Sunday, November 8, 2015
Friday, November 6, 2015
By Swapan Dasgupta
For historical and other reasons, London has traditionally been a vibrant centre for 'causes'. These range in intensity from support for the Palestinian 'struggle' - the undeniable number one 'cause' that is the equivalent of what the Anti-Apartheid movement was in the 1970s and 1980s - to sectional support for Khalistan among a minority of Sikhs preoccupied with the politics of the local gurdwara.
The net result of this explosion of 'causes' is that there is considerable attention to foreign news in the British media, not least radio and television. Some of this stems from the lingering legacy of the British Empire, whose memorabilia still occupy a large part of the London landscape and whose peoples now form a significant part of its population. But even beyond the erstwhile Empire, the United Kingdom's importance as a trading nation has made foreign news an economic necessity.
The issue is not so much the importance that is accorded to having an international outlook but the nature of the perceptions. The grainy, black-and-white Pathé News footage now available on YouTube, for example, reveals the huge curiosity that accompanied Mahatma Gandhi's visit to Britain for the Second Round Table Conference in 1931. That curiosity and the bewilderment over his clothes, his diet and his wily negotiating stand were factors that ensured a relatively benign perception of the Indian nationalist movement. This was equally true for Nelson Mandela. The legend surrounding the man incarcerated for so long by the South African State ensured that apartheid never secured the full-throated endorsement of fellow-whites in Britain.
Both Gandhi and Mandela were unintended beneficiaries of a natural tendency to see happenings in foreign lands as a tussle between the good and the bad. Neither the Indian nor the South African icon could ever be painted as baddies. By an over-simplistic extrapolation, this meant that India's freedom movement and the war against white racist rule in South Africa were never subjected to unqualified denunciations. At best, the sceptics raised the question: are these good men leading armies of individuals who are not equally blessed?
In today's more complicated but far more inter-connected world, the hierarchy in the Chamber of Horrors is often determined by the media. There are some all-time hate figures: among African leaders, it used to be the Ugandan Idi Amin and now it is the nonagenarian Robert Mugabe whose sweeping victory in the 1979, post-Lancaster-House election created an acute bout of anxiety in London's Clubland. In Europe, the hate-list is, quite predictably, headed by Russia's no-nonsense leader, Vladimir Putin, who is charged with being an authoritarian in the mould of his predecessors in the Kremlin. No one has actually suggested with any measure of seriousness that the post-Ukraine sanctions against Russia will propel a 'regime change' - that demand is reserved exclusively for the hapless Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, waging his clumsy war against the Islamic State - but it has always been made clear that the ex-KGB strongman is not quite kosher. Also failing the British media's kosher test is Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his Likud party. They are debunked quite spiritedly because of their stubborn unwillingness to tailor policies to suit the Made in Britain liberal consensus.
One of the newest entrants into the ranks of the politically unacceptable is Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) coasted to a comfortable victory in last week's general election. It was described by most media commentators as a "shock" victory. The question is: shocking for whom? Judging from the footage of the celebrations in Istanbul and the categorical nature of the mandate, it would seem that most Turkish citizens - with the exception of the Kurdish minority that voted differently - were exasperated by the drift that had resulted from the fractured mandate of the June 2015 election, and re-elected Erdogan to restore stability and give a definite direction to the country. Using Indian analogies, the outcome in Turkey was akin, in different ways, to the victory of Indira Gandhi in 1980 and Narendra Modi's triumph in 2014. Both may have been shocking for those who (perhaps unwittingly) posit their own thinking and values on the electorate, but it probably came as no great "shock" to voters who live outside the chattering class ghettos of Istanbul and Ankara.
If the British media are any indication, the liberal fraternity of Turkey-watchers have equated Erdogan's victory as their personal defeat. On Monday's Channel Four news, the reporter proffered a curious observation: the election was free, but was it fair? The implication was that the AKP had twisted the terms of the debate to favour itself. That's not surprising, and isn't that what David Cameron did in Britain earlier this year when he invoked the horror of a left-wing Labour frittering away the economic gains of the past five years? Would we say that the UK general election was free but not fair?
Then there was the second catch phrase: Erdogan, it was widely suggested, was "divisive" and could steer Turkey in an "authoritarian" direction. Just prior to voting, a European Union report suggesting a possible erosion of democracy was leaked. In addition, there were the usual bouts of verbal skirmish between AKP leaders and media that mouthed the usual liberal platitudes, including, presumably, some we'll-fix-you threats from both sides. In India, these would be run-of-the mill stuff, a part of what Amit Shah would presumably call " jumla". They don't correspond to decorous conduct in the UK where the height of offensiveness consists of pelting opponents with rotten vegetables. But surely the media have to judge every society through indigenous standards.
