Posts Tagged ‘Ramachandra Guha’

“Modern” and “Stupid”

January 26, 2008

It is great when a blog can go on autopilot and be taken over by contributions from readers.

In response to our request for help on understanding modernity, a reader provided the following quick input: 

There are multiple perspectives on ‘modernity,’ but the word lacks any analytic viability—it doesn’t mean much. Rather ‘modernity’ is a PROJECT, a political project, and the words ‘modern/traditional’ or ‘modernity’ have SOCIAL uses (i.e., they get used by people to mean certain things). Academics shouldn’t assume that it is an accurate descriptor of something coherent. Putting it crudely, the words ‘modern/traditional’ are like the word ‘stupid’ — people use it all the time (he is stupid, she is stupid) but that doesn’t mean anything (and certainly doesn’t mean that ‘he’ is ‘in fact’ stupid).  What we need to look at is: why people use it, what they think it means, and what are the effects of using it?

In response to the above comment, a second contributor suggested it contained a logical contradiction:

1. “Modern” has no content (“analytic viability”).
2. “Modern” is like the word “stupid.”
3. People use “stupid” all the time (“he is stupid,” “she is stupid”) but that doesn’t mean anything – and certainly doesn’t mean that “he” is “in fact” stupid.
4. “In fact stupid” implies “stupid” has some content.
5. By (2) “modern” has some content.

This contradicts (1).

And a third contributor added the following: 

Maybe postcolonial theorists have decided that there is nothing to the concept. In any case, just logically speaking, if they are willing to grant that there is a “project” (e.g., Habermas) then how is this project defined? If it is defined by “x” then why can’t one ask how far “x” has been realized in one society or another?

Perhaps I am wrong about this, but there appears to be some trace of the later Wittgenstein’s view of meaning at the heart of this view (summarized by the slogan “meaning is use”). There may not be some necessary and sufficient conditions to the concept of modernity (what is probably meant by “analytic viability”) but that hardly means it lacks content. Even “stupid” has some content but its meaning is of course shaped by the context in which it is used. Even an apparently more stable word like “bank” is like this. You are using “modernity” in a certain context; that does not mean the word cannot have different meanings in other contexts. The question is, relative to what is being said by Guha, and relative to the discussion about dynastic rule, can it be used in a substantive way? That is all that matters; one is not seeking an abstract definition that is context-free. 

While I am sure postcolonial theory has contributed worthwhile perspectives on the current situation, I have found that there is such over-concern about someone being classified in one way or another that the theory goes overboard in its attempt to argue against such classifications. 

It is not so great when the contributions make you feel completely stupid.

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Dynastic Succession: What is the difference between India and France?

January 25, 2008

In our last post (More on Dynasties and Modernity) we had made the point that “it was the mass of Peoples Party loyalists in Pakistan who were clamoring for the leadership to be passed on to a Bhutto after Benazir—hence the addition of Bhutto to Bilawal’s name.”

As if on cue, an op-ed appeared in The News (January 25, 2008) entitled PPP’s succession — not so flawed. The author, a barrister and human rights activist currently based in the UAE, had the following things to say: 

You will not meet a PPP supporter who will not tell you exactly this–that they want a Bhutto to lead the party. From the workers to the leaders, be they of any ethnic or religious background, all want a Bhutto as their leader.

Contrary to what the critics imply, the Bhutto family has not imposed its leadership upon the PPP, or in some clever way contrived to retain party leadership to hog power. Rather, it is a position that has been entrusted upon them by the people. Through years of struggle and sacrifice the Bhutto family has made a place in the hearts of the poor and downtrodden like no other party in Pakistan. The people believe in their sincerity to their cause and have faith in their leadership. They know that this family will do all it can to ease their problems.

The day before Benazir Bhutto was to arrive in Pakistan, Amar Sindhu, a writer who teaches philosophy to university students in Jamshoro, had gone to do some television interviews. She asked some nomadic women why they insisted on voting for Benazir. “She has been twice prime minister. You are still where you are, in your jhuggis [huts]. What has she ever given you?” They answered, “Allah will give us what we need. We just want to see Benazir happy. She is very dukhhi [sad]. Our votes will make her happy.” 

This fantasy-like, mythical relationship between the Bhuttos and the people baffle the intellectual mind. It defies its logic, spurns its theories and scoffs at its cynicism. It is not something to be understood…it is something that can only be felt. Anyone who has seen a Bhutto amongst the people would know what I’m talking about.

This is very much in tune with our own experiences. In the late 1980s, I once asked a rural voter why he continued to support the Peoples Party when it had completely changed its position on many issues. Because “Bhutto is our king,” he answered. Back in the city, I asked a young physician the same question. Because “Bhutto helped my father when he was in trouble,” was the answer.  

