Category Archives: journalism

Mill on the Loss

Originally published as “Mill on the Loss” in the Indian Express Mumbai Newsline, 5 April 2000

The history of Mumbai is a narrative of the struggle over space. The fate of the mill lands of central Mumbai, and its industries and workers, is the latest chapter in this story.

 

The life of any city is not simply tied to its flows of goods, services and capital, but also to its patterns of work, leisure and movement — all of which revolve on the use of space. Throughout Mumbai’s history, claims on land and space have been the narrative thread of the most celebrated and most notorious chapters in our urban history. These range from the legendary reclamations that linked up several marshy outposts and settlements to compose the island city in the eighteenth century, to the disastrous Back Bay Reclamation Scheme in the 1920s. This scheme to fill in the Back Bay earned the name “Lloyd’s Folly”, after the bungling of the then Governor, whose plan ended in failure and infamy because of engineering mistakes, corruption, and the crash in land values during the Great Depression.

The story of the mill lands is a fin-de-sicle echo of this familiar urban theme. The historic textile mills of the city are industrial dinosaurs dotted around the city landscape, whose textile production has been eclipsed in efficiency and profitability by the sweatshop labour employed in powerlooms towns like Bhiwandi. The millowners realised long ago that the lands of the city mill compounds are more valuable than the textiles they produce, and the workers whose livelihoods they have sustained for several generations.

Continue reading Mill on the Loss

The Metaphor of Middle-Class Scorn

Originally published in Satyam Online, 1 March 2000.

 

In his first few years occupying the Chief Minister’s chair in Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav was found of recalling that, in his father’s village, the local upper-caste leaders would sit in similar thrones, and his father could not dare to come near the Brahmins and sit on a chair like them. That would have signified equality. His father and other backward and lower castes had to approach their caste superiors as humble supplicants, their faces averted and backs hunched, and sit at the feet of the lordly Brahmins.

Laloo’s claim to power, he seemed to be saying, was not just based on the boring details of parliamentary procedure such as the number of votes he or his allies polled. Rather, he incarnated the inversion of the brutal caste and feudal hierarchies of agrarian society, the awakening of the wretched of the earth. His rustic idiom of political expression, the discourse of the masses, was the only language he knew how to speak, and one that he took to the heights of the state, whose all-important symbol was the gaddi of power.

The Symbols and Substance of Power

What he did with this power is another story, one that we all are familiar with. As with the recent Assembly election, the middle-class is always ready to write off Laloo as more symbolism than substance. Our media never tires of representing him and his followers as corrupt and glowering peasants drunk on a power they for some reason seem not to deserve, considering Bihar’s present ills — the massive scandals, caste and class warfare, criminalisation and administrative collapse that have become synonymous with Yadav raj. When several years ago Laloo was hauled off to jail on corruption charges, his wife became an object of similar scorn. She was condescendingly portrayed as a hoodwinked pativratta, running the state from her kitchen, with too many children than is considered decent.

Why this particular hatred and fascination with Laloo, when there are thousands of other equally loud-mouthed and corrupt politicians who are deserving of similar derision? Laloo first came to power standing defiantly alongside his former colleagues in the Janata Dal, all of whom had risen simultaneously with the new politics of lower caste and lower class empowerment, in the legacy of Jayaprakash Narayan’s social justice movement and V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission reservations. While early in his reign, Laloo provided housing to the masses and made other pro-poor overtures, most importantly through his example showed them that the could control their own destinies.

Democracy and Insubordination

His irreverance is legendary — planting vegetables and grazing cattle in the prim gardens of the Chief  Minister’s official residence, or chomping a huge paan and regally spitting while conducting interviews with posh journalists from Delhi. A new type of politician of the television age, Laloo craved such opportunities, the chance to caricature himself for the camera, as the unreconstructed Other of the mannered and educated classes, the veritable metaphor of Underdevelopment — the oily and uneducated peasant whose spittle just stained your finely starched kurta.

While the middle-class elites would turn away in disgust and fear of this jungli, it is mistaken to see these performances as signs of a villager who could not forget his backward ways — it was a clear message to the poor that their way of life was as powerful and meaningful as that of the elites.