Indians, it would seem, understand the forces at play in Turkey far better than Guardian-readers from London. On a Radio Four news programme shortly after the Turkish results were known, a BBC reporter asked an English-speaking psychologist her reactions. She admitted that she was both upset and disappointed by Erdogan's victory. "Will you now leave the country?" the reporter proceeded to ask. It was such a strange and leading question that even the lady was taken aback: "Why?" she retorted, "This is my country."
The question flowed from the pre-conceived notion that Erdogan was a baddie and that his "shock" victory would usher an era of "divisive" politics where the ultra-secular elite would lament the passing of the good old days of uninhibited cosmopolitanism. There was a pre-determined conclusion, and the questions and answers were expected to provide it substance.
I recall participating (from Delhi) on the BBC's flagship Newsnight programme on the night of Modi's victory in May 2014. I expected a few searching questions on the priorities and agenda of the new government. What was on offer instead was a pre-recorded lament of Sir Anish Kapoor suggesting this was not the India he grew up in. A pre-determined narrative, in other words, had been kept ready to pander to predetermined conclusions. Erdogan has been subjected to that same treatment: his view of the Turkish future differs from the liberal narrative on the subject.
The day after Diwali, Modi arrives in Britain for his first visit as prime minister. In terms of the liberal consensus, Modi is an affront and must be brought down a notch or two. Don't, therefore, be surprised if the rally for 60,000 doting Indians at Wembley stadium on November 13 becomes the occasion for gratuitous comparisons with rallies in the town of Nuremberg. In the liberal world, there is space for only one view - their own.
The Telegraph, November 6, 2015
Sunday, November 1, 2015
By Swapan Dasgupta
Some years ago, while researching for an article on Australia, I came upon an observation by Pru Goward, a journalist-turned-politician of the ruling Liberal Party, that has a bearing on today’s Indian politics. “Conservative governments”, she wrote, “don’t have natural supporters who are articulate and philosophical writers. The conservative intellectual group is very small in Australia. So the politicians are lonely and they are joked about all the time.”
What Goward observed about Australia can be said to be true for much of today’s democratic world. In Britain, the Conservatives have for long been derided as the “stupid party” and even the “nasty party.” Margaret Thatcher was denied an honorary doctorate by the dons of Oxford University—an astonishing act of petty-mindedness. Today, the Left-inclined cartoonists paint Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as variants of the upper-class twits portrayed in Monty Python skits. In the US, Ronald Reagan, arguably the architect of one of the most transformative presidencies after Franklin Roosevelt, was unendingly mocked for his ‘simple’ beliefs that were said to have derived more from John Wayne movies than the tomes of Adam Smith—a caricature that was also extended to George W. Bush.
In India, thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru’s self-image as the enlightened, cosmopolitan socialist, his conservative opponents were painted as provincial bumpkins riddled with obscurantist priorities that ranged from cow protection to Ayurveda. To this was added the social disdain of the ‘progressive’ for the dhoti-clad bania, the supposed epitome of a commercially-minded ‘Hindu Right.’ When the Cambridge-educated Congress MP taunted the ‘chaiwala’ credentials of Narendra Modi he was simply mirroring attitudes the Nehruvian order tried to implant as common sense. This perverse common sense often masquerades as the modern alternative to India’s larger cultural inheritance.
The appeal of patrician socialism may well have diminished over the decades, but the projection of the ideological ‘Other’ as stupid, socially regressive and aesthetically unsound has persisted. Indeed, it has made a dramatic re-entry into the public discourse in recent months following the outbreak of the culture wars. The editorial pages of newspapers are replete with outbursts against the simple-minded ‘Hindu Right’ that has failed to understand the metaphors of Hinduism, the complexities of the historical process, diverse food habits and the ‘idea of India.’ In a recent article, a historian who made his mark in the echo chamber of Jawaharlal Nehru University asserted that the “Hindutva brigade has… failed to produce any notable professional historian. The new developments in the discipline have passed them by.” In short, the intellectual ecosystem of the Indian Right is seriously deficient and unworthy of being taken seriously by “professional” scholars.
That the Indian Right has been preoccupied with political activism rather than creating an alternative intellectual tradition isn’t in doubt. However, much of this failure can be attributed to the fact that the scholastic environment in Indian universities since the late-1960s has been unrelentingly hostile to anything inimical to the liberal and Marxist paradigm. The element of group-think was so marked that non-conformists such as the writer Nirad Chaudhury and the economist Jagdish Bhagwati found living in India quite suffocating: they became intellectual refugees from progressivism. Traditional disciplines centred on classical studies underwent such derision and neglect that Sanskrit studies survive today courtesy institutions in the West. The result: India’s ‘traditional intellectuals’ were completely marginalised from the intellectual mainstream.
