Triumph of the citizen

Updated: Nov 25 2012, 07:04am hrs
In his latest book, Patriots & Partisans, Ramachandra Guha defends the liberal centre against the dogmas of left and right. In this extract, he talks how it is the common man who continues to hold democracy and diversity in high regard

To function moderately well, a democracy needs three sectors to pull their weightthe state, private enterprise, and civil society. In the 1950s and 1960s, when entrepreneurs were timid and risk- averse, and civil society was non-existent, the state performed superbly well. In 2012, it appears to be civil society which is performing best of all. There are hundreds of hard-working and selfless social activists, working in the fields of education, health, environment, women's rights, consumer protection, civil liberties, and more. The private sector, on the other hand, is marked by both visionaries and marauders; whereas ten years ago it was the technologically alert and public-spirited entrepreneurs who defined the trends, now it is the crooks and cronies who appear to enjoy more power and influence.

To restore faith in the idea of India, a more capable, focused and honest political class may be necessary. Meanwhile, we can take succour in the manifest intentions of the citizenry, who, despite the provocations of the extremes, continue to hold democracy and diversity in high regard. Outside of Gujarat, hard-line Hindutva has repeatedly been rejected by the electorate (as demonstrated most recently in Bihar, where keeping Narendra Modi out of their campaign helped the NDA to a spectacular victory in the state elections). The acts of Islamist terror in Mumbai, Delhi and elsewhere have not been followed by religious scapegoating or rioting. Likewise, peasants and adivasis in areas of Maoist influence regularly defy the rebels by participating enthusiastically in state and national elections, thus proving, incidentally, that ours is not a democracy for the bourgeoisie alone.

The decent instincts of the citizenry were also at display when they rejected, quietly and without any fuss, the campaign launched before the 2004 election campaign to portray the leader of the Congress party as a foreigner. By speaking of the dangers of a 'Rome Raj' led by Antonia Maino Gandhi', the xenophobes hoped to catalyse the base instincts of Indians in general and Hindus in particular. Outside the Hindutva faithful, the call found no resonance whatsoever. Voters made it clear that they would judge Mrs Sonia Gandhi by other criteria. Her birth in Italy and her Catholic upbringing were immaterial. By four decades of continuous residence on Indian soil she had claimed the right to be an Indian. To be sure, there remain many Indians who are unhappy with the promotion of a family cult, and many others who are critical of the Congress president's social and economic policies. But her European ancestry does not matter at all. Like the Rajasthani achar-seller in Kochi, she is free, as a citizen of India, to exercise her vocation where she pleases. We will assess her wares as they appear to usand accept or reject them as we please.

It was, I think, Jawaharlal Nehru who pointed out that India was home to all that is truly disgusting as well as truly noble in the human condition. The nobility and the disgustingness were abundantly on display in his day, as they are in ours. Contemporary India is home to pluralists and democrats as well as to fanatics and sectarians; to selfless social workers as well as to greedy politicians; to honest and upright officials as well as to officials who are time-servers; to capitalists who distribute their wealth quietly and widely as well as to those who seek only to publicly and provocatively display it.

Six months after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the historian Dhanna Kumar wrote a short essay entitled 'India as a Nation- State'. Here, she took issue both with left-wing activists who thought the Indian state too strong, and with Hindu chauvinists who thought it too weak. One saw the state as an 'oppressive monopolist of power'; the other believed it lacked the will and the strength to stand up to the West or put its own minorities in their place. One seemed to welcome the possible disintegration of the country, in the belief that 'twenty countries, say, instead of one would leave the people of India less oppressed'; the other was 'terrified of the break-up of India', thinking that 'India has still not recovered from partition and any further secessions would lead to .. . Balkanization . . . This line of analysis leads to the perception of Muslims as the cause of national weakness.'