Laloo always knew that he was both the object of fascination of the better-off — because the Other always conceals the repressed desires and anxieties of the Self — as well as their worst nightmare, because his antics reminded the middle-classes of their irrelevance in a democracy where only numbers count, and even the media can’t hide that depressing fact. If Bihar is, according to the recent NDA slogans, a jungle raj, then Laloo styled himself the jungle ka sher.

Jab tak samose mein aloo rahega, tab tak Bihar mein Laloo rahega

It remains to be seen whether Laloo’s brand of insubordination will ever bring a real change to the lives of the poor. It seems not. But last week, Laloo’s staying power was again roundly underestimated by every political formation in the country.

While unlike the aloo in our samosa, one day Laloo might himself go, he and his ilk have had a permanent effect on our democracy, a change that it would be foolish to ignore. Political and social institutions are never neutral. For the powerless, the state is synonymous with the dominance of certain castes and classes whose hegemony are made to seem permanent. When the hierarchies on which this control of institutions are themselves swept away through the logic of popular democracy, their institutions might similarly be shattered. In regions like East UP and Bihar the social order, based on the brutalities of poverty, casteism and landlordism, is being overturned with an equal amount of ferocity and violence, and not a little showmanship

American Grand Strategy

This was an extended two-part series on the relationship of India and the United States, on the eve of the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton to India in mid-March 2000, published in the erstwhile Satyam Online news service.

The rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was the central geopolitical anatagonism of the half-century that followed the conclusion of World War II, fifty years which also parallel the experience of India’s Independence. And with the collapse of the Soviet and state socialist regimes in the early nineties, India and the world have entered a new geopolitical era, an age whose contours are only becoming clear now.

The Policy of Containment

The guiding strategy of American foreign policy-makers and defence experts throughout the Cold War had been the policy of “containment”, premised on a turn-of-the-century geopolitical theory which had in fact been essayed not in America, but in England, by the strategist Halford Mackinder. Adapted to the Cold War, Mackinder’s famous theory of heartland and rimland states was the essential ingredient in American geopolitical thinking.

Continue reading American Grand Strategy

The Historical Past and Political Present

Originally published in Satyam Online, 24 February 2000.

Constructing contingent memories as authoritative, and transforming the many threads of the past into a coherent narrative, the discipline of history is one of the most important fields of modern social thought. As an endeavour of the present, with its ongoing debates and revisions, history is inevitably concerned with claims to present-day power and representation. The controversies which have recently dogged the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in the past several years are thus not simply an academic issue, but a fight for control of our collective memory and identity.

Let us not misunderstand this dispute, as many have, as one between the “Western” and “Indian” versions of history. Nor is it really a fight over saffron or secular historiography. While no one can deny that the intensified assault on administration, education and public life by the Hindu Right in the past few months is a terrifying phenomenon, this issue goes beyond simple ideological postures and academic methods.

Sarkari or Sarvajanik History?

Last week, two volumes of the ICHR-sponsored Towards Freedom series of books on the freedom struggle, edited by the noted social historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar, were withdrawn from publication by the Oxford University Press under official pressure from the nodal ministry for education, Human Resources Development (HRD). Continue reading The Historical Past and Political Present

To Privatise or Saffronise?

Originally published in Satyam Online, 12 February 2000.

 

In the past several months since the NDA coalition has eased itself into the saddle of governance, our media has waxed eloquent about a newfound stability of the ruling alliance. The easy passage of the bundle of reform bills in the Winter Session of the Lok Sabha was advertised to the public and to the world as a prelude to a new round of liberalisation.

The showcase of the much-awaited “second generation” of economic reforms will be the upcoming Budget Session, to open at the end of February. Compared to the messy coalitions of years past, it seems now that the BJP confidently straddles the centre of the Indian political fulcrum. However, amidst the booming bourses and the hype around the visit of US President Bill Clinton, we should not be misled. The events of the past several weeks, notably the protests over Deepa Mehta’s film Water, and the announcement of the privatisation of Modern Foods and Indian Airlines, all give clues to the real fragility within the ruling party. The connection between these two events is not just incidental — Arun Jaitley holds both the Information & Broadcasting portfolio as well as that of Disinvestment.

