The politics of derangement


Identity crisis

Too loud a protest is often a good ground to suspect that what is being denied is actually true. The vice- president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mr Jana Krishnamurthy, has taken pains to announce that the Chennai declaration adopted at its national executive in December was �an out and out BJP document� and it was not issued on behalf of the National Democratic Alliance. The fact that such an announcement needed to be made by the party�s vice-president is by itself significant. At the national executive, the BJP decided to jettison Hindutva. Mr Krishnamurthy also reiterated that the three planks of the Hindutva agenda � building a Ram mandir in Ayodhya, Article 370 and a common civil code � were no longer on its list of priorities. The common interpretation of this remarkable reneging of its previously advocated ideological positions is that the BJP is giving in to compulsions of leading a coalition government in New Delhi. The BJP leads an alliance in which no one of its allies is an upholder of Hindu majoritarianism which had been the stock in trade of the BJP and the entire sangh parivar. The BJP has now carefully distanced itself from such fundamentalist positions. It has done so, most commentators believe, because it does not want to create divisions within an already fragile alliance. It wants to project itself as a force of stability and not of disruption since it came to power on the promise of providing a stable government.

Mr Krishnamurthy�s statement comes as a denial of this kind of interpretation. His argument is that the BJP�s ideals remain constant but the party�s policies are responses to the �changing need of new situations and challenges�. This, in fact, admits that coalition politics and its current inevitability have dictated a reorganization of the BJP�s priorities. The �changing need of new situations� has forced the BJP to put issues like the Ram mandir on the back burner. The new situation is the BJP�s leadership of the NDA. The existence of the NDA and the compulsions of staying in power have made the BJP drop the three items which had in the past dominated its programme. The NDA, in other words, has prevailed over the BJP: power has prevailed over ideology. The confusion this has created within the BJP leadership is reflected in Mr Krishnamurthy�s statement that �the NDA�s manifesto is the BJP�s manifesto for the next five years�. If this be true than the announcement that the Chennai declaration of the national executive is a BJP document tout court makes very little sense. Abandoning the Hindutva agenda did not come easily to sections of the BJP leadership. It wants to preserve its identity and to merge it with the NDA. Mr Krishnamurthy�s protestations and confusion are rooted in this paradox.

There are two related aspects. One is the triumph of Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee in diluting the saffron content of the BJP and in creating a distance between the BJP and the more extremist wings of the parivar. Mr Vajpayee has done this because he is sagacious enough to realize that a multi-cultural and multi-religious society like India cannot be legitimately ruled through an agenda that engenders intolerance and hatred. He has worked to make the BJP acceptable and this is what holds the NDA together. Mr Vajpayee is the actual author of the Chennai declaration. This triumph is not without long term problems for his party. Hindutva was the BJP�s unique selling point. This is what made it distinct from other political parties and this is what made it popular before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. With Hindutva consigned to the margins and staying in power in the main text, the BJP may find that its identity is in jeopardy. What is worse, it might discover that the differences between itself and its principal rival are becoming increasingly blurred. There may be little to choose between the BJP�s hazy communalism and the Congress�s pseudo-secularism. Hegel would have said a new identity is formed from the coming together of two different identities.    

Sometime during the third quarter of the 18th century the world suddenly went mad. Some of the most intelligent, educated and privileged men (and women) of the age abruptly abandoned their historic allegiance to dynastic prerogative and simultaneously repudiated the traditional pieties of the organized Christian faiths. So liberated, both from secular ties and profane discipline, they exulted in the blasphemous gas of unbounded liberty and breathed out the fiery flames of popular nationalism.

From the American revolution to the last agony of political romanticism in the Parisian commune, generations of the young in body and spirit struggled and often died in pursuit of the modern crusade � the Jerusalem of the idealized nation � in whose name historic institutions of church and state were reduced to rubble and mass murder justified in the name of martyrdom and redemption. On occasion, to grand effect; witness the United States. More usually, to pointless consequence; who now remembers the Hungarian martyrs of 1848?

But with this lasting effect; for out of the ecstasies of holy madness came the unassuaged (unassuageable?) inspiration of missionary nationalism; a belief in the uncorrupted virtue of the nation � the people in their political form � against anything and everything which either the temptations of perfidy, or for that matter the claims of reason, might throw against it.

