India is being torn apart in the search for a truly Indian political ethos – in the search for an Indian Homo politicus. The political Indian. The years before Independence were marked by a uniquely Western-inspired struggle against colonial rule. Having suffered a series of military defeats – however done – until the final gasp in 1857, a new political class arose from the shambles a full 40 years after the Queen Empress was proclaimed to fight the British using the very tools they had unwittingly bequeathed to us.
Since Independence was actually a Transfer of Power, as Sir VP Menon termed it, it should be no surprise that the same instruments and apparatus of colonial rule became the instruments of self-government. We retained the Civil Service, the Police, English Common Law, the Government of India Act 1935, the Sandhurst military ethos, the English language as the language of government and of the education of elites – I could go on.
In this backdrop, the first rulers of Independent India brought in the Western construct of an electoral democracy, based on the Westminster model. In of itself, this is a truly stunning achievement, starting with the romantic story of the first elections in 1952 in which a dirt-poor country elected its leaders. The romance of an Indian election never dies, despite its many flaws and warts.
The nation was not born without any strife. The exit of the British was graceful in the end, but the legacy we were given was some of the worst communal bloodletting ever seen. An estimated 5 million people died in the Punjab alone. Among the Western ideas that the founding fathers imported was the crucial one, that the new state will not be defined by religion but by citizenship.
By citizenship. To think this big thought about a country that had no experience of governing itself for two hundred years prior thanks to colonial rule, was ambitious. Many good things were done in the search for this ideal. There were mistakes as well. There were many tragedies, especially the one that took place in January 1948.
These big thoughts and lofty principles were written into the constitution we gave ourselves, and we have tried to live by these guideposts. I find that empowering.
But these principles are being tested. The leaders of India’s independence movement took huge political inspiration from the West but moulded it to Indian conditions. Nehru’s romanticism, Patel’s hard-headed pragmatism, and Gandhiji’s unique mix of spirituality and reality all combined to create the consensus that today is being tested.
At the heart of this debate is the role of the individual. We moulded our state on liberal principles. By this I mean the following four key tenets:
- Argument and reasoning are the best methods to mediate between conflicts of interest that are inherent in society.
- A belief in scientific reason as the only basis on which society can progress.
- A distrust of groups and interests, particularly majoritarian, which can lead to the suppression of the rights of the individual
- The primacy of the rights of the individual vis-à-vis the state.
As Fabian socialism swept across Europe in the aftermath of the War, against the backdrop of a triumphant Soviet Union, the ideas of Karl Marx were never more popular. Despite the demanding nature of socialism (to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin), we sought to institute redistribution through our interpretation of Marxian principles – high taxes, subsidies, safety nets, a crackdown on property ownership. All in the hope that a fairer society would emerge.
Added to this, was the nature of Hindu society which constituted 85% of the country. The Mahatma had realized long ago that in order to properly appreciate the fruits of Independence, society had to first rid itself of its ills. What he started in the 1930s, was sought to be institutionalized through a system of preferences and privileges to the former lower castes.
By all accounts we have done well despite some mammoth challenges. We could have done better, much better. The first break with the 1947 consensus was P V Narasimha Rao’s economic reforms in 1991 which helped India break free of the Hindu rate of growth. He was a very great man indeed, not properly appreciated today, but I am sure that will change. This was economic in nature. The progress we see around us today is because Prime Minister Rao took a hammer to the Fabian socialist edifice.
But a further evolutionary process is under way. The foundations of the liberal orthodoxy are under attack. The basis of citizenship is under question by the majority who believe that liberals have whittled down majoritarianism into staid and tacit acceptance of the dictates of the elite. It is quite openly said that loyalty to the majority is the first test of citizenship. Since India has a large Muslim population who have their spiritual lodestar outside India, the loyalty of this large population now under question. The innate globalist nature of the Islamic faith – the belief in an ummah – does not sit well with the view of those who consider themselves first citizens of this land. In their view citizenship is identity, not a civic contract.
Modern Indian political thought is new. We were colonized at a time when Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, et al thought long and hard about the place of man in society. We never participated in those debates. After 1857, the British ran the country with the help of what the Marxists call Compradors – the zamindars, the police officers, the Tatas and the Birlas, the ICS officers – who did the bidding of the colonial master. This class of people patronized the Indian National Congress as a tame debating body until the firebrand Tilak – at first, and then a different kind of revolutionary, the Mahatma, made this debating body the catholic church of Indian political thought.