Sanskriti or Swadeshi?

Last week, on the banks of the Ganga, one never heard a whisper of that other inflammatory slogan of the Sangh, opposing foreign economic domination and calling for swadeshi. This would have been truly radical, and dangerous for the new regime. We can rest assured, through Vajpayee’s “liberal” stewardship, that the strident slogans of culture and Hinduism will increase, and the politics of class will be silenced as the next wave of reforms approaches.

Earlier this month, political pundits were surprised to see the Prime Minister hitting out at Pakistan on several counts — for trying to disrupt the economy by flooding the country with counterfeit currency, by claiming that India was ready to match any nuclear threat in kind, and demanding the return of Occupied Kashmir. To this was added Vajpayee’s blessing of the RSS as a cultural and not a political organisation, to which the Governments of HP, UP and Gujarat responded by lifting the ban of their employees participating in the RSS.

Vajpayee’s tilt to the Right had less to do with these issues, than with an internal tussle in the BJP ranks, between the hardline saffron faction controlled by L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi and the so-called moderates, represented by Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley and others. Central to the Prime Minister’s calculations now is keeping this unwieldy ship together, to navigate it through the unrest that will be generated by the next wave of reforms.

Sabre-rattling against Pakistan, and the free hand given to the extremist wing of the Sangh Parivar as seen last week in Banaras, has placated the hardline saffron faction. And most importantly, it has wedded them to the agenda of privatisation favoured by the so-called BJP liberals.

Privatisation and Saffronisation

The showpiece of the new economic policies will be the privatisation of the public sector, foreshadowed by the two test cases floated earlier this month by Jaitley, and the further retreat of the state from its basic responsibilities towards the poor — subsidies to basic commodities which are now being cancelled; the WTO-dictated removal of import duties on basic food products which will have disastrous consequences for farmers throughout the country; and the withdrawal of responsibility for primary services like health and education, which the BJP Vice President J. Krishnamurthy has claimed the state has no business in providing.

If, according to Arun Jaitley, the state has no business providing bread for the people, and Krishnamurthy claims that the state should free itself from ensuring their literacy and health, one might ask whose Government is this then?

On the eve of the new Budget, the RSS and VHP could have mobilised its ranks on these issues, which redound most centrally on the livelihood of the masses. Instead they chose a soft target like Deepa Mehta.

This has saved the BJP from a major schism on the eve of one of the most important Budgets to be tabled in several years, one that will crucially determine India’s terms of engagement with the global economy. But one wonders what makes a bigger difference to the beleagured people of Banaras. Is it the rise in the prices of basic commodities, the further erosion of social services, the attack on organised labour — all of which will be floated in the new Budget — or the cultural sensitivity of an English film that will probably never be screened outside of some major Western and Indian cities?

Watering Down Water

Originally published on Satyam Online, 8 February 2000.

Even those of us of liberal political convictions must sometimes admit it. Something quite interesting happened in that majestic city by the Ganga this week. In times when it seems that politics is less about principles and ideas than about populism and pay-offs, when someone, anyone, takes a principled stand, it is touching.

Thus when the Sangh Parivar decides to blow up a few bombs to cock a snook at the nuclear monopoly of the great powers, it warms what is left of our nationalist heart. When they take out their ire against the arrogant moral universalism of Christianity by smashing a few churchs and torching a few missionaries, there is some pride in that defiance. Of course, such cynical vandalism is not about defending national sovereignty or our cultural integrity, as we all know. It is more about upper-caste vote banks and simple hatemongering. But we should be  equally aware that neither the nuclear powers, nor the Christian missionaries, nor Deepa Mehta and her snobby liberalism are blameless. Continue reading Watering Down Water

The Arrest of Dara Singh

Originally published in Satyam Online, 4 February 2000.

 

This week has been an eventful one politically. The arrest of Dara Singh, implicated in the murder of the missionary Graham Staines and his two children, a Christian clergyman and a Muslim trader named Rehman, is of course a welcome, if somewhat belated development, since the attacks on Christians began to intensify more than a year ago.

