An elderly Westernized woman who worked closely with Lady Mountbatten in Delhi told me once how horrified both women were during a boat ride with Jawaharlal Nehru when he leant over the side and, scooping up a handful of water, splashed it on his face and head. They saw it as clear evidence of the creator of modern India subordinating hygiene to primitive faith.
Others, too, have recounted such incidents. Nirad C. Chaudhuri hinted that Nehru was not unaware of the havans performed for his welfare. When the British journalist, James Cameron, described Nehru peeling and feeding him apples at breakfast, it sounded suspiciously like the increasingly common ritual of stuffing a laddoo into someone's mouth in token of goodwill. So, Bharatiya Janata Party politicians who imagine they achieved a tremendous coup by whipping out a letter in which Nehru wanted Rajiv Gandhi's horoscope cast should think again. Andre Malraux's description of Nehru as an "un-English English gentleman" was a reminder that Macaulay was less successful than he imagined in reinventing the educated Indian. Like millions of others who are "exiled at home" (in the words of Ashis Nandy - a definition that must surely also apply to the author?), Nehru reflected the still continuing tussle between instinct and reason. Without that resistance, India might have been engulfed in the obscurantism that Churchill predicted would be inevitable after Independence and of which there are now many dangerous signs.
It might be wrong to call Narendra Modi's government the active agent of this drift; on the contrary, it is credited with persuading a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organization to abandon plans for a December 25 conversion ceremony in Aligarh. But would the group have dared to hold the recent Operation Dharam Parivartan to convert 57 Agra families if the BJP hadn't been in power? Or the Hindu Mahasabha demanded Nathuram Godse's statues in all cities? Many other such events can be traced to the expectation of official patronage from a government that has not dispelled the perception that it is committed to Hindutva. Decisive action to upgrade the infrastructure and rationalize land and labour laws would help to project a more modern image. All we have now are PR gimmicks. Without being the willing agent of retrograde change, the BJP can be the unwitting catalyst of changes that reflect a shift whose manifestation is religious but which is inherent in universal adult suffrage in a country where even those who pass for literate are so often virtually illiterate.
Modi admitted this drawback when he pleaded for allowance to be made for Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti's "background". The same condition - "background" - might be pleaded in exoneration of Mamata Banerjee's language (like her "bamboo" threat) and tantrums. Unlike the Brahmin chief minister, the sadhvi has the excuse of belonging to the Nishad fishing caste that also produced Phoolan Devi. Modi may also have had in mind the poverty in which she was brought up and her low education level despite an Intermediate claim. Millions of other Indians are similarly crippled by a cruelly unjust traditional hierarchy, long years of colonial exploitation, and the State's failure to redeem the promise of Independence.It is a matter of pride that Mamata Banerjee and Niranjan Jyoti should have overcome disadvantages to this extent; it inspires even greater pride that someone who once hawked cups of tea should become prime minister. But what of other Brahmins, Nishads and chawallahs who do not make the grade? Or who may rise in a tangible sense without acquiring those mental attainments that come with true education and form the basis of a civilized society? Must our democracy remain hostage to their inadequacies?
In a sense, democracy is the enemy of civilization. It is by definition vulgar. Literally so. The word derives from the Greek demokratia, combining demos (people) with kratia (power). The word "vulgar" comes from the Latin vulgaris derived from vulgus (common people). The verbal warfare between rival politicians that we have suffered of late and the explosions into vulgarity that have become part of the political discourse are manifestations of democracy in action. The two women might sound shrill and crude but theirs is the authentic vox populi. Like Prahlad Gunjal, the BJP legislator in Rajasthan accused of abusing a chief medical officer or the Trinamul Youth Congress vice-president, Biswajit Roy, photographed menacingly clutching a West Bengal Power Development Corporation engineer's shirt collar.
If British democracy does not descend to this level of vituperation and violence, it's because the social, economic and political revolutions progressed simultaneously there. Britain's 100 per cent literacy, high employment and general prosperity allow politicians to disagree without being disagreeable. Here, political rights have marched ahead of social and economic empowerment. That's why the word "unparliamentary", once much favoured by respectable Indians as the ultimate condemnation, is never heard nowadays. Parliament is probably the most unparliamentary forum. Nationalist leaders viewed the educational and property qualifications that restricted the franchise in British India as discriminatory. Not only was universal adult suffrage synonymous with Independence but it also became the sine qua non of progress. Many Indians probably regard Switzerland, where women did not enjoy the right to vote or stand for Parliament until February 7, 1971, as backward. But even the absurdly high official 75 per cent literacy claim leaves India with more than 260 million illiterates, mostly probably among the other backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes who account for 70 per cent of the population, or more than 700 million people. The very fact they are thought to merit special privileges in education, employment and welfare benefits means we recognize them as handicapped. Yet, when it comes to political decision-making, these men and women, who lag behind in every respect and need a constant helping hand, are thought to be as well equipped to make a wise choice as the most able and accomplished lawyers, doctors, teachers and other qualified professionals.
The myth that the lower you go on the social scale, the greater the acumen with which votes are cast received a powerful boost in 1977. But that repugnance of coercive birth control in Delhi and the Hindi heartland shouldn't be mistaken for a reasoned indictment of the Emergency's press censorship or abridgement of democracy. While the fine ideal of universal adult suffrage ensured the multitude kept the recognizable authors of Independence in power for 20 unbroken years, illiterate and uninformed voters with little stake in social stability or growth also ensure that the democratic process is permanently at the mercy of the rich and the powerful.
What must be acknowledged is that unlike many others, Nehru was acutely aware of India's cultural dichotomy. He had the sensitivity to feel "a queer mixture of East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere" and the honesty to admit it. Nor could there be any doubt about his conscious preference. That was evident when he told the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science in 1962 that "politics and religion are obsolete; the time has come for science and spirituality". It was evident in exhortations by two Press Commissions to newspaper editors to encourage a "scientific temper" by not publishing astrological forecasts. Above all, the constitutional commitment to secularism was the saving of the Indian State. Not only is it the best guarantee of consensual and harmonious unity but it is also the principal bulwark against a retreat into the incense-choked darkness of the primordial past.
There will be nothing to impede that retreat if vicious language and ugly deeds are excused on the grounds of background. Those who cannot rise above their background have no business handling the controls of a modern political machine. The only way of saving democracy is for all political parties to operate some system of keeping primitives out of power.