As we have been stressing in these series of posts, we are not taking a position for or against dynastic succession. That would be to lose sense of the context. What we are trying to highlight is the fact that in South Asia dynastic succession has the kind of legitimacy that it does not have, for instance, in France. That is not to say that dynastic succession never had legitimacy in France. But something has changed there—what was quite normal at one time comes across as totally bizarre to a French citizen today.

Whatever has changed in France hasn’t yet changed in South Asia. The ethos of South Asia is still monarchical. It is just that we live in the 21st century where we have to use electoral mechanisms to legitimize our dynastic rulers. And that creates a lot of confusion. 

This is where we find fascinating the clues in Ramachandra Guha’s book that tell us how a new practice finds root in alien soil. One such clue is his reference to ethnographic accounts of the 1967 elections: “These show that elections were no longer a top dressing on inhospitable soil; they had been fully internalized, made part of Indian life. An election was a festival with its own unique set of rituals, enacted every five years.” (Page 418)  

And “The Indian’s love of voting is well illustrated by a cluster of villages on the Andhra-Maharashtra border. Issued voting cards by the administrations of both states, the villagers seized the opportunity to vote twice.” (Page 736) 

Of course, things are changing; Of course, Indians are spread across a spectrum with different perspectives on dynastic succession; Of course, the electoral space has generated major gains for many; Of course, people have exploited the space rationally for good and bad ends. We are not arguing against democracy or the electoral process here. We are making the point that South Asia still has a large residual monarchical ethos. And we are intrigued by the size of the residual and by how it is changing.

And, in the realm of the mind, the bottom line is that there is a difference between France and India in the perception of dynastic succession. That we know. But what exactly is the difference, how has it come about, and what is happening to it over time? That escapes us still. All we can say is that the old modernization theory with its thesis of convergence leaves us unconvinced.

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More on Dynasties and Modernity

January 24, 2008

We have received more comments from our reader whom we had quoted in the previous post (How Modern is Modern?). 

On dynasties and the new generation:

A more nuanced argument is required on both sides, either to support or refute the position that the next generation is likely to be less tolerant of dynasties. It is possible that those who benefit from dynasties and also those who do not are not willing or able to protest such practices. What can an individual reasonably do if the son of Benazir Bhutto or Sonia Gandhi is inducted into politics? Sonia herself was a reluctant inductee. So, the absence of protest does not mean such practices are readily accepted by everyone. Indeed, there is some evidence that the younger generation is less willing to accept nepotism in business where it is more common than politics. Perhaps the writer has not taken the argument that dynastic rule is a systemic phenomenon far enough: the lack of protest does not necessarily imply uniform acceptance by the electorate but more likely a complicated structure of partial acceptance, partial indifference, and barriers to the formation of protest amongst the rest. In any case, more details on both sides are required to make the case either way. 

On how culturally modern is modern society in South Asia: 

This is admittedly a speculative arena and the following remarks should be taken as such. The writer has put their finger on the key question: what exactly constitutes modernity in this era, globally? Just as Descartes, the “father of modern philosophy,” and his pronouncement may be taken as one marker of the separation between traditional and modern worldviews, so Galileo, the “father of modern science,” may be taken as another. Modernity itself may be said to be constituted by the twin dimensions of inner belief and outer action, Descartes contributing primarily to the modernity of the former and Galileo primarily to the latter. Modern physics and modern science led to the rationalization of the sphere of action just as modern philosophy led to the rationalization of the sphere of belief. But, as has been pointed out above, the two need not go together. So it is possible to be religious in one’s private beliefs but act rationally in the public world. 

If this speculative characterization is reasonable, it may be arguable that the younger generation, especially in urban areas, is increasingly influenced by the successes of modern science without necessarily the successes of modern philosophy. 

This discussion is splitting into two different topics and we would like to bring them together again. The safest approach would be to step back from the labeling of pre-modern and modern because there is something not quite right about being so categorical and also because we lack the domain knowledge to say much more on that topic with conviction.

We would like to confine ourselves to the issue of dynastic succession and the parameters of its acceptance in South Asia at this time. An example might help to illustrate our line of thought. Suppose something happens (God forbid) to Nikolas Sarkozy and it is discovered he has left a will bequeathing the leadership of his party to Carla Bruni. There will be no place in the system to effect such a transition and there probably wouldn’t be a single person in France who would not find the situation entirely beyond comprehension. The only conclusion for a French citizen would be to doubt the sanity of Nikolas Sarkozy—love can do such things to people. 

Since we are talking about France we recall that Foucault laid a lot of stress on what happens at the extremities (the fingertips, he called them) of systems. And at the extremities in France, we feel sure, this would not make any sense.

