Shri Sunil Khilnani's "An imperfect union" – some thoughts

An aside first – The technique of latching onto and writing is so much like how a creeper or a climber (my daughter’s lesson to me) plant grows by latching onto another plant or tree and drawing sustenance from the “mother” all the while retaining and/or developing it’s own character. Warning – The “parasite” plant can kill the sustainer too just like how a “latching writer” need not at all agree with the primary author.

In any case, I find this technique has it’s uses.

I suspect my own relationship with Shri Khilnani’s writing may be a bit more benign and I may not yet, “kill”.

– Namaste

In this piece, Shri Khilnani (SK) is discussing Hindusthan’s many problems and how we may move forward on the best possible path. For some reason he seems to want to start at 1975, the year of the Indira emergency. SK tries to locate the sources of all our major problems with the advent or in any case, the “turning” of Smt Indira Gandhi (IG). I don’t necessarily disagree that IG made things a lot worse but that’s what I said, she made it worse. The rot had started a lot earlier in the manner Shri Gandhi (MK) was foisted upon an unsuspecting Congress and thereafter the manner in which MK went about consolidating his position and mercilessly hoisting party (the fabled “founding fathers”) and people on his specific petard. In this respect MK was no less ruthless than IG.

However, the memory of (somewhat) interregnum seems to bring tears to SK eyes because he views it as a deviation from Shri Jawaharlal Nehru’s (JN) grande’ design for this country. Therefore his gory contrast of father to daughter that supposedly qualitatively nosedived in 1975.

Briefly, it would be an honest reflection to admit that our “founding fathers” of whome no consensual list is available; left us horribly wounded and betrayed – if after-effects are anything to go by. The effort at creating a democratic society that SK hinges his thesis on, was left gasping for breath when JN was thrust over a popularly elected Sardar Patel (SP) – by MK. So, there wasn’t any glorious beacon IG could or would have followed.

I should remember to ask some of my older relatives how life was prior to ’75. How did JN actually perform on the domestic front?

From SK’s para – “As the polity was losing its foundational identity, the economy too was dysfunctional, plagued by shortages and systemic inefficiencies, presided over by corrupt administrators, and directed towards providing revenues for a state unable to fend for itself. We were a society that had allowed ourselves to be cowed by fear-fear of political leaders and operatives, fear of tale-telling friends and neighbours, fear of shortages and outages.”

It does seem JN’s rule was brighter and bereft of all these deficiencies.

Let’s do some rational thinking. JN took over from the British colonials. Post war, much of the world was in disarray. Hindusthan could not have been in better shape but certainly worse. JN was enamored of the Soviet “planned” economy model and sought to ride that animal. Mercifully, he seemed not to go the whole hog and adopted a “mixed economy” model that allowed for some private enterprise. Since these were early days and this is a big country, results may be said to be late in coming. But and this is my question – was this foundation conducive for IG to go rogue or could it have helped obstruct her path? That’s the economy.

Coming to temperament, was IG less of a “democrat” than JN? JN went almost his entire tenure (17 years) without any strong opposition to his “made” position. He lived under a halo. The few who could have crossed him were dead or outside of the Congress. He could afford to be democratic. That observation is not uncharitable given JN’s record of stealing from SP.

On the other hand IG was left under the shadow of something called the “Syndicate”. A bunch of old and powerful men who thought they could have IG do their bidding. IG was without any JNite halo. However, JN’s legacy of economic (non?) performance and cult-hood helped IG go several better on him – for the worse. This country had no better model to look upto.

So, SK’s foundational reasoning does not impress.

