Dialogue  July-September,  2012, Volume 14 No.1

Democracy in India : from Nehru to the Present

Navaratna Rajaram

While caste has always been an integral part Indian society and politics it is not static. The 2012 assembly elections may mark a watershed in politics— heralding a generational shift away from Mandalization towards Sanskritization. The post-colonial experience suggests that the humanities need to broaden their scope to incorporate the lessons of history.

Democracy in a new nation

In 1831, a twenty-six year old French nobleman by name Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville landed in America carrying a commission from the French monarch Louis-Philippe (of the House of Orlèans) to study the American prison system. Tocqueville dutifully completed his mission and published his report on his return to France two years later where it is now gathering dust. He wrote another work based on extensive travels in the new country called De la démocratie en Amerique (Democracy in America) which appeared in two volumes in 1835. It has remained a classic.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville sees a connection between the Americans’ love of liberty and their devotion to Christianity — a connection that he attributes to the piety of the Pilgrim Fathers who founded the colonies. It intrigued him that Americans seemed to be able to combine the idea of religion with the idea of liberty while in Europe the two seemed always to be at loggerheads. His words were: "In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; ... Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things..." Marveling at this seeming paradox he went on to observe:

"In the United States the sovereign authority is religious, and consequently hypocrisy must be common. ...The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other... There are certain populations in Europe whose unbelief is only equaled by their ignorance and their debasement, while in America one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world fulfills all the outward duties of religion with fervor."

Would someone visiting India at fifty years of its founding as Tocqueville did America have made a similar observation? (Tocqueville visited America in 1831— fifty years after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation.) At least superficially India and the U.S. share similarities— supposedly secular states but countries in which religion plays a much greater role in public life than in Europe. Any study of Indian democracy must take into account the important place that religion and its offshoots occupy in public life.

Democracy in India: first fifty years

There is no single work on Indian democracy comparable to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. India of the 1990s was also vastly more complex than the United States of the 1830s— a multi-religious society with a power sharing hierarchy based on caste, while America was largely Protestant Christian but with significant social and economic differences based on landholding and slavery. While there is no Indian version of Tocqueville’s book, the void is partly filled by two works that in different ways look at India in the fifth decade since independence. These are The Idea of India by the political theorist Sunil Khilnani, now at King’s College, London, and India: A million mutinies now by the well-known observer of India (and of much else), V.S. Naipaul. They make interesting reading in the light of what has happened in the twenty years or so since they first appeared.

It is not our purpose here to review these much-reviewed books, but examine the insights offered by two serious thinkers of different backgrounds in the light of the experience of the succeeding twenty years. Professor Khilnani is a distinguished political theorist while Sir Vidia Naipaul is a creative writer of the highest order who studies societies by looking at individuals in their historical environment. As befits an academic Mr. Khilnani writes with a degree of detachment (except for what appears to be a hastily written 2003 Introduction), while Mr. Naipaul brings the eye of a historian as creative artist. Where the former looks at Indian democracy as a socio-political system, the latter looks at the people and their social and religious background that make this paradoxical nation a democracy.

India: A million mutinies now is Mr. Naipaul’s third book on India. It is not marked by the pervasive sense of despair of his earlier works on India, reminiscent in some ways of the brooding genius of the Greek tragedian Aeschylus (or his modern counterpart Eugene O’Neill). There is a hint of optimism— that one is seeing a civilization coming out a millennium-long historical nightmare. He even sees the Ayodhya movement and the 1992 demolition of Babar’s Mosque as part of this historical awakening. This has earned him the charge of being a ‘Hindutva spokesman’, but Mr. Naipaul has not relented from his position. (This is not the place to go into different sides of the complex Ayodhya dispute; those interested in archaeological and other facts relating to the case are advised to visit http://folks.co.in/blog/2009/11/10/the-evidence-at-ayodhya/)

It is not easy to describe a writer as versatile as V.S. Naipaul in a few words. His non-fiction works are often described as travelogues but that seems inadequate. (His fiction is not germane here.) This writer sees him as an observer of societies— of their ebb and flow against the background of their historical experience. Above all he looks for causes for the present in their past— the stamp of history on society. The Indians’ supposed lack of a sense of history is what infuriated him in his earlier books on India (Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization), while he sees signs of a historical awakening in A Million Mutinies Now.

