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CHIPPING AWAY A right-wing bhadralok’s ringside view of change

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Telegraph India
Date: June 6, 2014
URL:   https://www.telegraphindia.com/1140606/jsp/opinion/story_18483930.jsp#.U5GRyvm1a_U

In last week’s Spectator, Hugo Rifkind, a distinguished journalist in his own right, but also the son of a more distinguished Scottish Conservative and former foreign secretary, spelt out the travails of having a politician as a parent. Apart from the usual pitfalls of reflected glory or infamy, Rifkind was also exposed to the bizarre predicament of his father being a Jew, a Scot and a Tory at the same time — a novel combination in a part of the United Kingdom where Margaret Thatcher was seen with about the same fondness as Mahmud of Ghazni was in Somnath. Rifkind recalled the experiences of his mother — who held a normal job in the State-run National Health Service — meeting friendly strangers who invariably began a conversation with the statutory disclaimer: “I don’t agree with your politics, but...”

Throughout much of my adult life, indeed ever since I branched out into writing political columns and proffering my sharply-held positions on TV chat shows, my experiences have resembled that of Rifkind’s mother. Family friends and strangers have occasionally complimented me for my willingness to describe a spade as a digging instrument. Others have flattered me for my unceasing willingness to see contemporary parallels from some long-forgotten event in history. But, inevitably, there is the obligatory postscript, “Of course, I don’t always agree with your conclusions.” Of course you don’t and on the rare occasions you do, there is the rider: “For a change, I agree with you.”

This is not to say that I don’t have a modest fan following. But they tend to be the techies with a passionate interest in a political cause and those who intervene aggressively on Twitter. Among my peer group and those whom I meet on social occasions or those who are regulars at, say, the Jaipur Literary Festival, I am an oddity: the right-wing bhadralok.

Needless to say, it was far worse in the 1990s. At that time, being perceived to be on the Right of the political spectrum was the equivalent of swearing by Catholicism in Elizabethan England. No one was burnt at the stake and no heads were lopped off. But short of being declared a non-person, the full weight of social and intellectual derision was heaped on you.

You could, at a stretch, be permitted the luxury of advocating market economics and criticising India’s socialistic pattern of development. But since the Swatantra Party had gone into voluntary liquidation in 1973, this was an indulgence the socialist Establishment conceded to those whose only expression of organised opposition lay in attending Nani Palkhivala’s annual budget sermons in Bombay and Calcutta.

There was a well-defined lakshmanrekha you could not cross, not if you were engaged in the English language and the intellectual professions. You could be a Communist of any abstruse shade of your choosing. In Calcutta, for example, Left-of-Centre was the default position. And in Delhi, you could either be an Establishment Leftie or even nurture a soft corner for the Naxalites. What was unacceptable in ‘respectable’ circles was to believe that the Bharatiya Janata Party was also a force for the good. That was tantamount to crossing all bounds of decency and tolerance.

At a time when the BJP has won a convincing majority in the Lok Sabha with the resounding backing of the middle classes, it is difficult to imagine an India when it was plain bad form to be saffron. In the citadels of genteel existence, the BJP was not only the stupid party, it was also the nasty party. It was the party of the Hindi chauvinists, the Hindu bigots, the pan-chewing lalas who adulterated cooking oil and, above all, the rioters who would suddenly emerge from the woodwork in their khaki shorts. It was electorally marginal and aesthetically unsound. As a throwback to a grim past, the BJP, it was made sufficiently clear to those who wanted to progress personally, was anathema to ‘modern’ India.

It was also the butt of jokes. I distinctly recall a ‘progressive’ notable of Delhi University chuckling merrily over the difficulties faced by the Sanskrit department: most of their teachers had been packed off to jail for real or suspected RSS leanings. That was in July 1975, the first month of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency to save India from ‘fascist forces’. And he thought this was funny!

The jokes didn’t cease in 1990 when the reality of Ram Janmabhoomi hit the intellectual classes. But they were now couched with a tinge of alarm. In October 1990, having observed the mass upsurge that accompanied L.K. Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya rathyatra, I wrote in that Hindu nationalism had finally come of age and that Hindus could no longer be the objects of secularist condescension. It became a controversial article for one principal reason: it was written in English and published in the Times of India.

Rebuttals by concerned academics were entirely in order. What, however, was unanticipated was a letter by about a dozen prominent academics (mainly historians) suggesting that articles such as this had no place in the mainstream media. The principles of free speech, they implied, didn’t extend to those who violated the secular consensus.

That I survived this secularist rage owed to two factors. First, by 1990, it was clear that there was no longer a united phalanx of English-knowing Indians willing to accept every tenet of secularist orthodoxy. A significant section of modern India was discovering the delights of being ‘political’ Hindus. Clearly, the editorial classes could not be entirely unresponsive to this churning and certainly not after the 1991 election established the BJP as an alternative ideological pole.

The second factor was, doubtless to say, class. A Hindi-medium type could be brushed aside with a show of intellectual arrogance, but it was harder to completely disregard someone who had been to the ‘right’ school and college and was familiar with Anglophone social codes. Expediency demanded that the editorial class preserved a tiny corner for the ‘right-wing’ oddity. Of course, I was not alone: the battle against the consensus also included the likes of the redoubtable Girilal Jain and the crusading Arun Shourie.

From the 1990s to the election of 2014 has been an exhilarating roller-coaster ride. Old and dear friends have been lost and new ones made. Personal hardships have been offset by the professional achievement of having detected a trend that others were either too cowardly or disingenuous to acknowledge. Politicians have been friended and unfriended and hitherto ‘unfashionable’ causes have moved from the political fringe to the centre-stage. But these are incidental details in the larger ferment India has witnessed in the past 25 years.

As someone who had a ringside view of this political and intellectual transformation, I can readily admit that an electoral victory is only a small (and, perhaps, necessary) step in the larger battle for hegemony. The real relevance of Jawaharlal Nehru and, indeed, the Nehru-Gandhi family wasn’t merely that they governed India since 1947. Far more important was their role in shaping a Nehruvian common sense. Narendra Modi has won a decisive political encounter. But his role in history will be determined on the strength of one of two possible outcomes: either as the force that destroyed a dynasty or as a harbinger of an India that began to think differently.

I would like to think that chipping away at the old consensus at a time when it seemed quixotic helped in the creation of something better.
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