GENTLEMEN OF THE PEOPLE - At one level, Indian communists remain prisoners of birth

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
  • Published 9.08.08

A titled Englishwoman who represented a British philanthropic trust told me how nervous she had been about calling on Indrajit Gupta, then home minister in Deve Gowda’s government. North Block was uninviting and Gupta’s room bleak as she awaited her first encounter with a communist. Then her eyes lit on a framed photograph of King’s College, Cambridge, and all fears vanished.

The ‘bourgeois’ allegation against Somnath Chatterjee recalls that episode. It also recalls a story about Ronald Reagan being asked how an actor could be president. “Show me one president who wasn’t!” Reagan twinkled in reply. Chatterjee can take Ashok Mitra’s comment that “one group from the bourgeoisie constitutes the government while another group sits on the Opposition benches” a stage farther to include the Left Front, and retort like Reagan, “Show me one communist leader who isn’t bourgeois!” Some are born bourgeois like Brinda Karat, whose rajbati and high mercantile background makes her UHB (urban haute bourgeoisie), as the bright young white Anglo-Saxon Protestant sparks call themselves in the 1989 film, Metropolitan. Others become bourgeois like the successful artiste who engaged an interior decorator to create two sitting rooms, one in black leather and white wrought iron with a bar for society guests, and one with rough benches for party hoi-polloi.

In the epic struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, gallants such as Chatterjee, Jyoti Basu, Prakash Karat or Sitaram Yechury can hardly be called “indigent wage-earners”, the “labouring classes” or the “lowest class of community”, dictionary definitions of what Marx held to be the only “really revolutionary class”, while condemning the others — the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy — to decay and disappearance. If theirs is the bourgeois revolution, then Isaac Deutscher’s comment in his last book, The Unfinished Revolution — “Bourgeois revolution creates the conditions in which bourgeois property can flourish” — was tailormade for India. Actually, politics of any brand spells upward mobility for climbers, witness Mayawati’s daintily stockinged feet. It’s just more noticeable with communists.

When Eric Hobsbawm first met Indian communists in their salad days in England, worshipping at the feet of Rajani Palme Dutt, the British Communist Party’s half-Indian, half-Swede, but wholly upper-class, English ideological guru, he “did not realize how untypical they were of their societies... the elite of the elites of the ‘native’ colonial populations”. Like Indira Gandhi’s one-time confidant, Mohan, son of the zamindar of Kumaramangalam (better known as Dr P. Subbarayan), also a King’s, Cambridge man, they illustrated how, in the absence of an aristocracy in the European sense (of which more later), the haute bourgeoisie rule the roost. One could have an Indian version of the delightful English student song, “When the Red Revolution Comes”, about making Nancy Astor sweep the floors, forcing Ian Paisley into the Irish Republican Army and appointing Khrushchev chief of the Vatican. The song’s dramatis personae kept changing over the years.

Bourgeois as a political concept used to baffle me because in the apolitical English-speaking milieu of my childhood the word was used with a disdain that might, superficially — but only very superficially — appear to make common cause with those who chant “Inquilab zindabad!” My grandmother spoke of Whiteaway Laidlaw as “rather bourgeois” as compared to the smarter Hall and Anderson. Being a huge department store located at Chowringhee’s commercially bustling Esplanade end, with branches in Delhi, Singapore, Colombo and Johannesburg, Whiteaways was not exclusive. Calcutta’s fashionable Cooch Behar set called it “Whitelaw and Laidaway” to pointedly underline they could not be bothered remembering the correct name. The nickname also enshrined a pun, for legend had it that Whiteaways was packed with unsold goods that had been laid away.

That understanding of bourgeois is too impregnated with England’s sophisticated class nuances to find ready takers here. The difference is that those who fashion language in England (or Europe) — the ancien regime, Nancy Mitford’s U folk who need neither money, title nor grand office to be the tops — are high above the middle, lower-middle and working classes. Bourgeois is an inferior order when viewed from the top. Here, radical participants in coffee-house and tea-shop political gossip look up from the bottom. Bourgeois is a higher status for them, not without a certain aspirational longing even when used as an invective.

Words acquire meaning from the social context, and the bhadralok that Mitra famously refused to be (preferring the Communist definition) does not quite measure up to the English notion of gentle birth, so vividly expressed in Dinah Craik’s 19th-century novel, John Halifax, Gentleman. But Indrajit Gupta saw no contradiction and invested “gentleman” with a benign universalism that transcended both the English snobbery of birth and Bengal’s caste blinkers when he reportedly told the leftist academic, Kamal Mitra Chenoy, who pleaded with him to “be a Communist, not a gentleman” and push his policies more forcefully, “Who told you Communists should not be gentlemen? We are not gentlemen of privilege, but gentlemen of the people!” That is an unknown entity for the communist leaders who were embarrassed and outraged when Subhas Chakraborty, placing his Hindu and Brahmin labels above Marxist loyalty, loudly proclaimed his faith at Tarapith. His pardonable juggling with identities only confirmed that, at one level, Indian communists remain prisoners of birth. Similarly, the readiness with which many poets, writers and professors noted for breathing revolution sing to a different tune when a sufficiently rewarding opportunity arises is a sad reminder of what a high level of unemployment does to human character.

The bourgeoisie, with its ability to co-opt the aspiring, is the ruling caste because India has no equivalent of Mitford’s U folk. There are only people who have made money or acquired power, often the same thing. V.S. Naipaul could not understand why Indians called Jawaharlal Nehru an aristocrat when he was only a barrister and far from being descended from “a useless lord”, Evelyn Waugh’s social pinnacle, was the son of either a pleader or even a lowly muktear, albeit an enormously rich one. Nehru, like Basu, Chatterjee or the late Snehangshu Acharya of the Mymensingh raj, was of the “barristocracy”, the Bengali word that denotes “England-returned” members of the Bar Library whose lifestyle and grip on public life earned them the envious admiration of the multitude with little comprehension of the different categories of elitedom.

Neil Davidson’s question, “How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?”, can be answered only in the social context of each revolution. Such is India’s psyche that rank-and-file communists who lustily celebrate Viswakarma puja respect their leaders precisely because they are bhadralok, gentlemen and bourgeois. And, of course, the leaders do nothing to weaken a hierarchy that reinforces their authority. They may punish Abdullah Kutty, a Kerala MP, for going to Mecca on Umrah, but do not hesitate to patronize Durga puja. Illustrating this “bizarrerie”, as he called it, Hobsbawn described Christmas dinner with Renu Chakravorty — ham and turkey from the Calcutta Club (where her cousin was secretary), followed by biryani, and then plum pudding, also from the club. If “the dominant ideology of every society is the ideology of the dominant class”, its lifestyle is the lodestar that draws and inspires the masses.

A fiery young radical who used to threaten scathingly to call his book about yesterday’s revolutionaries The Lost Generation (with no apologies to Gertrude Stein) because some migrated to the imperialist West, others headed advertising agencies, worked for international finance institutions, advised prime ministers, chaired important statutory bodies, wrote for capitalist newspapers and represented American embassy sub-offices himself scaled dizzy corporate heights. The need to admit to a god that failed has been obviated by the simple expedient of renaming the god Mammon. As the baddie in John Le Carré’s The Night Manager says, “Today’s guerrillas are tomorrow’s fatcats.”