M.J. Akbar’s Tinderbox & Aag ko Pani Ka Bhay: Thoughts on Indian Sub-continent.

A close childhood friend, a passionate and active supporter of Aam Aadmi Party-whilst he retains his deep personal and family linkages with the Congress party- his grandfather served as a minister in a Congress run Madhya Pradesh government in the 70s, is a regular sparring partner on arguments around ideological moorings of Modi Sarkar and its performance.

A comment he made in a recent argument, he was explaining to me why the opposition in India behaves the way it behaves and what is the opposition’s role, quoted a famous Hindi adage- Aag ko Pani ka bhay (The fear of water should be inculcated in every fire). Coming from someone who has been extensively involved in political mobilization and has had a close view of governance in this country, the comment is a remarkable summary of the sub-continent’s politics over the last 100 years.

The comment made me once again read M. J. Akbar’s seminal work on Pakistan- Tinderbox the Past and Future of Pakistan, relook at the structure of modern Indian state, its institutions and the incentives that drive the political parties in India.

Akbar’s book presents the intellectual foundation of the idea of Pakistan, the political land scape that nurtured the idea making the idea a potent force, eventually leading to the partition on the sub-continent on religious grounds and founding of an Islamic nation.

Akbar submits that the fall of Mughal empire and with the emergence of British as the de-facto rulers of the sub-continent, the Muslim elite that that ruled for over five hundred years felt politically disenfranchised and powerless.

One of the ways in which the elite responded to this defeat was by nurturing the idea that Akbar calls- Theory of Distance.  He credits the origin of this theory to Shah Walliullah a pre-eminent Islamic theological intellectual of 18th century. The theory claimed that the Muslims were suffering, because the difference between believers (the Muslims) and infidels (the Hindus) had blurred in India. They had abandoned the purity of their faith and forgotten they were a distinct entity.

As the British consolidated their rule over India in the late 18th and the 19th century, their policies encouraged this distinction and the Muslims increasingly felt the British were discriminating them vis-à-vis Hindus.

The British on their part, during the years in power, saw the Indian sub-continent not as one Nation but an amalgamation of multiple groups each with its own sectarian identity.

Their experience of 1857 made them consider Muslims as a political force that posed the gravest threat to their rule.

In the first half of the 20th century, they used the force of Muslim identity as a counter-weight to the nationalist movement which was primarily led by Hindu leaders.

The British stoked the fear of a numerically dominant Hindus will deprive Muslims of any power sharing. Starting with separate electoral colleges for Muslims, British support for ‘Theory of Distance’ culminated in Two Nations theory with partition and creation of Pakistan.

The British Raj ruled by the principles of pitting caste and sectarian identities against each other and using these identities bulwark against the freedom movement. Their encouragement and support of the Two Nations Theory has left a lasting legacy in the sub-continent.

Post 1947, the two nations have followed different trajectories.

Pakistan has slowly, steadily and surely moved in the direction that was envisioned for it, by founders of its idea. A state founded, as Akbar writes in his book- not only as a separate nation from Hindu India but also a laboratory and fortress of Islamic faith.

It’s laws today discriminate its citizens on religious grounds- only a Muslim by law can become its Prime Minister or President. It has enshrined Islamic practices in its constitution and its once Westernized Army, its most dominant institution, now has Faith, piety, Jihad for the sake of Allah, as its motto.

Although Islam could not hold the country together, its eastern wing seceded in 1971 to become Bangladesh, it has continued it march towards a homogenous Islamic country. Religious minorities made up for 31 % of Pakistan’s population in 1947, today they make for 4% of it’s population. Its current prime minister aspires to make Pakistan a modern-day version of Riyasat e Medina.

Akbar’s book introduces us to actors who gave birth to the ideas of Muslims as a separate nation, the need for an Islamic republic in the sub-continent and those who fought- politically and violently for fulfilment of these ideas.

It is unfortunate that we don’t read about these men- they are all men, in our school text books. Ideas of Walliullah, the Ulemas of Deoband, Maulana Madudi and Zia ul Haq have shaped the destiny of the sub-continent and continue to drive the actions of those running the countries in the sub-continent.

