Sunday, May 16, 1999

Tagore: "India is that sacred land of cultural union which never sent anyone back"

[A shorter version of this article titled “Who is a foreigner?” was published in The Economic Times, on 22 May 1999.]
Tagore's India
"India is that sacred land of cultural union which never sent anyone back", the Prime Minister quoted this line from Tagore, live on national television recently, on the occasion of the release of a special CD containing recitals and songs by the poet himself. It is ironic that the same Prime Minister also wants a "national debate" on whether any foreign-born person should be allowed to hold highest political offices in the land.

One does not know whether the PM has lately read that poem of Tagore from Gitanjali (1910). Because just prior to the lines which the PM quoted, the poet says "hethai arya, hetha anarya, hethai dravir o chiin, shok, hun dal, pathan o moghoul, ek dehe holo leen". That is the Indian civilisation has successfully assimilated the aryans, the non-aryans, the dravidians, the Chinese, the shaks, the huns, the pathans, the moghuls. The CD has the poet himself reciting these famous lines.

The poet ends this stirring poem by inviting all - the aryans and the non-aryans, the hindus and the muslims, the English and the christians, the brahmins and the untouchables - to join hands and together fulfill the promise of this holy union. Of course, the poet did not foresee the Italian!

While Tagore represents the very best strands of Indian heritage, like all cultures, the Indian heritage also has some very dark shades. And true to the latter, like their predecessors at the battlefield of Kurushetra, the political gladiators of today often seek to put up a Shikhandi to hide their real motives. Bereft of any other achievements, the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin is clearly aimed at camouflaging their own failures.
The Sonia factor
If Sonia is a dumb doll, as the critics say, who cannot say a word without a written script before her, how can she get elected, leave alone help her party to victory, and then hope to become the PM?

This debate truly reflects the status of the political leadership in the country today. The pretenders to the throne are mortally scared and incapable of fighting politically the "mere housewife", and "the political novice", despite decades of real politick behind them!

She, a "foreigner", is hardly responsible for the state of the nation, fifty years after our "tryst with destiny" when the country was in the able hands of the native born. Particularly in the last eight years the country has had the privilege of being led by people from different regions and with diverse backgrounds and vast experiences.
The Indian Voter
Much more importantly, behind this veneer of concern for the future of the country in hands of one "foreign born", the true sovereign in any democracy - the demos, the voting citizens - is being subjected to an ultimate insult. What these self-proclaimed champions of national self-respect are saying is that the voters are politically too dumb, emotionally too naive and therefore prone to being swayed by just one inexperienced foreigner.

This is the same voter who has single handedly ensured that since the general elections of 1971, not one ruling party or coalition returned to power at the Centre but once, and that was in 1984 in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Not very surprising, since statistics at the election commission show that legislators in India have one of the lowest re-election rates among world's major democracies. Barely a third survive battle of the ballot, and return to the hallowed precincts of the Parliament. Illiterate and undernourished the voter may be, but in political savvy they are second to none. It is the leadership that has constantly failed to get the message that the electorate has been sending - either deliver or you will be delivered.

Today, this gap has widened to such an extent that the political leadership is desperately trying to clutch at any straw that might help them tide over the electoral battle, and enable them to once again settle down to self-serving, rapacious ways till the next elections. Like the issue of Ram temple earlier, Sonia's foreign origin has come handy when no other visible issue could be found.
Leader in a Democracy
Apart from the obviously obnoxious racist underpinnings of the foreign-born debate, there is another equally important question. Should those aspiring to hold high offices need to have a certain level of experience and expertise so as to tackle the enormous "complexities" of governance that any leader of such a large and diverse country would face? Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1984, when he was not even a Member of Parliament, and had only spent about a couple of years as an office bearer of the party. Nevertheless the country overwhelmingly endorsed this inexperienced man in the general elections of 1984. Just as it decisively rejected him the next time he went to seek a mandate from the people in 1989. His five years of experience as Prime Minister did not impress the voters!!

A democracy is different from all elite forms of government - be it the Ram Rajya, the benign and benevolent dictatorship, or the socialistic dictatorship of the proletariat. The members of the Constituent Assembly had after prolonged debates, accepted the idea of universal adult franchise irrespective of social, educational or economic status. It was felt that although many voters may be materially deprived, illiterate and driven by many passions, nevertheless, still possessed the basic wisdom and therefore, fully capable of participating in the political processes, and shaping the destiny of the nation.

