Friday, September 23, 2005

Wrong time to speak up (September 23, 2005)

Advani is the victim of his own creative restlessness

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is becoming a habit for L.K. Advani to spring unpleasant surprises on the BJP. He did it on June 4 at the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Karachi and triggered a crisis which would have paralysed the party had it not been settled by the cease-fire agreement with the RSS on June 11. Three months later, on September 18, he again surprised the BJP National Executive at Chennai with a carefully prepared concluding statement which, defying tradition, he read out in English.

That Advani would relinquish the post of party president wasn’t a surprise. Although the terms of the June 11 truce were never made public, it was understood that the BJP would revert to the one-man-one-post principle after the National Council session in end-December. It now transpires that the Pact had also specified that he would announce his decision to quit at the Chennai National Executive. For at least a week before the Chennai meet, Advani had indicated his determination to make that announcement, despite suggestions that he defer it till the Bihar poll results. During the week neither the BJP office bearers nor the RSS leadership indicated they wanted him to reconsider.

The surprising feature of his concluding statement in Chennai, therefore, was not Advani’s announcement that “a colleague” would assume charge after the National Council meet. The BJP National Executive was mystified by his rigid insistence, despite last-minute advice to the contrary from anxious general secretaries, on using the occasion to speak about the creeping distortions in the BJP-RSS relationship. Advani spoke about the need to counter the prevailing impression “that no political or organisational decision can be taken without the consent of the RSS.” The RSS, he said, “provide valuable inputs for our decision-making process.” The BJP, however, was a political party and had its own compulsions. “It is in protecting the ideological moorings of the BJP and in articulating it in an idiom and language the people understand that great care is needed.”

Advani's message was blunt: the BJP could do without RSS micro-management. The relationship between the two bodies had to be “symbiotic”, rather than filial, and based on trust. The RSS and BJP belonged to an ideological family but there could be no question of domination and subordination. It had to be a partnership of equals. In effect, Advani sought to transform an unstated Hindu undivided family into a binding confederal code.

Tensions, even dissatisfaction with the RSS, both at the local and national level, are not new to the BJP. Almost all the BJP stalwarts—from Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in Rajasthan to Uma Bharati in Madhya Pradesh—have at some time or the other come into conflict with the local RSS functionaries. Present relations between Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the state RSS leadership are, for example, incredibly strained, with anti-Modi dissidents being egged on by local pracharaks. In Rajasthan, many RSS stalwarts feel that Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is, like Modi, too high-handed.

Regardless of how the RSS conducted its political interventions in the Jana Sangh days, the friction in recent times--since the BJP started controlling governments--has invariably followed two themes: those involving appointments and postings, and those concerned with government policy and contracts. Matters came to a head during the NDA Government because expectations were high and demands insatiable. Unlike the Congress which is quite brazen in seeing government as the dispensing agency of political patronage, the sangh parivar carries a lot of ethical baggage. This may be a reason why run-of-the-mill corporate lobbying during the Vajpayee years had to be cloaked as commitment to lofty principles like swadeshi. It is a different matter that a few RSS leaders couldn't see through this humbug.

Apart from the hiccups over Jaswant Singh’s appointment in 1999 and tensions over the NDA’s rough handling of the Ayodhya agitation in 2003, the clashes of the past didn’t sour the overall BJP-RSS relationship. That was because they weren’t, by and large, concerned with the RSS’ ideological priorities. Some pracharaks in Gujarat griped about Modi’s imperiousness but they couldn’t really fault his inflexible determination to ensure that the BJP wasn’t another carbon copy of the Congress. Consequently, the dissident problem in the state hasn’t degenerated into a BJP versus RSS fight; it has remained an intra-BJP affair, with some RSS functionaries fishing in troubled waters.

Likewise, Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, sought to enlarge his personal base by reaching out to figures in the erstwhile Congress establishment. He routinely turned down requests from both the RSS and the party. The atmosphere of the Vajpayee court was decidedly anti-RSS. No wonder the Sangh felt slighted, even humiliated. But Vajpayee was Vajpayee, and always a law unto himself.

There may well be some takers for Advani’s terse message that the RSS should not get into micro-managing the BJP. It is generally agreed that it does not behove the RSS leadership to press the case of every swayamsevak aspiring to a position. With the phenomenal growth of the BJP in the past 15 years, there is some resentment in the BJP that RSS members enjoy an unfair advantage in the party hierarchy. This is despite the awareness that the contributions of some RSS-inducted functionaries are less than modest.

Yet, Advani’s plea for a debate to iron out the wrinkles in the RSS-BJP relationship was greeted with a sense of exasperation. For a man whose contribution to putting the BJP and the RSS ideology on the national stage is seminal, there was not a voice of anguish when he made his resignation statement.