What is curious is not just how long it took to arrest Dara Singh — who, despite being available for newspaper interviews, was able to evade the authorities for a full year — but the timing of the arrest. Some cynics point to the upcoming Orissa assembly elections and the Congress’ impending doom in the state, in the wake of the super-cyclone. To the cynic, this is a perfectly acceptable reason for the speedy arrest of Singh after administrative inaction for more than a year. While this won’t go very far in convincing Orissa’s shattered voters of the promises of “good governance” equally important was another event announced late this week.

The Timing of the Arrest

The dates for the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in mid-March were finalised only two days after the arrest. This was also coincident with Gladys Staines, the murdered missionary’s widow, emerging into the public eye to release a book in Bombay and speak to the press about her husband and sons’ murder by a functionary of the Sangh Parivar. In the politics of U.S. Presidential visits to foreign, especially Asian countries, this assumes significance.

In 1998, Clinton was beleagured by pressure groups, many associated with the Christian Right in the U.S., to halt his diplomatic overtures towards China, whose Government takes an exceptionally strong line on the “anti-national” and subversive activities of missionaries and Christians. Short of cancelling his visit, many groups and Congressmen wanted him to meet with Christian dissidents in China.

With Clinton’s visit to India imminent, the White House perhaps wants to avoid the similar embarrasment in India, and the BJP-led Government has obliged its new strategic partner, eager to do business with the U.S., without the meddling of lobbies which continue to hound China’s patrons abroad. If Gladys Staines were ever to meet Clinton, it would tarnish the much-touted cliche of India;s tolerant and secular culture.

Proving the Secular Credentials of the Government

The arrest of Dara Singh, then, is no demonstration of the secular resolve of the Central Government. Other recent developments bear out this conclusion. In U.P., the recent statements of Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta approving the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, and the recent passage by the UP Assembly of the Regulation of Public Religious Buildings and Places Bill, which prohibits the building of any temple, mosque, church, or gurudwara, without the permission of the Government. Additionally, this legislation sanctions the demolition of these structures if they are built without first seeking the state’s permission. Passed in the wake of the IC814 hijacking and amidst the media-generated hysterics about ISI infiltration of the country, it will further enable the harrassment of minorities.

In Gujarat, similar trends are evident in the decision of the State Government to allow its employees to openly claim their affiliation to the RSS, and the equally shocking display of the Gujarat Chief Minister in khaki shorts, accompanied by Union Home Minister L K Advani, swearing allegiance to the Hindutva storm-troopers. We can thus safely assume that next Christmas, when Hindu extremist groups want to terrorise tribal Christians in the Dangs, they police need not even keep up the pretence of protecting all citizens regardless of their religion.

The writings of one of the Sangh Parivar’s senior ideologues should make the core of the Government’s beliefs clear. In his latest book, Harvesting Our Souls, Arun Shourie, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP and Minister at the Centre, comments approvingly on the policies of the Chinese Government towards its minority Christian community. These policies include a ban on all foreign missionaries, the requirement of registering with a State-run Church affiliated to the Communist Party, and the haunting of minority groups as presumably anti-national.

Recently in Orissa, according to reports by John Dayal, convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, the Centre has been continuously warning Christian organisations and groups in the tribal belts of Orissa to obey the Anti-Conversion Act, a legislation which violates the fundamental right to freedom of religion in article 25 of the Constitution. But considering that this week’s other story, in which the Government showed quiet contempt for the President’s warnings against tinkering with the founding document of our Republic, these new developments seem consistent with the real character of the BJP-led Government.

Making Democracy Meaningless

Originally published on Satyam Online, 27 January 2000.

 

If one thinks back about the hype manufactured around the golden jubilee of Independence in 1997 — hype which nonetheless failed to create more than a flutter and a grumble in the public heart — it is surprising that Republic Day this year passed with little more than the standard commemoration.

In the history of modern constitutional democracies, the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Republic is an occasion equal to, if not more important than, the attainment of Independence from British rule. But every year, we are treated to the pompous display of newer and more sophisticated weaponry, the silly self-congratulation, decorating of heroes in an ongoing war against our largest neighbour and against sizeable portions of our own population in the name of “national security”. All of these questionable and disgusting rituals have little to do with the actual meaning of the Republic. Continue reading Making Democracy Meaningless

Identifying the Terrorists

Originally published in Satyam Online, 9 January 2000.

