insensitivity played a role in depriving the BJP of even some of its traditional backward caste and middle class vote. Both in Delhi and Bihar, the BJP proved remarkably unsuccessful in countering the hostile propaganda. Indeed, some of its own functionaries ended up (unwittingly) providing additional ammunition to the critics.

There is a belief in the BJP and RSS circles that undue importance should not be attached to a media-inspired campaign, particularly the issues that are highlighted by a deracinated English language media. From a narrow statistical perspective, the scepticism is warranted. The readership/viewership of the English language media is very limited but, at the same time, it plays a disproportionate role in setting a larger intellectual agenda. One of the reasons why a section of the media in Britain viewed Modi as yet another oriental ‘despot’ is because it took the cue from the Indian English language media.

I guess that in a country where there is no rationing of democratic expression, this expression of unconcealed and often politically-motivated hostility is an occupational hazard. Yet, before conspiracy theories overwhelm sober assessments, it is instructive to remember that shrill opposition in the media doesn’t always strike a responsive chord in the public space. Had that been the case, Modi wouldn’t have lasted 12 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Nor, for that matter, would he have successfully negotiated the minefields of India to emerge victorious in 2014.

The real reason why the ‘intolerance’ debate proved so costly to the BJP in Bihar had nothing to do with the supposed esteem with which the writers and intellectuals are held in society. The ‘intolerance’ narrative, it would be fair to say, merely complemented a far more damaging impression: A growing impression that in 18 months of being in power the Modi Government has little to show by way of achievement.

To my mind, this impression is misleading and false. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would hazard the opinion that few governments have been so energetic in so many different spheres as has the Modi Government. This is particularly so in the economic sphere.

From financial inclusion, greater devolution of power to the States, decontrol and deregulation to inflation management and dramatically lowering the levels of corruption, the Modi Government has gone a very long way in creating an environment that is conducive to rapid economic growth.

That the initiatives have not always been felt on the ground are due to two factors: first, the state of economic disrepair Modi inherited was far more than initially anticipated and, second, the expectations of instant transformation have not been met.

Yet, the electorate isn’t totally unreasonable. What voters are looking for is evidence that there is purposeful activity on the part of the Government and that things are beginning to get done. Sometimes this isn’t obvious and it is necessary for the Government’s messaging to be completely focussed. Unfortunately for it, the Government has failed miserably to communicate.

Or, expressed in a different way, the Government’s messaging has got overshadowed by conflicting noises pointing in different directions. I would go far as to say that there seems to be little messaging coordination between the Government, the BJP and the Sangh. Each of them seem to be cancelling out the other’s priorities-as happened in Bihar where a innocent but inopportune remark by the RSS chief was successfully exploited by the Mahagathbandhan to foster a forwards-backwards polarisation.

There is little point suggesting that the autonomy of different organisations should be respected. This may be the norm of other democracies but in India, people are inclined to favour a strong leadership and clear directions. Anything else is seen as incoherence and a sign that all is not well in the Republic of India. Having projected himself as a strong, no-nonsense leader, Modi must now show that he is the last word. Even if this results in momentary unpleasantness, its political returns will more than offset the bruised egos of a few.

Sunday Pioneer, November 22, 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Focus on optics of war on negativism

By Swapan Dasgupta

Every election—or, at any rate, most elections—have both winners and losers. By the time this column appears in the print edition, India will have a sense of which side, the Mahagathbandhan or the NDA, has prevailed in the bitterly contested Bihar Assembly election. The election has agitated the minds of the entire political class and has affected the process of governance, both positively and negatively. Many important decisions that ought to have been taken have been put on hold on the after-Bihar plea. This is unfortunate but an unavoidable price of democracy. 

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the end of the Bihar election saga must necessarily involve getting back into the serious business of governance, attending to outstanding issues and taking decisions that are overdue. Whether the BJP wins or loses, the arduous business of governance (and, by implication, normal politics) must be resumed. 

The first item on the agenda is to redouble efforts to secure the passage of the Goods and Services Tax in the Rajya Sabha. No doubt this will become easier if the NDA wins in Bihar. But even if Nitish Kumar is resumes his post as Bihar’s Chief Minister, it is important to reach out to every non-NDA formation to ensure that India’s growth story is not held hostage to partisan politics. This is a message that must be particularly conveyed to the Congress leadership in no uncertain terms. It is understandable that the Congress—and Rahul Gandhi in particular—is anxious to get over the consequences of the horrible defeat it suffered in the 2014 general election. But a recovery strategy based on making the elected government dysfunctional is a recipe for adventurism. There are some rules governing politics and one of them is respect for a popular mandate. Modi was elected in 2014 to govern for five years and this has to be respected not least by ensuring that Parliament is allowed to function and either approve or reject outstanding legislation. Normal governance cannot be dependant on the proceedings of one National Herald case. 