Part of the reason lies in the perception that although a debate on the RSS-BJP relationship is interesting in itself, there is insufficient provocation for such an exercise at this moment. The controversy over Jinnah, which sparked the present turmoil in the BJP, arose because rank-and-file BJP members were outraged by what their leader said in Pakistan. It was their anger that led to Advani’s isolation in the party and the erosion of his moral authority. The RSS merely echoed what BJP activists felt.

When the RSS chief had earlier, during a TV interview, called for Vajpayee and Advani to retire the party rallied behind the two stalwarts. By showering praise on Jinnah’s vision, and that too in Pakistan, Advani alienated himself from both the party and the Parivar. Consequently, his concluding address in Chennai was viewed as a personal statement. At a time the UPA is on the backfoot, confronting the RSS with a theoretical debate wasn’t a BJP priority. Indeed, there was a feeling that Advani had become too self-absorbed.

That there is a special relationship between the BJP and RSS is undeniable. Some BJP activists treat the RSS as the mother organization, others see it as a moral guide and yet others view its role in strictly utilitarian terms and that too during elections. All these views co-exist harmoniously because the relationship with the Sangh, apart from being individual, is also an evolving one. It has to be nurtured and managed, with both sides sharing the responsibility, and it is just not prone to codification. When problems arise, as they invariably do, they have traditionally been resolved through protracted dialogue conducted outside the public gaze. The element of discretion is overwhelming.

In disavowing this unwritten code, Advani did himself grave injustice. The BJP’s sharpest thinker was a victim of his own creative restlessness.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 23, 2005)

Monday, September 19, 2005

The discreet charm of Amartya (September 19, 2005)

Review Article

By Swapan Dasgupta

Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Allen Lane, London, 2005) pp. 409, Rs 650

Ever since dissent became the leitmotif of the teaching classes, there has been a clamour among historians and radical activists to debunk the notion that history writing is the preserve of the ruling classes. “I am seeking”, explained Edward Thompson in his celebrated 1963 preface to The Making of English Working Class, “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” In 1982, the historian Ranajit Guha initiated the Subaltern Studies project which, apart from challenging “elitist historiography”, sought to highlight “the contribution of people on their own, that is, independently of the elite to the making and development of this (Indian) nationalism.”

These were worthwhile correctives to a historiography geared to understanding the exercise of power. Tragically, the correctives ended up becoming the mainstream. Whereas 50 years ago, the study of British constitutional precedents and the Afghan policy of British India, to mention two stray examples, were obligatory, today’s history curriculum devotes more attention to “peasant studies” and “popular” movements.

Electorally, the Left hasn’t prevailed in India and is unlikely to do so in a hurry. However, since the 1970s it has acquired hegemonic status in some of the important centres of intellectual production, particularly the history departments and the media. There is a striking mismatch between how Middle India thinks and how its intellectuals react.

The mismatch has been in sharp evidence for the past two decades. The rise of assertive Hindu nationalism and the six years of a BJP-led Government at the Centre triggered sharp intellectual reactions. Apart from an aesthetic revulsion to the outlanders, there was considerable disquiet at the assault on cherished Nehruvian assumptions of nationhood. It was painfully apparent that Hindutva was Middle India’s protest against a counter-culture that, quite inexplicably, was becoming the dominant “idea” of India.

Amartya Sen is not, and has never been, a doctrinaire Marxist. He is an archetypal ‘progressive’—the child of an expedient marriage between liberal cosmopolitanism and welfare economics. His sense of enlightenment is very Bengali. He combines his love for the universalism of Rabindranath Tagore with an almost Brahmo Samaj-like disdain for ritualised Hinduism. A creature of the multi-culturalism that is celebrated in the columns of The Guardian and New York Times, Sen reacted to the 1992 Ayodhya demolition, the 1998 nuclear tests and the 2002 Gujarat riots with outrage. In the process, he also effected a curious alliance with the Left and libertarian critics of ‘majoritarian’ nationalism. This collection of essays is the outcome of this intellectual metamorphosis.

Sen’s central thesis is disarmingly simple and unexceptionable. India, he maintains, quite rightly, has the gift of the gab. Its people are naturally loquacious and argumentative. “Prolixity”, he writes, “is not alien to us in India.” Indian democracy is blessed with deep, indigenous, cultural roots. As they say in Indi-speak, we are like that only.

Pluralism, argues Sen, is also ingrained in the religious tradition of the Hindus and the history of Buddhism. He traces scepticism to verses in the Rig Veda, cites its recurrence in the Ramayana and notes the multi-polarity of Hindu philosophy, including the existence of a strong atheistic current. Curiously, Sen doesn’t even have a passing mention of the Kerala-born Sankara who travelled throughout India in the 9th century debating the philosophy of Advaita with Hindu and Buddhist scholars. Nor does he cherish Swami Vivekananda’s dialogue with adherents of the Christian faith. These are not by-the-way omissions. They indicate that rounded history is, perhaps, not Sen’s priority. Like Thompson and Guha, he too is into fetishising footnotes.