In his non-fiction work Naipaul is said to adopt an ‘anecdotal’ approach— of describing societies and institutions (like caste) through the experience of selected individuals. This is only partly true, for he never loses sight of their historical background. As a result he is interested not only in the subject, but also the experience of ancestors going back two or three generations. In effect he portrays scenes using ‘case studies’— to borrow a term from business school parlance.

The result is wonderful literature especially in the hands of a master narrator like Naipaul, but also one that can seduce the reader into thinking that the cases presented are typical of the class (or caste) as a whole. This may not always be so. Different individuals may share the same history but how they react to it can and does change from case to case. This writer happens to come from the same region and social background (South India) described in some detail in A Million Mutinies but feels that the portrayals convey a society more rigid than that his or even his parents’ generation were part of.

The book rightly devotes considerable space to the influence of the Dravidan Movement, especially in Tamil Nadu. Mr. Naipaul has little to say on the philistinism of the Dravidian Movement, which is what strikes someone coming from a neighboring state. Tamil Nadu has been one of the great centers of the performing arts: Tanjore, Chennai, Srirangam and other centers played a major role in development and nurturing of classical music and dance. Dravidian ideologues denounced them as ‘Brahminical’ replacing it with vulgar film music and dance. It is no coincidence that several Dravidian leaders, including M. Karunanidhi happen to be closely associated with the film industry. (In some ways the Dravidian Movement can be compared to Mao’s Cultural Revolution.)

In attacking the fine arts and Indian tradition as ‘Brahminical’ Karunanidhi and his colleagues were taking a page out of a long standing tradition begun by Christian missionaries going back at least to Robert de Nobili in the 17th century. E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker is said to be the founder of the Dravidian Movement, but the real founder was Robert Caldwell (1814 – 91), Bishop of Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu. He created the Aryan-Dravidan theory claiming that Dravidians were the original inhabitants of India until driven south by the invading Aryans. This crackpot theory has been discredited by archaeology and now genetics, but remains the lynchpin of the Dravidian ideology. Politicians like Karunanidhi have gone to great lengths to preserve this myth, even to the extent of generously supporting mercenary scholars like Asko Parpola of Finland to give it a veneer of scholarship.

(Notwithstanding his discredited theories, Bishop Caldwell remains a revered icon in Tamil Nadu today. At a conference in Bangalore a few years back, this writer objected to a scholar from Tamil Nadu heaping indiscriminate praise on Caldwell’s work. The speaker ignored the objections but later admitted in private that he had to praise Caldwell in order to survive in Tamil Nadu. This kind of politicization of scholarship is not unknown in other parts of India. In this respect, India remains a feudal society.)

In A Million Mutinies Now Mr. Naipaul gives a vivid picture of the formidable E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker (1879 – 1973) known as ‘Periyar’ (Elder) with all the contradictions of his complex personality. To begin with, this champion of the downtrodden was not a poor Tamilian but a Kannada speaker from a wealthy family. Ms. Jayalalithaa, the present chief minister of Tamil Nadu is also from Karnataka and a Brahmin to boot. Her mentor M.G. Ramachandran too was not a Tamilian but a Keralite born in Sri Lanka.

The most arresting part of A Million Mutinies Now is the description of the effect on the Muslim psyche of two major events— the 1857 uprising that led to the British takeover of the Oudh (or Oude) kingdom and the Partition of India in 1947. The scene of Mr. Naipaul’s narrative is Lucknow, the last light of Muslim culture that was rudely extinguished by the British following the Mutiny. The Partition broke Muslim families resulting in disruption and disillusionment. Many migrated to the Land of the Pure (Pakistan) only to return, their refined sensibilities unable to cope with the crude materialism of the Punjabis. These included artists of the highest rank like the great singer Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. (He was not from Lucknow though Lucknow has a great tradition of classical music.)