Secondly, the pace of decision-making has been markedly uneven. The phenomenal energy that the Prime Minister has displayed in foreign policy and in selling the India story to global audiences has not always been mirrored by the same sense of urgency in all the departments of the government. It is not that the government has been unreceptive to the requirements of making India more conducive to growth, investment, entrepreneurship and job creation. But has he succeeded in impressing upon all his colleagues and the bureaucracy that decisions delayed are a day wasted? The mood in India is one of impatience and it is important for all concerned to realise that the pace must be one that of a one-day match rather than a five-day Test, with mandatory lunch and tea breaks. If instilling the sense of utmost urgency necessitates a shuffling of the ministerial cards, the Prime Minister must not be shy of doing what is right. 

Finally, there is an expectation that the destructive and vitriolic debate over intolerance and the so-called space for dissent will ease off after the voting in Bihar—only to reappear in time for the next round of elections. The issue of which side was right and who was being needlessly alarmist need not detain us for the moment. It is sufficient to note that there is a large body of individuals who will persist in tarring the government with the brush of ignominy. Nothing Modi does or doesn’t do will change their determination to battle on as long as the BJP is in power. However, it is not these professional protestors that should be of interest to the regime. Far more important is to reach out to the middle-of-the-road Indians who want to get on with their lives and build a future for themselves and their children. It is this section that has been also shaken by the relentless campaign mounted by the ‘intellectuals’ and a section of the media. Their fears have been aroused by the reckless statements and activities of individuals and fringe groups who imagine they have the monopoly of the truth. 

The Prime Minister has hitherto maintained a strategic silence which has wrongly been interpreted as acquiescence. This impression has to be corrected without much delay, not least because even the remotest hint of social turbulence sends undermines the larger confidence in the government and, by implication, in the country. Isolating the well-entrenched disruptionists requires an imaginative political strategy that does not always lie in frontal, no-holds-barred confrontation. It is time the BJP and the government paid heed to the optics of the war against negativism. One of the important planks of this approach must be better communications and coming down hard on all those who believe in shooting off their mouths without any regard for the wider consequences. 

It is often said that the bench strength of the BJP is weak. Part of this assessment stems from social condescension and the frustrations of disappointed office-seekers. However, it doesn’t negate the larger principle of entrusting the right people with the right responsibilities. After 18 months in office, the Prime Minister must have had the opportunity of getting the full measure of those around him. He must now operationalise his findings. 

The time available between the Bihar results and the next round of Assembly elections is a window of opportunity that must be availed. (END) 

Sunday Pioneer, November 8, 2015

Friday, November 6, 2015

Enemies of Liberty: The Liberal World and its Predetermined Conclusions

By Swapan Dasgupta

For historical and other reasons, London has traditionally been a vibrant centre for 'causes'. These range in intensity from support for the Palestinian 'struggle' - the undeniable number one 'cause' that is the equivalent of what the Anti-Apartheid movement was in the 1970s and 1980s - to sectional support for Khalistan among a minority of Sikhs preoccupied with the politics of the local gurdwara.

The net result of this explosion of 'causes' is that there is considerable attention to foreign news in the British media, not least radio and television. Some of this stems from the lingering legacy of the British Empire, whose memorabilia still occupy a large part of the London landscape and whose peoples now form a significant part of its population. But even beyond the erstwhile Empire, the United Kingdom's importance as a trading nation has made foreign news an economic necessity.

The issue is not so much the importance that is accorded to having an international outlook but the nature of the perceptions. The grainy, black-and-white Pathé News footage now available on YouTube, for example, reveals the huge curiosity that accompanied Mahatma Gandhi's visit to Britain for the Second Round Table Conference in 1931. That curiosity and the bewilderment over his clothes, his diet and his wily negotiating stand were factors that ensured a relatively benign perception of the Indian nationalist movement. This was equally true for Nelson Mandela. The legend surrounding the man incarcerated for so long by the South African State ensured that apartheid never secured the full-throated endorsement of fellow-whites in Britain.