Such, at least is the argument of Adam Zamoyski�s fascinating, wide-ranging and challenging new book, Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871. If not entirely novel, it is certainly an argument pursued here with a wholly unprecedented vigour and determination. If not exactly a work of original scholarship, it is nonetheless based on very extensive reading and considerable reflective ingenuity. And if it plumbs no great conceptual depths, it undoubtedly boasts a chronological range and a geographical breadth which is both impressive and important. This is not to summon the specialist�s sneer for the generalist�s ambition: there is much arcane material about the American and French, not to mention the various Polish and all the South American revolutions, to be found here.

Nor is it to damn by faint praise. For the significance of the work lies precisely in its generality. Hopping effortlessly across both sides of the Atlantic, moving easily between eastern and western Europe, Zamoyski demonstrates just how widespread was �holy madness� in early 19th-century civilization. Perhaps only a Pole, one born into a culture which �took for granted not only the virtue of fighting for the national cause, but also the inherent desirability of staging hopeless uprisings�, could have seen so much, so easily. Perhaps only a Polish-American �migr�, now based in London, could have found it all so funny.

But behind the humour lies a serious point. �Holy madness� was romanticism rendered political. It can be traced to the Enlightenment and its criticism of the theological and philosophical foundations of the old regime; and above all, to enlightened contempt for revealed religion and prescriptive right.

It evolved out of romanticism�s critique of enlightened universality; especially out of that repudiation of a decontextualized human nature that found its most persuasive form in the cultural-linguistic particularity of post-revolutionary German historicism. And it became a truly corrosive solvent of all established institutions, as the specific ambitions of the latter were allied to the generalizing purposes of the former in order to create that peculiarly political form of nationalistic sentiment which Europe cast into the world during the years after 1793.

So much is quite well known. Zamoyski�s real achievement is to link the philosophical presuppositions of the age to the all too singular goals of some of its most characteristic personalities. And here, he offers us a real insight into the world of that peculiarly modern specimen: the idealistic opportunist, the political chancer, the charismatic renegade. Many today are remembered only as the anachronized heroes of national birth pangs; sanctified in success, dehumanized by posterity: think of Garibaldi in Italy, or Bolivar in South America.

But for Zamoyski�s purposes, the failures were not only more common but in many ways prove more interesting. Hence his thorough reexamination of the bizarre career of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Molier, Marquis de Lafayette, early French champion of American freedom (for which he fought and was wounded); aristocratic bastion of the French revolution (which naturally turned on him), he was offered the Belgian throne by its first champions of independence. Turning it down, he later accepted the post of �First Grenadier of the Polish National Guard� at the time of the short-lived anti-Russian revolt of 1831.

Yet he was only the most extreme example of a type that became almost common in the age of militant Jacobinism. Think of Paine, Byron and Napoleon. In evaluating such men, low motive has often (and rightly) played as central a role as high principle. How could it be otherwise with Napoleon? Yet Zamoyski is both fairer and shrewder in bringing to our attention the significance not just of low cunning, nor merely of high naivety, but of a kind of self-conscious derangement, which Lafayette identified in himself, as a �violence of passions� which came to animate his life, directing him towards the causes of liberty literally wherever they might be found and attaching to the ends of national freedom a conception of self-sacrifice which had been unknown to Europeans since the days of ancient republicanism.

For modern, revolutionary, nationalism revived � in the face of everything which the enlightened calculations of the commercial regime had taught � the notion of the blood sacrifice. It can be found in Diderot, more incongruously still in Thomas Jefferson. But it came to the fore in the minds of lesser luminaries like the wayward French aristocrat. This was the notion of violent national regeneration. more specifically, it was the notion that the only legitimate form of national regeneration which is implied in the act of national (re)creation must be accompanied � is only pure as it is accompanied � by the massive shedding of blood.

This was the point at which revolutionary doctrines stepped beyond the purely theoretical destructiveness of Enlightenment criticism of the old regime. More strikingly still, it was the moment at which the practical import of such self-styled, political vandalism also acquired an additional, all too natural dimension. For it allied the ideal of a purified polity to the vision of a people which had literally cleansed its own vital liquids.

