Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 5
It is clear to any student of Indian affairs, and I hope it will be crystal clear to whoever succeeds Mrs Gandhi as India’s Prime Minister, that all this nonsense has got to stop. There is no denying that the Central government must govern; but it is time that the States’ legitimate grievances received the kind of sympathetic hearing which they have been denied for years. If this happens, then there is a glimmer of hope for the future. If it does not, then one must fear for the union.
The dangers of communalism, of the kind of religious sectarianism which motivated the assassins’ bullets, are even more to be feared. Here is another of the paradoxes at the heart of the India-idea: that the ethic of the independence movement, and of the independent State, has always been secular; yet there can be few nations on earth in which religion plays a more direct or central role in the citizens’ daily lives. In this area, too, there have always been tensions; but in recent years these tensions have been getting more and more extreme. The growth of Hindu fanaticism, as evidenced by the increasing strength of the RSS, the organization which was behind the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, has been very worrying; and it has had its parallel in the Bhindranwale group and, recently, in the increased support for the Muslim extremist Jamaat Party in Kashmir—this support being, itself, the result of the toppling of Farooq Abdullah by the Centre, which seemed to legitimize the Jamaat’s view that Muslims have no place in present-day India.
One of the saddest aspects of the growth of communalism has been that, at times, Mrs Gandhi’s Congress Party has seemed to be going out to get the Hindu vote. That she was willing to sacrifice the Sikh vote by her attack on the Golden Temple, and the Muslim vote by her deposing of Farooq Abdullah, may be seen as evidence of this; and it comes all the more depressingly from the leader of a party whose electoral success has always been based on its reputation as the guardian of minority groups’ rights and safety. In recent times, the minorities—the Harijans, or untouchables, as well as Sikhs and Muslims—have been deserting the Congress fold. I very much hope that the new Congress leadership will give up, once and for all, the idea that the party can win elections by playing the communalist card, and remember the secular ethic on which the future of the country depends.
It is also necessary to say—and it is hard to say this on such a day—that, in my opinion, one of the threats to democracy in India has come, in recent years, from the dynastic aspirations of the Nehru family itself, and from the peculiarly monarchic style of government which Mrs Gandhi developed. Let us remember about the Nehrus—Motilal, his son Jawaharlal, his daughter Indira, her sons Rajiv and Sanjay—that when it comes to power they make the Kennedys look like amateurs. After all, for no less than thirty-one of the thirty-seven years of independent Indian history, there has been a Nehru in control. And latterly New Delhi has not felt like the capital of an elective democracy at all, but rather like an old-fashioned durbar, a court. The powerful figures in this court have not been, in many cases, members of the government or even of the Indian Parliament. They have, rather, been a motley assortment of old school chums of Sanjay or Rajiv, billionaire businessmen, even, at times, one or two manifestations of that group now known in India as ‘Godmen’. This cloud of courtiers has enveloped the Indian Prime Minister, and it would be a great advance if it were now to lose power. For this reason, it would seem to me quite wrong for the Congress-I to choose, as its new leader, a man as untried, and as unsuited for high office, as Rajiv Gandhi; it is time for India to assert, and for its ruling party to demonstrate, that the nation is not owned by any one family, no matter how illustrious. The Queen is dead; vive la République.
No, I am not trying to lay all of modern India’s many ills at the door of the butchered Prime Minister. Political corruption is one of India’s besetting ills, and there has been plenty of it in the Congress Party, but of course it is not all Mrs Gandhi’s responsibility. Nor will the task of cleaning the stables be easy. But it is up to the new leadership to show the way. To reject the idea of getting votes by appealing to religious sectarianism. To give up using the Congress party machine as an instrument of patronage. To stop the process of undermining the authority of the civil service. To desist from bribing and corrupting the supporters of one’s political opponents in order to achieve in back-rooms what has not been achieved by the ballot-box. To show that India is not in the grip of any new imperium. And to restore our faith in the India-idea.