As for secularism, Sen notes that its earliest modern adherent was the Moghal emperor Akbar. “To take Aurangzeb as the ‘typical’ Moghal monarch, or as the quintiessential Muslim ruler of India, would be an extremely strange historical judgment.” He even suggests that Alberuni’s contemporary account of Hindu revulsion at the iconoclastic vandalism of Mahmud of Ghazni was a case of “overgeneralizing a little.”

Sen’s emphasis on the cross-religious basis of Indian secularism is well-intentioned. Yet, he does not pause to consider why the other countries in the subcontinent have chosen a less tolerant route. Till the 10th century at least, the Hindu-Buddhist civilisational extended right up to Afghanistan. What made Afghanistan and Pakistan evolve differently? Even Bangladesh, which Sen describes “as the safest country to live in, in the subcontinent”, isn’t quite as idyllic. Give this grim neighbourhood picture, Sen may find it worthwhile considering why the “inclusionary Indian identity” stopped at the Radcliffe line. Is there a greater Hindu basis to Indian secularism and democracy than is politically expedient to admit?

It is widely recognised that Hinduism cannot be equated with codified religions of the book. This is why the term Sanatan Dharma is preferred to describe what is in essence a way of life rooted in the geography of India. Sen is absolutely right to emphasise that Hinduism is inherently plural and lacking in certitudes. He is, however, alarmed by a feeling that the Hindutva movement “has entered into confrontation with the idea of India itself.” He sees in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement an attempt to refashion Hinduism into a monolithic set of certitudes.

Sen, unfortunately, is not contesting a dangerous idea; he is demolishing a caricature. Like most things Indian, the Hindutva movement is a coalition of very different impulses. They range from those who believe in the divinity of Ram and the existence of an exact birthplace in Ayodhya, to those who are self-confessed ‘political’ Hindus. It also includes Indian conservatives who see Hindutva as a loose, emotional anchor of nationhood. Hindu nationalism is itself a broad church. Sen may be an “unreformed secularist” but his understanding of the Hindutva ‘Other’ is not nuanced, and marred by over-reliance on the contrived alarmism of the likes of Arundhati Roy. In describing his enemy, Sen lacks empirical rigour; he becomes another non-resident polemicist.

Being a collection of published essays and lectures, The Argumentative Indian was not meant to be a comprehensive study of Indian identity. Yet, when Sen makes his passionate plea for “internal pluralism and external receptivity” to define India’s sense of self, it is natural to look at the contemporary global context. The reader, unfortunately, will have to search in vain for any reference to either 9/11 or terrorism within India. It is as if these traumatic developments had no bearing on today’s India.

With Sen, omissions are never casual. They follow the choppy trajectory of selective indignation.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Heroes and charlatans (September 9, 2005)

History has become a rarefied conversation among historians

By Swapan Dasgupta

Over the past few weeks, I have busied myself trying to understand the dynamics of an encounter that agitated corporate India of the 1920s and 1930s—the conflict between the fledgling Scindia Steam Navigation Company and the well-entrenched British India Steam Navigation Company (BI). It was a vicious and, occasionally, no-holds-barred battle for dominance over coastal shipping and international routes. The conflict was ultimately resolved in favour of Scindia after 1947 when the Government excluded foreign players from domestic shipping.

For a historian, there are various ways of studying the subject. He could, if he chose, assume a position of theoretical loftiness and treat the Scindia-BI war as an incidental brush-stroke in the wider canvas of imperialism. Mapping the contours of an allegedly exploitative relationship between the metropolitan centre and the periphery would, consequently, become the focus. Alternatively, he could look upon the shipping war as a powerful case study of the confrontation between Indian economic nationalism and the British Empire. It would involve exploring the fascinating but complex relationship between Indian business and the nationalist movement, and between British commercial interests and the Government of India, in the final decades of the Raj . Both approaches would be perfectly valid and would make for scholarly monographs and even a Ph.D thesis or two.

Fortunately, the Scindia-BI war was not merely about trade statistics and the proceedings of various commissions of inquiry on maritime matters appointed by the Governments of India and Great Britain. It was primarily the story of two men who spoke differently, dressed differently, came from very different backgrounds and were yet temperamentally exactly like each other. The tale of the confrontation between Walchand Hirachand, one of the pioneers of Indian capitalism, and James Lyle Mackay, the first Earl of Inchcape, is worthy of both a Jeffrey Archer novel and a Bollywood extravaganza.