The social loss following the Partition when much of the Muslim elite left for Pakistan is understandable, but what is baffling is the deep resentment still held against the British for destroying their dream city of Lucknow and the refined culture it represented as the capital of Oudh (or Oude). Mr. Naipaul gives a vivid and sometimes poignant account of the hurt still felt by many Lucknow Muslims at the loss of paradise.

He is in his element in describing the world as seen by them and its clash with reality (‘End Of the Line’). One can understand their agony— their sense of defeat and dispossession, but the atavistic attachment to a world that disappeared 150 years ago is hard to comprehend. Does one carry this hurt forever— a hurt that time seems powerless to heal? Is it a coincidence that the culture of Lucknow was Shia, with its own memory of the martyrdom of Ali and his supporters in the Battle of Karbala of 610 AD? What a burden to carry!

India of Nehru’s vision

Where Naipaul looks at people, Sunil Khilnani studies societies and institutions that contribute to making India a democracy. Naturally, he looks at leaders also, giving a prominent place to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. As he sees it, Nehru’s vision of the Indian nation was synonymous with Indian democracy: to Nehru, nation building meant building India as a democratic state. In his words, "Nehru’s idea of India sought to coordinate within the form of a modern state… democracy, religious tolerance, economic development and cultural pluralism."

A question to be asked is why has democracy taken such deep roots in India? Even during the Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, people were prepared to oppose it and go to jail. Mr. Khilnani rightly dismisses the romantic notion that India had democratic institutions in ancient times and the experience was nothing new. He does recognize that a power sharing hierarchy was part of society in the institution of caste. As far back as 1949, Dr. D.V. Gudappa pointed out that the system must have served some function for it to survive for thousands of years. As sociologist M.N. Srinivas pointed out caste is always changing— it is not today what it was in 1949. This was pointed out also by the medieval historian K.S. Lal in his work The Growth of Scheduled Tribes and Castes in Medieval India.

For India’s economic development Nehru followed the Soviet model of centralized planning. Mr. Khilnani suggests that it owed less to Soviet Russia than to Europe. If so, Harold Laski of the London School of Economics was a major influence. According to the U.S. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith who was close to Nehru, "the center of Nehru’s thinking was Laski" and "India is the country most influenced by Laski’s ideas". It is mainly due to his influence that the LSE has a semi-mythological status in India. He was a revered figure to Indian students at the LSE. The most influential of Laski’s Indian students was Nehru’s favorite V.K. Krishna Menon.

India was not the only country influenced by Laski. He attracted a large number of students from third world countries who went home to apply his ideas to their newly independent countries often resulting in economic ruin and political instability. While there is no denying Laski’s influence, Nehru’s admiration for the Soviet Union is a matter of record. In his Soviet Union, Some Random Sketches (1926) Nehru wrote: "Russia interests us because… conditions there have not been, and are not even now, very dissimilar to conditions in India… Much depends on the prejudices and preconceived notions… [but] no one can deny the fascination of this strange Eurasian country of the hammer and the sickle, where workers and peasants sit on the thrones of the mighty and upset the best laid schemes of mice and men."

Curiously, Nehru’s admiration extended even to the notorious Moscow prison with the beautiful name— the Lubyanka. "It can be said without a shadow of a doubt," Nehru wrote, "that to be in a Russian prison is far more preferable than [sic] to be a worker in an Indian factory. The mere fact that there are prisons like the ones we saw is in itself something for the Soviet Government to be proud of." For a man who could admire Soviet prisons it was not hard to admire and adopt the Soviet system of planning.