And those thinkers today stand discredited and without takers. Nehru is regarded as a lackey of British imperialism and Gandhi is considered too weak. Only Patel emerges with credit. It is useless to point out that this holy Trinity – Nehru the hothead, Gandhi the spiritualist and Patel the pragmatist – all had huge policy disagreements but they never let it come in the way of their love for the country or their respect and regard for each other. But let us not digress.
Should we be ready to abandon these liberal principles? One of the things we keep hearing is that the role of religion in Indian political life either needs to be completely removed, or we need to recognize the nature of the beast and make Hinduism the central tenet of the Indian state. Neither say that this should be the start of a pogrom against Muslims. The first school believes India’s political class (other than BJP) are pseudo-secular (and hence the new term of endearment “Sickular Libtard”). The second school believe that all Indians were once Hindu and have then adopted other religions. Which is okay and they can stay worshipping the almighty the way they do, but they must recognize and acknowledge the fundamentally Hindu nature of this country.
What do we do? I am a staunch and devout Hindu. But being a Hindu need not mean being anti-Muslim. Indeed, I think most of the rulers of India were pro-Hindu most of the time, except in specific cases where they were not anti-Hindu but behaved with the thuggery all politicians are capable of. I could point to the fomenting of riots, the changing of the demographic of Assam and West Bengal in the search for voters. This is wrong and this has had and will have disastrous results but I do not think these were a plot against Hinduism.
There is no doubt in my mind that the liberal consensus should not be changed. What is needed is for us to be true to it. We need to hew closer to it. Our legal and social contract needs to reflect it, not just in lofty principle but in ground level action. For example, I have the right to a noise-free environment – whether that noise comes from a loudspeaker in a temple or in a mosque is something I should not worry about. Unlike the Islamic State or its Hindu equivalent, or the Soviet Union, the great thing about the liberal consensus is that it says it does not have the answers. What is provides are the tools with which to negotiate our way in society. But it does not provide tactical answers.
Why do I believe we need to hew closer to liberalism? Because I believe India is the hope of the world.
Only three states have been founded on an idea: the United States of America on basis of a republic of citizens free to govern themselves as they please in terra nova. The USSR, on the basis of a socialist state promising universal citizenship on the basis of work and loyalty to the state. And India.
The US today is not a republic – it stopped being one in 1964. It is a democracy and in many ways, the idea factory of the world. But their job is relatively simple. It is a society that is 400 years old. I give them credit but their task was easier, relatively speaking.
The USSR is dead. The lofty socialist principles came into contact with an ancient people with ancient habits and attitudes. It could not solve for economic man. It could not solve for nationalism. And in the end it collapsed under its own contradictions.
That leaves India. Four major religions and countless smaller ones. An ancient people. The home of Hinduism – in its essence one of the most liberal faiths in the world – where even a naastik is a believer, where the words infidel, pagan and unbeliever do not exist. Twenty seven languages, each of them with a rich history and literature of its own. The Caste system which pretty much ran the way people lived until a scarce hundred years ago and which is now struggling with its contact with modernity. A people who were invaded again and again and each time we absorbed, though we suffered, and enriched the conqueror and made him ours. And yet we chose to be a nation of ideas founded on liberal principles, to become a modern state that embraces its ancient history.
We should never let it fail.
4 thoughts on “In search of Homo Politicus Indicus”
Simply brilliant. Even by your high standards, this is the most outstanding of pieces that you have written. Bravo.
This should be recommended reading for every Indian.
Thanks Ramesh. This is not new – I wrote this in November but forgot to post it.
While there is much to despair about India, I think a relentless focus on improving the lot of all citizens will solve for much of these issues around identity. People will make their peace with whatever dispensation they are living under, as long as their standard of living improves. This is the big lesson from Deng Xiao Ping as you have pointed out repeatedly in your blog. Its a pity that our rulers – Congress or BJP – focus purely on identity politics. Until such time as the economy delivers a huge kick up the backside – which is what happened in 1991.
Hi Ravi, even though I do not qualify to be included in the “we,” I absolutely agree with:
“And yet we chose to be a nation of ideas founded on liberal principles, to become a modern state that embraces its ancient history.
We should never let it fail.”
