Note: The Hindi translation of this post appears here.
CONTINUITY AND CHANGE
There is something peculiarly symbolic about today: at the ICC World Cup 20Twenty finals at Johannesburg, India beat Pakistan by five runs with only three balls to go; some hours earlier, the executive body of India’s largest political party, AICC, announced a major organizational revamp at its headquarters at New Delhi. Both these apparently unrelated incidents, however, were united by one common feature: in ICC as well as in the AICC, the Ancien Régime is finally- and decisively- making way for a ‘Brave New World’ (to use Aldous Huxley’s phrase), in which teams comprising the Youth will determine Destiny’s trajectory.
These new teams are captained by persons who couldn’t have been more different: Mahinder Singh Dhoni, the Captain of ‘Team India’, comes from a middle-class family living in the predominantly tribal state of Jharkhand; Rahul Gandhi, the newly appointed AICC General Secretary in-charge of its two youth bodies, the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and the National Students’ Union Of India (NSUI), is the Harvard-educated heir-apparent of India’s principal political dynasty (his father, grandmother and great—grandfather have all been Prime Ministers). Mr. Dhoni’s elevation to the captaincy, therefore, marks a fundamental break with the past: the focus of national cricket has shifted from the ‘metros’ (which formerly supplied most of India’s top cricketers) to the hinterland.
A LIBERAL BIAS?
In contrast, Mr. Gandhi’s appointment is at best, indicative of an ambiguous continuity with a definitive past eagerly poised to leap into- and seize- an as-yet-uncertain future, and at worst, something of an anachronism, especially when viewed from the point of view of the ‘liberal mindset’, impregnated as it is by the twin-ideas of democracy and industrialization (to adapt Professor Eric Von Hobsbawm’s analysis), which universally criticizes- if not outrightly condemns- dynastic politics of any kind as a fallback to a feudal past.In his memoirs, ‘The White House Years’, Dr. Henry Kissinger (who incidentally taught at Harvard before famously serving in the Nixon Administration) squarely blames this ‘liberal mindset’ as the single most important stumbling block in the scion of America’s richest dynasty, Nelson Rockefeller’s successive failed attempts to secure his party’s nomination for the U.S. Presidency in 1960, 1964, and 1968, thereby implying that Mr. Rockefeller was perhaps ‘the best President America never had’. [Like Rudolph Giuliani, another successful Republican from New York, Mr. Rockefeller, despite being a Republican, was perhaps a tad too liberal for his own good.]
Indeed, the persistence of dynastic politics especially in the democratic context presents a paradox that cannot be easily explained. In post-colonial, ‘underdeveloped’ societies, it is sought to be justified by taking recourse to such obfuscated concepts as the neo-psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung’s postulation of the ‘hero-worship complex’ embedded deeply in the ‘collective unconscious’. Political dynasties, however, are not limited to the so-called ‘Third World’. Quite naturally then, more pragmatic reasons are put forward in the context of ‘developed’ societies. For instance, a recent biographer of ‘the Bush Dynasty’, Peter Schweizer, accounts for the prevalence of dynastic politics in the United States of America by exploring the systematic domination of family-based ‘patron-client networks’ over established party structures: apparently, Barbara Bush’s meticulously compiled Rotadex of tens of thousands of color-coded cards beats the entire Republican Party’s electoral apparatus when it comes to the two things that matter in winning elections: ‘fund raising’ and ‘campaign management’. In India, which, as a ‘developing’ nation, might well be placed somewhere between these two worlds, it is hard to deny that both the ‘hero-worship complex’ and the ‘patron-client network’ factors are at work to a certain extent. But the real reason for the continuing popularity of the young Mr. Gandhi’s family lies elsewhere.