’75 being a very low point, SK goes on to list 1984, 1992 and 2002 as other terrible years. The Sikh slaughter, Babri demolition and Gujarat riots. He then tells us that these were disastrous because the state became a tool that was used against it’s own people. He blames the “educated urban elite, the supposedly alert defenders of democracy and civil rights” for remaining silent whilst all this was going on. I get the distinct feeling SK does not have the Muslim minority in mind when he apportions blame on “the urban elite”. On the other hand, it is easier to see Hindus are common factor across these turbulent listed years. I will not go into each episode but SK’s thought process is interesting. He’s building an unnecessarily weak case for what he wants to say eventually. There is a slight spark of realization, barely felt by himself I’m sure, of the nature of the well-spring when he asks, “How exactly we managed to avoid becoming a mediocre authoritarian regime-an overblown, oversized Philippines or Bangladesh-remains an enigma.” There is no enigma. The evidence is all around us; has been for centuries upon centuries of years.

In any case, SK sees the emergency and it’s aftermath as manifestation of an assertive – people? – no, courts. He claims IG’s call for the ’77 elections were not the result of popular resistance (perhaps in line with his earlier criticism of the somnolent “urban elite”). He does not tell us the reason for this decision, otherwise.

Note – So the “urban elite” (a turn-key euphemism for Hindus) remain the bad guys thus far in the story. Surprisingly, SK has some good words for the courts, another arm of the same state’s infrastructure that is reviled by liberals as “urban elite” oriented.

There are some after effects that SK says, arose out of the post-emergency situation. Rise of regional political formations, economic revival (which btw did not really take off until PV Narasimha Rao’s (PVN) regime)  and the arts. I can relate to the rise of regional parties as due to the passing of JN and IG, both pan-Hindusthan personalities. However, I don’t see how the arts got any freer than they were already. Perhaps a reader can tell.   

The next few lines SK makes some surprisingly contradictory observations – He see ’75 as not a stand-alone that suddenly erupted upon us from inside the mind of IG. He sees it as a result from something. He says, “What brought us to that crisis? It was at once a real structural tension, and a blockage in our ideas and imagination.” 

Still shielding JN, the writer gives us some reasons –

First of all, there was an unmanageable disjunction between the demands of politics and requirements of longer-term reflection and vision to coordinate as well as direct economic and social development. Since the late 1960s, politics was being redefined in a populist direction, with politicians offering immediate satisfactions in return for electoral support. (JN, of course did not have to worry about this vagary)

Indira Gandhi hoped to by-pass the pesky demands of a short-memory electorate and of dissident voices (the demands, that is, of a functioning electoral democracy) in favour of the more considered social schema of would-be intellectuals. She was guided, as was the fashion of the times, by Leftist notions of plan-perfect societies, and had it not been for a fateful June morning flight over Safdarjung airfield, we might still be having to enact those deluded visions, or undo them. (Astonishingly, SK satisfies himself by blaming IG instead, really, for her father’s economic legacy of whatever worth and then goes on to drag in another ballooned non-entity, Sanjay Gandhi (SG))

I was wrong, SK was not being contradictory. He’s still JN’s man. He’s still missing the more real reason.

Possibly sensing disquiet in his readers, SK tries to redeem his argument –

“It has become conventional to locate the blame for the authoritarian swerve of the Indian state in the mid-1970s on some quirk of Mrs Gandhi’s psychology: to reduce the Emergency to an effect of biography. But the basic dilemma that she sought to resolve by authoritarian means remains ours: how to connect the validation of power by numbers (the vote) with the justification of power before the tribune of reason (the use of power for purposeful, public and legitimate ends)?” (That was a difficult one to follow but this is what it means – IG, basically an authoritarian, sought to resolve the problem of retaining democratic power for (positive) ends by authoritarian means. This still keeps IG as stand-alone)

“The Emergency experience inoculated us against the Mussolini syndrome, and took us full-tilt into the democratic way-so that now, the winning of elections, licitly or not, seems to absolve the winner of any other obligation besides using power for personal ends. The result: over the past 35 years, we have created an imbalanced form of democracy, defined purely as the winning of power, with little demand for accountability.”(Very nice. Flawed but nice. SK is trying to show us how IG’s return to winning politics post emergency sort of made it possible for future politicos to claim legitimacy for their unwholesome actions, if they won in the hustings. Is this really true? How would he account for Shri Krishna Menon (Jeep scandal) and TT Krishnamachari (LIC scandal) – both working for JN after the scandals broke?)