To give shape to his plans Nehru turned to the highly regarded statistician P.C. Mahalanobis. Mahalanobis was as much an institution builder as a scientist (and self-promoter). He was the force behind the Planning Commission as he had been of the famed Indian Statistical Institute. (The ISI though owes no less to the contribution of others, notably mathematician C.R. Rao and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane.) Mahalanobis succeeded in convincing Nehru that his tour de force, a mathematical magic box that he modestly called the ‘Mahalanobis Model’ could be the answer to the economic analysis needed for the five year plans.

Mr. Khilnani gives an amusing account of the Mahalanobis Model and the role it played in planning. Like the legendary Kama Dhenu of Hindu mythology, the model could grant any wish in the form of numbers: one had only state one’s wish and it spat out the desired numbers. Armed with his ‘Model’, Mahalanobis went on to become Nehru’s soothsayer and number cruncher. It attracted little foreign investment—if anything it did the opposite with several companies closing their Indian operations—but attracted droves of economists. Another legacy was a feudal system of favored ‘experts’ to advise the government like Mahalanobis, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai (another scientist turned numerologist), and most recently Sam Pitroda and Montek Ahluwalia. The legacy is still being felt.

Twenty years after: state of the Nehru dream

India is a post-colonial state, even a Nehruvian state, is one of Mr. Khilnani’s central themes. This state has existed only since 1947, with frontiers and institutions largely as the British had left them. Even the Indian Constitution owes much to the 1935 Government of India Act. As he observes, the Indian experience has shown that democracy is compatible with Asian cultures— at least with the Indian culture. At least some of the credit should go to the hierarchical power sharing built into caste. After all, every state is a hierarchical system or it is anarchy.

It is now some 20 years since Naipaul and Khilnani penned their studies of India. In that time there have been major developments in the national scene, notably the continuing downward spiral of the Congress (predicted by the latter); the coming to power and the re-election of the Congress-led UPA government seems to be a temporary reprieve. The Congress fortunes were artificially boosted by the performance of its allies in two southern states— Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Recent elections including the just concluded state elections in U.P., Punjab and others suggest that voting patterns no longer strictly follow caste patterns. Or we should perhaps say that caste has changed in response to democratic experience and no longer fits into the pattern prescribed by vote bank calculations.

Shortly before his death in 1999, sociologist M.N. Srinivas edited a book he called Caste: Its twentieth century avatar. In a lengthy introduction Srinivas, India’s greatest sociologist and foremost student of the role of caste in society observed that caste is a dynamic system and should not be treated as fixed for all time. But this was how caste and Hindu society in general were portrayed and analyzed by Western scholars and Indians who took their cue from them. A feature of the post-Nehru and post-Indira era was the emergence of caste and community based politics and political parties. This was captured by Srinivas in the phrase ‘vote bank’— a term he coined in 1955.

In all this, there was an implicit assumption that caste and community loyalties remain frozen and can always be tapped for votes. An often ignored fact is that caste parties like the SP and the BSP only capitalized on the caste and community based political paradigm (or vote bank politics) introduced and institutionalized by the Congress. They did not innovate it. C. Rajagoplachari (Rajaji), a critic of Nehru had observed as far back as 1963:

"What the Congress Party does speaks far louder than its preaching. Communalism is at the root of all the decisions of the Congress Party… Instead of allowing and encouraging a natural synthesis of castes and communities in a developing continent, the coming together is directed to be brought about through political affiliation to Congress and through that means alone. The result is instead of casteism disappearing, a new and worse caste has been created— the caste of the ruling party."

This is what Professor Khilnani also notes—winning elections in pursuit of power became the be-all and end-all of the Congress leadership, everything else became secondary. This was a natural corollary of Nehru’s idea of nationalism as democratic expression through elections. Rajaji was remarkably prescient when he predicted: "…this new caste has come to be worse type of the old feudal tyrannies and caste dominations. Corruption and disintegration are the natural corollaries of this domination of a new caste." Nehru’s idea of the nation as a democratic state must bear a share for this.