The book, well researched and mercifully does not read like a Phd thesis, fills this space remarkably. My one quibble with the book would be that it does cover the role played by Hindus in the emergence of two nations theory. The most towering leaders of the freedom movement were Hindus but they were avowedly secular and considered Muslims as equal stakeholders. Where and why did they fail in garnering mass support for their ideas of United Secular India.

India inherited the Raj in 1947. It opted for the Westminster style, first past the post model for it legislative function. Its bureaucratic service is modelled on the lines of British era Indian Civil Service and its police force even after 75 years of Independence follows the procedural manual laid down by the British. The Indian state continues to enforce The Indian Penal Code, enacted by the British in 1860 and India’s Supreme Court functions in English. Its successive governments not only inherited, and have largely preserved the British era state structure, they also inherited India’s sectarian fault lines.

Setting it up as a multi-party democracy, the founders of the modern Indian republic continued to see India the way British saw it- a union comprising of multiple religious and geographical identities. Shashi Tharoor captured the idea of the Indian Republic pithily when he compared India with a traditional Indian meal called –Thali.

A Thali is a traditional India meal comprising of an array of dishes in uneven quantity with each dish bringing its own distinct taste and flavor; a sum of its parts a Thali makes for a delicious wholesome meal with each dish contributing to the culinary experience.

The problem with looking and treating a country like a Thali whilst governing it as boisterous electoral democracy is that sooner than later politics of identity will kick in. Each sub-group will look to the trump its own interests over the interests of the larger group as a whole. Its design will make sure that the incentives of the politicians representing each sub-group, will always be aligned with achieving optimum output for the sub-group that they represent even if those goals are achieved at cost of the largest group- the nation state. While there is merit in the arrangement, why should the size of the largest group be allowed to dominate the smaller units, a side effect of this approach is that it leads to the politics of – Aag ko Pani ka Bhay.

In the absence of a unified Indian identity, crafted in a melting pot with its religious and geographical diversity as ingredients, we as a nation always end up playing the balancing act. Let us guard against the majoritarian tendencies of its majority community by vesting its religious and cultural institutions in the hands of a secular state. Let the dominant religious minority have its own personal laws otherwise it will feel alienated. Let us split the state purse on religious lines as a mark of our commitment to building a nation that treats all religions equally. Let us ride roughshod over rights of the real minority- the individual for the sake of a group’s sentiment. We have ingrained in our laws all these principles.

Design a state structure that looks as Indians first on what are their religious beliefs and then their caste denomination. Give them a polity that will thrive on amplifying their differences and pitting the fear of one identity against the other. Fail to build state capacity that can be a neutral arbitrator of conflicts between these identities or can forcefully maintain law and order and you will end up with the polity thriving, on politics of ‘otherization’ of the ideological and political opponents; and one that challenges state’s monopoly over violence repeatedly. Instead of supremacy of the law performing the role of Pani  to the Aag of anarchy or the will of the people acting as the Pani to the Aag of governments not delivering, politicians get to play one identity against the other.

The Indian sub-continent has been carved into three separate nations in the last 75 years in an attempt to balance Aag and Pani. While two of three nations are forging common national identity, for a better or for worse time will tell, the largest of three continues to stumble along. How soon its people come together and forge an identity that subsumes their smaller group identities- one wonder if its citizens even want to do that, will shape the destiny of the sub-continent in this century.

 

Book Review- Sanghi Who Never Went to a Shakha: Anatomy of Polarization

Rahul Roushan’s book traces his journey from his indifference towards his Hindu religious identity, to his wholesale acceptance of it and his subsequent paranoia of how his religious identity and his way of life are being threatened by forces he believes are inimical to both.

The book, a memoir, recounts his life starting from growing up in small town Bihar, graduating from Patna University, years he spent studying in Delhi and Ahmedabad, working first in the main stream media and then as an entrepreneur.

He employs this re-telling as a vehicle to mark milestones that led to the evolution of his present ideological mooring.

