Wednesday, 30 April, 2008

Socialist India?

A few weeks ago, India Today (April 8, 2008) came out with a cover story on 60 greatest Indians. Here's what the magazine wrote about the public poll that produced this list: “The poll began on March 14 and ran for three weeks through the India Today web site and SMS.

A total of 18,928 votes came in, with Bhagat Singh leading with 6,982 votes, Subhas Chandra Bose coming second with 5,193 votes and Mahatma Gandhi trailing at 2,457 votes.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who forever stepped aside for Jawaharlal Nehru, has been redeemed in posterity, at fourth position with 8 per cent of the votes, compared to just 2 per cent for Nehru.

Another steely nationalist, Indira Gandhi, is sixth, with 3 per cent of the votes.”

Now, Saheed Bhagat Singh was a socialist and an atheist. Netaji, along with Panditji, was a leader of the left wing of the Congress; he was also unquestionably secular.

Was India, especially young urban India (looking the method of voting, one suspects the overwhelming majority of voters were fairly young), voting for the socialism and secularism?

Forgive my cynicism, but that's incredible.

As the Today article says, “Its (India's) marketplace has already shed all those socialist inhibitions and become the playground of the so-called wealth multipliers.”

And while secularism is widely practised (live and let live), one doubts if it is as widely believed in (conscious respect for all religions).

So what's going on, according to me? Three things.

1.First, what's common to the first four on the list, Bhagat Singh, Netaji, the Mahatma, and the Sardar? Many things, of course, but in the context of the poll, one stands out: Their heirs didn't enjoyed political power. They haven't had to pay for their descendents' deeds.

2.Second, one shouldn't be surprised if there were strong regional patterns in the voting, at least in the voting for Bhagat Singh, Netaji and Sardar Patel. More specifically, there be may be strong linguistic biases too.

No doubt, all three had pan-Indian appeal while alive. But after their deaths, they have been turned into regional idols.

3.Finally, one senses a desire to right history's wrong, of giving to one's own leader what was his due.

How justified am I in making these sceptical hypotheses, without a shred of evidence to back them?

Not much. Still, I can offer an excuse.

A list like this one probably has far more to do with selling ad space than with celebrating nationhood (no matter who writes the profiles and how well those are written). The very act of letting the public, and not eminent historians, choose - that too without any criteria - can only mean that that the list's sole possible value is as a reflection of popular opinion.

Hence, commenting on the public, without in any way commenting on the personalities they choose, is the only reaction one can legitimately have. If the surveyors anticipate any discussion and debate, they expect the arguments to centre on today's voters, not yesterday's greats.

As S Prasannarajan asks in the article introducing the list, “Is it that, as India, which at any rate is hardly Gandhian or Nehruvian in its political expression, strives for global power status, someone out there, someone disillusioned with the conformism of a smug state, is missing the romance of the revolutionary leap—and the martyr’s war cry, Inquilab Zindabad?

Is it that the mystique of the deviant, the transcontinental adventurism of the rebellious, is more alluring than the intimate humanism of the fakir? Is it that a steely nationalist like Patel and a strong, overpowering helmswoman like Mrs G are missing in an India of wishy-washy pretenders to the throne?

Is it that India is nostalgic about the moral power of a JP at a time whenthe so-called socialists, products of his ‘total revolution’, are an embarrassment to his memory?” (Emphasis mine, throughout.)

My reaction, pessimistic as it is, is perhaps valid.


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