Dharma Kumar rejected both positions by affirming the inclusive and democratic idea of India upheld by its founders. As she put it, 'instead of deploring our lack of homogeneity we should glory in it. Instead of regarding India as a failed or deformed nation-state we should see it as a new political form, perhaps even as a forerunner of the future. We are in some ways where Europe wants to be, but we have a tremendous job of reform, of repairing our damaged institutions, and of inventing new ones.'

I have myself been fortunate in being witness to the work of many Indians who have sought to repair or redeem our institutions. I think of groups like the Association of Democratic Reform, which succeeded in making the criminal records and assets of politicians public; or like Pratham, which works closely with state governments in improving our public education system. I think of Ela Bhatt and Chandi Prasad Bhatt, respectively the grandmother and grandfather of modern social activism in India. Elabehn has challenged the state to be more alert to the rights of working women; Bhattji has forced it to move towards a more community-oriented (and ecologically sensitive) forest policy. I think of the scientists Obaid Siddiqui and Padmanabhan Balaram, who have nurtured world-class, nonhierarchical, research laboratories in a funds-scarce, anti-intellectual, and deeply inegalitarian society. I think, too, of my exact contemporaries and fellow PhDs Jean Dreze and Mihir Shah, who could have enjoyed comfortable careers as teachers and writers, but who chose instead to become kill-time activists, and bent their expertise to making the Government of India more responsive to the lives and interests of the rural poor.

The groups and individuals mentioned in the preceding paragraph are, of course, merely illustrative. The work that they and others like them undertake is rarely reported in the mainstream media. For, the task of reform, of incremental and evolutionary change, is as unglamorous as it is necessary. It is far easier to speak of a wholesale, structural transformation, to identify one single variable that, if acted upon, will take India up and into the straight high road to superstardom. Among the one-size-fits-all solutions on offer are those promoted by the Naxalites, whose project is to make India into a purer, that is to say more regimented, version of Communist China; by the Sangh Parivar, who assure the Hindus that if they rediscover their religion they will (again) rule the world; and by the free-market ideologues, who seek to make India into an even more hedonistic version of the United States of America.

Based as it is on dialogue, compromise, reciprocity and accommodation, the idea of India does not appeal to those who seek quick and total solutions to human problems. It thus does not seem to satisfy ideologues of left or right, as well as romantic populists. To these sceptics, let me offer one final vignette. One Independence Day, I was driving from Bangalore to Melkote, a temple town in southern Karnataka which incidentally also houses a celebrated Gandhian ashram. The first part of the drive was humdrum, through the ever-extending conurbation of Greater Bangalore. Then we turned off the Mysore highway, and the countryside became more varied and interesting. Somewhere between Mandya and Melkote we passed a bullock cart. Three young boys were sitting in it; one wore a suit with spectacles, a second a bandgala with a Mysore peta atop his little head, the third a mere loin cloth.

The boys had evidently just come back from a function in their school, where, to mark Independence Day, they had chosen to play the roles of B.R. Ambedkar, M. Visvesvaraya and M.K. Gandhi respectively. Remarkably, none of their heroes were native Kannada speakers. Yet all spoke directly to their present and future. The boys knew and revered Ambedkar as the person who gave dignity and hope to the oppressed; knew and revered Visvesvaraya for using modern technology for the social good, as in the canals from the Kaveri that irrigated their own fathers' fields; and knew and revered Gandhi for promoting religious harmony and leading, non-violently, the country's fight for freedom.

The vision of those young boys was capaciously inclusive. Ideologists may oppose Ambedkar to Gandhi; historians may know that Gandhi and Visvesvaraya disagreed on the importance of industrialization in economic development. Yet the boys understood what partisans and scholars do notthat our country today needs all three, for all were Indians of decency and integrity, all seeking sincerely to mitigate human suffering, all embodying legacies worthy of being deepened in our own age. What I saw that day was a spontaneous, magnificent illustration of the idea of India. To more fully redeem that idea would mean, among other things, matching the pluralism that those schoolboys articulated, with the democracy defended so precisely by the Muria schoolteacher in Dantewada.

Pages 38-42

Patriots & Partisans

Ramachandra Guha


Rs. 699

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