Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Indian Ideology

Book Review 

By Rajesh Sharma 

07 January, 2013

The Indian Ideology
By Perry Anderson
Three Essays Collective (Gurgaon), 2012
Pages vi+184
Rs. 350 

The celebrated New Left historian and political essayist Perry Anderson's latest book The Indian Ideology (2012) appears at a time when several mainstream publishers with their assorted wares are proclaiming India 's arrival on the stage of world history. Many of these are truncated histories of the so-called arrival which, interestingly, do not go back beyond the 1990s. The self-defined limits are convenient as they sustain faith in the Indian ‘miracle'. Anderson , however, digs farther back, beginning with the country's anti-colonial struggle under Gandhi's leadership. His objective is to force into light the historical unconscious of the Indian polity. In the process, he offers quite a few rational, historical explanations of several ‘miracles', including those of India 's unity as a country and its stability as a democracy. Anderson 's narrative is gripping, suitably spiced here and there, and supported by adequate notes and references that any serious work of history needs. He hammers away delicately but firmly at the gods of modern Indian historiography to undermine the “pieties” (5) that have kept truth a prisoner of darkness for too long now. 

Invoking Marx and Engels's German Ideology , Anderson 's book sets out to test the ‘idea of India ' against the reality. That ‘idea', comprising primarily the triune of democracy, secularity and unity, constitutes, according to him, the ideology of the Indian republic. Significantly, the historian in Anderson departs from his acknowledged ‘German' intellectual predecessors in more clearly articulating ideology as grounded in history – in “the conditions and events that generated them” (2). Yet that does not mean he would deny the crucial agency of political leadership. On the contrary, he sometimes appears, to me at least, to be conceding too much power – among ideology, event and agency – to personal agency as the producer and director of history.


The book is based on three essays published in the summer of 2012 in the London Review of Books and is part of Anderson 's forthcoming work on the inter-state system of US, China , Russia , India and Brazil . The case of India , he says, required greater treatment of historical background; hence this book. 

Anderson comes out as a fiercely polemical historian who nevertheless does not go overboard in bolstering his thesis. His central argument is that the Indian state continues to bask in the memorial glow of the anti-colonial struggle, and this clouds its vision of the reality which is at serious odds with its ideology. In his opinion, neither democracy, nor secularity, nor indeed unity can be said to have been accomplished as projects. While there is a fair degree of tolerance of criticism of the country's track record as a democracy, the tolerance decreases when it comes to secularity, and disappears altogether when it comes to unity. 

As a continuation of the nationalist movement, the Indian democracy excludes, practically, vast sections of the people. Indeed, both the Partition and the Constitution were imposed from above, Anderson remarks. Historically, he says, the Congress has been “controlled by a coalition of rich farmers, traders and urban professionals” (110). If the resulting exclusion of such large numbers of people has not translated into electoral retribution, the reasons lie in the linguistic diversity of India and in the entrenched divisive system of caste. The role of caste in the country's political system has of course changed over the years since independence, yet “[w]hat would not change [is] its structural significance as the ultimate secret of Indian democracy” (112). Catching that significance in a flash of insight, Anderson recalls Ambedkar's “inaugural error” which inhered in his perception of “a contradiction between society and polity” – according to which the “imperfections” in the polity are the “effects of distortion” in the society. In a formulation that will probably go down as one of his most incisive, he goes on to say:
But the relationship between the two has always been more paradoxical than this. A rigid social hierarchy was the basis of original democratic stability, and its mutation into a compartmentalized identity politics has simultaneously deepened parliamentary democracy and debauched it. (171)
He likewise questions the Indian state for the self-congratulatory noises it makes over secularism: “Indian secularism is Hindu confessionalism by another name” (142). He acknowledges, though, that the state is more secular than the society (145). Going back, he squarely holds Gandhi's infusion of a Hindu imaginary into the nationalist discourse as the founding moment of the Indian state's persistent ambivalence over secularism. In fact, the roots of the Partition which took place on religious lines can be traced to the Non-Cooperation Movement which transformed the Congress from an elite organization into a mass organization. But would the course of things have been any different if Gandhi had not emerged on the scene? Probably not, he says. Religion had already entered the nationalist discourse, as in Maharashtra and elsewhere. However, there was a chance that the situation would change once leadership passed on to Nehru who had strong socialist and rationalist leanings. But Nehru, Anderson rues, not only chose to succumb to Gandhi's whimsical reliance on popular religious discourse but himself flirted with Hinduism in pursuit of his ambitious vision of a centralized political authority after independence. Yet this might have been unavoidable, Anderson seems to suggest, given the reality of India 's political culture. Hence, his semi-exonerating verdict on the Congress: “Structurally, the secularism of Congress had been a matter not of hypocrisy, but of bad faith, which is not the same…” (139). 

