In the 1960’s I had read “Between Freedom & Anarchy,” an essay written by Nirad C. Chaudhuri, and published in the “Encounter” magazine, a literary journal published from the United Kingdom. “Encounter” began publication in 1953 with the British poet Stephen Spender and the American journalist Irving Kristol as its editors. Though pronouncedly center-right and anti-communist in its slant, the magazine attracted a large number of intellectuals who contributed a range of dazzlingly brilliant articles and literary pieces that are impossible to find in any other single publication. The “Observer” had noted, “Encounter is a magazine which constantly provides, in any given month, exactly what a great many of us would have wished to read… there is no other journal in the English-speaking world which combines political and cultural material of such consistently high quality.”
Its closure in 1991 has left a number of ardent admirers like me mourning its demise. As a student, I had collected quite a few of its issues, which got misplaced, in the course of my peripatetic life. Now, trying to recall what Nirad Chaudhuri had written, a search on the Internet yielded a link to the said article. It was published in the September 1967 issue of the magazine on pages 77 to 82. Readers can find the link to the article here: http://www.unz.org/Pub/Encounter-1967sep-00077.
I did vaguely recall that in Chaudhuri’s opinion Indian history was full of cycles of energy and inertia and that anarchy was the only system that inevitably prevailed after intervals of foreign rule. Now, after having read the article, I can fearlessly quote from it.
Chaudhuri writes “the Indian people, whose extraordinary individualism in behavior is matched by an equally extraordinary collectivism in excitement and passion, create an impression of organized action when they are only driven in a herd by a shared passion. That they are generally passive does not affect their inflammability.”
Further, he opines “The force which works against the political organization in India is not any kind of motive power, but inertia, which is basically a product of the climate and arising out of the operation of that factor has become fixed in behavior and outlook. It asserts itself whenever the adventitious, political energy is spent up. Thus the conflict between the energy and the inertia gives to the political history of India alternating cycles of winding up and running down, of imperial regimes and imperial interregnums.”
The heat, the humidity and the dust of the plains contribute to this inertia that has become ingrained in our DNA. This inertia makes us disinclined to physical labor and impatient of discipline. It has affected all classes; be it the bureaucracy; industrial labor; students; or the peasantry. The political system, which is abjectly dependent on the workers for their votes, watches helplessly while productivity plummets to global lows. The noble Indian peasant, immortalized by Munshi Premchand, too has succumbed to this malaise and instead of increasing the yield of his land is content at receiving below-subsistence level handouts from the ruling dispensations, by way of frequent write-offs of farm loans.
Much has changed in the 50 years since Chaudhuri published this amazing essay. His conclusion that in the event that India goes back to its laissez-faire type of inertia and becomes an “area of low political and economic pressure” the outside world is likely to intervene as it has done in the past, is no longer a valid argument. The outside world itself has undergone a massive structural change. No matter how many cyclones are whipped up by low-pressure areas, the experiences of the coalitions-of-the-willing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria should put paid to the hypothetical possibilities of imperialist interventions.
However, the 2014 General Election results in the massive mandate that Narendra Modi received from the public, has whipped up a different kind of “low political and economic pressure” in the form of a defeated Congress Party and its coalition partners, the so-called “socialists.” It also stopped the gravy train of most Media houses and NGOs that had thrived with handouts from their political masters. The external intervention sought by the likes of Mani Shankar Aiyar and Sudheendra Kulkarni from Pakistan does not amount to an imperialist intervention, but more like a Mir Jaffar defecting to Clive in order to spite Siraj-ud-Daula. Pakistan, at worst, is like an irritable mosquito that has so far been kept out by a simple net. The moment it tries to enter that net, the Indian state has the ability to crush it to a pulp.
But most of what Chaudhuri observed about Indian society still holds true. India’s administration continues to be notoriously inefficient and corrupt despite 4 years of PM Modi’s rule. Fifty years ago Chaudhuri wrote “the private citizen can no longer expect redress for any wrong from any governmental agency if he is oppressed by a local bully. The normal protection given by an administration is never available. In many places, blackmail to be allowed to live in peace has become a common practice, a form of taxation. Untraced murders are becoming increasingly frequent.” This could easily be a sentence in any current essay on the state of this nation. The police and the judicial systems have completely broken down and are heavily biased in favor of the high and the mighty. The public utility sector, still largely a government monopoly, has seen vast improvement since 2014, but the inefficiencies and corruption of 10 years of UPA rule appear to be cast in some concrete that is impervious to the wrecking balls that Modi is hurling against them.
Civil society has not yet shaken off the centuries-old apathy towards hard work and honest labor. Academic institutions are breeding grounds for certificate holders, not hard-working, and skilled individuals. Everyone is looking to break the system, be it through exam-paper leaks or by mugging up whole pages that are then regurgitated without having been absorbed. Cut-off percentages of 99 and above make a mockery of the admission process to colleges.
A majority of the engineers in India are unemployable, as the industry does not have the time and the resources to retrain these literally uneducated and unskilled graduates. The bright ones who make it to the IITs are already dreaming of a career in the West and their entire focus from the time they enter high school is on this goal. Most private institutes of higher education are captured by politicians who exact huge amounts by way of capitation fees that make mercenaries of the students who graduate from them. Education is big business and no longer a service to society. The same malaise grips almost all the other organs of Indian civil society. It is reflected in the abysmally low percentage of electoral participation among the urban voters and the tendency to press the NOTA button when a policy displeases a particular individual voter.
To break this vicious cycle that Chaudhuri has so clearly enumerated will take an enormous amount of willpower from the political leadership of the country. Does Modi have it in him to provide that? So far his record has been mixed, at best. His inner circle consists of far too many who epitomize the “laissez-faire inertia” of the post-colonial India of Chaudhuri’s essay.
His Finance Minister, a lawyer, has wasted four national budgets, and each one represents a lost opportunity at trying to break from the past. Consumer Affairs, Food, and Public Distribution continues to receive low priority and has been entrusted to a coalition minister who is politically adept at jumping loyalties and nothing more.
Does anyone have any idea about the work that this ministry has done and how it has helped the farm sector? The media continues to portray India as a dangerous place for women, minorities, journalists, anarchists-posing-as-liberals, based on nothing else but prejudicial reporting, and yet it continues to peddle these lies with impunity, as the state has refrained from calling it to account.
Modi has not been ruthless enough with both the saboteurs within his party and with the opposition. He has perhaps not fully understood what the mandate of 2014 was all about. For the first time in 30 years, the Indian electorate had given a clear parliamentary majority to a single party. The last time it happened was caused by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and not because the public was enamored of her son. His own assassination, in turn, did not even result in a win for the Congress.
So, the 2014 result was a clear disenchantment with the UPA and Manmohan Singh and not a reactive vote as 1984 was. The people want Modi to make a clean break from the past and make a completely fresh beginning. They will not mind a period of hardship if they see a decisive administration at work. It was amply demonstrated by their support for the Demonetisation policy though mostly the poor bore the brunt of the many inconveniences it caused.
Modi has lost 4 years in trying to fix the administration but has been afraid to use the full powers of his office. Tinkering like a cycle mechanic trying to fix an aircraft will only result in a huge tragedy. Narendra Modi has just about seven to eight months to repair the aircraft and to pilot it to safety. The Indian public has reposed enormous trust in him to do so, despite all the inbuilt inertia. Modi’s failure, despite all the public goodwill, will only bring to life the worst nightmare of Nirad C. Chaudhuri.