Two decades ago, when socialism still ruled the roost and the sun shone brightly on dynastic democracy, the beautiful people of New Delhi used to usher the New Year at home rather than celebrate it boisterously in Goa. Those were more sedate and settled times when the distinction between the elite and the parvenu was more marked and less negotiable. For the genteel and the well-heeled, there was only one place to be seen those foggy December 31 nights — the open house kept by Romesh Thapar in Diplomatic Enclave.
So it was on the last day of 1984 that, courtesy my friend, TV presenter Karan Thapar, I found myself rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of the Indian intelligentsia. It was an experience that remains vividly etched in memory. The day before, the votes of the general election had been counted and the greenhorn Rajiv Gandhi had coasted to the most emphatic electoral victory in India’s history.
It was an exciting time to be in the Capital. An India traumatized by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and its bloody aftermath had voted decisively for the leader and the party who, it then seemed, could preserve and protect national unity. Rajiv was still an unknown commodity, but he was thought to be infinitely preferable to the tired, rag-tag opposition leaders. At a time of turbulence, he epitomized certitude and even a fresh start.
That was the national mood and the national consensus. Curiously, I didn’t find any reflection of that in the gathering at the Thapar party. The mood, on the contrary, was very bitter. Yes, there were innumerable disparaging comments on the ineffectiveness of the Chandra Shekhars, Charan Singhs, Namboodiripads and Bahugunas whose parties had been roundly defeated, but they were tinged with unmistakable contempt for people who had voted on the strength of their emotions. Memories of the anti-Sikh riots that had scarred Delhi two months ago were still fresh, and I distinctly recall one despondent worthy slurring inanities about fascism.
That night was neither the time nor the place to talk about the other side of the story. I was in an agreeable intellectual ghetto whose inhabitants were beleaguered. It is a different matter that many of those present that evening were keeping open private lines of communication with the Doon School lot that constituted the new power centre. In the company of fellow intellectuals it was de rigueur to swim against the national tide.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. For the past two months India has witnessed a buzz centred on national achievements and national pride. What began as a routine flaunting of its performance by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was transformed by a clever copywriter into one of the most effective advertising campaigns in recent times. “India Shining” is not merely a catchy phrase; it has become the theme of this year’s general election campaign. Together with deputy prime minister L.K. Advani’s invocation of “feel good”, these two words have come to symbolize the headiness of post-socialist India and its soaring ambitions. A process that began with the Pokhran-II blasts of May 1998 has been taken to the political battlefield.
It is always possible to have a nuanced view of India Shining and to separate the hype from a hard-nosed assessment of India’s standing in today’ s world. After all, it would call for a generous dose of magic realism to believe that Bihar is also shining. It is also not necessary to go along with the overstated history-began-in-1998 view and be more even-handed in distributing credit for India’s achievements to governments past and present. Finally, it is also not obligatory to equate India Shining with an unequivocal vote for Vajpayee in April. I certainly know one Bengali notable who is thrilled with today’s India, but is at the same time unwavering in his belief that Europeans are more dignified than Indians and, therefore, would make better prime ministers.
I wish our intellectuals could be as delightfully maverick. Unfortunately, the trajectory of intellectual dissent has followed a drearily predictable path. I have lost count of the number of articles and essays in publications (including this one) where the indictment of India Shining goes something along these lines: I was cruising down the Golden Quadrilateral when I encountered Bittoo staring blankly into the eyes of his wife thinking about where the next meal is going to come from because he has been run out of business by the spanking new MNC outlet and at the same time wondering whether his childhood friend Abdul is safe in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. These lachrymose indictments of Vajpayee’s India invariably conclude with the poser: Is their India shining'
To quote the historian A.J.P. Taylor’s immortal words on the sayings of Metternich: “Men could have done better while shaving.”
Judging from not that long ago, when intellectuals in decrepit coffee houses imagined Fanshen and compared the miserable plight of their countrymen with the land where man-met-girl-met-tractor, we have come a long way. Like India, our intellectuals today are more global and more connected. They strategize with fellow-dissidents in Pakistan by email and network with the fraternity of NGOs at anti-globalization festivals in Mumbai. They dominate the op-ed pages with their concern for the minorities, their hatred for President Bush. Their protests are covered by NDTV and their exclusion from the electoral rolls is big news in The Hindu. Their novels “almost” make it to the Booker shortlist each year and their rants against middle-class fascism in India feature in that ultimate repository of post-Marxist enlightenment, The New York Review of Books.
From the time Romesh Thapar’s guest-list fulminated in the Economic and Political Weekly, spent countless hours debating agricultural prices with stalwarts in the planning commission and was united in their hatred of Jagadish Bhagwati and Jack Gallagher, the Indian intellectual has definitely moved on. They may have lost the sarkari patronage showered on them by Indira Gandhi, but they have more than made up by becoming citizens of Arundhati Roy’s “mobile republic”.
As I see it, this elevated citizen- ship does not come without strings attached. To be truly global, the intellectual must become anti-national. He must disavow motherhood and apple pie in New York, defy the Tebbit test in London and proclaim “anyone but England” and confront the effrontery of India to aspire for life beyond the Third World. He must perennially confront what the philosopher Roger Scruton calls “ordinary decencies.”
In short, he must mock the national mood. He must talk it down.
Intellectual fashion demands the complete repudiation of India Shining. When India is aiming for the skies, the intellectual is prying into the gutter and triumphantly dissecting the sewage. Earlier, dissent was coupled with a fierce, if misplaced, sense of patriotism. In the high noon of cosmopolitanism, the intellectual no longer has a stake in India.
It is fashion repeating itself. Sometime in the 1880s, perhaps as an act of bravado, the one and only George Nathaniel Curzon, then a student at Balliol, joined an Oxford dining club founded by the rakish anti-imperialist, Wilfred Blunt. As India glows in its recovery of self, a letter he wrote to Blunt could, arguably, be a fitting epitaph to the lost intellectual.
“My dear Wilfred, your poetry is delightful and your morals, though deplorable, enchanting. But why are you a traitor to your country'”