Till this time SK’s burden has been IG and her so called self-created legacy. He does not accept that the rot started earlier.

To carry on, SK asserts that the exercise of democracy by the electorate deepened because of IG’s emergency initiative and her overall authoritarian streak which in turn brought about greater political action in the states and amongst the populace. This makes sense. The emergency sort of alerted the voters to potential future mischief. However, they were left, effectively, without the power to “recall” the corrupt and the incompetent. SK does not delve into this latter and inherent institutional failure. How would the voters have behaved with a constitutional power to recall, is worth considering.

Instead, he leaves us with a rather bland – “The hope of the founders was that elections and politics more generally would bring the best of Indians into leadership positions. Yet over the past 35 years, as elections took hold of the Indian imagination, they brought into office not the best, but the already powerful or the entrepreneurs of power. We are now rightly committed to electoral democracy: and if the results, the venal, self-serving leaders, are a little dismaying, we shall not be rescued from this fact. Great modern democracies are condemned to survive with mediocre leaders.” (Why?)

“The Nehrus or Roosevelts are the rarity, the Deve Gowdas and Berlusconis the norm. This is why democracies must depend less on individuals and more on ideas and institutions: ideas to orient and chart out where they wish to go and to chart out how to get there, institutions to filter the effects of individual political mediocrities and so to help enable the ideas to be realised.”(Even if I were to ignore the irritating examples of the “Nehrus” (who? what?), it does not make much sense for SK to claim sustained democratic mediocrity only helped along by “ideas” and “institutions” unless he comes clear and tells us he’s talking about an efficient bureaucracy at the back-end. If that is what it is, how is he not advocating a subversion of democracy? Surely a solution for the ills of “IG” cannot mean an “IG” by any other means?)

SK then slips very badly when he holds up Shri Manmohan Singh (MMS) as his example of “ideas and reason” amidst and as a panacea for “numbers driven mediocrity”. He should have known that MMS is not his own man and lives on the say so of higher Lords and Ladies. He can afford not to think of the democratic hum-drum. How does he (SK) propose to “institutionalize” the MMS model unless he also proposes to institutionalize the Ms Sonia Gandhi (SoG) model which is the same as saying – “bring back IG!”

But SK is still looking for a solution for his “democratic numbers sans ideas and reason” dilemma. Why does he not dwell on the MMS way? Interestingly he doesn’t.

Now, SK takes a slight turn in the essay and speaks of a “second dimension” that ’75 supposedly induced. He calls it the exhaustion of a compelling national story. He claims that something in us broke and we started to ask ourselves, post ’75, why we must stick together inspite of our diversities.

For some reason SK thinks our national story was different before ’75 than what it became post ’75. What he means by this “national story” is left unsaid just yet. Shortly, he tells us that JP Narayan’s movement formed part of the olde’ story that was broken by IG’s personality based ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’.

This is unreal.

Whilst not denying that Hindusthan has it’s share (some would say more than) of personality based politics it remains untrue to assert that such personalities make the politics they want – divorced from the people’s inherent needs and wants (whatever they might be). The “personality” is the most important driver of the message. The “personality” is a propitious mixture (in space and time) of message and the medium that captures the popular (mediocre?) imagination and elevates him to power. MK and JN were such personalities. How are we any different today except for the fact that we have chosen to attribute great qualities to the likes of MK and JN? For instance, SK never questions JN’s questionable legacy.

Continuing his thesis, SK tells us IG molded the nation on the basis of fear rather than that of anything positive – unlike the pre-IG era. There is no question that IG played dangerous and dirty politics. She propped up Bhindranwale of Khalistan fame for one. However, it is also true that the general environment in the neighborhood had grown more dangerous. A lot of what IG was involved in wrt the Sikhs can be traced to the failures of the yet undefined “founding fathers”. Ref: Master Tara Singh and his relations with Congress leaders. There are never any effects that are without causes.

