Democracy in India: First Fifty Years (Part 1)
The evolution of Indian democracy in the first fifty years as seen from two perspectives— social and political. National parties have yielded to Mandalized politics leading to the rise of regional parties. Navaratna Srinivas Rajaram writes more…
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.
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville sees a connection between the Americans’ love of liberty and their devotion to Christianity— a connection that he attributes to the piety of the Pilgrim Fathers who founded the colonies. It intrigued him that Americans seemed to be able to combine the idea of religion with the idea of liberty while in Europe the two seemed always to be at loggerheads. His words were: “In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other;… Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things…” Marveling at this paradox he went on to observe:
“In the United States the sovereign authority is religious, and consequently hypocrisy must be common. …The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other… There are certain populations in Europe whose unbelief is only equaled by their ignorance and their debasement, while in America one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world fulfills all the outward duties of religion with fervor.”
Would someone visiting India at fifty years of its founding as Tocqueville did America have made a similar observation? (Tocqueville visited America in 1831— fifty years after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation.) At least superficially India and the U.S. share similarities— supposedly secular states but countries in which religion plays a much greater role in public life than in Europe. Any study of Indian democracy must take into account the important place that religion and its offshoots occupy in public life.
The first fifty years
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. They make interesting reading in the light of what has happened in the twenty years or so since they first appeared.
It is not our purpose here to review these much-reviewed books, but examine the insights offered by two serious thinkers of different backgrounds in the light of the experience of the succeeding twenty years. Professor Khilnani is a distinguished political theorist while Sir Vidia Naipaul is a creative writer of the highest order who studies societies by looking at individuals in their historical environment. As befits an academic Mr. Khilnani writes with a degree of detachment (except for what appears to be a hastily written 2003 Introduction), while Mr. Naipaul brings the eye of a historian as creative artist. Where the former looks at Indian democracy as a socio-political system, the latter looks at the people and their social and religious background that make this paradoxical nation a democracy.
India: A million mutinies now is Mr. Naipaul’s third book on India. It is not marked by the pervasive sense of despair 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 narrator 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 that his or even his parents’ generation were part of.
The book rightly devotes considerable space to the influence of the Dravidan 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-Dravidan 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 supporting mercenary scholars like Asko Parpola of Finland to give it a veneer of scholarship.
(Notwithstanding his discredited theories, Bishop Caldwell remains a revered icon in Tamil Nadu today. At a conference in Bangalore a few years back, this writer objected to a speaker 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. 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
Where Naipaul looks at people, Sunil Khilnani studies societies and institutions that contribute to making India a democracy. Naturally, he looks at leaders also, giving a prominent place to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As he sees it, Nehru’s vision of the Indian nation was synonymous with Indian democracy: to Nehru, nation building meant building India as a democratic state. In his words, “Nehru’s idea of India sought to coordinate within the form of a modern state… democracy, religious tolerance, economic development and cultural pluralism.”
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. Mr. Khilnani rightly dismisses the romantic notion that India had democratic institutions in ancient times and the experience was nothing new. He does recognize that a power sharing hierarchy was part of society in the institution of caste. As far back as 1949, Dr. D.V. Gudappa 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. Mr. Khilnani suggests 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 resulting in economic ruin and political instability. While there is no denying Laski’s influence, Nehru’s admiration for the Soviet Union is a matter of record. 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 notorious Moscow prison with the beautiful name— the Lubyanka. “It can be said without a shadow of a doubt,” Nehru wrote, “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.” For a man who could admire Soviet prisons it was not hard to admire and adopt the Soviet system of planning.
To give shape to his 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.
Mr. Khilnani gives an amusing account of the Mahalanobis Model and the role it played in planning. Like the legendary Kama Dhenu of Hindu mythology, the 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. This resulted in a feudal system of favored ‘experts’ to advise the government like Mahalanobis, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai (another scientist turned numerologist), and more recently Sam Pitroda and Montek Ahluwalia. The legacy is still being felt.
We may say that the major domestic development of the first fifty years has been ‘Mandalization’ or the rise of caste and community based regional parties. A second development has been a feudalization of the Congress establishment and the national institutions leading eventually to a single family controlling both.
(To be continued)