July issue 2009

By | Books | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

A Time of Transition: Rajiv Gandhi to the 21st Century by Mani Shankar Aiyar is surely a book which needed to come out at this time in the subcontinent to reaffirm the secular basis for Indian democracy, as laid down by its founding fathers, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. This concept has been owned and carried forward by the Congress Party, albeit without much conviction at times. The secular basis has been reaffirmed strongly by Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress leadership under Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. The recent elections have underscored the faith of the Indian electorate in a development agenda and a secular polity. This scenario is highly reassuring for the people of South Asia, who are multicultural and multiethnic, and could not live peacefully in any less liberal and tolerant polity.

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a ‘secular fundamentalist’ in his own words. He has written a major book on that theme, which argues strongly that the only possible underpinning for India’s politics and governance is secularism, suitably modified for Indian conditions — which is not ‘la dinyat’ or no religion but an acceptance that India is a land of many religions and beliefs, and that they must all be accepted and have mutual toleration; none can be majoritarian and intolerant. Aiyar argued his case strongly and with tremendous credibility in his earlier book, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist. In this book, he has taken a slightly different angle on the issue.

A Time of Transition is a collection of articles written by Aiyar. After his defeat in the elections of 1996, when Congress was in opposition, Aiyar became a columnist, first for India Today and then the Indian Express. The columns published in this volume were written for the Indian Express during the period from August 1998 till the elections of April/May 2004. Aiyar, a witty and opinionated writer, has put together a brilliant and uniquely insightful commentary on the Indian political scene of the era.

He has chosen Nehru’s legacy of democracy and secularism as the theme for this book, which is woven around Rajiv Gandhi’s interpretation of Nehru’s ideas and ideals. Aiyar argues that Rajiv was very aware that the philosophical basis for India and the direction it should take had been set by Nehru, i.e. secularism and democracy as the only possible direction India could adopt, to reflect the essence of its its true nature.

The book is dedicated to the late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber on May 21, 1991. It was his association with Rajiv Gandhi that brought Aiyar to politics at the end of his diplomatic career. He had been a schoolmate of Rajiv Gandhi at the Doon School, and when Gandhi became prime minister after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, he appointed Aiyar as one of his closest advisers. Rajiv analysed the situation India found itself in at the end of the 20th century and felt that the message of Mahatma Gandhi and the legacy of Nehru — the carefully worked out political basis for a healthy growth of the Indian society — had been diluted, if not completely lost. Rajiv Gandhi thus set out to re-establish the Gandhi-Nehruvian principles for Indian polity.

We are told that Rajiv felt strongly that, despite all the hype about India being the largest democracy in the world, it was still the least representative — a mere 5,000 or so legislators representing nearly a billion people in the national and state legislatures. In his view, India’s economic progress had not benefited its masses: “The successful Indian has the best style of life of anyone anywhere in the world, while the unsuccessful Indian languishes at 128 on the Human Development Index.”

Aiyar quotes Rajiv Gandhi’s speech at the Nehru Memorial Centenary Lecture on November 13, 1989, which is so relevant to conditions in Pakistan that I make no apology for quoting it extensively: “As I travel around the villages of India, I feel the seething tension of expectations being totally at variance with reality and realistic possibilities. Because our young men and women have been brought up to look to government authority as the provider of all things good and bad, there is a kind of abnegation of responsibility for one’s own development or the development of the local community to which one belongs. There is, therefore, little appreciation, in terms of resource mobilisation and resource development, of what is required for the development process to proceed apace. Unrealistic expectations are encouraged and then matched to a widening belief that development is a matter of establishing the right contacts, and hoping that nepotism will bring results since the outcome does not appear to be related to merit.”

How true all this is for Pakistan too. It is almost an indistinguishable situation.

mani-bookAiyar further quotes Rajiv: “It is an explosive situation. The only way of preventing the explosion from taking place is to end the present alienation of the individual from the development process. Paternalistic planning must give way to participatory planning. Implementations from above must yield to implementation in cooperation with the people and their representatives. There must be representative institutions at the grassroots, entrusted with real powers and real responsibilities, for administration to be truly responsive to the people’s felt needs and articulated aspirations.”

It has to be said that this analysis of the grassroots realities of the subcontinent are as true of Pakistan as they are of India, and it makes sense that solutions should be worked out together for the people of South Asia to finally pull themselves up from the quagmire of poverty and hopelessness. Aiyar gives us the Rajiv Gandhi solution to these basic problems in four fundamental principles on which to base the government policy. These he identifies as: 1. Secularism; 2. Democracy; 3. Socialism; and 4. Non-alignment.

Rajiv Gandhi and Aiyar give the principle of secularism the primary position in the hierarchy of principles underlying Indian polity. Aiyar bases the principle of secularism as a founding principle of India on Nehru’s declaration in 1951: “If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both as the head of government and from outside.”

The author further quotes Rajiv Gandhi:  “ … We in India are the inheritors of a great historical experience in organising a multilingual, multiethnic, multireligious, multicaste, multiregional society. The global village of the new technology has to learn from our experience the basic lesson of how humanity is to live together, not in segregated states but as one human family.” Rajiv goes on to talk of “unity in diversity” as the chief characteristic of Indian civilisation. This unique culture, he asserted, is open to the best of influences, and its continuing theme has been synthesis. He concluded definitively that “Secularism is our answer to those who seek religious domination, to those who demand a position of privilege for the dominant religious community as the quid pro quo for letting the minorities even exist.”