 

Several days ago, the headlines of our major national papers showed Home Minister L K Advani announcing to the world “damning evidence” to prove the Pakistan Government’s direct role in the recent hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight in Kandahar. The purpose of this press conference, it appeared, was to beseech the so-called “international community” — a convenient nickname for the U.S. Government — to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. The Government claimed a victory in the “war against terrorism” when, in a passing remark to a reporter at the White House, Bill Clinton’s spokesman agreed that the hijackers should be brought to book for their actions.

Dismantling India’s Independent Foreign Policy

This is but the latest instance in a recent trend, initiated under the previous BJP Government, which sees India’s diplomatic and military victories scored not by the strength of decisions taken in South Block, or by its armed forces on the battlefield, but through the intervention of the U.S. The much-trumpeted victory in Kargil earlier this year, on which the BJP-led coalition rode to power in the latest election, would have been less certain, more prolonged and bloody, had Bill Clinton not instructed Nawaz Sharif to withdraw his forces or face cancellation of international loans and other punishments by the world’s last superpower. Continue reading Identifying the Terrorists

Uncertain Mandate

Sometimes the most ephemeral occasions are draped in the heaviest symbolism. In May of 1996, as the world’s largest exercise in democracy drew to an uncertain and compelling close, India entered a cross-roads in its history as an independent republic. The grand old party of the nationalist struggle, the Indian National Congress, had received its most severe battering yet. Moribund for some years, it had been tactfully fending away threats to its monopoly of power since the death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. And the wheezing, corrupt and ideologically bankrupt party had done a valuable parting service to the Indian state in its final term of power under P.V. Narasimha Rao: the socialist economy of Nehru’s years began to be dismantled, the shackles of the ‘steel frame’ had been loosened; India had established itself fairly well internationally after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the uncertain international situation that emerged soon afterwards. The economic liberalisation, the flurry of diplomacy to address new issues of terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the globalisation of trade, all are credits to the Government of Narasimha Rao, perhaps the last ruling Government of a party that has been the institutional reflection of the nationalist legacy for more than a hundred years.

Politicians of all hues and their sycophants, journalists and other notable persons gathered in the Durbar Hall of the Presidential Palace in Delhi. Built as a residence for the Viceroys of India by the British, it was meant as a kind of court for the sovereign emperor of India, at that time the representative of the Crown. It was where Jawaharlal Nehru chose to be sworn in as the first Prime Minister of independent India, and where successive prime ministers have been administered the oath of office by the President. On that warm May evening in Delhi, President Shankar Dayal Sharma was flanked by the sashed and turbaned Presidential Guard, another inheritance of the Crown, a special ceremonial regiment of the Indian Army meant as a personal bodyguard to the Viceroy.

President Sharma’s decision upon receiving the uncertain results of the parliamentary election to call the largest, but not majority, party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to form the Government was a controversial one. Coalition and minority governments are disagreeable to the Indian public, who see them as troublesome and indecisive groups of opportunistic parties. They have never lasted except in times of uncertainty: following the Emergency in 1977, and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. The fear was compounded in this election by the inevitability of the Congress Party’s defeat, which meant that there would be no imaginable alternative to such a coalition as there had been in the past. The BJP had attempted to portray itself as having assumed a mantle of national reach and appeal, as ‘the alternative at the Centre’. But it had fallen short of a majority, just barely; the other parties that filled the House were from a variety of leftist, regional, caste and community groupings that had little if any national pretensions.

Nonetheless a minority government was sworn in. The symbolism of the moment, of a new group of ministers coming to swear their oath to the service of the Indian republic was made provocative by the clothing of the new Cabinet of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. From the earliest days of the freedom struggle, the symbol of nationalism had been handspun white cloth. The village cotton that Mahatma Gandhi and his followers donned in their protest of colonial economic exploitation, the symbol of resistance had become the politician’s uniform in India. The ‘Gandhi topee’, the simple cap modelled after Gandhi’s prison gear when he was first arrested in civil disobedience, had become the emblem of corruption and abuse of power. As the new ministers of the BJP approached the President to chant the oath of office in Hindi or English, not one was clad in either Gandhi topee or the white handspun. Most were still wearing the coarse cloth, but dyed saffron.