The reader gets a head start on the book from its title.
It uses the words associated with the Rashrtiya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the umbrella organization that’s nurtured the party currently running the central government in India- Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), Shakha- the smallest unit/meeting of RSS volunteers and Sanghi- a term mostly used as a pejorative in online discourse, to describe people considered radical supporters of the RSS and the BJP.

Growing up in a family with no strongly held religious or political beliefs, Roushan’s religious views were shaped by religiosity displayed by his parents, he describes this as limited to celebrating Hindu festivals, and his understanding of polity and management of religious fault lines via subscription to stories of religious harmony.

Growing up in the Bihar of 1990s, he writes that the prevailing political narrative was of caste and he remained ambivalent of his religious identity. This indifference was never disturbed, although he went to schools run and owned by Hindus.
This was the India of 90s and a middle-class boy was focused on building a career and attaining financial independence.

His views on what each political party stood for shaped by what he read and saw in the mainstream media.

There was no inkling or the mental bandwidth to question the prevalent wisdom of secular and communal credentials of political parties. BJP is communal because the newspaper I read says so.

Roushan writes he was a- Congressi Hindu.
He defines Congressi Hindu as one who notionally religious and accommodative/indifferent to government largess and special rights for religious minorities.

In 2001, Roushan moves to Delhi to study communication at India’s premier Mass Communication institute, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC).

Here he is exposed to a cross-section of people.

Some of whom are unlike him.

They are deeply invested in their religious identity and hold strong views that are left leaning.

He is also exposed to behind the screen working of main stream media, its ideological biases and how the media uses its power to shape a particular narrative.

He finds a culture, that he claims underplays the role played by Muslim Fundamentalism in fomenting fault lines while exaggerating the role that Hindu fundamentalism plays.

He finds the same pattern playing out once he starts working with a main stream news channel.

This is a decade that sees 9/11, 2002 Godhara carnage and the subsequent riots in Gujarat, UPA coming to power at the Centre and 26/11.

Roushan’s experience of working with a news channel in this decade, studying in Gujrat, Roushan is a MBA from IIM Ahemdabad-closest India has to offering an equivalent of a Harvard MBA, and his stint as a media entrepreneur, Roushan founded the satirical news website Faking News which he sold to one of India’s leading media houses and worked for the media house for a while; shaped his firmly held view that the main stream media, specially the English language, in India for ideological and commercial reasons is deeply biased and staunchly anti-Hindu.

His reading of the manner in which this cohort of media has always covered India and continues to cover it post 2014 election of Narendra Modi, leaves him with no choice but consider them an extension of an establishment.

An establishment Roushan claims that is the inheritor of the British Raj, filled with a set of people who believe in civilizing the native Hindus, is indulgent to Muslim fundamentalists and continues to appease religious minorities at the cost of Hindu and national unity.

The incumbents of this establishment occupy prime positions in and use the institutions of judiciary and media to subvert the elected government and unlike the elected government are permanently entrenched.

By the turn of this decade, like most Indians he discovers social media.

It is here that he finds people who like him have started to question the received wisdom.

He discovers that there are more like him who increasingly challenge the veracity of news reports, what is printed and what is left out of them.

He has a ringside view as leading editors and anchors are found embroiled in cash for votes scam and ‘Radia Gate’ controversies.

The timing of main stream media starting to lose credibility coincides with advent and astronomical growth of social media.

Roushan finds that although grandees that of the old establishment continue to dominate conversation, it is no more a one-way street.

Their bias, incompetence and double standards are called out and their condescending attitude, hypocrisies pointed out.

It is also a place that’s increasingly full of rancor, name calling and deeply polarized on ideological lines.

It is this crowd, of mostly unknown to him participants, he finds fellow travelers, who come together to propel his journey to the corner of Sanghis although he has never been to an RSS Shakha in his life.

The writing is lucid and the book reads like Roushan is in a conversation describing his journey.

For those who follow him on twitter and have read his blog posts and commentary, his ability to explain the underpinnings of ideological stand in simple and easy to understand language should not come as a surprise.