South Asia is quite different. From what we understand, it was the mass of Peoples Party loyalists in Pakistan who were clamoring for the leadership to be passed on to a Bhutto after Benazir—hence the addition of Bhutto to Bilawal’s name. And Sonia Gandhi, being an Italian, must indeed have been a very reluctant inductee. But the bosses must have felt, whether they themselves believed it or not, that only she could hold the party together—which conclusion would have followed from their assessment of the most acceptable candidate to the electorate.

The reader is quite right in suggesting that this is really an empirical proposition. In Haiti, Papa Doc’s anointment of Baby Doc might have been accepted out of fear; in North Korea the Great Leader’s handing over to the Little Leader might have been due to years of brainwashing. But in South Asia, no such fear or coercion can be adduced as a reason. Rather it seems a rational response by powerbrokers to the demand of the electorate. So, the empirical question is what proportion of the population finds the practice of dynastic succession quite normal (unlike in France), how this proportion is distributed in the population, whether it is increasing or decreasing, and at what rate? One empirical clue can be provided by the trend in a party’s vote bank after such a dynastic succession has occurred. We doubt the Peoples Party would suffer any negative fallout, other things remaining the same. 

Personally, we are comfortable with individuals being religious in their private beliefs and rational in the public world since that is a matter of personal choice. I guess we should also be comfortable with individual preference for dynastic succession—after all that was the norm in monarchical societies and there was nothing really wrong with monarchical societies for a very long time. 

We only got started on this train of thought because Ramachandra Guha, while extolling the rooting of democratic governance in India, felt very concerned at the transition to dynastic succession after twenty years of independence. 

The empirical question that remains to be answered is whether, at its fingertips, the ethos of Indian society is democratic or monarchical? And how is it changing, if it is changing at all?

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How Modern is Modern?

January 23, 2008

In our previous post (The Degeneration of Politics) we picked up a thread on dynastic politics in Ramachandra Guha’s new book (India after Gandhi, 2007) and commented that in India (and, by extension, South Asia) “the modern and the medieval exist at the same time” and that “the future of Indian politics will depend largely on the proportion of people left behind in medieval times.” 

Amongst other things, this was triggered by Guha’s reference to a remark by Amartya Sen that as “inequalities intensify, half of India will come to look and live like California, the other half like sub-Saharan Africa.”

We have received interesting feedback from a reader that enables us to try and push the argument further:

Perhaps the one qualification I would make is that even the small segment one might call modern has never experienced anything like the Enlightenment directly, so that culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors. Sadly, even the younger generation appears to have taken to a sanitized religiosity. 

If we leave religion aside and focus solely on modernity with respect to dynastic rule, I think the younger generation in urban areas is much more modern in this sense than our generation and I think the younger politicians too – often the sons of older politicians – entering the fray are very much more modern in this respect. I don’t think the younger generation will be as tolerant of dynasties. Of course, this is a small minority but it is growing. So, I think one might conclude that it may not be so much of a reversal from modern to medieval but a temporary downturn until the new generation comes in. 

The second argument seems easier to dispute. We see little evidence that the new urban generation is less tolerant of dynasties. In fact, most of the people inheriting their positions in business and politics are members of the new generation. Nor do we see, much of a protest against the continuation of such practices from other members of the new generation who are not in the fortunate position to inherit much by way of assets or privileges.

The first point is a much more tricky one and also a great deal more interesting from the perspective of ideas. Clearly, we were amiss to conflate modernism with living in California and medievalism with living in sub-Saharan Africa. The economically “modern” (in the sense of a sharing an advanced standard of living) could coexist quite easily with the culturally “traditional” (in the sense of worldviews and belief systems). 

So, the question really is how culturally modern is modern society in South Asia and what constitutes this modernity? We are struggling with this question and need a cultural sociologist to weigh in with greater expertise than we have at our disposal. 

What we feel to be correct intuitively is the observation of our reader that “culturally we have remained pre-modern even in the most modern sectors.” And we also feel that the trend is in the “wrong” direction based on our agreement with the observation that “even the younger generation appears to have taken to a sanitized religiosity.”

We can perhaps illustrate our unease by picking up on another comment from Guha’s book (page 736) where, with reference to the 2004 elections, Guha quotes the political analyst Yogendra Yadav as saying: “India is perhaps the only large democracy in the world today where the turnout of the lower orders is well above that of the most privileged groups.” 

Lower orders? Without being able to put our finger on it, this formulation seems to represent a worldview that is profoundly un-modern and one that Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book (The Burden of Democracy, 2003) holds responsible for the limitations of Indian democracy. 

