IN 1956, at the height of the Cold War, two young PhD scholars, Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph, took an unusual route to their research topic: Indian democracy.
Instead of relying on academic tomes, they decided to drive from Austria to India, in their Land Rover. Fifty-seven years on, that journey still continues.
Not on the road but in their papers and books, which their students, some of them now well-known academicians themselves, often refer to. Their latest milestone came last week: the Padma Bhushan for literature and education.
“We’ve had a terrific time over the last 57 years, coming to and studying the country. Even our children can speak Hindi. We had never imagined we would be felicitated by the government when we started our academic careers, but we are very happy about it,” Lloyd, 83, said over the phone from Kensington, California.
The Rudolphs hope to come to India to receive the award and inaugurate an academic centre being set up in Delhi by the University of Chicago around spring.
How interesting are the current political times to the Rudolphs?
“Well, we have a new party shaking things up for two old parties. It’s a gradual, transitional, and more importantly, less predictable phase in Indian politics,” Lloyd said.
Some former students, colleagues and scholars said the work of the Rudolphs, emeritus professors of political science at the University of Chicago and co-authors of eight books on India, cannot be defined within the realm of literature and education alone.
“They have been writing about Indian democracy since its inception. And they wrote about it from up close, drawing their inferences from both field visits and interviews with top leaders like Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, I K Gujral and Indira Gandhi,” said Asha Sarangi, who studied under Susanne and Lloyd for her PhD at the University of Chicago in the early 1990s, and is now associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Throughout their academic career, they returned to India after every three years for a year.”
The Rudolphs’ observations often hit the spot. One such was that caste would become a political tool.
“They wrote about caste not being necessarily anti-democratic. They predicted that caste could be one way the lower social orders could, and would, organise themselves for political power. It was a prophetic insight in the 1960s,” said Ashutosh Varshney, professor of international studies and social sciences at Brown University, US.
Another such seminal idea which political scientists credit the Rudolphs for is that Indian politics has a “persistent centrism” about it, and that “no right- or left-wing takeover is possible nationally”.
Philip Oldenburg, who did his PhD from the University of Chicago between 1965 and 1968, and has been working with the Rudolphs for the past 50 years, says the observation is particularly relevant in the 2014 general elections, with the BJP’s Narendra Modi being the primary PM candidate.
“We can see that Modi is increasingly moving away from exclusivism. He realises that he cannot be a full rightist to be a national leader,” Oldenburg said.
Despite retiring in 2002, the Rudolphs frequently visit their home in Jaipur, and continue to comment on recent political churns.
“On the Aam Aadmi Party, they have made a relevant observation. Without an internal institutional mechanism to sort out differences, AAP can collapse under the weight of its contradictions,” Varshney said.
The Rudolphs’ insightful findings stem from their approach, Sarangi said. The professors would insist that their students get out of their classrooms and go to the field. Such insistence paved the way for pioneering works such as what is believed to be the first voter survey in India.
“They believed more in situation-based, local knowledge, and told their students to learn the language and culture of the place they are studying, and not just obsess over data,” said Oldenburg, adding that they also looked at Indian politics in the context of the overall history and culture of India.
But one former student, who did not wish to be identified, said the Rudolphs’ all-encompassing study of India is not entirely true. “They haven’t touched upon issues like Maoism or Naxalism. And they take the European tradition so seriously, that they sometimes miss points about India.”
But the Rudolphs were “always open to a free exchange of ideas, and ready to correct themselves”, said Sarangi. “They treated students as co-participants in the process of learning.”
Birla said her campaign this time is “very similar” to the last time.