It found support amongst otherwise seemingly civilized political gentlemen. Remember Jefferson again and the cause � the French revolution � for which he would happily have seen �half the earth desolated�. And it continued to give succour to revolutionary, nationalist, political movements throughout the 19th century. Englishmen at least should remember that it became � and remains � the very leitmotiv of the Irish republican struggle. It continues to this day. All over the world, men and women continue to die, in effect to commit suicide, on behalf of the nation; determined on a course of self-sacrifice. That at once encourages the others as it relieves the collective sense of shame.

Zamoyski�s achievement is to render exactly that kind of modern madness intelligible: to demonstrate its origins, describe its early course and even to delineate its continuing significance. For, as he rightly concludes, �holy madness� is in no sense confined to the contemporary west Asia or to the more corrupt outposts of South America.

It is alive and well in contemporary Europe. Repudiating the promise of peace which lay at the heart of the Enlightenment, rejecting even the balanced realpolitik which informed Christendom�s conceptions of the just war, it strides on � wilfully, destructively, pointlessly � in the old Soviet Union, through the Balkans, into Spain, Ireland and even some of the more rebarbative outposts of western Europe. Not even the European Union will make it go away.    


Foreign to sense

Sir� The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has got used to messing up Britain�s foreign policy (�Pak ethics test for health�, Jan 13), especially when it comes to following President Bill Clinton�s faulty one. For instance, after Nawaz Sharif was dethroned, Blair threatened to impose sanctions on Pakistan only after Uncle Sam had done so. Now, the Labour party has done a somersault. The British defence chief, Charles Guthrie, is set to hold talks with Pervez Musharraf on arms sales to Islamabad. Perhaps by coincidence, the American senator, Tom Daschle, is also in Islamabad to hold bilateral talks. Funny how a democracy like Britain gets wobbly when it comes to armed coups in other countries.

Yours faithfully,
Meera Sen, Calcutta

Free trippers

Sir � In �Ticketless travel� (Nov 11), railway authorities have simply tried to shirk responsibility by making excuses. Such as, given the hordes of people that get off at stations, it is impossible to check whether everyone has a ticket. Then, there is the danger of ticket checkers being manhandled. Again, vendors belong to unions and when apprehended they try to get off by flashing their identity cards. If a checker persists, he would have to face pressure from politicians. Vendors have even resorted to rail rokos to protest against paying fines. And most students travel without tickets, despite the concessions granted them.

According to my experience, ticket checkers are rare on most suburban trains. At stations, too, ticket collectors are almost always invisible except on rare occasions. If there is no one to check for tickets why should anyone buy them? Since ticketless travel is so widespread, those who buy tickets merely seem foolish.

Yours faithfully,
Sasadhar Chatterjee, Bankura

Sir � Railway authorities could easily increase collections and make travelling a pleasant experience if they showed a little ingenuity. For example, the provision of multi-ride coupons, already being used in the metro system, could save passengers the drudgery of having to stand in queue for hours. Since it is impossible for the few ticket checkers to cover the whole of crowded suburban trains, authorities could commission unemployed youth to do so. Their pay would be the fines they collect from ticketless commuters. These young people would then have an interest in checking on as many passengers as they can.

Monthly and quarterly tickets are now sold across the counter, and no receipt is given. These are printed on ordinary yellow paper and there is no way to check their authenticity. The sale of these tickets should be computerized and money receipts should be made mandatory so the railways do not lose revenue.

Yours faithfully,
S. Datta, Arambagh

Sir � Mamata Banerjee is concentrating too much of her time and energy on West Bengal after becoming the Union railways minister. Already people are talking about all the new projects she has initiated in the state. Not surprising then that a new minister of state for railways, Bangaru Laxman, was appointed to put a check on her. Calcutta�s Metro Railways, hospitals and schools run by the railways are under him. This has angered Banerjee, but she was to blame.

A more fruitful occupation for her would be to improve conditions on trains, ensure cleanliness, drinking water and more security personnel. Then there is the menace of ticketless travel which deprives the railways of crores of rupees in revenue.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur


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