Writing about Indian democracy and the state it has produced is an extremely elusive task. Politics is often complex, contingent, and produces the strangest juxtapositions that elude our best attempts to understand them. Anyone with minimum self-awareness will recognise the fact that our ideological certainties sometimes obscure more than they reveal about the contest of values in politics. Our frameworks of caste, class, power, rationality, interest, take us some ways. But you always get the sense that something is happening in politics that is certainly shaped by these categories, but also exceeds them.
The aims of our political actors, to win in the game of political power, are often clear. But the political subjectivity that lies behind them is hard to capture and represent. What is that alchemy by which hundreds of thousands of political actors – from small-time political brokers to big politicians – convert a heady concoction of social identities, passion, personal attributes, rhetorical styles, bargaining, institutional entrepreneurship, manipulative capacities, repression and persuasion, into an effective force for power? It is also not easy to represent the state.
We know it fails in many respects. It is corrupt, inefficient, incapacitated. But what is the nature and character of the venality that produces these outcomes? How does the venial state become a social identity for those who inhabit it?
It is in this context that Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari, published exactly 50 years ago, remains one of the finest books on Indian democracy ever written. It is often read as a novel about rural politics. Both it’s classic opening “The edges of city, where the vast ocean of rural India begins,” and its prophetic end, that the only solution to the problems of rural India seems to be to escape it, can be read that way.
The texture of Shivpalganj comes from its rural setting: Cooperatives, panchayats and educational institutions. These might seem far removed from the heady demands of mass electoral politics. But it is precisely because these sites are not encumbered by the big narratives, that it is clearer to see the paradoxes of democracy: The logic of empowerment seems to always empower the powerful even more; the persistent gap between the form of the state and its de facto reality — rules produce discretion, accountability measures produce corruption, participation concentration of power, high idealism produces venality. Looking back, it is difficult not to see Shivpalganj itself as a metaphor, not just a site.
Raag Darbari was a literary tour de force, a one of a kind novel, with its ensemble cast of characters, the force and fecundity of its language, but above all, its unrelenting humour. The best representation of Indian democracy are not its social scientists or journalists, but its cartoonists. A quick perusal of R K Laxman will give you more accurate history, jolt you out of thoughtlessness more effectively than any other work.
It is a paradox that it is only caricature that allows a mode of representation of Indian democracy that feels real, whereas realistic descriptions often feel like caricatures. Raag Darbari was, in some ways, brutally accurate. But it had to invent almost a new mode of writing, the way in which a cartoonist has to invent a new mode of representation, to be truthful. It is a measure of its artistic achievement that it pulled this off.
Fifty years on, much will have changed in Shukla’s Shivpalganj. Women were largely absent from his local politics. Many development schemes have actually arrived. But 50 years on, what strikes you most vividly in the novel is a deep cultural crisis. The most visible marker of that crisis is language itself. There is the existential crisis of Hindi itself. What happens to a sense of meaning in a language when it is no longer seen as the site of the production of knowledge?
There is a telling sentence “that to exude authority you need English”. In the context here, English is not a language: It is more like a liturgy that is used to project symbolic power, and our education is a struggle to acquire that liturgy. But in the process, the vernacular culture itself has no ambition left in it. It can play the victim card or seal itself up in its enclosed world. It is no longer a medium of accessing the world, but deflecting it.
In Raag Darbari a profound sense of intellectual vacuity casts a shadow over public life. Its pin pricks puncture romanticism about rural India and high idealism about the state. But the sharpest barbs are for academics, who become the purest distillation of politics. But the genius of the novel was not simply to take the crude line that ideas and idealism succumb to the slightest lure of material interest and venality.
It is the much deeper and more disturbing thought: Can a whole culture become insincere about itself all the way down? One of the often quoted lines from the novel goes something like this: “The joy of a lecture is when the listener understands that the lecturer is talking baloney (bakwas), and the speaker also understands that he is talking baloney. But sometimes the lecturer is so effective that the listener thinks the speaker is sincere about what they are saying. But the mere suspicion that the speaker is sincere makes the lecture seem both deep and tasteless at once, and certainly affects the digestion of the listener.”
There is a lot packed in here. This is not just about teachers but politics as well. But Shukla plays on the startlingly disquieting thought that taking others as being sincere is what might make them unbearable. But what would happen to meaning if we cannot attribute sincerity? Raag Darbari is a consummate statement on how people too clever by half about their interests, can produce a perpetual crisis of meaning. The only option is to see politics for what it is: A play with its own protocols, not the site of sincere intention. That almost makes it bearable.
Shukla’s great genius was to move away from the idea of the rural agent as a political simpleton: They might be powerless, but everyone knows exactly what is going on. Even moments of abject deference do not have a whiff of delusion about them. All political agents can uncover the motives and interests behind ideas faster than any Marxist theorist can cut through veils of false consciousness.
Fifty years on, the paradox of Indian democracy is how this acute hyper consciousness about power ends up in the crisis of meaning and sheer narcissism.
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