AN IDEA OF INDIA
At the risk of digressing, it becomes pertinent here to refer to Sunil Khilnani’s seminal work, ‘An Idea of India’. In this treatise, the Princeton-based Professor Khilnani makes a radical observation: a fully formed national identity did not precede Independence; indeed, that was left principally to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to ‘discover’ (not surprisingly, his most celebrated work is entitled “The Discovery of India”, a must-read for every Indian). This he did by putting forth the notion of “Unity in Diversity”, which forms the bedrock of India’s Constitution. For Pandit Nehru, the Constitution itself was to act as the chief instrument against the only-too-real centrifugal forces of ‘casteism’, ‘communalism’, ‘regionalism’ and ‘linguistic-divide’, which though temporarily suppressed- first by the forceful politico-administrative apparatus of the British Raj and then by the subsequent euphoria of the Freedom Struggle- would surely begin to resurface, fuelled by considerations of what C.B. Macpherson labels ‘votebank politics’. As Rajni Kothari points out, he couldn’t have been more perceptive: the balance between the ‘national’ and these other centrifugal forces began to reverse after the rupture of India’s ‘monolithic polity’ (read: the rise and growth of non-Congress parties).
More recent history has borne witness to the fact that the single greatest threat to India’s national identity (or atleast the one conceived by Mr. Nehru and the Constitution) has come from ‘majority communalism’ masquerading as ‘democracy’. Unlike other centrifugal forces that merely seek to use identity as a tool for capturing greater power within the preexisting Constitutional framework, communalism, particularly majority communalism, specifically seeks to exclude other Indians (read: the minorities) from the process of governance altogether. Majority communalism, self-styled as ‘Hindutva’, is, however, based on one faulty- and ultimately self-defeating- assumption: the Unity of the Hindu Samaj (in the words of Madhavrao Golwalkar, the RSS supremo at the time of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination: “Hindu samaj mein sangathan nahi, Samaj ka sangathan hai”). As the recent election of Mayawati in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), has revealed (much to the chagrin of the Hindutva bandwagon), almost every ‘Hindu’- or to use a more apt phrase from Louis Dumont, ‘Homo Hierarchichus’- sees himself or herself not in terms of their religion per se, but in respect of a far more primary identity: Caste. To situate Professor Dumont’s argument in the Khilnani Hypothesis, ‘casteism’ and ‘majority communalism’ (a.k.a. Hindutva) are, in essence, self-contradictory species of the ‘national identity’ genus. In any event, neither of these forces seem to be on their way out.
THE DANGERS OF ARITHMETICAL POLITICS
This brief background, in my opinion, is critical to understanding the role of Mr. Gandhi’s family within the broader framework of India’s national identity. Prior to his appointment as AICC General Secretary, Mr. Gandhi’s political experience comprised chiefly of being his party’s main campaigner in the UP Assembly election. The campaign line adopted by Mr. Gandhi, no different from his forbearers, attacked both caste- and religion-centric politics as divisive; in short, he spoke about “Unity in Diversity”, and his family’s role in preserving that ideal; he also appealed to the electorate to rise above these ‘other’ considerations and vote for the ‘national’ one. As it turned out, the outcome of that election revealed, above all else, his great-grandfather’s prescience: despite huge turnouts at his public meetings, Mr. Gandhi’s party finished a very distant fourth, after two caste-based parties, the BSP and SP, which were in turn followed by the Hindutva-centric BJP; this in a state that only two decades ago, constituted the principal base of the Congress.
What, then, went wrong? Or to put it differently: what went right for Ms. Mayawati’s BSP, which formed a majority government in UP after almost 18 turbulent years of minority governments? The reason is quite simple, really: the successful reinvention of the BSP as ‘the New Congress’. Ms. Mayawati’s advisors decided to extend her mentor, the late Mr. Kashiram’s ‘arithmetic logic’ (or what is more commonly called ‘the number game’) from within the confines of the Vidhan Sabha (what we know as 'horse-trading'), and applied it directly to the electorate. They realized that on its own, the BSP’s relatively committed ‘Dalit’ votebank couldn’t form a government; what was needed, therefore, was to supplement it with other votebanks, most notably, the Brahmins (who constitute 14% of UP’s electorate) and the minorities (who rightly saw Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP as playing into the hands of the BJP). Together this tripartite votebank alliance of Dalits, Brahmins and Muslims paved the way for an unprecedented BSP victory in UP (D+B+M= BSP). [Her main rival, Mr. Yadav’s SP, on the other hand, could barely retain its Yadav votebank; the Thakurs were almost uniformly split between the SP and Mr. Rajnath Singh’s BJP. Coincidentally, this same ‘DBM’ combination constituted the Congress’ votebank in the days when it ruled UP; hence the term ‘the New Congress’ for the BSP.]