Similarly, Shri Rajiv Gandhi (RG) succumbing to agitated Muslims on Shah Bano and his consequent and “balancing” unlocking of Shri Rama Mandir in Ayodhya has deeper reasons than SK acknowledges. The mere assertion of “fear politics” does not take away real and underlying basic problems that were present or sown at the time of founding.

The fact that the Supreme Court had no business to interpret the Shar’ia in it’s style, in the first place, is ignored by liberal do-gooders like SK who then in turn lament the inevitable withdrawal of the said judgment. There was simply no way the then government could have stuck to it’s guns (that is, against the Muslim popular opinion) and still supported Personal Law. Then, there is no alternative to Personal Law apart from a highly nebulous Uniform Civil Code that would have displeased the liberals because that would have certainly displeased the Muslims!

Similarly, the case for the Shri Rama Janmabhoomi was made much before the locks gave way in the ’80s. It was made when the idols appeared within the Masjid precincts. The idols appeared there in response to the popular but local claims of Janmasthan. The JN government blundered by not taking a Somanath type action wrt important but lost, Hindu sites. This inaction again relates directly with the blinkered “national” vision of the undefined “founding fathers”.

SK seems to be taking the easy way out by resorting to the bogey of “politics of fear” while trying to make his point – which is? I shall soon come to it.

This bogey of a “politics of fear” of which Hindutva, SK says, is an important component is faced off against an admittedly younger and more optimistic generation seemingly self-involved with their economic progress. This sends SK signals of a want for a “nationalism of hope” as against a “nationalism built around cultural and religious insecurities”.

I have often reflected on this “break from the past” that one notices in the newer generations. Are they really that detached? Or are we missing the whole picture? Economic growth brings with it it’s own priorities and anxieties. Anxieties arise from uncertainties – There is plenty of that going around. These uncertainties are not just economy related; they are also a fall-out of existing precarious security situations. How does one assure the youth and indeed how does the youth assure itself peace and prosperity with so much turbulence all around? This turbulence is due to unresolved issues of the past. Just like SK’s “politics of fear” was a fall-out of earlier unresolved issues.

It will be wrong to look at unresolved issues in terms of, what is popularly but wrongly called, “communal” issues alone. There are things Hindu society as a whole needs to confront and start to set right. The Hindu framework – and this is the name of SK’s “enigma”, this Hindu framework that allows for so much of diversity to flourish without them getting alienated must be made healthy again. Castes, tribes, religious groups etc. Minorities like the Parsees and some non-evangelical Christian denominations, Sikhs, Jains and Bauddhas – all must be able to share a common National Hindu platform. Castes that form the former untouchables must be uplifted through concerted social action apart from guaranteeing reservations until they (the untouchables) see no need for it. Taboos against beef and cow slaughter must be removed as recognition of traditions that untouchables had built around their disabilities.

Our states formed out of languages have awoken inherent sub-identities that need not be thwarted by ridicule. These linguistic identities can and should be harnessed in the services of the national Hindu society. Each part and each segment becoming self-confident will work towards these components getting into healthy relationships with each other and working in harmony.

What is required is great imagination and greater courage.

There is much to be done and unless the Hindus begin to repair and work their famed “enigma”, no amount of intellectualizing the problems we face, will work.

Happily, there are signs that this is happening. It is not so evident at the levels of the elite; however, society at large is coping with pulls and pressures admirably. And this society does not shy away from it’s identity – SK’s optimistic nation.

SK touches upon these subjects in his own far away language. I have few issues with that. It’s for us, Hindus, to fill in the blanks.

I end this longish post with a sad observation – The new generation of Hindu elite doesn’t want to identify themselves as Hindus. They hide behind “Indian” templates and pretend they will be taken seriously as non-partisans. I want to tell them that they are committing the same blunders that were committed by the “founding fathers”. The world sees us as Hindus and we must recognize that reality and own it. Else the world, in it’s own harsh way will keep reminding us of this reality and of our folly in disowning it.


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