“He has shown remarkable courage and flexibility of approach in conducting India’s foreign policy. But he has yet to display these qualities in dealing with domestic problems, which are more complex and of a different order of importance from those of… diplomacy. Power and cunning are not enough to solve them. Their solution will presuppose a willingness to admit mistakes and rectify them without making it an issue of prestige, to break oneself free from outdated dogmas, and shed the jargon of pseudo radicalism which has fouled the atmosphere in which the prime minister has lived and worked… The extent to which he is able to do this will determine the shape of things to come in Bihar and later, the rest of the country.”
Sounds like more gyaan for Narendra Modi after Bihar showed him the way out, doesn’t it? There’s lots of that stuff flying around, now that it’s open season on the BJP leadership, but this passage is actually from 1974. Change the gender of the target of the homily and it sounds completely contemporary. Flip “he” back to the original “she” and the real subject is revealed: Indira Gandhi, riding the wave of hubris that would culminate in the Emergency and, later, send her to jail. Many have noticed the similarities between the two autocrats, barring their distinctly different sense of style, and this passage from an essay by Quest editor AB Shah suggests that the parallels are even closer than we imagine.
Shah stood for everything that rattles the RSS. He was atheist, deeply concerned about the developing crisis that Indian Muslims faced, founded the Indian Secular Society of Mumbai, and was a signatory of the celebrated Humanist Manifesto. If he were around today, his thoughts on the NDA’s cowboy politics would have made lively reading. But he lived in even crazier times which are, in a way, a mirror image of ours. That was when Bihar first showed the way with Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement, which ended the free run of the Congress. At the time, public expectations from it were larger. It was expected to end the culture of power without accountability, in which citizens were innocent bystanders robbed of political agency. Starting with reform in the Bihar assembly, it was expected to usher in a new kind of politics which would alter the national temper and make it routinely possible for what we now call civil society to challenge governments which betray the Constitution.
Like all agents of progress in India, JP was dismissed as a “stooge of vested interests” and the CIA. It seems incredible today, 40 years later, but Shah asserted that the charges were hurled by the left establishment —specifically, the Communist Party of India. And even he found it “difficult to appreciate the reservations —sometimes even hostility — of the liberals, the academicians and the urban intellectuals.” They were disturbed by the gherao of officials, MLAs and ministers, and felt that holding public meetings and petitioning the government exhausted the scope of democratic dissidence.
“Anything beyond this, even if completely non-violent, is [felt to be] incompatible with the norms of democracy,” he wrote. History repeated itself during the anti-corruption movement of 2011, when a section of liberals turned venomously upon the protestors. The Aam Aadmi Party, which was born out of the movement, has affably survived the charge of anarchism, but is alternately regarded by certain sections as a stand-up comedy act and a nebulous danger to public order. Interestingly, the trigger for the movement in Bihar was pulled by the students of Gujarat, who had launched a movement against corruption and speculation in essential commodities by cabinet ministers, which was a distant forerunner of the anti-corruption movement. While it secured the dissolution of the House, it could not move forward to the logical conclusion —addressing the social and economic policies which were alienating the public not only in Gujarat, but across India. That is where JP took over.
AB Shah’s article reappeared in 2011, in Tranquebar’s The Best of Quest, edited by Laeeq Futehally, Achal Prabhala and Arshia Sattar. It’s a great reminder of the cyclical nature of Indian politics, in which anarchists, cows, corrupt politicians, loudmouth babajis, trishuls and rays of hope return as regularly as the seasons. And, now that Bihar has shown us what’s what, one is inspired to re-read Raghu Rai’s 1977 classic, Bihar Shows the Way. I’ve been scouring my shelves for the family copy, which seems to have disappeared. Maybe it’s been stolen. Indeed, it is fit to be stolen.