Turning to the fond myth that India 's preservation of its unity is a rare feat, he emphatically points out that most of the former European colonies have since retained their borders. While ‘threat to the unity and integrity of India' remains a favourite slogan of political parties during elections and while no one wants – including the leading intellectuals – to probe the reality of India's ‘unity', Anderson remarks that the extremely heavy presence of the security forces in Kashmir and the north east indicates a precarious unity, achieved and maintained with great difficulty. 

His prescription is that if India is to forge ahead, it must come to terms with the ghosts of its past. It must candidly re-examine its founding ideology and test it against the touchstone of reality. For instance, India can resolve its disputes with China and Pakistan only if it embraces political realism, something that the leadership learnt from Nehru to shun. 

While Anderson is quite hard on Gandhi and Nehru for part of their political legacy, he generously admires them for other reasons. The former's organizational abilities and iron will and the latter's commitment to democracy particularly earn his praise, although Nehru's gift of his dynasty has been as bad a curse as the skewed voting system of the first-past-the-post bequeathed by the Raj. Anderson has particularly high regard for Subhas Chandra Bose's secularism and B. R. Ambedkar's intellectual acumen. 

The well-paced historical narrative would have been richer and weightier if Anderson had treated of the Indian Left's fate and role as well, which he has chosen to keep out except for some passing observations. One of these is: “. . . the marginalization of the Left has been a structural effect of the dominance of the hegemonic religion in the national identity” (148). But that does not explain the Left's relative decline in India over the years, nor does it tell us why the Left – of all the political stakeholders – should possess effectively no agency to shape history. This sounds awkward in a work that seems to grant, as I said above, an excess of agency to even some individuals, such as Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten. 

There are places, particularly in the third chapter/essay, where Anderson relies on one or two sources, giving the impression of having selected the sources to suit the narrative. Even if these are essays, these are nevertheless essays on history, not some “loose sallies of the mind,” as Samuel Johnson conceived the essay to be. Although Anderson does not often attenuate the historian's rigour for the powers of polemical rhetoric, yet he sometimes does resign to the temptation. Had he extended the range of his sources and included other points of view, it would have certainly enriched his book.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Critical History of Our Times

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Critical History of Our Times

Rajesh Kumar Sharma


The Underside of Things: India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011 
by Badri Raina; 
Three Essays Collective; 2012; 
Pages: xxii+758; 
Paperback Rs 850.
Badri Raina is like an all-season fruit-bearing tree. And the more he ages the mellower gets the fruit he bears. The 134 essays gathered between the covers of this book and written for Z-net over six years between 2006 and 2011 are ample testimony to his engaged critical productivity. Each essay is a timely, more than instantaneous, response to some pressing issue—be it embodied in an event, a pronouncement, a person, a law, a policy, a report, or a possibility crying imperatively to be cast into action. But beyond this, the essays also transcend the contingency of their moment under the force and lucidity of Raina’s reason which, aided by a ready and exact memory working as a sixth sense, never fails to put together the bigger picture. As a result, the essays together constitute a critical history of our times.

Raina has an acid tongue and a pen that leaves a fiery trail. He rages and thunders, often to the accompaniment of lightning/lightening wit, a Dickensian gift he has cultivated over decades of his literary scholarship, particularly of the great English novelist. In his foreword, Mani Shankar Aiyar rightly frames Raina’s India and the world against Dickens’s England and the world, disclosing the links and parallels that only a person of his erudition and sense of history could have traced so effortlessly. A foreword authored by one endowed with lesser wit would have been an unworthy prologue to Raina’s writings.
Reading Raina I have the sensation of being at the receiving end of bursts of an almost inhuman energy—of being assaulted with the jets of a water cannon. Blended with the balm of a deeply compassionate mind, it produces an inimitable sensibility. This, I guess, is Raina’s singular signature as a witness to the history that is the present. It is not easy for a writer as prolific as he is to always have something to say whenever he chooses to put pen to paper, or fingertip to keyboard. His rage, whenever provoked, never flounders in blabbering inanities (as it does in lesser media mortals) but augments the brilliance of an ever-incisive reason. And it is never poisoned by viciousness and never soiled by pettiness. Partisan he is, but partisan in the way truth—as Alain Badiou says—is partisan, considering that the mortals we are it is beyond us to grasp the whole truth, if there be any. He stands on the left, the Left that is to say, and proclaims his choice of the position with unfashionable candour. But that does not mute his lashing tongue when it has to admonish the Left, as over the police firing in Nandigram, or over its defeat in West Bengal. The Left is still the best bet, he believes, to contain the reckless malaise of neoliberalism and to ward off the spectre of ‘majoritarian fascism’: we just cannot afford to let it wither any more, much less kill it for its lapses.