Even Rajaji, for all his vision and experience did not foresee the dominance of the party and the nation not by a new caste but a nouveau riche family headed by a European woman with no record of service to the nation, or experience in public life and her feudal court. Nehru’s nationalism was buried when the Congress surrendered itself and the nation to Sonia Gandhi in 1998. For the moment, she had won the "contest for the ownership of the state" as Khilnani puts it, and all the perks and privileges that go with it while giving little in return. Narrowing nationalism to mean democratic pursuit of power led to this aided by the accident of marriage.

How would Nehru have reacted to this? We have a pointer. When the last Maharaja of Holkar died, Nehru refused to allow his son to succeed to the largely ceremonial title because his mother was an American. Was this because Nehru was a xenophobic chauvinist as those questioning Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s fitness for constitutional office have been called? Ever since Mrs. Sonia Gandhi gained control of the government in 2004, corruption has indeed increased manifold. The degradation of Nehru’s India reached a new depth when the ‘distinguished economist’ Manmohan Singh used his position as prime minister to bailout Mrs. Gandhi’s partner, the Italian swindler Ottavio Quattrocchi.

Another development is the bankruptcy of Nehruvian secularism to the point it is now all but a dirty word. Nehru himself started the debasement by introducing the Haj Bill in 1959 for providing financial subsidies to Muslims going on Haj Pilgrimage. (The idea of Haj subsidy goes against the principle of secularism as well as the teachings of Islam.) During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi introduced the word ‘secularism’ into the Indian Constitution without defining it. Ever since that time, ‘secularism’ has been invoked in the service of vote bank politics— to justify the unjustifiable. At the same time, the nightmare scenario of communal polarization presented by Mr. Khalnani in his 2003 Introduction has not come to pass. On the other hand, an unusual degree of communal harmony has prevailed even in the face of attacks by Islamic terrorists on Indian sites, including temples in Varanasi and Ahmedabad.

Urbanization and better communications like satellite TV and mobile telephones are bringing about rapid changes in caste and its role in society. The results of the last several elections—not just the latest—suggest that voters are looking beyond caste in selecting leaders. In 2007, Mayavati came to power in U.P. on the back of a caste coalition. But her failure to rise above caste considerations and poor performance resulted in a resounding defeat five years later. The victorious leader, the 37 year-old Akhilesh Yadav appealed to all constituencies and emphasized effective governance and development.

If recent results are any indication, the days of the Congress party are numbered. The not-so-youthful Crown Prince Rahul Gandhi has shown himself to be singularly inept and unequal to the task of reviving the party’s fortunes, but no alternative is in sight. Family monopoly has come back to haunt the party. As the U.P. election was getting close, a comedy of errors was enacted with Rahul’s sister Priyanka accompanied by her little children hitting the campaign trail soon followed by her husband Robert Vadra. Neither had any experience in public life but felt qualified because of the family connection. Anywhere else it would be called nepotism but the Indian media described it as dynastic charisma. But the Indian voter who showed he was capable of looking beyond caste showed himself capable of seeing through dynastic pretensions also. You cannot fool all the people all the time.

Only time will tell whether this is a harbinger of things to come. Caste has two faces— social and political. As India becomes increasingly urbanized, and urban ideas make their way into the villages, the social aspect of caste may be diffused by economic and educational considerations. This is already happening among educated urbanites. Politically, caste may not altogether disappear but may continue to serve in its age old role of ensuring that no one group becomes oppressive by cornering all the resources. In short, it brings us back to Srinivas’s observation that caste is an essential feature of Indian society, but not something frozen in time or space.

Future: broadening the horizons of political thought

As Professor Khilnani rightly points out the sustainability of India’s democracy rests on its ability to preserve its internal diversity and assimilate new ideas. This has never been in doubt going back to Vedic times. Threats to diversity of societies has come only from exclusivist ideologies like Christianity (in Goa), Islam and Marxism and in whatever garb operating in the guise of ‘universalism’. (In our own time, we need look no further than Tibet, Pakistan and Bangladesh.)