What, centrally, is that idea? It is based on the most obvious and apparent fact about the great subcontinent: multitude. For a nation of seven hundred millions to make any kind of sense, it must base itself firmly on the concept of multiplicity, of plurality and tolerance, of devolution and decentralization wherever possible. There can be no one way—religious, cultural, or linguistic—of being an Indian; let difference reign.
On the face of it, Mrs Gandhi’s legacy in the field of external relations presents her son’s administration with fewer problems. Ever since she left her husband, Feroze Gandhi, in 1949, and moved back into her father’s house to become Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘official hostess’, Mrs Gandhi has moved with considerable assurance and no little skill in the world of international affairs; the speed with which she managed to persuade the world to forget the atrocities committed during her years of Emergency rule is evidence of her gifts. She managed, for the most part, to keep the balance between America and the Soviet Union (the long-standing Russian alliance never led to any ideological shift towards Soviet-style communism; quite the reverse, in fact, because in recent years Mrs Gandhi openly abandoned her earlier socialist rhetoric in favour of a nakedly capitalist programme). And as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement she gave India great stature in the eyes of the people of the Third World, for many of whom the relative stability and liberty of the Indian system have been things to take pride in and admire.
There are, however, deep uncertainties in this area as well. It’s easy to say that the new administration should, and in all likelihood will, attempt simply to continue the foreign policies of the last; things will be much trickier in practice. Our knowledge of Mrs Gandhi’s great experience in diplomacy only underlines the complete inexperience of Rajiv and his group. Add to this the possibility of a period of prolonged political instability in India, and you have a recipe for a rapid increase in superpower meddling. India may be about to become the world’s biggest political football.
And then there is Pakistan. It’s only a matter of weeks since rumours of Mrs Gandhi’s willingness to find a pretext for a war with Pakistan were rife in the Indian capital. There are some grounds for giving credence to these rumours. Mrs Gandhi was, with good reason, extremely nervous about the outcome of the approaching general election, and she well remembered the electoral landslide which she achieved after the Bangladesh War (to say nothing of Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands). And a couple of months ago Rajiv Gandhi made some very odd, sabre-rattling noises, accusing Pakistan of trying to start a war. This was, to many observers, a manifest absurdity. Even a general is unlikely to fail to notice that it would be foolish to go to war with India when India’s biggest ally, Russia, is sitting on your other frontier … At any rate, the question remains: if the situation in India continues to deteriorate, will Rajiv’s thoughts turn once again to war? One can only hope they do not.
Two clichés about India must, before I conclude, be dismissed, especially as both of them have, in these first hours since the news of the assassination broke, reared their wizened old heads. Firstly, the probability of a military coup in India to establish a parallel dictatorship to that of Zia is, I believe, so slight that it can be discounted, if only because the entire history of India demonstrates the impossibility of conquering the place by military force. Secondly, the bullets that killed Mrs Gandhi did not ‘prove’ the unsuitability of democracy for India, any more than the killing of two Kennedys, or the Brighton bombing, proved the same about America or Britain. The idea of a united, democratic, secular India can survive this terrible day.
Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as India’s Prime Minister within forty minutes of the announcement, on All-India Radio and the television network Doordarshan, of his mother’s assassination; and on that day when nothing in the world seemed certain, the one fact upon which everybody agreed was that he, Rajiv, had been the only possible choice. He was repeatedly referred to as the ‘heir-apparent’. We were told that he was ‘coming into his inheritance’. The ‘succession’ was smooth, the ‘dynastic changeover’ had been ‘inevitable’.
This sounds more like the language of courtiers than of political commentators. But, side by side with it, there was another kind of rhetoric in use: the already tired description of India as ‘the world’s largest democracy’ grew a good deal more exhausted in the hours and days after Indira Gandhi’s murder. And nobody seemed to hear the loud dissonance between the two forms of discourse. This national deafness was an indication of how great the power of the descendants of Motilal Nehru had become. On 31 October 1984, Rajiv Gandhi was indeed the only possible choice, endorsed by his party’s power-brokers and by the few men who might have challenged him for the job. It was as if something utterly natural, some organic process of the body politic, had taken place. And, in one of the most ironic twists of all, this imperial accession to India’s ‘throne’ was presented to the world as proof of the resilience of India’s democratic system.