In fact, his uncompromised critical stance exemplifies the paradox of his peculiar subject position as a citizen commentator: a potent self-presence that is nevertheless never self-centered but impersonal. Hence the elegance of his colloquialism has its reason not so much in the adornment of articulation as in the will to draw the reader to his quills and pills. As such, he is the exemplar of what a non-specialist can accomplish, and the way he can, as an agent of intervention outside the easily visible frames and furniture of power.

The range of the essays is vast enough to spell out a substantial agenda for governments as much as for citizens in our times. And the treatment is modulated to the demands of the issue in hand. The opening essay, on capital punishment, documents evidence from the world’s history against this barbaric relic: the closing essay, after saluting—for her healthy sceptism—his mother who enters her hundredth year, dips into remembrance of his younger days in a happier Kashmir, before painting the ruins of the human community that fanaticism has bequeathed to the subcontinent. The several essays on Kashmir show Raina’s honest quest for a real, achievable end to a long tragic history. In these particularly, his credentials as a value-inspired pragmatist committed to democracy, secularism, peace and justice stand out. Elsewhere he tears apart ‘cultural nationalism’ as fiercely as he does imperialism and its contemporary baby, neo-imperialism. The ‘self-regulating’ electronic media, the pampered monster from the corporate ideological lab that he perceives as a menace to the sanity of democratic dialogue, is another object of Raina’s critical disrobing. On corruption, he is one of the few who can see it in its actual historical context, without melting hard reason into soft, shocked sermons. Indeed, his treatment of the Anna Hazare syndrome is a delectable critical feast as he goes about delicately exposing its authoritarian underside.

Unless my apology for a review should give the impression that Raina is little more than a dazzling word-spinner of great goodwill, let me declare that the real harvest I carry home from my sojourn among these essays is a deepened trust in the uses of analysis. He bores through surfaces and traces the obscurest of connections. For a sample, read his ‘Cricket as Surrogate Kill’ (228-32), penned in 2008. He begins with ‘na├»ve’ amazement over the universal seductions of IPL 20x20 cricket, using it as an opportunity to unravel in a few short paragraphs the history of capitalism which soon enough ‘needed to jettison enlightenment for entertainment’ in order not to share its profits with anyone other than the early beneficiary classes. And he rips through layer after layer of an inevitable-seeming cultural history:

In literary parlance, capitalism now needed to rewrite the 19C novel into a sexy quickie, knocking out reflections upon processes for the mesmeric event…. It needed to produce a social order that would displace the thoughtful walk in the country, garden, or bylane by the frenetic rush of jogging.

It needed to emasculate language into digital ejaculations, chop grammar into animal grunts, castrate conversation into a time-saving hi and bye.

And to dethrone the warm contexts of tea-brewing and tea-drinking in favour of the stand-up cup of instant coffee. (230)

The 20x20 cricket thus emerges as the symptom of a deeper rooted and more extensive pathology “that makes such an obscenity possible”. (232) And to remember that Raina himself was once a fine cricketer who played at the State level!

The realities of a class-divided society, exacerbated to the extreme and foregrounded sharply in the essay entitled ‘Destitution’, do not make him insensible of the equally troubling realities of gender and caste. He does not romanticise women and Dalits, as many good Samaritans do, believing that all persons are equally capable of good and evil. At the same time he notices that the darkness has gotten inkier as the old oppressive social order has found a new collaborator in the predatory corporate ‘culture’ (call it ‘barbarism’ of the sophisticated pedigree, if you will).

As a reader I can only say, in spite of the 758+ pages of this (vo)luminous volume: Give me more! And I wish Raina had said more on education and had written something on Delhi too, the city whose inhabitant he has been for over four decades, the city of Ghalib whose verses Raina once rendered into English.

Web Edition: http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article3931.html