Saffron is the traditionally auspicious colour of Hinduism, as ascetics don saffron robes when they take their vow of austerity when retreating into the forest for a life of contemplation. The political perversion of this symbolism was meant to hearken to this traditional idiom, though the ministers were taking a very worldly vow of state office. When people talk of the ‘saffron wave’ in India they mean the collection of groups that support the Hindu extremist movement. In existence for almost as long as the other nationalist organisation, the Congress, they have come to the fore with the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid (Babar’s Mosque) in Ayodhya in north India; with the last election, they have entered the political mainstream. Though the BJP presents the face of a conventional parliamentary party, its tacit affiliation with the groups collectively known as the Sangh Parivar* is acknowledged. It is through their mobilisation and cultural and social activities that the BJP gathers its support, and it was after the demolition of the mosque and the rioting and political chaos that followed that it rose to its current stature as the largest party in the Lok Sabha.

To some the saffron wave represents a mortal threat to Indian society and the integrity of the Indian state; an affront to the founding values of secularism and democracy, a vandalism of popular Hindu virtues of tolerance and eclecticism, an attempt to impose a homogenous vision on a community of believers diverse and contradictory in their beliefs and practice. Their direct appeal to traditional symbols and a superficially ‘Indian’ or ‘Hindu’ idiom is noxious to many middle-class Indians obsessed with ideas of modernisation and historical progress. Their arrogance aside, many of these judgements hold true; it is the disgust that one must take issue with, and also one must accept the role of such traditional idioms in a society only slowly becoming aware of the newly endowed constitutional guarantees of independent India. What V.S. Naipaul described as a ‘million mutinies, a million little awakenings’i that have stirred and torn India in its past fifty years of statehood are too often seen as simply destructive phenomena, expressions of frustration. But they are more than that, they are the first rather chaotic and frightening signs of a new awareness that began to convulse the subcontinent as the freedom struggle brought the promise of a modernity to the masses. They are the creation of a new India, the attempts to fashion an uniquely Indian modernity.

The first to employ these symbols and manipulate their power for political purposes was the father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi. Despite his reservations about the West and his obscurantism, Gandhiji inaugurated the polity on which the Congress wrested the control of the colonial state from the British Empire. Using mass mobilisation on a scale previously unimaginable in a country poor and uneducated to articulate very modern demands, freedom was won and enshrined in the state that Nehru refashioned with his vision of secularism, socialism and democracy. Through an aggressively modernist vision of India, Nehru attempted to decorate India with all the accoutrements of a modern nation-state: an industrial base and national economy, an independent foreign policy, and promotion of a national community vaguely based on the diverse reformist traditions given rise to by the British conquest and colonial encounter.

In India today, the moral squalor of public life, the disastrous consequences of a state-sponsored economy, and the bankruptcy of a homogeneous national vision are all obvious. The successes and disturbance occasioned by democracy are also obvious. The legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s statesmanship that brought India from freedom to statehood, it is a mixed and ambiguous inheritance, and any criticism of Nehru can never be wholly negative. What Nehru failed to appreciate about India is more owed to the age rather than to any of his own oversights. His enlightened statesmanship and constructive vision have maintained India as a democracy for its entire existence as an independent republic; the battered and abused Constitution he and the other founders wrote still is a rallying point for the polity; and the legitimacy of the state is well writ in the minds of the citizenry, though nowadays perhaps requiring a new articulation. Though the Congress may now be discredited and on the verge of political extinction, its achievements have been enormous and were it not for them, one could not imagine modern India.

But the essence of nationalism, the imagined community, has faded. And with it many of the illusions of Nehru’s time have evaporated. The saffron wave has swept into this vacuum with a ferocity that took most of India by surprise; the reactions of horror, shame and dismay following the destruction of the Babri Masjid shattered many of the myths of the nationalist tradition. Reading the newspaper and scholarly accounts of 1992 one detects an apathy and cynicism suddenly stirred by a horrible challenge. And neither the sermons of handspun-clad politicians about secularism, nor the exhaustive discussions of constitutional precepts and historical truths been able to counter what has been demonised as the ‘communal threat’. Certainly it has been reactionary, a horrible act of vandals, but one cannot deny the feat of mobilisation and the seductiveness of the ideology purveyed as the saffron alternative.

