It is always hazardous to make generalisations about the national character. Yet, both politicians and scholars, while acknowledging the pitfalls, are always prone to internalising stereotypes as an instrument of convenience. We may debunk the British inclination to label communities as “martial races” or “criminal tribes”, but how many of us are entirely free from this so-called “colonial” preoccupation?
Take the man Indian liberals love to cast as the model of progressive and secular values. Writing to Krishna Menon in July 1949 after he was forced to confront a bout of political agitation in West Bengal, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The Bengali terrorist mentality of extreme emotionalism colours their so-called communist viewpoint and makes them look sometimes quite insane. There is a violence and an intense hatred looking out of their eyes.”
Now, compare this interesting assessment of the Bengali character by India’s first Prime Minister with that of a die-hard imperialist who was nevertheless a great lover of India. Some 50 years before Nehru’s angry aside, a more measured Rudyard Kipling wrote that Bengali babus demonstrated the “unreasonable petulance of small children, always morbidly afraid that someone is laughing at them.” And another 50 years ago, Thomas Babington Macaulay in his celebrated essay on Warren Hastings wrote on the Bengali character: “Large promises, smooth excuses, elaborate tissues of circumstantial falsehood, chicanery, perjury, forgery, are the weapons, offensive and defensive, of the people of the Lower Ganges.”
I have deliberately chosen one set of stereotypes about Bengalis to illustrate two larger points. First, that it has become second nature for almost all of us to draw mental portraits of communities and peoples based on a combination of experience and received wisdom. Some of these stereotypes evolve with time. The Hungarian-born George Mikes’ wonderfully funny depiction of English-ness in the 1950s is, alas, no longer valid. Neither for that matter is Nehru’s belief that the “average American” (by which he presumably meant those who interacted with him) had “technical knowledge” but lacked “higher culture” and were, hence, philistine. If anything, the US has become too culturally disparate for sweeping generalisations.
Secondly, generalisations of an entire people by outsiders tend to be invariably at odds with how the people perceive themselves. Much, for example, is often made of the inherent arrogance of the Chinese people vis a vis all foreigners — a characteristic that is said to have been inherited from the “Middle Kingdom” mentality of yore. Equally, China is said to have imbibed and internalised the fierce Confucian commitment to hierarchy that makes for blind obedience to the state. Yet, in a recent visit to China, what struck me as rather significant were the social forces that have completely upturned the traditional male domination in the personal sphere. This is particularly so among the young, the generation that followed the disastrous one-child norm that was imposed by the Maoist regime. I don’t know how this will affect the future course of politics and society, but in the coming years the stereotype of the Chinese people will undoubtedly experience a significant modification.
The issue of national characteristics is of some significance in the context of some of the debates on the economy that are being conducted in today’s India.
The first centres on the pace of reforms. The legislation to enhance foreign equity participation in insurance from 24 to 49 per cent finally secured full parliamentary approval last week. The measure, first mooted by the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in its 1998 Budget, took 17 years to clear all the political hurdles. The tortured process of the Insurance Bill is likely to be cited as evidence of the laboured incrementalism that is the hallmark of India’s reforms programme. It was way back in 1991 that “reforms” first entered the political lexicon; now, 24 years later, the political debate continues to be centred on the incomplete process.
Part of the explanation for this tardiness is India’s democracy that has rendered decision-making infuriatingly slow. However, more than the failure of successive governments to demonstrate political resolve and cut through Opposition — as Nehru, for example, did on the very emotive Hindu Code reforms — the slow pace of change is often attributed to the Hindu mentality, particularly its expansive sense of time. To this has been added Hindu fatalism, the belief that life in this world has to be grappled with an exceptional measure of resignation. Kipling described the attitude in his 1887 poem, What the People Said, written on the occasion of the Durbar:
And the Ploughman settled the share
More deep in the sun-dried clod:
“Mogul Mahratta, and Mlech from the North,
And White Queen over the Seas —
God raiseth them up and driveth them forth
As the dust of the ploughshare flies in the breeze;
But the wheat and the cattle are all my care,
And the rest is the will of God.”
This perception of the permanently unchanging India has held a romantic fascination for both, traditionalists at home and foreign Indologists. That it has a basis in real life, particularly among rooted rural communities, is undeniable. Indians have often been inclined to evolve rather than effect ruptures with the past. But has six decades of democracy and the communications and information revolution shifted attitudes?
In 2014, Narendra Modi destroyed the existing electoral calculus and won a parliamentary majority, mainly owing to a massive endorsement by the youth. The imagery of his victory was achhe din that incorporated the promise of change, rapid change. Implicit in the verdict was a vote against incrementalism, the philosophy that had guided earlier governments.
To my mind, interpreting the mandate is the real challenge for the political class. Was the verdict a knee-jerk response to a decade of sluggish governance? Alternatively, was India in the throes of acquiring a new mindset that broke with the leisured timelessness of the past? If it did, what are the implications for policy? Does it call for re-imagining the modern Hindu mind?
An observer can ask the questions, the strength of a leader lies in taking the final call.
Sian Age, March 20, 2015