Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Everyone needs an address November 6, 2005

When I was growing up in post-Independence India in the 1950s and 1960s, the word ‘conservative’ was an abuse in the vocabulary of Indian intellectuals. We passionately wanted change and likened Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech to Wordsworth’s famous lines on the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. To be conservative in Nehru’s India was to be on the side of age against youth, the past against the future, authority against innovation, and spontaneity against life.

Now, more that fifty years later, the wheel has come a full circle. It is the old Nehruvian progressives who are ‘old’, who hark nostalgically for a socialist utopia. They oppose reforms and still believe in statism when it has been discredited everywhere. It is the young who believe in the reforms today based on the conservative idea of the market. Alas, there is no political home for a secular conservative in today’s India, someone who wants vigorous reform and believes in good but small government. I had hoped that the BJP might shed its sectarian agenda and become a secular, conservative party. But this has not happened.

In my column last month, “I’m a Hindu, but”, I described the dilemma of a sensitive principal over teaching the Mahabharata in her school. My fear that secularism might undermine tradition may seem exaggerated. Certainly in the villages, our epics are well and alive. But India’s future will be written in its cities, where we must worry about preserving continuity with the past, especially before the relentless onslaught of a powerful global culture. Like Edmund Burke, who founded Conservatism, I think society is not merely a collection of loosely related individuals, but a living organism. I feel reverence for the past not as a political doctrine but a habit of mind, as a way of living and feeling. Hence, I raised the question that if Italian children can read Dante’s Divine Comedy or English children can read Milton in school, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about teaching the Mahabharata?

It’s true that the Mahabharata has lots of gods, and in particular the elusive Krishna. But so do Dante and Milton deal with God. As a secular Indian, I appreciate the “wall” that our founding fathers built between religion and education. I admire France and Turkey who have the strongest “walls”. But what does one do when our literary classics are "semi-religious"? At the same time, if our kids don’t read Sanskrit classics in a secular environment they will grow up impoverished. Something has gone terribly wrong in the way our schools churn out deracinated products, who know little about their own culture but a great deal about the West. Some people would teach all the religions, and with this they hope to engender what Emperor Ashoka called a “respect for all creeds”. This too is a dangerous path, for how do you teach religion without worrying about some teacher somewhere who might hurt the sensitivities of some follower. Before you know it, you have a riot on your hands. So, I do sympathize with the school principal’s dilemma.

“Every writer needs an address”, wrote the Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. That is a fine way of saying that all human beings need local roots, an identity, and a link with a unique identifiable past. A writer needs it even more because he aspires to speak universally about life. Clearly, we need to ponder over this idea in India, and ask if its time has come. Is this the time to revive the Swatantra Party?


Amoral familism October 23, 2005

Nothing quite captures the imagination as these two facts: whereas three out of four members of China’s politburo are technocrats, one out of four members of India’s parliament has a criminal record. This explains a lot–our depressing governance, stalled reforms, creaking infrastructure, and the absence of reasoned debate in parliament. Ironically, as our economy becomes stronger, our polity seems to grow weaker. Just when our companies are breaking out of the shackles of family control, our politics is going the other way. When our best companies are building depth of management and becoming professional, our political parties are creating family dynasties.

The satisfactory end to the Ambani saga, especially in the way Reliance assets were divided, represented a victory of professionalism over familism. In contrast, our political parties are beginning to resemble the old family run companies: from Bihar to J&K and from Tamil Nadu to U.P. our political leaders are busy building family dynasties. The original inspiration, of course, came from our oldest party, the Congress, but even the newer ones, like the Shiv Sena, appear to be following in its footsteps.

Our political parties are embracing the heredity principle when our best companies have succeeded in separating their family’s and their company’s interests. None of our political parties is managed by professionals. Not one has depth in organization, nor a clear command structure down to the grass roots. This weakness explains in part why some of our best performing governments fall so easily, such as the last one in Karnataka, and why in the heart of Bangalore, Congress party managed to lose the by-election in May 2005 from a constituency occupied till the other day by the fine reformer, SM Krishna. That his successors have only played petty politics and obstructed the development of infrastructure in India’s premier city is another matter.

Many shrug their shoulders and ask, what is wrong if a politician’s son enters politics? Isn’t it like a doctor’s child wanting to be a doctor? No, there is a difference. Politics is a matter of public interest, and citizens want the best person to lead them. It is possible that a politician’s son might turn out to be a great leader, but the odds are against it. This is not how nature distributes talent. In 1950 we chose not to become a monarchy but a republic. So, how can we just shrug at this return of bloodlines in our political life? Remember also, the principle of heredity is one step away from the loathsome caste system.

Tom Paine wrote in The Rights of Man (1791), “I smile when I contemplate the ridiculous depths to which literature and science would sink were they to become hereditary.” The idea of hereditary ruler is as ridiculous and more offensive than a hereditary author. When family interests prevail, political parties become weak, and governments don’t perform. The end result is that the things don’t get done– reforms slow down, roads don’t get built, and the house goes dark when your child sits down to study. The mentality in a family run polity is feudal. I don’t do what is right, but what serves the family. Loyalty matters more than performance. The best person doesn’t get the job but the one who is manipulative. Edward Banfield called it “amoral familism” in describing why southern Italy keeps failing and northern Italy succeeds. So, dear reader, it is time to shake off your complacency, and the next time around, don’t vote for “hereditary asses, imbeciles, and this curse of the nation,” as Napoleon put it.


I am a Hindu, but..... October 9, 2005

The confident, handsome friend of our son’s gave a telling reply to a visiting Englishwoman the other day in Khan Market. “I am a Hindu, but …”, and he went into a winding reply about his beliefs. He hastily added that he was an Indian first. It was a perfectly honest answer, and any other person might have made it about Islam or Christianity. But I sensed an unhappy defensiveness–the ‘but’ betrayed that he was ashamed of being Hindu.

This happened a few weeks after I got a call from one of Delhi’s best schools, asking me to speak to its students. “Oh good”, I said, “in that case, I shall speak about dharma and the moral dilemmas in the Mahabharata.” The principal’s horrified reaction was, “Oh don’t, please! There are important secularists on our governing board, and I don’t want controversy about teaching religion.” I protested ineffectually, “But surely the Mahabharata is a literary epic, and dharma is about right and wrong. Where does religion come in?”

As I think ought about these two incidents, I ask myself, why should these two successful young professionals be embarrassed of their heritage? Something has clearly gone wrong. With the rise in religious fundamentalism, it seems to me that it is difficult to talk about one’s deepest beliefs. Liberal Hindus are reluctant to admit being Hindu for fear they will be automatically linked to the RSS. I certainly blame Hindutva nationalists who have appropriated our culture and tradition into a political agenda. But I also blame our secularists who behave no better than fundamentalists in their antipathy to tradition.

One of the strengths of Western civilization is that in times of crisis it seeks sustenance and inspiration from the rational ideals of Greece and Rome, from Homer, Pericles and Virgil. My fear is that modern, liberal Indians may not have any use for their past, and they will abdicate our wonderful traditions to the narrow, closed minds of fanatical Hindu nationalists. If Italians are proud of the Divine Comedy, the Spanish of Don Quixote, and the Greeks of the Illiad, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about the Mahabharata? Why should it become ‘untouchable’ for a sensitive, modern, school principal? In part this is due to ignorance. We do not read our ancient classics with a critical mind as secular works of literature and philosophy, as young Americans read the Western classics in their first year of college as a part of their “core curriculum”. So, we depend on our grandmothers or Amar Chitra Katha or second rate serials on Sunday morning television. Meanwhile, the Sangh Parivar steps into this vacuum with its shrunken, defensive, and inaccurate version of our history and happily appropriates this empty space. And the richness of tradition is lost to this generation.

No one reads Edmund Burke these days. He opposed the French Revolution because he feared that killing the church and aristocracy would cut off links with the past. I too value continuity in our “custom, community and natural feeling” in Burke’s language, which is so necessary to realize our full human potential. To respect tradition means that one must criticise it as our 19th century reformers did. But I fear that our secularism is unwittingly undermining tradition. The challenge before modern, decent Indians today, it seems to me, is essentially the same as the one Ram Mohan Roy faced in the early 19th century: how to grow up mentally healthy, integrated Indians? How do we combine our liberal modernity with our traditions in order to fully realise our potential?