It’s a story that has to be handled with great sensitivity and, if I may say so, some degree of imagination. Walchand, or ‘Sethji’ as he was called by his employees, was both a self-made entrepreneur and a nationalist. It could even be said that his robust sense of nationalism arose from his entrepreneurship—by the 1920s he could sense the end of Empire. Apart from being India’s first shipping magnate, his business ventures included shipbuilding, the manufacture of motor cars and aircraft, sugar mills, engineering and construction. Had Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies not been so heavily biased against capitalist enterprise, Walchand would probably have been among the first Indians to make a global impact.

Pitted against him was Lord Inchcape, a self-made Scot who came to India at the age of 23 as a clerk in Mackinnon Mackenzie and rose to become the Sheriff of Calcutta, President of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and a non-official member of the Viceroy’s Council. As head of BI, he effected the merger of his company with the redoubtable Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) in 1914, which established him as the czar of British shipping. He was at one time considered as a possible successor to Lord Minto as Viceroy and was even offered the crown of Albania after the Great War. Fanatically committed to the Empire, he was a high imperialist who combined his romance with India with an uncompromising hatred of Indian nationalism.

The war between Walchand and Lord Inchcape was in many ways an unequal battle in which the Indian finally prevailed because he was on the right side of history. Yet, it was not a straight forward battle between a ‘good’ Indian and an ‘ugly’ imperialist. In their different ways, both men were deeply committed to India. Walchand believed in a self-governing India where the greatest opportunities would be reserved for Indians. Lord Inchcape was completely sincere in his conviction that the transition of India from medieval backwardness to quasi-modernity had been made possible by the dedication and duty of countless Britons who were committed to the idea of Empire. Lord Inchcape believed that network of coastal shipping had been developed by British companies in the face of grave uncertainty. He was damned if he was now going to allow Indian interlopers to run away with the profits of his investment. To him, Walchand was a “pirate”. To Walchand, Lord Inchcape was the real “pirate” for preying on the wealth of India.

Judged through the prism of post-colonial realities, the judgment of history is unquestionably in favour of Walchand, never mind the awkward reality of Scindia subsequently becoming “sick” and being incorporated into the state-run Shipping Corporation of India. At a time India is rediscovering the virtues of entrepreneurship and global capitalism, Walchand is an inspirational figure, on par with the stalwarts of the Tata family and G.D.Birla.

India, on the other hand, has not been kind to Lord Inchcape. For all his contributions, he won’t even merit a mention in the Indian history books of today. Those who are on the wrong side of history tend to end up as non-persons, victims of what E.P. Thompson, in a different context, called the “enormous condescension of posterity.”

The reason does not lie in political correctness alone. The fault lies with the priorities and preoccupations of professional historians. In the quest to make history “scientific”—a mission lauded in these columns earlier this week (“Clio is not for worship” by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, September 4)—the practitioners of the craft have chosen to forget that the past is ultimately a narration of human achievements and follies, a compendium of interesting stories about real men and women. To reduce the Walchand-Inchcape battle to a clinical dissection of imperialism, capitalism, et al, would be a criminal folly. Walchand was more than just another member of the national bourgeoisie and Lord Inchcape was more than another ‘nabob’ with an estate in Scotland.

E.H. Carr bears a heavy responsibility for the degeneration of a discipline that once epitomised the liberal arts and was considered the training ground for the enlightened exercise of power. His disavowal of the “Bad King John and Good Queen Bess” approach to history writing in the 1961 Trevelyan lectures had a crippling impact on historiography. The negation of individual-centred story-telling made the study of history an abstruse, specialised discipline. With post-modernists and the humourless disciples of Edward Said chipping in, history became a rarefied and, occasionally unintelligible, conversation between historians. Since communicating with non-specialists was no longer obligatory, historians began talking in code. It was the end of History as we knew it.

The battle over history teaching is not a simple tussle between nation-building and the celebrations of fragmented diversity. These constitute the toppings of a more fundamental divide. The fuss is essentially an expression of anger against historians who have lost sight of their primary obligation to tell a true story creatively. Today’s historians are less concerned with actual men and women than with the weight of impersonal forces.

No wonder Bollywood is stepping in to fill the void. Their films tell charming stories based on heroism and perfidy. They have no “scientific” pretensions—as if human responses to their surroundings are clinically pre-determined. Predictably, there are distortions born out of either ignorance or artistic licence. Yet, they must suffice because the alternatives—state-sponsored treatises on mercantilism and false consciousness—are more fearful.

The cheerful dumbing down of our past by Bollywood is a direct consequence of mindless pandering to the pseudo-intellectualism of academia. It is time to rescue Clio from the charlatans.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 9, 2005)