In fact, what happened was anything but natural: a forty-year-old man, a political novice who had previously been thought of as a vote-loser, weak, even uninterested in politics, had been transformed into the automatic selection for the most important job in the country, in the space of a few, chaotic moments. Was this the same Rajiv Gandhi who had been nervously thinking of standing in more than one constituency in the general election, lest he lose his brother’s old seat of Amethi to his alienated sister-in-law, Sanjay’s widow, Menaka? What magic had been worked to turn this grounded airline pilot into the potential saviour of the nation?
It seems to me that the answers to such questions must go beyond politics and history and enter the zone of myth. The Nehru-Gandhi family has, by now, been thoroughly mythologized; its story has been, to borrow a term from Lévi-Strauss, ‘cooked’. And in that cooking we may discover the source of the magic.
Matter, as we now know, is nothing but compressed energy: your little finger contains many Nagasakis. By analogy, we may describe myths as being composed out of compressed meanings. Any mythological tale can bear a thousand and one interpretations, because the peoples who have lived with and used the story have, over time, poured all those meanings into it. This wealth of meaning is the secret of the power of any myth.
The continuing saga of the Nehru family, of the vicissitudes of Jawaharlal, Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv, has been, for hundreds of millions of us, an obsession spanning more than three decades. We have poured ourselves into this story, inventing its characters, then ripping them up and reinventing them. In our inexhaustible speculations lies one source of their power over us. We became addicted to these speculations, and they, unsurprisingly, took advantage of our addiction. Or: we dreamed them, so intensely that they came to life. And now, as the dream decays, we cannot quite bring ourselves to leave it, to awake.
In this version—the dynasty as collective dream—Jawaharlal Nehru represents the dream’s noblest part, its most idealistic phase. Indira Gandhi, always the pragmatist, often unscrupulously so, becomes a figure of decline, and brutal Sanjay is a further debasement of the currency. It’s hard to say, as yet, what Rajiv Gandhi stands for in this analysis. Perhaps he is the moment before the awakening, after all. In the decaying moments of a dream, the sounds of the real world begin to penetrate the dreamer’s consciousness; and certainly, in India today, the sounds of reality are insistent and harsh. Rajiv may not be enough of a sandman to keep the people asleep. We shall see.
Jawaharlal Nehru was flatly opposed to Mahatma Gandhi’s bizarre attempt to marginalize human sexuality by saying that ‘the natural affinity between man and woman is the attraction between brother and sister, mother and son, father and daughter.’ And yet, in Jawaharlal’s own family, such affinities of blood have indeed proved more durable than marriages. Those who have married Nehrus—Jawaharlal’s Kamala, Indira’s Feroze, Sanjay’s Menaka—have rarely been happy spouses. The crucial relationships have been those between father and daughter (Jawaharlal and Indira) and Indira and Sanjay, that is, mother and son. This ingrown, closed-ranks atmosphere has been, I suggest, the rock upon which the appeal of the dynasty-as-myth has been built. A myth requires a closed system; and here, once again, is evidence that Rajiv, whose family life gives every appearance of being happy, and who never seemed particularly close to Indira, is simply not a mythic figure. (It can be argued, of course, that this is no bad thing.)