By demanding a qualification for holding political office, we are rejecting this most fundamental principle of adult franchise. And this franchise does not end with casting of the ballot alone. It includes the right to contest in elections, win the support of ones fellow countrymen, get elected, and hold an office where possible, at every level of government. Indeed, it may be argued that the present "complexities" of governance are a creation precisely to deprive the proverbial common man a say in the affairs of the state although it affects him the most.
Opposition to the Congress Party
Opposition to the Congress can be on many counts. It was the socialistic pattern of development followed by Nehru that is responsible for perpetuating our poverty and laid the seeds of corruption by institutionalising controls over the marketplace. Indira Gandhi sought to subvert the democratic process itself, and contributed significantly to lumpenisation of politics. Rajiv Gandhi frittered away the unprecedented parliamentary majority and goodwill of his fellow countrymen in only three years by gross insensitivity and ineptitude.

Likewise, opposition to Sonia could be wide ranging: her policies, her actions, her inexperience, her dependence on the coterie, her attempt to sideline mass leaders and undermine second rung leadership and concentrate all powers in her hands like her mother-in-law, and so on.
Ideological common ground
But, no doubt the Congress is changing. It was the Congress that initiated the steps towards economic reforms, howsoever reluctantly and surreptitiously that may be. And the opposition has changed too. Given an opportunity, it walks the road to reform, however slow that may be, while continuing to talk of a return to the old socialist moorings. This shows the enormous ideological common ground that exists, cutting across all party lines. This also explains the reason for the apparent animosity between parties and leaders. Unable to provide a broad alternative vision, the political actors have to stoop to the lowest levels in order to highlight their differences with the rest.

The real tragedy of our democracy is that despite an apparently vibrant and diverse polity, a large political space has remained unexplored. Hardly any one think that the idea of less government, faster reforms, accelerated development is politically viable, economically sensible and electorally saleable an option.

This narrow vision has also helped us escape some of the distinct political possibilities. Congress may not win, and people may through the exercise of their democratic rights reject Sonia and her party. Even if the party emerges as a major political player, out of sheer political necessity it may have to decide on someone as politically insignificant as I. K. Gujral in order to be able to form a government with the support of others. Or even if the party wins, Sonia could opt to stay out of the PM's office and help Congressmen rediscover the art of leadership and good governance.
Politics of Exclusion
Instead we have the issue of political exclusivity. For a diverse and pluralistic society such as India, any attempt to draw boundaries to exclude some will logically lead to ever-narrower boundaries, and could ultimately end in a tragic fragmentation. The tragedy of the Balkans should be fresh in our minds.

Moreover, will the line end at geographic or biological boundaries? What about the influence of foreign ideas and religions? What about the linguistic and ethnic diversity that might be engulfed in this game of drawing boundaries? What about exclusion on caste lines? What about the different historical experiences?

A maratha leader today has raised the banner of revolt in the Congress party against the "foreign hand". But just a couple of hundred years ago, marauding hordes of marathas used to periodically descend on Bengal and Bihar to loot and pilfer. So traumatic that it has left permanent marks on Bengali folklore and even children's rhymes. Do we really need to relive the tragedies of the past? Or should we accept that the only lesson we can draw from history is not to repeat the same mistakes.
Future at Stake
By raising the issue of Sonia's foreign birth, we are putting at stake much more than the futures of the Congress party and its leader. At stake is the future of our civilisation, our identity itself. Will we rise to our best point, as Tagore had hoped, and continue to assimilate all in our fold, or discard the poet and accept the politics of exclusion and travel on the road to 'where the world is indeed broken up into narrow domestic walls'.

There cannot be a starker choice. It is time we saw through this game of political brinkmanship. There are times when the domestic hand turns out to be much more insidious than a foreign one.

A few related articles in the media:
  • K. R. Malkani, Prof. M.N. Panini, and Mani Shankar Aiyar in the Perspective Page - Does Sonia's birthplace matter? in The Economic Times, 1 June 1999.
  • Sashi Tharoor's column "A View of the World" in The Indian Express, 30 May 1999.
  • Prof. Mushirul Hasan "She is here to stay", in The Indian Express, 22 May 1999.
  • B. Raman in The Statesman, 16 May 1999.
  • Saeed Naqvi in The Indian Express, 14 May 1999.

No comments:

Post a Comment