Saturday, March 12, 2011

Is There An Indian Way Of Thinking About Politics?

"Is there an Indian way of thinking? The poet and scholar AK Ramanujan considered the question at length in a celebrated essay on the subject. The answer, he decided, would depend on which word of the question one chose to stress. The same is true of the following variation on Ramanujan’s question: Is there an Indian way of thinking about politics? There are several things we might mean by this. For example, we might mean to ask: Is there an Indian way of thinking about politics at all? Or we might mean: Is there an indigenously Indian, rather than derivative, way of thinking about politics? Or perhaps: Is there an Indian way of thinking, systematically, about politics? When this question is asked by a historian, it becomes another way of asking about India’s tradition of political thought. Does such a thing exist? What sort of thing is it?

Here are some possible answers to these questions. There is no Indian tradition of political thought; there is only the dirty business of workaday politics. Or, there is a tradition of Indian political thought, but it consists entirely in applications of the insights of Western liberals, Marxists and fascists to Indian conditions. Or, there is a tradition of thinking about politics, but no tradition of political thought to rival the great texts of the Western tradition.

. Guha’s complaint about partisan appropriation of India’s past might be the most important claim in this book: “ treated as a Bengali poet; ...Ambedkar as a Dalit icon...; ...Nehru as the property of the Congress.” This makes it “hard, if not impossible, for anyone to follow a catholic approach—to study and appreciate both Gandhi and Ambedkar, or both Nehru and Rajagopalachari, on the basis that these legacies may be equally relevant or significant, albeit in different and arguably complementary ways”.

Guha’s targets here are not only politicians, who might be forgiven for neither knowing better nor caring, but fellow scholars. He has little sympathy for Amartya Sen’s project in The Argumentative Indian (2005) to trace elements of the practice of modern Indian democracy back to the pluralism and tolerance of Ashoka and Akbar. Guha argues that Sen is wrong to privilege the “traditions of debate that were distinctive of long-dead states and kingdoms” over “those traditions which actually shaped the political and social institutions of the present”. Further, Sen’s quest for “alternatives to the Hindutva genealogy, by searching for a past useable by the Left...which has the right progressive values, such as egalitarianism and secularism” is, in Guha’s trenchant phrase, “a sort of ‘Bhakti Marxism’”.

A critic might well ask if Guha has done exactly what he accused Sen of doing: of “searching for a past useable by” liberals.
Three of the thinkers on his list are described explicitly as liberals: Rammohan Roy (the chapter on him is titled ‘The First Liberal’), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (‘The Liberal Reformer’), and C Rajagopalachari (‘The Gandhian Liberal’). Others, such as Nehru and Ambedkar are seen as liberal constitutionalists of the same stripe. Yet others are shown as reformers animated by typically liberal concerns such as gender equality and social justice: E V Ramaswami ‘Periyar’ (‘The Radical Reformer’), Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (‘The Socialist Feminist’), Rammanohar Lohia (‘The Indigenous Socialist’). Less than a tenth of the book is devoted to people who could plausibly be described as non-liberals: Bal Gangadhar Tilak (‘The Militant Nationalist’) and M S Golwalkar (‘The Hindu Supremacist’).

One wonders this because of who gets left out of his list. On the non-liberal left, those excluded include the Marxists, because “their work has been mostly derivative”. On the non-liberal right, we find no trace of Vallabhbhai Patel for his “paucity of original ideas” (Guha’s italics), or of VD Savarkar and Madan Mohan Malviya for not being sufficiently “effective or influential” compared with MS Golwalkar. Golwalkar himself gets a few pages, but with a warning label attached: “A Hindu Rashtra would be both inimical to democracy and lead to even more strife between religions”. The one other right-wing thinker to make the book is Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He is again given a few pages, but they too come with an editorial dismissal: “His radical nationalist politics lost its relevance with the achievement of Indian independence.” Other figures, more difficult to classify, are dealt with just as swiftly. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Sri Aurobindo: “Their influence never really extended beyond the middle class.” Swami Vivekananda and Dayanand Saraswati: “Their influence has passed...they were superseded by Gandhi.”

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