Both Gandhi and Mandela were unintended beneficiaries of a natural tendency to see happenings in foreign lands as a tussle between the good and the bad. Neither the Indian nor the South African icon could ever be painted as baddies. By an over-simplistic extrapolation, this meant that India's freedom movement and the war against white racist rule in South Africa were never subjected to unqualified denunciations. At best, the sceptics raised the question: are these good men leading armies of individuals who are not equally blessed?

In today's more complicated but far more inter-connected world, the hierarchy in the Chamber of Horrors is often determined by the media. There are some all-time hate figures: among African leaders, it used to be the Ugandan Idi Amin and now it is the nonagenarian Robert Mugabe whose sweeping victory in the 1979, post-Lancaster-House election created an acute bout of anxiety in London's Clubland. In Europe, the hate-list is, quite predictably, headed by Russia's no-nonsense leader, Vladimir Putin, who is charged with being an authoritarian in the mould of his predecessors in the Kremlin. No one has actually suggested with any measure of seriousness that the post-Ukraine sanctions against Russia will propel a 'regime change' - that demand is reserved exclusively for the hapless Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, waging his clumsy war against the Islamic State - but it has always been made clear that the ex-KGB strongman is not quite kosher. Also failing the British media's kosher test is Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his Likud party. They are debunked quite spiritedly because of their stubborn unwillingness to tailor policies to suit the Made in Britain liberal consensus.

One of the newest entrants into the ranks of the politically unacceptable is Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) coasted to a comfortable victory in last week's general election. It was described by most media commentators as a "shock" victory. The question is: shocking for whom? Judging from the footage of the celebrations in Istanbul and the categorical nature of the mandate, it would seem that most Turkish citizens - with the exception of the Kurdish minority that voted differently - were exasperated by the drift that had resulted from the fractured mandate of the June 2015 election, and re-elected Erdogan to restore stability and give a definite direction to the country. Using Indian analogies, the outcome in Turkey was akin, in different ways, to the victory of Indira Gandhi in 1980 and Narendra Modi's triumph in 2014. Both may have been shocking for those who (perhaps unwittingly) posit their own thinking and values on the electorate, but it probably came as no great "shock" to voters who live outside the chattering class ghettos of Istanbul and Ankara.

If the British media are any indication, the liberal fraternity of Turkey-watchers have equated Erdogan's victory as their personal defeat. On Monday's Channel Four news, the reporter proffered a curious observation: the election was free, but was it fair? The implication was that the AKP had twisted the terms of the debate to favour itself. That's not surprising, and isn't that what David Cameron did in Britain earlier this year when he invoked the horror of a left-wing Labour frittering away the economic gains of the past five years? Would we say that the UK general election was free but not fair?

Then there was the second catch phrase: Erdogan, it was widely suggested, was "divisive" and could steer Turkey in an "authoritarian" direction. Just prior to voting, a European Union report suggesting a possible erosion of democracy was leaked. In addition, there were the usual bouts of verbal skirmish between AKP leaders and media that mouthed the usual liberal platitudes, including, presumably, some we'll-fix-you threats from both sides. In India, these would be run-of-the mill stuff, a part of what Amit Shah would presumably call " jumla". They don't correspond to decorous conduct in the UK where the height of offensiveness consists of pelting opponents with rotten vegetables. But surely the media have to judge every society through indigenous standards.

Indians, it would seem, understand the forces at play in Turkey far better than Guardian-readers from London. On a Radio Four news programme shortly after the Turkish results were known, a BBC reporter asked an English-speaking psychologist her reactions. She admitted that she was both upset and disappointed by Erdogan's victory. "Will you now leave the country?" the reporter proceeded to ask. It was such a strange and leading question that even the lady was taken aback: "Why?" she retorted, "This is my country."

The question flowed from the pre-conceived notion that Erdogan was a baddie and that his "shock" victory would usher an era of "divisive" politics where the ultra-secular elite would lament the passing of the good old days of uninhibited cosmopolitanism. There was a pre-determined conclusion, and the questions and answers were expected to provide it substance.

I recall participating (from Delhi) on the BBC's flagship Newsnight programme on the night of Modi's victory in May 2014. I expected a few searching questions on the priorities and agenda of the new government. What was on offer instead was a pre-recorded lament of Sir Anish Kapoor suggesting this was not the India he grew up in. A pre-determined narrative, in other words, had been kept ready to pander to predetermined conclusions. Erdogan has been subjected to that same treatment: his view of the Turkish future differs from the liberal narrative on the subject.