Even in agreement … 😉
“At the heart of this debate is the role of the individual. …
The Mahatma had realized long ago that in order to properly appreciate the fruits of Independence, society had to first rid itself of its ills. ”
In my understanding of Gandhi’s approach, the individual’s transformation was almost a necessary condition. His insistence that even his own wife ought to clean the latrine was, to me, a remarkable statement on the change beginning with every individual. And when we think about this, we need to feel the awfulness of the latrine a hundred years ago, and what cleaning it would have meant.
The sincere followers of Gandhi–the few of them–did transform. Most of the rest simply put Gandhi up on a pedestal, mouthed a few Gandhian thoughts, sang a couple of his favorite bhajans, but did not change their fundamental being.
So, when you write “society had to first rid itself of its ills,” as much as a crazy juxtaposition as it will be when I bring in Margaret Thatcher into this context, well, she had a point–there is no such thing as society. There are humans and families and friends and various economic relationships. If at these levels humans do not change, then society will not be able to rid itself of any ills.
This has been a problem in India all along–very little of individual transformations for the better, and the individual ills get added up and amplified as society’s ills.
So, yes, at the core of the search for the Homo Politicus Indicus is the role of the individual.
“The progress we see around us today is because Prime Minister Rao took a hammer to the Fabian socialist edifice.”
We need to think about India in 1947. Even forty years after that. There was a tremendous need for various kinds of programs to serve Indians because the market structure was not there, had not developed, or was simply incapable. A socialist framework was needed. The people had to be taken care of.
It was not the Indian socialist politics that messed up India’s economic performance. It was the corrupt politics that had mutated the socialist politics into a licence raj. While “garibi hatao” (however you spell it, I don’t know) was a political slogan, it was only that.
Socialism gets a bad rap, as if taking care of the needs and priorities of the poor and under-privileged is wrong. This debate is now in the front-and-center in the US now thanks to Warren and AOC, with extensive methodological support and evidence from a bunch of elite economists.
While we might not call the politics of Tamil Nadu as socialism, the reality is that despite the corrupt politicians, the state has done really well in promoting human development. The contrast between TN and many other states is simply astounding–again, based on evidence.
Rao had practically no choice but to break that licence raj, given the Indian government’s difficult situation then in balancing its books and paying the foreign lenders. And I am glad he took a sledgehammer to that licence raj edifice.
“The foundations of the liberal orthodoxy are under attack. The basis of citizenship is under question by the majority who believe that liberals have whittled down majoritarianism into staid and tacit acceptance of the dictates of the elite.”
I view the issues this way: Liberal democracy in India has been replaced by majoritarianism. This is simply dangerous. Way too dangerous. The problems you list, like “In their view citizenship is identity, not a civic contract.” arises from majoritarianism. Very few in the “majority” seem to be concerned about this, when a lot more in the majority ought to be worried sick that democracy is being equated to majoritarianism.
“Since India has a large Muslim population who have their spiritual lodestar outside India, the loyalty of this large population now under question.”
One only needs to recall JFK as the candidate for the presidency. His Catholicism made him suspect. The fact that Catholics had a spiritual leader who was outside the US, at the Vatican. A majority tends to view “others” with suspicion. It is the nature of the beast that we humans are. It then requires extraordinary political and religious leaders to be able to lead their followers out of such darkness of suspicion. In the US, we thought we had broken through all that in the fifty-plus years since JFK’s campaign. But, it turned out that it does not take much to tempt the rotten human nature.
India, too, lacks at this time extraordinary leaders who can pull the majority out of this atrocious suspicion of their fellow Indians who merely happen to be Muslims. And the majoritarian leaders seem to be hell bent on tapping into the rotten human nature, instead of being a Lincoln who counted on “the better angels of our nature.”
“The US today … their job is relatively simple.”
Ahem … not really. We have unresolved issues from the genocide with which the American story began. We are yet to set up anything close to a truth and reconciliation process for the horrific slavery past, whose implications continue on even today.
Furthermore, whether we like it or not, what happens in the US echoes all around. The rise of supremacist behavior and attacks on the press, for instance, have now taken hold all across the world.
“The Caste system”
This is THE big one that really impedes the development of Homo Politicus Indicus.
Am done 😉
Dear Sriram, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Allow me to ponder on these points – it merits a detailed response.