Where the book misses out his lack of any mention of opposite currents.

Surely Roushan met someone in his journey who made a compelling case for why the ‘establishment’ exists and why some one like him should be a part of it.

After all, Roushan went to an institute and worked in a profession that he claims is a happy hunting ground for the establishment.

Then there is the larger point of his book, his commentary on Twitter and through the website he runs.

He blames the establishment for being fundamentalist and a closed shop driven by its hatred for all things Hindu.

How does contributing to an eco-system that is as fundamentalist and as much a closed shop help.

Surely, he does not believe demography can be wished away.

To his credit he has taken the next steps via his work on a Hindu Charter and his writing on a possible way forward.

He does not cover those in this book. Perhaps there is a sequel to this book in works, where Roushan lays out his ideas on role and place of Non-Hindus in India.

In his seminal book Creating A New Medina, Venkat Dhulipala credits the role played by Urdu news media as one of the factors that solidified the idea of two nation theory and helped build the groundswell of support amongst the Muslim population that finally led to partition of the Indian sub-continent on religious lines.

As I read the book, I could not help but wonder if a century later, social media and online journalism is playing a similar role in amplifying and consolidating religious identities, both amongst Hindus and Muslims.

Rahul’s book is a must read for anyone interested in getting a sense of how one side of the ideological divide sees and reads India. With over three hundred thousand followers on Twitter and as a CEO of popular new portal opindia, Rahul’s is significant voice.

It is also a brave voice, for having taken a side this openly and running a news platform he is taking on the political opposition and burning all bridges within the media fraternity. I for one do not rule out the possibility of an Arnab redux happening to him if the present government is voted out.

Through the book Rahul also brings out the story of how India is changing.
Not too far ago, a boy from small town India would have found it virtually impossible to make a career in media without being employed by one of the bigger media houses, let alone being a meaningful influencer, MBA from IIM Ahmedabad notwithstanding.

They may still not easily get to write for columns for foreign newspapers, work for think tanks, participate in track 2 diplomacy or teach at liberal campuses, but they are shaping the discourse and our politics far more easily and more effectively.

 

 

Book Review: Jugalbandi- The BJP Before Modi, by Vinay Sitapati

An oft mentioned take by the critics and opposition of the BJP and the ruling dispensation in India, on social media, reads- BJP and its supporters think that patriotism is a post 2014 phenomenon. A fair rejoinder to the take would be- opponents of the BJP and ruling dispensation think the fault lines in India and opportunist politicians aggravating these fault lines is a post 2014 phenomenon. The rejoinder got reinforced as I read Vinay Sitapati’s new book Jugalbandi- The BJP before Modi.

The book is on the careers and partnership of Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani across their stints with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Jan Sangh and with Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).

The lives and careers of these two gentlemen coincide with the first six decades of the republic and in writing the story of their partnership, Sitapati gives us a ringside view of political developments that have shaped post-independence India.

Extensively researched, the book in part a biography of Vajpayee and Advani, commences with an introduction to their childhood and the early influences that shaped their lives- conservative Hindu and semi-urban mores for Vajpayee, growing up in the princely state of Gwalior, where the Maharashtrian rulers give RSS foothold and cosmopolitan, upper class mores that get overruled by the anxieties and aftermath of partition and nudge Karachi boy Advani towards the RSS.

As the duo evolve and grow in tandem with RSS and post-independence broader Hindu Nationalism, the book brings out the ideological pining, the organizational structure and years of grassroot work that paved the way for RSS, an organization banned in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, helping form the government at the Centre within thirty years of the ban.

Sitapati presents Hindu Nationalist ideology- spearheaded by the RSS as one convinced that Indian sub-continent is Hindu/Non-Abrahamic in nature, that lack of unity amongst the Hindus has caused hemorrhaging of territorial integrity and a fear of demographic change that will be disadvantageous to the Hindu majority. The purpose of the political arm of Hindu nationalism is to build a unified Hindu identity, overruling its various caste lines, that will help in maintaining the territorial sanctity and preserve Hindu cultural identity.

