In India, culture wars are never-ending. The resignation of Leela Samson and some other members of the Central Board of Film Certification — popularly but inappropriately called the “Censor Board” and the subsequent recasting of the whole board by the ministry of information and broadcasting have, predictably, ignited a controversy. At the heart of the dispute are three issues centred on taste and patronage.
To begin with, there is the question of the composition of the CBFC itself. By convention and practice, bodies such as the CBFC are rarely above politics. Since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, and without exception, they have been used to dole out some harmless recognition to individuals who are seen to be politically friendly with the government at the Centre. Ms Samson may not be formally associated with the Congress but she is without question an important figure in the wider intellectual and cultural circle associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi took special care to cultivate and patronise this community and accommodate them in bodies established by the Central government. Sonia Gandhi continued that tradition and even extended the party’s range of influence by incorporating important functionaries of NGOs in the National Advisory Council and as consultants to various ministries. Along with the left that made up in intellectual influence what it lacked in the electoral sphere, the Congress paid special attention to the exercise of its “soft power”. If nothing, it ensured a favoured status to a politically inclined cultural establishment whose influence in society was large and immeasurable.
By contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been slow to wake up to similar opportunities. Until the mid-1990s at least, the attitude of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was distinctly anti-intellectual. Instead of countering pre-existing prejudices against anything that remotely reeked of the label “Hindu”, it shut its doors on those it perceived as “Macaulay’s children”. Such rigid attitudes have undoubtedly undergone big changes ever since the BJP became a contender for national power — witness the post-1991 appeal of the party among filmstars but the party has a long way to go before it can catch up with the Congress.
A small example will illustrate the point. Last week witnessed the formal release of the works of classical literature in the Murty Classical Library series — a laudable venture funded by Infosys scion Rohan Murty. According to a person who attended the launch, the guests consisted almost entirely of those who are loosely part of the Congress establishment. This included former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, historian Romila Thapar and a host of other public intellectuals who are in the forefront of the sharp attacks on the Narendra Modi government. This is not to say that either Mr Murty or the Harvard University Press is consciously partisan. It is just that those who drew up the guest list probably didn’t know anyone from the new BJP dispensation or didn’t think any of them were sufficiently “respectable”.
To be fair, the circle of Prime Minister Modi incorporates individuals with influence in civil society. As chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years, Mr Modi travelled the extra mile to make connections with Bollywood stars, economists and corporate notables. These connections helped his election campaign considerably and played a big role in increasing his acceptability. While the selection of the new members of the CBFC certainly points to the repayment of old political debts, it also indicates a thrust towards creating alternative circles of soft power influence. Some members of the outgoing CBFC who joined Ms Samson’s protests against the clearance to the contentious Dera Sacha Sauda chief’s Messenger of God had actually lobbied for an extension of their term in the belief that BJP just didn’t have suitable replacements. I have been told of similar lobbying by members of another committee dealing with security whose term expired this week. Apart from the fact that membership of an official committee is a useful visiting card, there is widespread belief that neither the BJP nor Mr Modi has the social range to create an alternative establishment.
Political capacity building is a slow, long-drawn process. Compared to the Congress that has been deeply entrenched in the power structure, the BJP is a new player. Many members of its political circle may appear raw and unfamiliar with the niceties associated with responsibilities of state. Maturity, however, comes with sustained exposure and this won’t happen unless a conscious decision is taken to throw people with the right political instincts into the deep end.
When he was the human resources development minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, Murli Manohar Joshi was reported as telling a hostile questioner: “It’s our turn now.” The snappy answer was in reply to doubts over Mr Joshi junking old Congress-nominated bodies and replacing them with individuals of his own choice. It was a brusque retort but Mr Joshi was entirely right. The same set of people, blessed with an inherited and semi-divine “scientific temper”, should not be allowed to become India’s centres of entitlement. The process has already gone far enough and corrective action is warranted.
Yet there are limits to the it’s-our-turn approach. The State in India has become bloated as a consequence of the political job-creation process, even in areas where hard-nosed professionalism was called for. Areas such as education, scientific establishments, public sector undertakings and banking need to be insulated from patronage politics. Last week the Prime Minister reiterated his belief that it is not the business of government to be in business. It is hoped that he takes this process forward by also reforming the larger political culture to avoid tax revenues subsidising politics. The creation of an alternative establishment has to be principally outside the realms of the formal structures of government, except where it serves the larger national good.
Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, January 23, 2015