Public speculation in India has feasted on these relationships, taking the raw material and cooking up all manner of notions, one of which may be quoted to demonstrate the extremes to which gossip about the ‘royal family’ could go. During the Emergency, at the height of Sanjay Gandhi’s power, an absurd and entirely unfounded rumour had it that the intimacy between Sanjay and his mother might be incestuous. Here is a case of Oedipal ambiguities being wildly exaggerated by the overheated imaginations of some scrutineers. In this and many other instances the story of the Nehrus and Gandhis became a figment of their subjects’ fancies. But there were also enough ‘real life’ scandals to keep the speculation-factories working—because myths, like soap-operas, which contain the mythic in its most debased form, require a high level of spice. So we have had public quarrels between Jawaharlal Nehru and Feroze Gandhi; we have seen Indira in post-Emergency disgrace, and witnessed the death—in what some called an act of divine retribution—of Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash; we have had the extraordinary, virulent quarrel between Indira and Menaka Gandhi. Already, speculation is beginning to focus on the next generation. Who will be the dynasty’s next candidate? Sanjay and Menaka’s son Feroze Varun, or Rajiv and Sonia’s Rahul? What do the two princelings think of each other? And so on. It has often seemed that the story of the Nehrus and Gandhis has provided more engrossing material than anything in the cinemas or on television: a real dynasty better than Dynasty, a Delhi to rival Dallas.
Let us remember, however, that the Indian public has been by no means the only mythologizing force at work. The family itself has set about self-mythification with a will. But here we must exempt Jawaharlal Nehru, who, as Tariq Ali reminds us, once told an Indian crowd that they, the people, and not mother earth or anything else, were India. What a contrast is to be found in the notorious election slogan adopted by his daughter: India is Indira and Indira is India. Unlike her father, Mrs Gandhi was clearly suffering badly from the grandiloquent, l’état c’est moi delusions of a Louis XIV. Her use of the cult of the mother—of Hindu mother-goddess symbols and allusions—and the idea of shakti, of the fact that the dynamic element of the Hindu pantheon is represented as female—was calculated and shrewd, but one feels that this, too, would have disturbed her father, who had never been in favour of Mahatma Gandhi’s use of Hindu mysticism. Jawaharlal saw the divisiveness implicit in the elevating of any one Indian ethic over the others; Indira, less squeamish, became, by the end, too much a Hindu, and too little a national leader. And, because it helped her mystique, she exploited the accident of her marriage to a quite different Gandhi, as well: the surname and its attendant confusions were not without uses. (On the night of her death, The Times’s first edition carried a photograph of the Mahatma and the young Indira over the caption, The grand-daughter; by the second edition, this howler had been amended to read The disciple, which wasn’t much m
Sanjay Gandhi, too, developed around himself a cult of personality; and now, Rajiv, as ever the least flamboyant, the most prosaic of the clan, has installed a new icon in his quarters: a computer. Already, the image of ‘computer kid’ Rajiv, leader of the technological revolution, is being polished up. Jawaharlal Nehru once said that India had just entered the age of the bicycle; Rajiv—or, rather, the myth of Rajiv—clearly has other ideas.
The third element in the process of myth-making has been the West. In the coverage of India by the news media of the West, the concentration on the Family has been so great that I doubt if many Europeans or Americans could name a single Indian politician who was called neither Nehru nor Gandhi. This kind of reportage has created the impression that there have been no other possible leaders; and, for all of Jawaharlal’s time in office and most of Indira’s, this has simply not been true. Even today, when the Indian political scene looks a little impoverished, there are signs of a new generation emerging; there are a number of political figures—Farooq Abdullah, Ramakrishna Hegde, even Chandra Shekhar—with whom Rajiv and his people will have to reckon in the near future. Yet we hear little about them in the Western press.
The leaders of the West, too, have played their part. This has been particularly noticeable in the period since 1979, when the Janata Party’s disintegration let Mrs Gandhi back into power. Her major aim in the following years was to achieve a personal rehabilitation, to obliterate the memory of the Emergency and its atrocities, to be cleansed of its taint, absolved of history. With the help of numerous prime ministers and presidents, that aim was all but achieved by the time of her death. She told the world that the horror stories about the Emergency were all fictions; and the world allowed her to get away with the lie. It was a triumph of image over substance. It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that the West—in particular, Western capital—saw that a rehabilitated Mrs Gandhi would be of great use, and set about inventing her.
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