Sitapati alludes the success of RSS in becoming a major political force to its ability to work as a Unified entity, no individual is bigger than the organization and all disputes, owing to personality or ideological differences, are managed internally and away from the public eye. It’s ability to nurture and groom talent that helps communicate its point of view clearly to the world at large and talent that keeps the organization a well-oiled machinery and above all to an organizational design that fosters and forges a sense one family amongst its members.

Between the two of them Vajpayee and Advani help implement the RSS ideology, first with Jan Sangh and then later with BJP as they play the roles of the Orator- Vajpayee the supreme orator- within and outside the parliament and Organizer- Advani the quintessential party man and ace organization skills, with ear to the ground; Sitapati credits their Jugalabandi, fine-tuned with their long-standing personal friendship, that withstands the test of time, to the complementary skill sets that they brought to the partnership and their years spent as active workers of the RSS. A partnership that saw its high noon with Vajpayee serving as the Prime Minister and Advani as the deputy PM of the country.

In the book Vajpayee comes across as a wily politician, who seeks acceptance within and outside the parliament by sticking as close to the prevailing political consensus and what he feels is the popular mood. Advani comes across as an RSS man, who is happy to play second fiddle to Vajpayee till the late 1980s when he truly discovers himself as a political leader after the Rath Yatra. Sitapati contends they are both similar in their deference to the Nehruvian consensus- left of the centre on economy and extension of differential rights to religious minorities, till there is a ground up pushback to this consensus from populace at large.

It is in explaining the duos response to feedback from their voters that Sitapati presents an insight often overlooked by commentariat and ignored by polarized and angry participants on social media- politicians act in accordance with the wishes of their voters. They thrive and survive when they respond to what their voters wants.

Vajpayee and Advani, hard as it may be to believe, were laggards when it came to the Ayodhya movement, Indira and Rajeev Gandhi nurtured the movement before Vajpayee and Advani’s BJP took charge. The duos Jugalbandi that led to formation of an avowedly right-wing government, was the two of them letting go of their deference to Nehruvian consensus and whole heartedly aligning with mood of the nation. This submission leads to the question how much of present-day India is because of Modi or is Modi a product of present-day India.

The writing is lucid and the author sticks to the language akin to journalistic reportage. The expanse of the book- the collection of characters who make an appearance and events that unfold, are all written in the style of long form journalism, the book is unputdownable for new junkies and history buffs. The book however, does not help us understand what led to marginalization of Advani after 2004. What made the true organization man break the ideological connection- his statement calling Jinnah a secular leader on a trip to Pakistan in 2005? How much the disarray of BJP, between 2004–9, can be attributed to Advani? For the takeover of BJP by Modi and Shah is also one of the legacies of the Vajpayee Advani duo.

The big take away though is how political parties in a democracy respond to the public mood and the limited say they have in shaping the public opinion. Be it Indira Gandhi’s nationalization of banks, her polarizing the Hindu votes in elections in J&K or the support that Indira, Rajeev and the Congress party extended to the Ayodhya movement in its early years. V.P. Singh implementing recommendations of the Mandal commission report, Vajpayee accepting the indispensability of Modi to the BJP in Gujarat or Advani turbo-charging the Ayodhya movement. These are all instances of politicians responding to an incentive structure designed for catering to feedback from voters.

The ‘liberals’ and ‘resistance’ to current government in India perhaps need to relook at their methods of building a robust opposition. Op-eds in foreign publications, never ending columns on websites all written in a European language and tweets for an echo chamber can only go this far, opposition needs a political party that gets the pulse of the nation for there is no dearth of issues on which the Modi-Shah duo can be challenged.

P.S: Post reading the book I heard a podcast by Amit Varma where he talks to Vinay Sitapati about the book. The episode is available on Varma’s podcast channel The Seen and The Unseen, the episode is an excellent addition to understanding the Vajpayee Advani Jugalbandi.