India has seen blatantly anti-secular and minority bashing activities, both against Muslims (in the notorious demolition of Babri mosque and the riots in Gujarat) and Christians (the active persecution in the eastern states.) But the promise made by Nehru and repeated by Rajiv Gandhi allows the moderate forces to recoup their strength and remind the political forces that secularism is the foundation of India’s status in the world.

Rajiv was talking in an atmosphere in India that had been vitiated by the pusillanimous conduct of the Congress government under Narasimha Rao, who practically stood by in silence while the Babri mosque was demolished and efforts were made to build a temple on the site. On the paralysis of the so-called secular Congress government, Aiyar commented: “The prime minister has shown that death is not a necessary precondition for rigor mortis to set in!”

It was from this post-Babri mosque low in India that the Rajiv Gandhi school of thought tried to rescue Indian politics and bring it back to the secular path.

The second of the four themes that Rajiv wanted to base his political philosophy on was democracy. He believed that while India was the world’s largest democracy, it was the least representative. He wanted local empowerment and local decision-making so that the Indian people felt part of the great self-governing experience. Rajiv made panchayati raj the vehicle for delivering this part of his programme. This was part of Mahatma Gandhi’s programme for India, which was forgotten with his assassination. The Congress under Rajiv wanted to revive that idea to ingrain democracy at the grassroots level. Rajiv granted “constitutional status, sanctity and sanction to panchayati raj.” Aiyar claims that this ushered in an astonishing social revolution on a scale without precedent in history or parallel in the contemporary world. Noteworthy is the fact that Aiyar himself was a panchayati minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet from 2004 to 2009, helping to realise Rajiv’s dream: “Deep-seated transformation of inegalitarian economic and social structures cannot be undertaken without deep-seated political transformation. We want to create, at the grassroots, a responsive leadership which, because it is responsible to the people, cannot hide behind the tired clichès and well-worn formulae of the past, but has to find new solutions relevant to the new challenges. We intend to endow these bodies with maximum democracy and maximum devolution.”

The third plank of the Rajiv agenda, as explained by Aiyar, was socialism. In his tribute speech for Rajiv Gandhi, Aiyar stated that socialism had lost its position as a leading political system in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. But there was, according to Aiyar, space at least for socialist ideas and its ideals to temper the hard and cruel world of triumphant capitalism. Rajiv, Aiyar tells us, actively supported Indian socialism: “He believed deeply in our socialism, not perhaps the socialism of the well-known text books, but socialism based upon compassion for the common man, a socialism based upon using the gifts of knowledge, of science and technology, for the advancement of the humblest and the poorest.”

Aiyar goes on to mourn the passing of the great ideal of socialism: “I regret its passing. Perhaps I am alone among my peers in proclaiming myself a socialist.” He argues that the poorest of the people in India need socialism to rise from their trap of poverty, and that capitalism cannot provide the same tools to help the umpteen millions who grind out their lives at the very bottom of our society in South Asia. He places Rajiv at the centre of the idea that the socialism of Nehru needs to be revamped and revived to get India out of its poverty trap. Unless the poor are given the support they need to escape from the lower strata of society, goes Aiyar’s philosophy, India can never realise its true potential. I think the following particular paragraph of the book is equally true of Pakistan’s situation post-independence:

“… Everyone then saw that a century-and-a-half of unimpeded liberalisation and unfettered globalisation as part of the British Empire had, indeed, given us enclaves of unprecedented prosperity and world class infrastructure (the largest rail network in the world, for example), but left the nation as a whole growing at an annual average of no more than 0.73%—1.22%, a byword for death by famine, a cesspool of misery. The state … had to intervene if India was to be raised from her wretchedness.”

Aiyar asks: “What of the 836 million who are not strong enough to stand on their own in even the domestic, let alone the global, marketplace?” The present day ‘successful Indian’ — the present day middle-class — rose out of poverty using the tools provided by socialist policies of education and opportunity, yet they then became so adamantly capitalist that they denied those very tools and that ladder to those who were still in the poverty trap. Rajiv saw panchayati raj or local self-government as the best way out of powerlessness and deprivation. He believed that the state needed to reach out to the people by promoting grassroots development through grassroots democracy, and that the people needed to be given a common stake of political stability and economic progress.

The fourth point of Gandhi’s agenda was non-alignment, an idea initiated by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Tito of Yugoslavia and Nehru of India, that was realised in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and created a neutral bloc in the time of the Cold War. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, however, the world is now unipolar and it is difficult to see the way forward for non-alignment. But perhaps the resisters of the unipolar world could find some relevance in the idea. Certainly, Aiyar himself did try when he started the negotiations for the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline agreement, which was sacrificed for the India-US nuclear deal and for which he lost the petroleum ministry once that plan went through. Non-alignment no longer seems to be an aim of Indian foreign policy.

Mani Shankar Aiyar has brought out a very relevant book for our times and for our part of the world. Pakistanis need to take note of it almost as much as the Indian reading public. But apart from the philosophy and the ideas, which are surely the most suitable for our conditions, the book also provides extremely interesting articles about Indian politics in what Aiyar calls the ‘time of transition.’ With its superb writing and wit, this book is hugely entertaining and instructive reading.