Without a history

Why we can’t place our politics in context — and why we need to

Written by Suman K Jha | Published:January 20, 2009 1:54 am

The coming general elections could well see a Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition gain power at the Centre. However,there’s very little by way of literature on the BJP available on the book shelves.

Peter Van der Veer,Christophe Jaffrelot,and Thomas Blom Hansen,among others,have written extensively on Hindutva and the rise of the BJP. However,it’s Walter K. Anderson and Shridhar D. Damle’s “The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism,” written way back in 1987,that remains the most sought after work on Hindu revivalism till date.

It’s not as if there’s a vast body of literature available on the Indian National Congress,either. Yes,Sarvepalli Gopal,Ramchandra Guha,and even Natwar Singh are known for their extensive research on Nehru and the idea of India. Sunil Khilnani’s magnum opus on Nehru is expected to be finally out this year. There are a few accounts of Indira Gandhi’s life and times (Katherine Frank’s and Pupul Jayakar’s among others),and a couple of attempts have been made to demystify the Sonia Gandhi phenomenon. There’s,however,hardly anything on the Congress as an organisation. The same holds true for other smaller parties and the personalities thereof who have immeasurably enriched Indian politics (save for the works of Sudha Pai,and Jaffrelot).

Ramchandra Guha has often lamented at the absence of

authoritative histories of post-Emergency India. This is not just a commentary on our university system; it is also a comment on the state of journalism here. Without the basic building-blocks of history,in-depth,independent journalism,how could one get written?

Some appear satisfied with this. Consider this: in its six years of rule,while the BJP tried to play the old Left trick of packing key institutions with its own cheerleaders,there were hardly any attempts to critically evaluate Ayodhya,Swadeshi or “cultural nationalism”,articles of faith then for the BJP — except for one biography of RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar.

Part of the problem,of course,may be the lack of an intellectual culture in the Hindu right. The shakha,constituting the basic building block of the RSS,(and by corollary,the BJP),which encourages “absolute compliance” towards building of the “sangathan” (organisation) militates against critical thinking. This prohibition manifests itself at various levels — the RSS is afraid of “outsiders”; it disbanded the position of “spokesperson” last year; when it invited a select group of journalists to its Jhandewalan headquarters last month,the ones who turned up uninvited were shooed away.

Its polar opposite,the Communist Party of India (Marxist),often boasts of general secretaries who also double up as editors of People’s Democracy. Why does the BJP have to invest in borrowed wisdom? When Atal Bihari Vajpayee is probably going to be witnessing his last general election,why could the party not find suitable writers for his biography? When the BJP views itself as the government-in-waiting,how come there’s not one real,independent,right-wing intellectual in the country? Guha,again,once said that someone who came closest to being one — a journalist-columnist — was eventually co-opted by the BJP.

Political parties here see journalists either as the “other” or try to co-opt them. Unlike the “umbrella” Congress,the BJP has always reflected the concerns and aspirations of the middle class — the class that depends on the media to formulate its opinion. It’s for this reason that the BJP is often perceived as a “media-driven party.” This journalist-political party is,therefore,best understood with reference to the BJP.

How about attempting histories of political slogans,or wall graffiti (an idea mooted by Khilnani),for instance? How about monographs on the veterans for whom 2009 may well be the last election? How about accounts of the breathtaking turn in the Sangh Parivar when the RSS was recently forced to concede the autonomy of the BJP after Advani steadfastly stood by his 2005 Jinnah remarks? The coming four months in the run-up to the general elections promise much joy apart from changing news by the minute. Savour it as long as it lasts.

suman.jha@expressindia.com

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