 

Book Review: A New Idea of India- Harsh Gupta & Rajeev Mantri

India in the last decade has been witness to a political churn, that has been accompanied by a loud and an energetic questioning of what we as a nation and a society stand for.
What is it that makes India and what does India stand for? The debates can be raging on social media and the electoral outcomes indicate that the debates are not just restricted to social media war rooms but are being waged on the streets too.
Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri’s new book- A New Idea of India, comes across as an earnest attempt at answering the two questions.
Gupta and Mantri, start off their answers by placing the modern Indian state as an inheritor of an ancient civilizations and not a construct that the British left behind in 1947.
“India, that is Bharat” the authors claim, has roots in acceptance of pluralism that comes from a tradition of skepticism.
India has been an amalgam where diversity has thrived without a central controlling authority.
An Indian is one who retains the agency of questioning anything and anyone and this agency when extended to everyone is one of the ingredients for what makes up for India.
The Indian state should find its moors in this civilizational legacy and build a modern Indian state where primacy of individual rights is supreme.
This definition of India puts them on the opposite side of those who believe that India is an entity brought together for, and to be kept together by, a strong state that should strive to accommodate its religious and cultural diversity.
A state that acknowledges groups and subordinates the rights of the individuals to the rights of those groups.
The authors frame both these points of views, and then drive home the point how the latter view, one that evolved under and was nurtured by each succeeding government of the republic, has been detrimental to India’s economic growth and how the whole idea of making a community belong to a nation, instead of making individuals belong to a nation, has only led to deepening of fissures.
Since the republic has been mostly run Congress and the dynasty, Nehru and his clan end up with most of the blame.
The authors go on to present in detail how economic policy making that encourages government control, rent seeking and ignores markets have left India impoverished and how civil laws that are aimed at accommodating religious identities have led to resentment and are a recipe for social conflict.
The book does not merely enumerate what is wrong and who should be held responsible for it, the authors go on to present a way forward.
The solutions lie in building robust state capacity that allows for markets to efficiently operate and doing away with sectarian laws to enable social cohesion.
They claim that the Narendra Modi government has used the last six years to lay down the path on these lines. Be it laws the allow for efficient working of markets- IBC and GST, to improving last mile delivery via the JAM trinity and restructuring of the administrative frame work.
It is their opinion that although much needs to be done, the NDA 2 government is on its way to reshaping India, an India that will be economically strong and will be rooted in modern liberal values that are similar to ancient Indian wisdom.
As a long time, reader of Harsh and Rajeev’s newspaper columns, time for a disclosure: I have known Harsh personally for a few years now – I more often than not find myself on the same page as Harsh in our world views, the lucid writing and substantiations with facts and figures is not surprising.
The writing, even when covering philosophical foundation of their arguments is plain and simple.
I did find the book harsh on Nehru.
Nehru alas is now a figure in this country who is either worshipped or held responsible for everything that is wrong with present day India.
We analyze his legacy with benefits of hindsight. Nehru like all humans operated in the realms of his bounded rationality.
We must also not forget, specially those of us who repose all their faith in wisdom of the electorate, that Nehru was democratically elected.
Who is to say he did not represent how Indians wanted to see India as much as Indians of today want India to be shaped by Narendra Modi?
Similarly, the writers go easy on Modi, the litany of laws that they think are sectarian in nature, whose eradication they think is key to building social cohesion, they don’t ask why Mr. Modi has not done anything about them.
If Mr. Modi with all the political capital that he enjoys, can not come around to changing those laws, who is to say that he himself does not believe in them and as a democratically elected leader, his thinking represents our thinking.
As to his economic legacy, we will have to wait and see, in so far, his big calls have been a mixed bag.
The inflation targeting framework and fiscal conservatism have been disastrous for the economy in the short term, while we await to see the positive impact of the reforms that writers mention.
The book though is a much-needed addition to the discourse.
For those stuck in social media driven echo chambers, it will either be a worthy peep into what the other side thinks or a provide arguments to elaborate on one’s own world view.
It is a must read for those trying to make sense of this young and vibrant country, for the points that the writers make will, in the humble opinion of this reviewer, shape the future course of this country.