Most significantly, this election showed the BSP that the same formula- although not necessarily comprising the same castes/communities- can be applied to other states as well. For example, the BSP is talking to Bhajan Lal in Haryana to form an alliance between the Dalit and the non-Jat votebanks; in Jharkhand, they are talking to Sibhu Soren of the JMM to form an alliance between the Dalit and the tribal votebanks. Thus are being laid the foundations of Ms. Mayawati’s grandest ‘experiment’: the Mahajyot. To situate Mahajyot in the Khilnani Hypothesis, Ms. Mayawati hopes to once again reverse the balance of forces: her ultimate aim is not so much to reincarnate the pre-1967 Monolithic polity (in other words, become the Congress of old) but instead to endeavor systematically- bit by bit, state by state- to construct a Megalithic polity around the ‘superstructure’ of her Dalit votebank. The use of Marxist terminology here seems only too apt: for doesn’t Karl Marx postulate an alliance between the proletariat (read: Dalit) and the bourgeoisie (read: other non-communal identities) to topple the Ancien Regime? [Note that this proposed alliance didn’t quite materialize as Professor Marx had predicted; the failure of continental revolts of 1848 proved him tragically wrong.]
THE ROAD AHEAD
In my opinion, such an arithmetic approach cannot be good for the country; not in the long run, anyway. At best, it can be a necessary instrument for propelling issue-based politics. To truly progress as a democracy, we need to rise above identity-based considerations- infact, there ought only to be one identity, i.e., the national identity- and instead focus on issues that really matter; concrete things that would make a very real- tangible- difference in the lives of India’s poor, like employment, health care, education, electricity, water-supply, roads. We ought not to vote for someone just because we share the same identity- which is to say that that someone belongs to our caste or community- but because we know for certain that he or she cares for us and knows how to solve our problems, that our interests will be given primacy over his or her own; that he or she has, above all, a vision for our future, the several yet joined futures of our unborn children’s children. Indeed, it doesn’t matter how that person has come into power: what matters- and what history will ultimately judge- is what that person did to better the condition of his fellow human beings once he came to be there.
As the discussion above reveals, Mr. Gandhi has come into a Mephistophelean world: as I see it, it is a world full of promises but it is also a world bent on dismantling the very ‘national identity’ his ancestors not only helped painstakingly built, telling us, teaching us, to celebrate the Unity in our Diversity, our Oneness, but also laid down their lives fighting to protect it. If that world is to survive, as indeed it must, then India’s best hope lies in the Family. For they belong to no one caste, community, religion or region; and yet they belong to each and everyone of us irrespective of who we are, what we speak and where we come from, for the simple reason that, not unlike India’s Constitution, they are the best and only embodiment of our cherished ‘national identity’ by virtue of the unique 'burden and glory' history has charged them with. No other Family can claim to represent the whole of India. If we are to survive and prosper as a Nation, then none other than the Family can lead us: they remain our surest Defense against the forces that are tearing us apart; they are our best Hope to take India to the forefront of the family of nations. But that alone cannot- should not- suffice.
Sixty years ago, when his great-grandfather made ‘a tryst with destiny’, he identified four ‘non-negotiable’ principles that he hoped would keep India united: Sovereignty, Democracy, Secularism and Socialism. These Four Pillars have, more or less, withstood the test of time; even in the worst of times (the demolition of the Baburi Masjid and the Gujarat Genocide, to name only two), they have exhibited a remarkable resilience. Striding atop these Four Pillars, his mother went to the people and almost single handedly reversed ‘the cavalcade of history’ (to use Mr. Arjun Singh’s phrase) to achieve the unthinkable: the forces of majority communalism are today everywhere in retreat. Mr. Gandhi will have to prove himself to be a Guardian worthy of protecting the sanctity of these Four Pillars from ever-deadlier enemies, just as his forbearers have been. But even more than that, he will have to identify new issues- and strategies- that will reinforce the foundation of these Four Pillars, and upon which he- we- can together Build still Greater Monuments that will translate our Dreams into Reality.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Note: The Hindi translation of this post appears here.