The Indian Ideology
Book Review By Rajesh Sharma
07 January, 2013
The Indian Ideology
By Perry Anderson
Three Essays Collective (Gurgaon), 2012
The celebrated New Left historian and political essayist Perry Anderson's latest book The Indian Ideology (2012) appears at a time when several mainstream publishers with their assorted wares are proclaiming India 's arrival on the stage of world history. Many of these are truncated histories of the so-called arrival which, interestingly, do not go back beyond the 1990s. The self-defined limits are convenient as they sustain faith in the Indian ‘miracle'. Anderson , however, digs farther back, beginning with the country's anti-colonial struggle under Gandhi's leadership. His objective is to force into light the historical unconscious of the Indian polity. In the process, he offers quite a few rational, historical explanations of several ‘miracles', including those of India 's unity as a country and its stability as a democracy. Anderson 's narrative is gripping, suitably spiced here and there, and supported by adequate notes and references that any serious work of history needs. He hammers away delicately but firmly at the gods of modern Indian historiography to undermine the “pieties” (5) that have kept truth a prisoner of darkness for too long now.
Invoking Marx and Engels's German Ideology , Anderson 's book sets out to test the ‘idea of India ' against the reality. That ‘idea', comprising primarily the triune of democracy, secularity and unity, constitutes, according to him, the ideology of the Indian republic. Significantly, the historian in Anderson departs from his acknowledged ‘German' intellectual predecessors in more clearly articulating ideology as grounded in history – in “the conditions and events that generated them” (2). Yet that does not mean he would deny the crucial agency of political leadership. On the contrary, he sometimes appears, to me at least, to be conceding too much power – among ideology, event and agency – to personal agency as the producer and director of history.
The book is based on three essays published in the summer of 2012 in the London Review of Books and is part of Anderson 's forthcoming work on the inter-state system of US, China , Russia , India and Brazil . The case of India , he says, required greater treatment of historical background; hence this book.
Anderson comes out as a fiercely polemical historian who nevertheless does not go overboard in bolstering his thesis. His central argument is that the Indian state continues to bask in the memorial glow of the anti-colonial struggle, and this clouds its vision of the reality which is at serious odds with its ideology. In his opinion, neither democracy, nor secularity, nor indeed unity can be said to have been accomplished as projects. While there is a fair degree of tolerance of criticism of the country's track record as a democracy, the tolerance decreases when it comes to secularity, and disappears altogether when it comes to unity.
As a continuation of the nationalist movement, the Indian democracy excludes, practically, vast sections of the people. Indeed, both the Partition and the Constitution were imposed from above, Anderson remarks. Historically, he says, the Congress has been “controlled by a coalition of rich farmers, traders and urban professionals” (110). If the resulting exclusion of such large numbers of people has not translated into electoral retribution, the reasons lie in the linguistic diversity of India and in the entrenched divisive system of caste. The role of caste in the country's political system has of course changed over the years since independence, yet “[w]hat would not change [is] its structural significance as the ultimate secret of Indian democracy” (112). Catching that significance in a flash of insight, Anderson recalls Ambedkar's “inaugural error” which inhered in his perception of “a contradiction between society and polity” – according to which the “imperfections” in the polity are the “effects of distortion” in the society. In a formulation that will probably go down as one of his most incisive, he goes on to say:
But the relationship between the two has always been more paradoxical than this. A rigid social hierarchy was the basis of original democratic stability, and its mutation into a compartmentalized identity politics has simultaneously deepened parliamentary democracy and debauched it. (171)
He likewise questions the Indian state for the self-congratulatory noises it makes over secularism: “Indian secularism is Hindu confessionalism by another name” (142). He acknowledges, though, that the state is more secular than the society (145). Going back, he squarely holds Gandhi's infusion of a Hindu imaginary into the nationalist discourse as the founding moment of the Indian state's persistent ambivalence over secularism. In fact, the roots of the Partition which took place on religious lines can be traced to the Non-Cooperation Movement which transformed the Congress from an elite organization into a mass organization. But would the course of things have been any different if Gandhi had not emerged on the scene? Probably not, he says. Religion had already entered the nationalist discourse, as in Maharashtra and elsewhere. However, there was a chance that the situation would change once leadership passed on to Nehru who had strong socialist and rationalist leanings. But Nehru, Anderson rues, not only chose to succumb to Gandhi's whimsical reliance on popular religious discourse but himself flirted with Hinduism in pursuit of his ambitious vision of a centralized political authority after independence. Yet this might have been unavoidable, Anderson seems to suggest, given the reality of India 's political culture. Hence, his semi-exonerating verdict on the Congress: “Structurally, the secularism of Congress had been a matter not of hypocrisy, but of bad faith, which is not the same…” (139).
Turning to the fond myth that India 's preservation of its unity is a rare feat, he emphatically points out that most of the former European colonies have since retained their borders. While ‘threat to the unity and integrity of India' remains a favourite slogan of political parties during elections and while no one wants – including the leading intellectuals – to probe the reality of India's ‘unity', Anderson remarks that the extremely heavy presence of the security forces in Kashmir and the north east indicates a precarious unity, achieved and maintained with great difficulty.
His prescription is that if India is to forge ahead, it must come to terms with the ghosts of its past. It must candidly re-examine its founding ideology and test it against the touchstone of reality. For instance, India can resolve its disputes with China and Pakistan only if it embraces political realism, something that the leadership learnt from Nehru to shun.
While Anderson is quite hard on Gandhi and Nehru for part of their political legacy, he generously admires them for other reasons. The former's organizational abilities and iron will and the latter's commitment to democracy particularly earn his praise, although Nehru's gift of his dynasty has been as bad a curse as the skewed voting system of the first-past-the-post bequeathed by the Raj. Anderson has particularly high regard for Subhas Chandra Bose's secularism and B. R. Ambedkar's intellectual acumen.
The well-paced historical narrative would have been richer and weightier if Anderson had treated of the Indian Left's fate and role as well, which he has chosen to keep out except for some passing observations. One of these is: “. . . the marginalization of the Left has been a structural effect of the dominance of the hegemonic religion in the national identity” (148). But that does not explain the Left's relative decline in India over the years, nor does it tell us why the Left – of all the political stakeholders – should possess effectively no agency to shape history. This sounds awkward in a work that seems to grant, as I said above, an excess of agency to even some individuals, such as Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten.
There are places, particularly in the third chapter/essay, where Anderson relies on one or two sources, giving the impression of having selected the sources to suit the narrative. Even if these are essays, these are nevertheless essays on history, not some “loose sallies of the mind,” as Samuel Johnson conceived the essay to be. Although Anderson does not often attenuate the historian's rigour for the powers of polemical rhetoric, yet he sometimes does resign to the temptation. Had he extended the range of his sources and included other points of view, it would have certainly enriched his book.
Rajesh Sharma, Professor, Department of English, Punjabi University , Patiala
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