That old, safe feeling
In his charming memoir, Lucknow Boy, Vinod Mehta writes of the leisurely pace of life in his home town. Like most students of his class and generation, he paid little attention to books and exams, spending his time rather in the streets and cafés of Lucknow. A Punjabi Hindu, Mehta numbered two Muslims among his closest friends. The early chapters of his book feature Parsis, Christians, Sikhs, and South Indians too. Reflecting on this experience, Mehta writes that “Lucknow bestowed on me one priceless gift. It taught me to look on the individual rather than his religion or caste or the tongue he spoke”.
Mehta believes that because his “secularism was deeply personal”, because it was learned through life, not academic instruction, “because it was instinctive and not the by-product of logic”, it “has better weathered the periodic communal storms which have battered our republic”. His experience resonates with mine. I grew up in another large town in Uttar Pradesh, where the population was likewise mixed. My closest friends were Sikhs. My sister’s Bharatnatyam teacher was a Tamil Christian. The town’s best known dentist was a Parsi.
The life of the middle classes in the UP of the 1950s and 1960s was, in a word, Nehruvian. Jawaharlal Nehru himself was a native of UP. Within the state and out of it, he energetically promoted religious harmony. It is a striking fact that despite the creation of a Muslim homeland and the violence that accompanied it, the decade after Partition was a decade of communal peace. Muslims and Christians and Sikhs felt safe in newly independent India because Jawaharlal Nehru made them feel so.
Nehru’s commitment to secularism is well known. Less talked of nowadays is his struggle to overcome the sectarian identities of caste and region. He asked his fellow citizens to forget the divisions of the past by building a future in which all could share. Thus his emphasis on, and even enchantment with, economic planning. It is commonly argued that Nehru’s preference for an interventionist State was a product of his dislike for the market. In fact, it was equally a product of his hope that in coming together to build steel plants and large dams the citizens of India would overcome their parochial identities. Writing to chief ministers in December 1952, Nehru said that behind the First Five Year Plan “lay the conception of India’s unity and of a mighty co-operative effort of all the people of India”. If Indians focused strongly on economic planning and development, then, he thought, “the less we are likely to go astray in the crooked paths of provincialism, communalism, casteism and all other disruptive and disintegrating tendencies”.
Nehru’s worldview was both cosmopolitan and egalitarian. In practice, however, Hindu upper castes maintained their dominance. In the UP in which Vinod Mehta and I were raised, the most powerful politicians tended to be Brahmins, such as Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna and Kamalapati Tripathi, or Banias, such as C.B. Gupta. The hegemony of the suvarna was consolidated by the control they exercised on the upper levers of the administration. Senior bureaucrats and judges in UP often bore Brahmin names like Mishra and Shukla or Kayastha titles such as Saxena and Srivastava.
The revolt against upper-caste dominance in UP occurred in two phases. In the 1960s, the Jat leader, Charan Singh, left the Congress, on the grounds that the party was hostile to the interests of the farmers. At the same time, the Socialists led by Rammanohar Lohia had consolidated the backward castes in opposition to the Congress. These two groups joined hands, and in 1967 a non-Congress government was formed with Charan Singh as chief minister. Twelve years later, Charan Singh briefly served as the country’s first prime minister from a farming caste.
The Congress of the 1950s and 1960s was in fact what the Bharatiya Janata Party was later said to be — at the top, a ‘Brahmin-Bania’ party. But only at the top. The Dalits voted largely for the Congress, a legacy of the Gandhian years, when the Mahatma had made the ending of untouchability a precondition for swaraj. And the Muslims of UP also voted massively for the Congress, in acknowledgment of what Nehru, in particular, had done to make them feel secure in a post-Partition India.
In the 1980s, a brilliant political entrepreneur named Kanshi Ram began consolidating the Dalits in a voting bloc of their own. Three decades of affirmative action had created an articulate Dalit middle class. Kanshi Ram formed a trade union of Dalit government employees, which was soon transformed into a political party to advance their interests.
The Dalits now increasingly abandoned the Congress for the Bahujan Samaj Party. Meanwhile, the Muslims became disenchanted with the Congress in the wake of the Ayodhya movement. Congress governments had failed to protect their lives and properties during the communal riots that both preceded and followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Muslims now put their trust in Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party, that had shown greater resolve in combating the sangh parivar.
The cumulative effects of these changes has been to radically transform the public discourse of Vinod Mehta’s home state. In UP, identity became all. An individual was now judged chiefly by his caste or religion. This explains why, in his tours through UP, Nehru’s great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, addressed communities as communities, rather than as aggregations of individuals. First he slept in a Dalit home to send the signal that he cared more for Dalits than their presumed protector, Mayavati. Then he took Sam Pitroda to a meeting of backward castes to suggest that since Pitroda was born in a family of carpenters, and had yet been Rajiv Gandhi’s friend, the Congress cared more for other backward classes than the Samajwadi Party. Then he stayed conspicuously silent when the Deoband mullahs issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, lest he, and the Congress, be seen as ‘anti-Muslim’.
The UP election campaign of Rahul Gandhi thus consisted of appeals to a series of sectarian fears. He perhaps thought that these appeals would create a vote bank of some Dalits plus some Muslims plus some backwards, with some Brahmins and some Banias voting Congress out of sentimental attachment to the Nehru-Gandhi family. He hoped thereby to bring round 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the electorate, which in three- and four-cornered contests would allow the Congress candidate to win.
Instead of adding up these sums, Rahul Gandhi should have looked to the example of Bihar. There, Nitish Kumar realized that the politics of izzat, or self-respect, had played itself out. Dalits, backward castes, and Muslims all now wanted social and economic development. Thus Kumar’s emphasis on schools, public health, and rural roads. But to improve the lives of people one needs also to live (continually and not episodically) alongside the people. Notably, Nitish Kumar left national politics to devote himself exclusively to his home state.
Through much of the election campaign in UP, Rahul Gandhi did not altogether eschew the crooked paths of casteism and communalism. In the last phase, perhaps realizing that this was a mistake, he has spoken of wishing to rid the state of criminality and corruption. At the same time, both Rahul Gandhi and his sister, Priyanka, have insisted that he does not want to become prime minister. These protestations would have carried more weight if he was to have fought an assembly seat, and made it clear that he was the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate, thereby exchanging part-time parachuting for full-time commitment. Surely the two hundred million citizens of UP deserved nothing less.