Going by our limited knowledge there has not yet occurred the kind of break point in Indian society that can be compared to that Cartesian pronouncement of “I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am”—a pronouncement that can be used as a marker of the separation between the traditional and the modern worldviews. This separation would characterize the fading away of the belief in a divinely ordained world (made up of lower and higher orders, to take one example) to a modern perspective that sees all arrangements as social outcomes that are amenable to change and improvement based on rational thought and action. 

We are quite well aware that we are in deep waters here and would welcome a more informed discussion.

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The Degeneration of Politics

January 21, 2008

Ramachandra Guha’s book (India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, 2007) is a work of pride—pride in the fact that despite all the doomsday predictions, India is still together and still a democracy. 

The pride is well deserved. But even in a book like this, Guha is forced to observe the steep decline in the nature of Indian politics (page 675):

Once, most parties had a coherent ideology and organizational base. Now, they have degenerated into family firms.

The process was begun by and within that grand old party, the Indian National Congress. For most of its history, the Congress was a party run by and for democrats, with regular elections to district and state bodies. After splitting the Congress in 1969, Indira Gandhi put an end to elections within the party organization. Henceforth, Congress chief ministers and state unit presidents were to be nominated by the leader in New Delhi. Then, during the emergency, Mrs. Gandhi dealt a second and more grievous blow to the Congress tradition, when she anointed her son Sanjay as her successor.

After Sanjay’s death, his elder brother Rajiv was groomed to take over the party and, in time, the government. When, in 1998, the Congress bosses asked Sonia Gandhi to head the party, they acknowledged that the party had completely surrendered to the claims of dynasty. Sonia, in turn, asked her son Rahul to enter politics in 2004, allotting him the safe family borough of Rae Bareilly. If the party retains power in 2009, Rahul Gandhi will have precedence over every other congressman if he wishes to become prime minister.

Apart from its corrosive effects on the ethos of India’s pre-eminent political party, Indira Gandhi’s dynastic principle has served as a model for others to follow. With the exception of the cadre-based parties of left and right, the CPM and the BJP, all political parties in India have converted into family firms. The DMK was once the proud party of Dravidian nationalism and social reform; its members are now resigned to the fact that M. Karunanidhi’s son, or else his nephew, will succeed him. For all his professed commitment to Maharashtrian pride and Hindu nationalism, when picking the next Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray could look no further than his son Udhav. The Samajwadi party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal claim to stand for “social justice,” but Mulayam Singh Yadav has made it clear that only his son Akhilesh will succeed him. When Lalu Prasad Yadav was forced to resign as chief minister of Bihar (after a corruption scandal), his wife Rabri Devi was chosen to replace him, although her previous experience was limited to home and kitchen. The practice has been extended down the system, so that if a sitting member of Parliament dies, his son or daughter is likely to be nominated in his place. 

We agree with Guha’s facts but not his analysis, which personalizes a social phenomenon. We don’t think the responsibility can be placed so exclusively on Indira Gandhi by arguing that “Indira Gandhi’s dynastic principle has served as a model for others to follow” and that “the practice has been extended down the system.” The existence of the practice at the very roots of the political system argues against attributing it to the accidental example of one person. 

We can offer a different explanation for the phenomenon. India was a monarchical society till 1857 (and a large part, the princely states, remained so till 1947) in which succession within the family was the norm. The British period with its different traditions of governance was a brief episode in the long history of India. Its after effects lasted for a while after the departure of the British before the underlying nature of the socioeconomic system began to reassert itself.

What should surprise Guha is not that Rabri Devi was chosen to replace Lalu Prasad although her previous experience was restricted to home and kitchen but that she was perfectly acceptable as a replacement to the electorate. This points to systemic features that go beyond the example of Indira Gandhi.

Guha finds consolation in “statements by scholars writing about other societies in other times:” (Page 676) 

Speaking of his own continent, Europe, in centuries past, R.W. Southern remarks that “nepotism, political bribery, and the appropriation of institutional wealth to endow one’s family, were not crimes in medieval rulers; they were part of the art of government, no less necessary in popes than in other men.”

This is no consolation at all. In fact it should be a cause of immense concern. The trend in Europe was from medievalism to modernism. The trend in India that Guha has highlighted is in the reverse direction—from modernism to medievalism.

Of course, the trend, so marked in politics, is not equally manifest across the entire spectrum of Indian society—the modern and the medieval exist at the same time.  In examining the economic dimension, Guha is right to quote Amartya Sen that “as these inequalities intensify, half of India will come to look and live like California, the other half like sub-Saharan Africa.”  (Page 700)

It is not really half and half, and the future of Indian politics will depend largely on the proportion of people left behind in medieval times. 

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