Religion, Caste and Politics in India by Christophe Jaffrelot (Primus Books, 802 pages, Rs 2,250)
If an A-list is drawn of the most exciting writers on contemporary Indian politics, Christophe Jaffrelot, in all likelihood, will not feature in it. At the same time, the importance of the Director of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, who also teaches South Asian history and politics at Sciences Po in Paris, cannot be brushed away. Apart from having written one of the very few comprehensive accounts of the BJP, Jaffrelot happens to be the prism through which a section of the French establishment sees India. He is France's most prominent India hand and, as such, his understanding of his specialist subject needs to be taken seriously. Jaffrelot is important because France is important.
Unfortunately, the expectation that Jaffrelot will introduce a distinctly French perspective into a discipline dominated (apart from Indians) by faculty members in American and, occasionally, British universities, is likely to be belied. In an India which he visits frequently and conducts field research, Jaffrelot hasn't been able to transcend the temptation of aligning himself with the dominant Left-liberal camp. The possible excitement of presenting alternative perspectives on live issues such as multiculturalism—a subject on which France has a unique perspective—has been blunted by his willingness to embrace conventional academic wisdom.
This voluminous collection of papers and articles written by him at various stages of his academic career is, nevertheless, not without its merits. For a start, Jaffrelot has resisted the temptation of re-editing his earlier offerings in the light of today's realities. If many of his conclusions fail to stand the test of time, Jaffrelot is generous enough to allow them to pass. Secondly, his articles are pretty exhaustively documented and footnoted with both primary and secondary sources. If nothing else, they allow the interested reader a reasonably comprehensive reading list for further perusal of the subject. Finally, Jaffrelot's range is impressive: from the historical origins of Hindu nationalism to the political complexities of parties such as the BJP, BSP and the various Lohia-ite formations. He also touches on areas such as Indian foreign policy—occupational hazards of academics who have to meet the test of 'relevance'—but these aren't his core competence.
Of the 35 essays in the collection, many of which suffer from lengthy repetitions, some themes stand out. In particular, I like his concept of "strategic syncretism" to explain why some Hindu social reformers, not least Raja Rammohan Roy and Swami Dayananda Saraswati, expediently dressed the Hindu faith in a monotheistic garb to make it fit Christian fashion. In another essay, where he draws on the recondite literature of European racial theories, Jaffrelot debunks the notion that either V.D. Savarkar or M.S. Golwalkar was driven by race nationalism. His exploration of the complexities in the relationship between the RSS and wings of the so-called Sangh Parivar leads him to the unfashionable conclusion that centralised control from Nagpur remains an elusive ideal. Never mind Golwalkar's pipedream of arriving at the stage "where the Sangh and the entire Hindu society will be completely identical", the realities of political power prevented a completely harmonious relationship between the RSS and the BJP during the NDA years.
As someone who has followed the BJP and the RSS, with varying degrees of proximity over time, I found Jaffrelot's essays on the origins of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the evolution of the BJP in Delhi quite revealing and well researched. Jaffrelot is at his strongest when he couples media reports with actual interviews with some of the players in the story. He is at his weakest when he relies excessively on media reports that, in many cases, tend to be ill-informed. Since Jaffrelot often has no access to 'insider' sources, he is often a prey to the temptation of treating media reports at face value without assessing their relative importance.
A party like the BJP which is half a political party and half a nebulously structured movement has many loudmouths and cranks whose views find place in some 'Hindu' publication or the other. Since Jaffrelot has little empathy for what the BJP stands for—in fact he is unreservedly hostile to it—he often fails to separate representative views from the cranky. To my mind, this is a big failing as is his inability to link the group dynamics of the saffron fraternity with wider shifts in society.
For example, it is curious to find that his essay on the debate over a presidential form of government makes only a passing mention of a crucial point: that the impetus for a thorough overhaul of the Constitution came from the Congress, particularly during the Emergency years. Jaffrelot says that "The Presidential system is not opposed to democracy"—being from France he can hardly say otherwise. He concedes that many of its proponents sought "the reform of the state." At the same time, he arrives at the conclusion "the form that the presidentialisation of the regime would take under the auspices of the BJP appears to be more threatening than it would under other parties, because of the BJP's ideological background and the way in which the RSS and its offshoots function." A few pages later, after conceding that democracy has sunk roots in India, he says that the BJP commitment to democracy is suspect because "the movement is still identified with the upper castes…Though the BJP is gradually promoting low caste cadres…it still does not contribute to the present-day (social) democratization of Indian (political) democracy."
This is hardly the conclusion of a detached academic studying a phenomenon. It is the language of the pamphleteer.
Footnote: The publisher should note that pages 132 to 144 are either missing or wrongly placed in a book priced at Rs 2,250!