The day after Diwali, Modi arrives in Britain for his first visit as prime minister. In terms of the liberal consensus, Modi is an affront and must be brought down a notch or two. Don't, therefore, be surprised if the rally for 60,000 doting Indians at Wembley stadium on November 13 becomes the occasion for gratuitous comparisons with rallies in the town of Nuremberg. In the liberal world, there is space for only one view - their own.

The Telegraph, November 6, 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Indian Right has risen. Now who's the 'Stupid Party'?

By Swapan Dasgupta


Some years ago, while researching for an article on Australia, I came upon an observation by Pru Goward, a journalist-turned-politician of the ruling Liberal Party, that has a bearing on today’s Indian politics. “Conservative governments”, she wrote, “don’t have natural supporters who are articulate and philosophical writers. The conservative intellectual group is very small in Australia. So the politicians are lonely and they are joked about all the time.” 


What Goward observed about Australia can be said to be true for much of today’s democratic world. In Britain, the Conservatives have for long been derided as the “stupid party” and even the “nasty party.” Margaret Thatcher was denied an honorary doctorate by the dons of Oxford University—an astonishing act of petty-mindedness. Today, the Left-inclined cartoonists paint Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as variants of the upper-class twits portrayed in Monty Python skits. In the US, Ronald Reagan, arguably the architect of one of the most transformative presidencies after Franklin Roosevelt, was unendingly mocked for his ‘simple’ beliefs that were said to have derived more from John Wayne movies than the tomes of Adam Smith—a caricature that was also extended to George W. Bush. 


In India, thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru’s self-image as the enlightened, cosmopolitan socialist, his conservative opponents were painted as provincial bumpkins riddled with obscurantist priorities that ranged from cow protection to Ayurveda. To this was added the social disdain of the ‘progressive’ for the dhoti-clad bania, the supposed epitome of a commercially-minded ‘Hindu Right.’ When the Cambridge-educated Congress MP taunted the ‘chaiwala’ credentials of Narendra Modi he was simply mirroring attitudes the Nehruvian order tried to implant as common sense. This perverse common sense often masquerades as the modern alternative to India’s larger cultural inheritance.


The appeal of patrician socialism may well have diminished over the decades, but the projection of the ideological ‘Other’ as stupid, socially regressive and aesthetically unsound has persisted. Indeed, it has made a dramatic re-entry into the public discourse in recent months following the outbreak of the culture wars. The editorial pages of newspapers are replete with outbursts against the simple-minded ‘Hindu Right’ that has failed to understand the metaphors of Hinduism, the complexities of the historical process, diverse food habits and the ‘idea of India.’ In a recent article, a historian who made his mark in the echo chamber of Jawaharlal Nehru University asserted that the “Hindutva brigade has… failed to produce any notable professional historian. The new developments in the discipline have passed them by.” In short, the intellectual ecosystem of the Indian Right is seriously deficient and unworthy of being taken seriously by “professional” scholars. 


That the Indian Right has been preoccupied with political activism rather than creating an alternative intellectual tradition isn’t in doubt. However, much of this failure can be attributed to the fact that the scholastic environment in Indian universities since the late-1960s has been unrelentingly hostile to anything inimical to the liberal and Marxist paradigm. The element of group-think was so marked that non-conformists such as the writer Nirad Chaudhury and the economist Jagdish Bhagwati found living in India quite suffocating: they became intellectual refugees from progressivism. Traditional disciplines centred on classical studies underwent such derision and neglect that Sanskrit studies survive today courtesy institutions in the West. The result: India’s ‘traditional intellectuals’ were completely marginalised from the intellectual mainstream. 


It is worth remembering that this systematic destruction of traditional knowledge systems didn’t take place only under British rule; the trend persisted in post-Independent India under the spurious guise of implanting a ‘scientific temper’. 


That despite the absence of a level playing field, the Indian Right with a culturalist agenda (and commitment to economic deregulation) has grown exponentially over the past decades is significant. It suggests that when proffered a real choice, Indians are more inclined to put their faith in rooted traditions—particularly those grounded in traditional value systems, the family structure, collective historical memory and what can loosely be called common decencies. 


For too long, Indian conservatism has been at the receiving end of condescension and caricature. It may now be time to turn the notions of stupidity upside down. 

Sunday Times of India, November 1, 2015


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