If we wish to reflect, as we must, on why India stands ravaged and breathless, we will need to scroll back to what was happening two months ago in our ‘Naya Bharat’.
In the first week of March, a respected academic at Ashoka University, touted as the most vibrant site of intellectual imagination, was made to leave because it was suggested that he had become a liability to the institution. When fingers were pointed at the usual intolerant suspects lording it atop Raisina Hill, authorised touts stepped in; it was “revealed” to us that the objections to professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s persistently critical voice, in fact, came from the university’s “donors”, a new breed of young entrepreneurs.
A penny dropped. We had arrived at our very desi version of what in another age and at another place was called “goulash communism”.
Tony Judt, that insightful historian and brilliant chronicler of post-War European frailties and flaws, first located the phenomenon of ‘goulash communism’ in Hungry after Soviet tanks had crushed the 1956 rebellion:
“In return for their unquestioning acceptance of the Party’s monopoly of power and authority, Hungarians were allowed a strictly limited but genuine degree of freedom to produce and consume. It was not asked of anyone that they believe in the Communist Party, much less its leaders; merely that they abstain from the least manifestation of opposition. Their silence would be read as tacit consent.”
The ‘donors’ at Ashoka University would have untroubledly made their peace with Janos Kadar, first secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, as the Communist party euphemistically called itself from 1956 until its dissolution in 1989.
The Ashoka University storm blew over; but there was no resistance to the demands of compliance. And, therefore, if India finds itself overwhelmed with death and grief and social breakdown today, there is one and only one reason. Since 2014, we have unthinkingly come to subscribe to this absurd proposition: “Don’t do politics.”
The argument was as simple as it was pernicious: there is a new government, headed by an honest, sincere, hard-working, popular prime minister, dedicated to national glory and committed to restore us to our ancient status of Vishwaguru. If a new order and new India have to be produced, the new leadership was entitled to a breathing space, and our democracy needed to be a less quarrelsome and a more quiescent arrangement. No one had any business trying to find faults with the Leader. As in the old Soviet model, the Leader of the Party alone was to be the sole source of wisdom, inspiration, imagination and vision. In exchange for the blessings of vikas, we were asked to fork out our consent, compliance and silence.
This was the familiar stuff of old-fashioned totalitarian projects. Indeed, George Orwell and others have warned that “every despotism justifies itself by claiming the power of salvation”. The authoritarians of the new India demanded reverence and respect because they claim to have produced salvation in the form of a khichri called vikas. Khichri, as anyone knowledgable about food will tell you, is a synonym for goulash.
Any one not abiding by this new code was guilty of “doing dirty politics.” What this meant was that only the ruling party and its leader was entitled to take offence and give offence; anyone joining issue stood accused of ‘doing politics.’ In the just-concluded West Bengal elections, for example, very many people simply thought it was scandalous of Mamata Banerjee to talk back to Narendra Modi and his undignified invectives. We are asked to practice democracy without politics.
In fact, we were introducing a caveat in the craft of national governance. There will be no “politics” about the Leader and his preferences. All institutions were obliged to firewall the Leader from any notion of scrutiny and accountability. The Bobdes, Bhagats and Bhallas produced judgments, arguments and statistics to rationalise and glorify the Leader’s every whim and fancy, while the Bhakts of course were driven to delirious frenzy in their hero-worship.
The judiciary, particularly under the last three chief justices of India, bought into this new orthodoxy; whatever the executive proposed, the judiciary was happy to endorse; whatever excesses the executive committed, the judges were pleased to lend their imprimatur. After all, vikas was being doled out to us.
The BJP itself was to become the first victim of this ‘no politics’ syndrome. If the entire democratic system has been so rigged as to glorify the Leader, then there can be no dissent – nor will it be allowed – within the party. And, this unquestioned status was perhaps meant to overawe the Nagpur bosses; the self-styled ‘moral’ guardian of the BJP has been reduced to falling in line with every shabby calculation made by the Shahenshah and Shah duo.
Judicial indulgence for the Modi regime cascaded into a wider impulse. Because the Opposition, as personified by an unloved – and, indeed unlovable – Rahul Gandhi, it was deemed to be a discredited lot; the very notion of the intrinsic indispensability of democratic opposition was declared to be an unworkable proposition. Dissenters were not needed; and, if the detractors persisted in their opposition, especially outside parliament, they were to be declared as seditious conspirators.
It is not that the Opposition or the outsiders have necessarily greater clarity, deeper understanding, and better solutions to the nation’s problems; it is that by its critique, the Opposition can and does put the establishment on its collective toes.
It has always been the pride of the Indian bureaucracy that it was constantly raising its game, but after seven years of “no politics” and under the protective umbrella of an Emperor Triumphant, the great administrative leviathan has also rusted as a collective complacency has set in.
These are, then, the reasons why we simply failed to anticipate the course the pandemic was to take.
If we had not so resolutely turned our backs on public scrutiny and accountability, it is unthinkable that two Central ministers, including the health minister, would publicly endorse a dubious baba’s dubious anti-COVID-19 confections. Or, it is unimaginable that our scientific establishment, instead of calling the shots, would be playing, to use E.M. Forster’s biting phrase, “the subservient pimp.”
It is tempting to believe that our arrogant and haughty rulers stand chastened in the face of a nationwide meltdown; but there is little evidence to inspire such hope. On the contrary, the regime is dipping deep into its bitter and resentful resourcefulness to control the narrative about this unmitigated national tragedy. All our old visceral fears and new superstitions are being worked on to denounce the messengers of bad news. A besotted and compromised media continues to be a cynical accomplice of a cynical regime.
After so much death, misery and pain, it is incumbent upon us, including all constitutional institutions, to rediscover the restorative capacity of democracy questioning and scrutiny. The Modi clique will remain stranded in the quagmire of hubris and vainglory. Only a return to a culture of vibrant, vigorous and vigilant democratic energy can rescue India from the limits of a limited man.