The Bharatiya Janata Party Government of Prime Minister Vajpayee lasted only thirteen days, reckoning with an imminent defeat in a confidence motion in the first session of Parliament, the Prime Minister chose to resign rather than be humiliated by a vote. It was a dramatic martyrdom watched all over the country on national television delivered by the poet-philosopher Vajpayee, an imposing figure as head of the Opposition for many years, and a master of rhetoric and debate in modern Hindi. The BJP would return, he claimed, and the next time no opportunistic band of country politicians absent of any common ideology would stop them.

Upon accepting the invitation of President Shankar Dayal Sharma to form a Government in a Parliament with no clear majority, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee set about appointing his Cabinet and ministries were constituted accordingly. Vajpayee had been projected as the ‘liberal’ and kind face of what was, admittedly, a party of vandals who had incited the destruction at Ayodhya and were seemingly not averse to using such strategies again. What few observers cared to mention was that communal mobilisation had become a fact of Indian public life; in post-colonial India, only in times of national emergency and economic crisis has the unity of all Indian citizens been invoked by state or society. All the various parties from each end of the political spectrum, excepting perhaps the Communist Party, have at one time or another exploited caste, regional, religious or other affiliations in their bids for power. At times elections in India, from the most local village council to the general election, have been structured around cynical calculations of communal interest and representation, and urgent issues of development and transparency have often been completely ignored.

The 1996 general election was little different, but when the BJP assumed power, the climate of opinion took on the air of emergency. The opposition parties criticised the President, who, acting with full constitutional sanction, invited the BJP to make real its electoral mandate. The much-battered slogans of secularism were again invoked, and the BJP was demonised as a communal party hostile to democracy and civil society. As ministries were being formed, the diverse parties and individuals of the opposition commenced negotiations on the formation of a coalition to upset the required motion of confidence. The new Prime Minister took to the airwaves in his first address to the nation to affirm the commitment of the BJP to the secular, pluralistic traditions and structure of Indian society and decry the parties now banding together in an ‘unprincipled coalition’ to overthrow the ‘people’s mandate’. He made a plea to the Muslim and other minority communities that the BJP would dedicate itself to the secular traditions of the Constitutionii, claiming that Ayodhya was never intended to happen, and that it was the fault of the government in not addressing the issue before the festering resentments exploded in the way they did. (Harish Khare, ‘Vajpayee Strikes Moderate Tone’, The Hindu (New Delhi), 20 May 1996).

In those heady days of political uncertainty, many of the developments of the past decade were finally being adjusted in the arrangements of power in India. It is a heart-rending tribute to the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru that they were all carried out in the utmost spirit of constitutional propriety, for it seemed that the structural stability of the Indian state was very much at stake: a party that had violated the unspoken compact of communal neutrality that lay at the heart of the Indian state had ascended to power at the Centre. Throughout the election campaign the BJP had portrayed itself as the first truly viable national alternative to the Congress Party, whose mandate had been eroded with increasing scandals and allegations of high-level mismanagement and corruption; with cynical manipulation of communal feelings to bolster its moribund rule; and with the dismantling of the socialist straitjacket of the past four decades, which had at least charged the state with the improvement of the lot of the impoverished masses. In its aspiration to national prestige and appeal, the BJP had of necessity demoted communal tactics to the bottom of its electoral strategy, and made a decent attempt at respectability — focusing on issues of corruption, equity and social upliftment — which won it the largest number of seats in the House of any single party.

However, it could not so easily play down the memories of Ayodhya which were still fresh in the minds of the electorate and which were invoked by the coalition of regional, casteist, and Left parties which came together — with the outside support of the Congress Party which had yet garnered the second largest number of seats — to form what became known as the United Front. It was another great tribute to Nehru that the system would so adjust itself at such an uncertain time under the banner of secularism and assert the necessities of governance in India’s diverse and unwieldy society. When Vajpayee affirmed his Government’s commitment to secularism, he was decried by the cadres of the RSS and VHP as betraying the legacy of the saffron brigade and all that had brought it to its current position. However, when Vajpayee spoke of secularism he did so not in answer to community, but as a necessity of governance. Communal mobilisation and representation of sectional interests had become pervasive throughout the campaign, but upon assuming power the exigencies of administration became very clear.

India possesses a political system whose structures cannot rest upon any single community, for no community is large or resourceful enough to construct even a regional state. The country has no single permanent majority and is itself a mosaic of minorities. This being so, no structures with statelike properties can be maintained, and no government can rule over such a construction, which do not depend upon mutual collaboration of minorities…Without such collaboration and ‘contractual’ arrangements, (either implicit or explicit), no political system can survive for long”. (Robert Frykenberg, ‘Hindu Fundamentalism and the Structural Stability of India’, p.233)

Despite its ideological claim to represent the eighty-five percent majority of those nominally ‘Hindu’, the saffron brigade had garnered less than thirty percent of the vote from those who subscribed to its catholic notions of a monolithic Hindu nation, an idea which is still less a social reality than a perverse dream (though a brilliant strategy of mobilisation). What was more being asserted at this point in the transition of Indian politics was a logical continuity that finds its origins in pre-colonial India: that any state that would seek to upset the structural stability of communal consent could not last long in power. The theme holds true for Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor who through his bigotry and intolerance incited the backlash of the Maharatas in defence of Indian tradition; the East India Company, which was dissolved after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 when it provoked the paranoia of its native employees by threatening their customs and ways of life, raising fears that the Company sought to proselytise and convert all of India to Christianity; and the British Empire, in its manipulation of communal passions in order to prolong its rule, which ended amidst the holocaust of Partition.

As I write, it seems that in the reign of the “corporate dynasties” (ibid., p.236) of modern India, the Company, the Crown, and the Congress, will be succeeded by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has stepped into the vacuum at the centre of Indian politics and has already made adjustments to the exigencies of becoming the defining axis of the system, among which has been a quieting of its communal rhetoric.

Nonetheless the United Front provided enough of a threat to the nascent saffron Government to prompt Vajpayee to choose martyrdom over humiliation and resign his office before the confidence motion was tabled in Parliament. The affirmation of the structural necessities of Indian statecraft, in the language of Nehruvian nationalism and secularism, brought together diverse parties that President Sharma called to his palace to administer the oath of office. And whereas before the ministers displayed saffron, the new Cabinet of Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda was a somewhat rustic lot, among which were some future ministers who knew neither of the official languages of the Indian Union — Hindi or English — very well, and for whom the swearing-in was a little stulted.

But the majesty of the Cabinet was precisely in the very coarseness of its members, most of whom hailed from the newly enfranchised classes of post-Independence India, including the Prime Minister, a farmer from Mysore in south India. It was indeed a motley batch of local caste leaders, urban Marxists, a Harvard-educated economist and regional bosses, but one that in its diversity reflected the multiplicity of interests and communal identifications within Indian society. And among their demands contained in their Common Minimum Programme was for a rededicated effort to the upliftment of the backwards countryside, provision of such basic services as clean drinking water, housing, and roads; and an effort towards greater transparency and less corruption.

Perhaps most significant was an acknowledgement of the need in India for decentralisation of the administrative machinery commensurate with the economic liberalisation initiated under the previous Congress regime. The calls for regional and linguistic identity and the end to a monolithic conception of Indian state and society were voiced in constitutional terms as a return to ‘true federalism’. Inherent in this demand was a dismissal of the type of homogeneous vision of India and its people and culture that was not only a part of the saffron vision, but of the secular nationalism of the Congress Party. In the plea for federalism was also contained a new notion of community in India, that of the regional identity peripheral to national struggles but which have been the most significant movement of communal mobilisation and awareness in the past fifty years. Politically it was represented in the linguistic states constituted shortly after Independence, whose autonomy had been eroded by a central government bent on preserving the unity of India from numerous external threats and internal disturbance. With the unity of India now well-established fifty years on in the experience of a democratic republic, regional claims for autonomy and federalism could be voiced less threateningly, asserting a multiplicity of community representation within the political domain, and a reconsideration of the imagined community of modernity.