| Unwise, at the very least
The course of Indian politics has always been unpredictable, but it is hard to think of a year that rang in changes more unexpected than 2004. The year began with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance in control, seemingly set to be re-elected with a comfortable majority. It ended with the National Democratic Alliance out of power, and the BJP itself in disarray, riven by bitter fights among its leaders.
Much of the high political drama of the year was captured on television. For some, the images will be of women turning their backs on office: Sonia Gandhi asking Manmohan Singh to take over as prime minister, right in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan; Uma Bharti angrily walking out of a BJP meeting after wagging her finger at the party president. For me, however, the defining images of 2004 remain those of two grand old patriots, men of unimpeachable integrity and character, now compelled by their beliefs to take a stand against the broad interests of the Indian people.
The first of these patriots is A.B. Bardhan of the Communist Party of India. Years ago, I met Bardhan. Others had told me of the simplicity and austerity of his personal life. But in our meeting I was also struck by the depth of his concern for the deprived of this land. It was at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library that I heard him deliver a moving talk on the rights of tribals to their lands and forests. This was unexpected ' for as a good communist (and erstwhile trade union leader), one might have expected him to carry a brief for the industrial proletariat who work in factories often built on those very lands and forests. But then, Bardhan did something more surprising still; he went on to speak of the beauty of tribal culture and the threats posed to it by patronizing missionaries, both Christian and Hindu.
In cultural matters, this old communist seemed then to think on his own. But in economic matters, he has apparently never departed from the party catechism. Thus after the election results were announced, he was asked to appear on several television programmes to represent the communist point of view. In one such programme, I ' with hundreds of others ' heard (and saw) him make the memorable remarks: 'Disinvestment bhaad mein jaye. World Bank/IMF bhaad mein jaye.' (To hell with disinvestment ' and with the Word Bank and the IMF as well.) This was followed by a mocking denunciation of what he termed 'LPG': Liberalization, Privatization, Globalization. Here, on prime-time television, an important ally of the new government was showing his contempt for the reforms process begun in 1991, and carried forward by governments of different persuasions since.
Bardhan's remarks were given wide currency. The left doggedly defended them, but others across the spectrum thought they were, at the very least, unwise. Let me now turn to that other old patriot who, for a brief moment after the election results were announced, also had his fifteen minutes in the sun. I shall speak of him and his personal history at greater length, for his intervention is now forgotten ' besides, I know him rather better than I know A.B. Bardhan.
This other patriot is a Gandhian named Dharampal. He is about the same age as Bardhan ' close to eighty ' and cut his teeth in the Quit India movement when, along with his fellow college students, he went to jail. After he was released, he joined Gandhi's English disciple, Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade), and worked with her in the villages of the lower Himalaya. Then, after Mira Behn went back to Europe, he worked for several years with Jayaprakash Narayan, deepening his interest in rural development and also in panchayati raj. (He played a key role in the publication of JP's seminal pamphlet of 1959, 'A Plea for the Reconstitution of the Indian Polity').
Sometime in the early Sixties, Dharampal met an English lady travelling in India, fell in love, and married her. He then went into two decades of exile, which he spent burrowing among the records of the India Office Library in London. From these years of research, he drew two conclusions: first, that India had a vigorous technological, legal and political tradition before we were ruled by the British; second, that the British had so thoroughly colonized us that we had forgotten or been taught to deprecate these once robust traditions of ours.
In the late Seventies, Dharampal came back to India. He has been here since, a peripatetic traveller in search of the soul of India, based sometimes in Gandhi's own ashram in Sevagram, at other times among a group of his acolytes in Madras. But there are also acolytes elsewhere, one of whom is the senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak, Govindacharya. The influence is mutual; for over the years, Dharampal himself has come to be identified quite closely with the saffron point of view. For example, he defended the demolition of the Babri Masjid as a necessary first step in the recovery of our self-respect; when challenged about this, he merely answered that we should next take down the India Gate in Delhi, likewise an imperial excrescence that a free nation should not allow.
Dharampal's long journey from Mahatma Gandhi to Lal Krishna Advani is a subject worthy of a historian more psychologically acute than myself. He started by despairing of the post-Gandhian Congress, which he saw as Indian in form but Western in essence. However, his search for an agency to restore his country's cultural pride has landed him into the lap of the sangh parivar. This is a union welcomed by both sides. From his vast stock of learning, Dharampal provides the parivar illustrations of how rich ' in all senses ' this country was before the sons of Macaulay and Marx took it over. At the same time, the importance given him by BJP leaders must tickle the old man's vanity ' for, like intellectuals everywhere, nothing shall please him more than appearing to have an influence on the exercise of power.
That is all the advantage Dharampal seeks ' influence. In his personal life, he remains wholly Gandhian. He shuns publicity, and would not voluntarily enter a television studio. But there was a time, during the post-election drama of May 2004, that the television cameras went in search of him. This was shortly after the victory of the Congress coalition was announced, and most of us expected Sonia Gandhi to become prime minister. Now the pracharak, Govindacharya, announced a Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan, a national movement to 'restore self-respect' and not allow a 'foreigner' to become PM. Dharampal soon emerged as the eminence grise of this campaign, appearing on the same platforms as Govindacharya, whispering words of counsel into his ears.
When Sonia Gandhi turned down the prime minister's job, this grandly named andolan died a quick death. As it deserved to. For the idea itself was deeply repugnant, xenophobic as well as undemocratic. That an old follower of Gandhi such as Dharampal could conceive of it was depressive beyond description. For if there were questions about Sonia Gandhi's fitness for high office, these related to her administrative abilities, not her place of birth. How could this associate of Mira Behn claim that someone with a white skin could not become an Indian'
These then are the images of 2004 that stay with me: of the cultural chauvinism of the right, here represented by Dharampal; and of the economic xenophobia of the left, here articulated by A.B. Bardhan. It pained me to see these two men of integrity and honour, these patriots who have spent the bulk of their lives in and for India, express sentiments so out of sync with the times we live in and so out of keeping with the open-minded spirit of Indian nationalism.