He also remarks that nationalism and national identity cannot be confined to the borders of India, and Indians should accept the reality that Western political idiom and methodology will be applied to non-Western societies as well including India. Mr. Khilnani goes on to observe: "It has been a far from universally happy experience. But neither side can escape its consequences. The future of Western political theories will be decided outside the West. And in deciding that future, the experience of India will loom large." He also notes that in questions relating to Indian identity "categories and terms of Western political thought are essential to all judgments. This is not out of a conviction that the ideas of Western politics themselves represent the summit of human thought and feeling."

Of course not, and one is grateful for this acknowledgement. The twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first are littered with the wreckage of applying Western political thought to non-Western societies— from Vietnam to Iraq. This raises an important question: is Western political thought—and humanities in general—capable of shedding its insularity by reaching out to pluralistic traditions— say Vedantic and Confucian?

As seen by a non-specialist, the academic discipline devoted to their study will have little to show until Western political thinkers acquire the humility to acknowledge their errors and change if not discard their theories as workers in the exact sciences (like this writer) are forced to do. Since the social sciences are without the built-in checks and balances of the exact sciences, we only know when they are wrong after the damage is done. There is no testing their theories in the laboratory. Even after the catastrophe, as in Vietnam, there is more heat than light.

Simply acknowledging error like Robert McNamara’s mea culpa after Vietnam is of no value; unless there is a mechanism for making such lessons of history integral part of the discipline itself, there is no assurance that the folly will not be repeated in another place and time— as it was in Iraq. This means there will be no progress, but only ad-hoc interpretations and misinterpretations until they are forgotten in a generation and a new adventure in folly is embarked upon.

The eerie similarity between the so-called Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident (August 4, 1964) that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War and the more recent fabrication of evidence for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as pretext for attacking Iraq does not say much either for the judgment of political thinkers or the soundness of their theories. As far back as 1995, Vietnamese Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap told his American counterpart Robert McNamara that the now infamous Gulf of Tonkin Incident never happened.

This is not the full story, for doubts were expressed within hours of the claim of North Vietnamese attack on the U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf. These came from eyewitnesses like U.S. naval officers and a reconnaissance pilot that were reported to the Defense Secretary McNamara. Even President Lyndon Johnson admitted as early as 1965 that there may have been no attacks on U.S. ships. But that did not stop the escalation of the war. So, what was driving it? A political doctrine called the ‘Domino Effect’ that held that the fall of one country to the Communists would inevitably lead to the fall of its neighbor to Communism and so on. There was never any evidence, much less proof.

If anything, the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union followed by its collapse in the neighboring countries can be used to argue a Reverse Domino Effect. This has happened before— after Napoleon in the nineteenth century and the fall of the Third Reich in the twentieth. Can we build a theory of action and reaction based on these analogies— that every domino effect is followed by a reverse domino effect? Or how about the latest received wisdom— Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’? Is there any way of testing it?

Such fatuous arguments are not limited to political science. The world is yet to recover from the the recent global financial collapse. It was entirely man-made; its dangers were predictable and predicted, but economists went ahead with their creations anyway, giving themselves ‘Nobel Prizes’ even as they ruined the national economies (and lives). The paradox is that the same people who were responsible for the catastrophe continue to be in charge of the global financial system.

This is incomprehensible to a student of the exact sciences (like this writer). No scientist could maintain his or her standing after a blunder of such magnitude. Also worth noting is the fact that a scientific error rarely has global consequences of this magnitude. Even space disasters, like those involving the Challenger and Columbia later are purely local events. They are thoroughly investigated and remedial actions taken.

This seems rarely to happen in the social sciences. There is some breast beating, but soon it is business as usual. Discredited ideas are allowed to continue until history in the form of the same folly is repeated. Are there to be no corrective mechanisms built into the system as we have in the exact sciences? A basic question that we must be prepared to face is— can the humanities ever be made free of human folly?

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati