It’s time to reboot our roots

It’s time to reboot our roots

By Gautam Mukherjee | 11 June, 2016
To attribute all progress in the nation to the work of the Nehru dynasty is an injustice to many others.

Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?
   —JOSEPH STALIN

In the heated discourse on a “saffron rearrangement” of recent history, and amidst the outcry that the very “Idea of India” is being tampered with, the reason should not be lost sight of.

The present regime is not rewriting history, but changing the emphases, including the portraits of some of the dramatis personae, from what it was, to what it needs to become. The narrative was earlier arranged in a certain way, to serve a very different purpose. That purpose has changed now.

This is believed by all, except by those who insist that this government is a flash-in-the-pan, an aberration that will be corrected come 2019. Then it will be back to the old ways, in one form or the other—meaning a conglomeration of more or less socialist regional parties, including Congress; so this is a presumption and effrontery on the part of a Johnny-come-lately-and-soon-to-be-gone government. How this delusion can sustain in the face of constantly dropping vote shares and election losses is anybody’s guess or a case of virulent, panicked denial.

But to many others speaking up now, to attribute all progress to the vision and work of the Nehru dynasty is seen as an open travesty, an injustice to the contribution of very many others including those who run and belong to a lot of the regional parties and make up a substantial presence in today’s Parliament.

Other charges, almost sneers, of this present regime being undereducated, and its camp followers being anti-intellectual and of “low quality”, are, in context, just a protest from parts of the long ensconced left-liberal establishment, with their prominence, pervasive influence and perquisites now under threat. And this, almost for the first time, not from voices in the wilderness, but from a party, an alliance and a government in power and those who support it.

But for a lot of the decades since Independence, information, and its flow, could be controlled and manipulated, hagiographies could be built up, mistakes air-brushed, propaganda made to stick. Nowadays, with multiple sources, a round-the-clock delivery, a competitive formal and social media, satellite TV, computers, internet, smart phones, all precluding any attempts at pomposity, censorship, or selective messaging, while providing speed and instant access, that kind of erstwhile I&B control is a thing of the past. Even films from Bollywood have given up the ghost of socialist style “nation-building” and ersatz patriotism and turn out crowd pleasers instead.

Notwithstanding all this, there is a need to reboot the narrative, not only because the old story stands discredited and its distortions, corruptions and outright lies exposed, but it has also gone stale and unrepresentative. The polity itself has rejected the main planks of the old arguments, lethally voting its displeasure. The voters have shifted from the positions prescribed for them in 1947 by a monolithic Congress, spreading out, under the influence of the Sangh Parivar, from the North Indian Hindi speaking areas to the far reaches of the country today. Much remains to be done, but the footprint is definitely enlarging.

But for a lot of the decades since Independence, information, and its flow, could be controlled and manipulated, hagiographies could be built up, mistakes air-brushed, propaganda made to stick. Nowadays, with multiple sources, a round-the-clock delivery, a competitive formal and social media, satellite TV, computers, internet, smart phones, all precluding any attempts at pomposity, censorship, or selective messaging, while providing speed and instant access, that kind of erstwhile I&B control is a thing of the past. Even films from Bollywood have given up the ghost of socialist style “nation-building” and ersatz patriotism and turn out crowd pleasers instead.

Other ideas, mostly towards a more majoritarian idea of India without, however, queering the pitch for the minorities, are extant. There is a new bias towards a considerate capitalism, plus a more productive, teach-a-man-to-fish welfarism. This, while caring for the weak and helpless, is now seen as a corrective. But such nuanced ideas were not allowed to flourish in the several decades following 1947. It was a statist model then, redolent of the infamous Licence-Permit Raj.

Only the quaint and romantic notions, often more faddist, some internationalist, rather than fit for nation-building, favoured by M.K. Gandhi and J. Nehru, prevailed at Independence—these, over other more dynamic and gritty possibilities held out by early stalwarts such as Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Bose, Krishnamachari, J.R.D. Tata and others. At least until 1991, when at an absolute nadir, on the point of national bankruptcy and sovereign default, the Congress government at metaphoric gunpoint made a series of momentous, and some say World Bank dictated, changes in policy. But it turned out to be a happy day indeed.

Now with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s intellectual vigour and political strength, at least as a national party depleted and its fringes in the states breaking away seemingly every day, the prescriptive engines have ground to a near halt. A change of the old order, therefore, engineered by the only national party on the map is in the complete fitness of things.

Our newly independent country had no difficulty, after all, in rejecting many of the shibboleths of the British Raj and substituting them, perhaps in keeping with the then prevailing wind, with a diluted Marxism and the atheist’s world view of the long-standing helmsman, Jawaharlal Nehru. But along with the ideological emphases he adopted came its economic consequences. Today, many recognise that decades of the misnamed “Hindu rate of growth”, which was in fact a failed Soviet-model socialism, was an avoidable humiliation. It accounts, we know in hindsight, for our relative failure to achieve to anywhere near our full potential and speaks for much of the still abject poverty around us.

But the fact is that the inability to stand up and be counted as a feature of our national character goes much further back—well before the new-fangled universal franchise, not proportional representation, that Nehru instituted from the start.

The culture and wisdom of our ancients was scorned through 600 years of alien rule, during which we learned to believe what our conquerors and rulers wanted us to believe. At least, this was so, viewed from the outside, on our public faces, often giving the Hindu in particular a reputation for venality and chicanery. That the Hindu was out of power for all of those 600 years may have had something to do with it.

This government is trying in the face of enormous resistance from the old order, to shift the tectonic plates of our self-image to something entirely more futuristic.

It is true that we Indians also made a conquest of every conqueror, basting him in the flavours and seductions of Hindustan until very little remained of his original self. It is a story as old as the assimilations of our rich and varied heritage itself. It has been said of the Afghans, who, like ourselves, were defeated easily enough many times, but never once really conquered. But at another level, the brutal pushing aside of everything we could take pride in, a second defeat of our minds and hearts, was, ostensibly, very real. Everything we valued had to be relegated to the outhouse. The Vedas, puranas, epics, myths, kathas, mantras, stirring legends, even popular orally transmitted history, Baul ballads, the sanskars, the neetis, the classical music and dance forms, the martial arts and yoga, the architecture and mathematics, the philosophy and craft—all were, and had to be scorned. Foreigners who come to explore and learn from this treasure trove cannot understand our lack of knowledge and pride in our own heritage even today.

It wasn’t possible to give these things their legitimate due and yet keep the dominance of a military supremacy, a power gained by the spilling of blood, the maintenance of might, and the institutionalisation of fear. That it survived at all despite everything, including massive loot, plunder and appropriation, is indicative of a deep and passive resistance to being swamped.

The Indian people themselves, like colonial peoples everywhere, grew up in the privacy of their homes with their own icons, in their kurtas and dhotis, lungis and pyjamas, eating their varied cuisines, cleaving to their customs, and praying to their many Gods. All our pride and prejudice was kept private, with grandmothers, mothers and wives whispering into our ears in our childhood and youth quietly in the suggestive dark. It was that embedded, or lost, along with our souls. Ignored, our hugeness under the powers that be for 600 years together under the Mughals and the British, discarded, where possible, suppressed at a minimum, ridiculed, shamed, rendered unfashionable, gauche, labelled as so much clap-trap and superstition.

The Caucasian scholars of our ancient learning and wisdom, Max Mueller, the Asiatic Society and other eminent “Orientalists”—painters, writers, archaeologists—were contemptuously held at arm’s-length by unsympathetic men with a job to do. They were derided as indulgent follies. The power elite and structure of the times believed officially in “good, solid, Protestant Christianity”, in its innate superiority, the imperial burden of the white man and the flowering of the Renaissance. European culture was the real McCoy. The native brain had to be shamed out of its purportedly useless and uncivilised heritage.

This was, apparently, a profound loss, but in fact the suppression drove it underground. It was the going through the doors, those portals to the outside that induced the necessary forgetfulness.

On the surface, it was allowed to stay lost, as continuation in a self-made cultural tyranny, an assassination of our pride post-Independence.

After 1947, this was carried forward by our own misguided people. These men and women were of us, but not with us, hypnotised, bedazzled marionettes, creatures of the encouragement of an imperial power, even though it was physically departed at last. So, even after Independence, a Western induced modernism bracketed in the context of a Third World slotting took hold and moulded the narrative. It was meant to create a new India, leaving behind the shackles of unfair privileges of the feudal order and imperial past. So, it was out with the “obscure and the obscurantist”, but actually the baby and the bathwater, and in with the “scientific temperament and temper”. We were to build the much desired “temples of modern India”, the “commanding heights” of the economy, the heavy industry. This industrial base and higher education are certainly worthwhile Nehruvian legacies. But did they come for too high a price?

And for almost all of these 70 years that was that. Nehruvian/Gandhian secularism that liked to parent the minorities degenerated gradually into the most blatant vote-bankism, even as the quaint LSE brand of Fabian socialism kept being upheld as honourable, equitable right.

This NDA government is trying in the face of enormous resistance from the old order, to shift the tectonic plates of our self-image to something entirely more technological, digital, automated, infrastructured, militarily secure and futuristic, for now and the future.

Fortunately, not only is it gaining traction, with voters in new places, even the minorities are refusing to uphold the status quo of yore. Many have shed their fear, particularly Muslim women, and are distancing themselves from the fear-mongers and even the oppressors within their own community.

This is, they realise, a free country, especially in comparison to the reality in many others and it belongs to them as much as to anybody else.

Democracy, indeed a liberal version of it, as envisaged by Nehru has certainly taken root, but there is no going back to the downside of an empty hope without progress or substance.

Gautam Mukherjee is a Delhi-based commentator on economics, politics and trends.

 

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