It is worth remembering that this systematic destruction of traditional knowledge systems didn’t take place only under British rule; the trend persisted in post-Independent India under the spurious guise of implanting a ‘scientific temper’.
That despite the absence of a level playing field, the Indian Right with a culturalist agenda (and commitment to economic deregulation) has grown exponentially over the past decades is significant. It suggests that when proffered a real choice, Indians are more inclined to put their faith in rooted traditions—particularly those grounded in traditional value systems, the family structure, collective historical memory and what can loosely be called common decencies.
For too long, Indian conservatism has been at the receiving end of condescension and caricature. It may now be time to turn the notions of stupidity upside down.
Sunday Times of India, November 1, 2015
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Friday, October 23, 2015
Sunday, October 18, 2015
By Swapan Dasgupta
In 1961, in a monograph woefully difficult to locate today, the Chicago sociologist Edward Shils studied the predicament of the Indian intellectual in the high noon of the Nehruvian era. His approach was sympathetic but his larger conclusions were not terribly flattering to a community that saw itself as the vanguard of India’s journey to modernity.
Despite its near-uninterrupted Brahmanical tradition of scholarship and sustained exposure to the West, India, Shils felt, “has not yet developed the traditions which are essential to intellectual life.” Despite possessing a significant intelligentsia, the orientation of the Indian intellectual, he felt, was “provincial.” Part of this was due to the drudgery of economic survival, the depressing environment of the universities and media, the prevailing anti-business ethos and the diversion of talent into the bureaucracy. But at the heart of the “insulted and injured” self-image of the Indian intellectual was the confusion over where he stood in relation to India. At one level, he observed, nearly “all of what certain Indian intellectuals refer to as ‘modern thought’ comes to them through England and the medium of English.” At the same time, there was the reality of life in a traditional—and largely—Hindu milieu. “It would not be an outlandish exaggeration to say that it is impossible for a Indian of Hindu descent to cease to be a Hindu.”
To Shils, this mirrored Jawaharlal Nehru’s amission in his Autobiography: “I have become a queer mixture of the East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere… (In) my own country… I have an exile’s feeling.”
Shils penned his observations 54 years ago. Since then, India has undergone a massive transformation: the economic plight of the middle classes isn’t so dire; England has been replaced by USA as the new modernist Mecca; business is no longer an object of disdain; and the “Hinduistic traditionalist revival” that Shils so feared would occur after Nehru has become a reality. At the same time, in sheer numbers, the Indian intelligentsia has grown exponentially—with some intellectuals having acquired the prefix “public.” It has benefitted from more centres of learning, the growth of media and publishing, and, most important, to unhindered access to global currents. The Indian rendered inadequate by the shortage economy has evolved into a self-confident, if slightly cocky, citizen of a country that looks expectantly to a glorious Asian future.
Yet, Shils’ study isn’t entirely dated: the intellectual neurosis that he detected is still visible but it has acquired new and interesting—but not always palatable—dimensions.
In his study, Shils elaborated on the Indian intellectuals’ sense of disconnect from the wider environment and his attempt to overcome it through identification with an association with the broad Left. However, he also encountered an “excellent young historian, trained at Oxford, productive as a scholar… and himself head of a division in an important Ministry.” The gentleman told him: “I don’t feel out of touch with the people, they might feel out of touch with me but that is their concern, not mine.”
The identity of the historian is very thinly veiled. But what is interesting is that what seemed like the outburst of a poseur in 1961 has persisted and become a fashion statement in 2015. Five decades ago, and despite the fond England-gazing, intellectuals were mindful of the larger society in which they lived. Their intellectual individualism was invariably circumscribed by the prevailing ethos of the joint family or the community whose ethos demanded an exceptional measure of self-restraint. True, there were the odd group of bohemians (like the 19th century Young Bengal movement) for whom creativity and self-indulgence were happy partners but, by and large, these were exceptions. Most intellectuals respected society, even when they were inclined towards the avant garde.
The desire to break out of provinciality and embrace cosmopolitanism has, today, led to intellectual freedom being equated with iconoclasm, disregard for existing social mores and a show of intellectual insolence—bordering on snobbery—directed at those unable to appreciate the delights of permissiveness. Nothing is sacred—and certainly not the cow.
There is a culture war raging in India today. Alas, it is only nominally a clash of ideas and more about conflicting lifestyles.
Sunday Times of India, October 18, 2015