June 11, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
When will normal political philosophy replace personality cults?
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 11 2007,
A decade after Solzhenitsyn’s classic 1962 memoir One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, an ambitious young Delhi photographer published a hagiography called A life in the day of Indira Gandhi. Indira was shown gambolling with her little grandchildren, guiding her dutiful daughter-in-law, weeping for her father, greeting her loyal subjects from around India, reprimanding her ingratiating sycophants, imperiously silent during political meetings, smiling and scolding alternately at press conferences, and of course standing in victory at Shimla beside the defeated Bhutto. “Indira is India” the sycophantic slogan went, and the cult of her personality was one of showing her as omniscient and omnipotent in all earthly matters of Indian politics.
She had indeed fought that rarest of things in international law: the just war. Supported by the world’s strongest military, an evil enemy had made victims of his own people. Indira tried patiently on the international stage to avert war, but also chose her military generals well and took their professional judgement seriously as to when to fight if it was inevitable and how to win. Finally she was magnanimous (to a fault) towards the enemy ~ who was not some stranger to us but our own estranged brother and cousin.
It seemed to be her and independent India’s finest hour. A fevered nation was thus ready to forgive and forget her catastrophic misdeeds until that time, like bank-nationalization and the start of endless deficit-finance and unlimited money-printing, a possible cause of monetary collapse today four decades later under Manmohan Singh whose career as an economic bureaucrat began at that time.
Hitler, Stalin, Mao
Modern personality cults usually have had some basis in national heroism. In Indira’s case it was the 1971 war. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were seen or portrayed as war heroes too. Because there has been leadership in time of war or national crisis, nervous anxious masses extend their hopes and delusions to believe such a leader has answers to everything. The propaganda machinery available as part of modern state apparatus then takes over, and when it is met on behalf of the citizenry with no more than a compliant docile ingratiating mass media, the public image comes to be formed of a parental god-like figure who will protect and guide the community to its destiny.
Beneath this public image, the cunning play of self-interest by anonymous underlings in the allocation of public resources continues unabated, and so it is possible some truth attaches to the idea that an individual leader is not as responsible for evil misdeeds or depredations done by “the party” in his/her name.
In the Indian case, hero-worship and ancestor-worship are part of the culture of all our major religions. Hence we have parades of parliamentarians garlanding or throwing flowers and paying obeisance at this or that statue or oil-painting or photograph regularly ~ though as a people we have yet to produce rigorous intellectual biographies of any major figures of our own modern history, comparable to, say, Judith Brown’s work on Gandhi or Ayesha Jalal’s on Jinnah.
Indira continued to dominate our political culture until her assassination more than a decade later, but there was hardly a shred of political or economic good in what she left the country. Her elder son (leaving aside his blunders in Sri Lanka, J&K etc.) did have the sense to initiate fundamental change in his party’s economic thinking when he found a chance to do so in the months before his own assassination.
Rajiv was the son of Feroze Gandhi too and a happy family man; he seemed not to have psychological need for as much of the kind of personality cult his mother clearly loved to indulge in. It is not clear if his widow is today trying to follow his example or his mother’s ~ certainly, the party that goes by the name of Indian National Congress would like to relive for a second time the worst of the Indira personality cult around Sonia Gandhi. And Rahul Gandhi, instead of seeking to develop or display any talent as befits a young man, has shown disconcerting signs of longing for the days of his grandmother’s personality cult to return. He may have been more effective pursuing a normal career in the private sector.
The Congress’s perpetual tendency towards personality cults has extended by imitation to other political parties in New Delhi and the States. Atal Behari Vajpayee at his peak as PM did not find it at all uncomfortable to be portrayed by his sycophants as a wise, heroic and loving father-figure of the nation ~ an image shattered when, immediately after perfunctorily commiserating the Godhra and post-Godhra horrors, he was pictured fashionably on a Singapore golf-cart sporting designer sunglasses.
India’s organised communists make a great show of collective decision-making since they most intimately followed the details of Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult. It has not stopped them routinely genuflecting to China’s communists. There also has been a communist tendency to deny individual merit and creativity at junior levels and instead appropriate all good things for the party bosses. New brilliant faces will never arise in the Left and we may be condemned to see the usual characters in perpetuity. If personality cults around Jyoti Basu or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya have failed to thrive it has not been through lack of trying on part of the publicly paid communist intelligentsia and their docile artists, but rather because of resistance from Bengal’s newspapers and a few clear-headed journalists and well known opposition politicians.
Tamil Nadu has seen grotesque rivalry between Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha as to whose personality cult can alternately outdo the other, supplanting all normal political economy or attempts at discovery of the public interest. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, J&K, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (but not Gujarat or Rajasthan lately), two-party democratic politics has succeeded in limiting tendencies for personality cults to develop. The North Eastern States have had inadequate coverage by modern media, which, fortuitously, along with tribal traditions, may have restrained personality cults from developing.
Facts explode cults
Facts are the most reliable means by which to explode personality cults. It is not a coincidence that facts are also the source by which to develop modern political philosophies, whether conservative, classical liberal/ libertarian, or socialist. Facts have to be discovered, ferreted out, analysed, studied and reflected upon by those civil institutions that are supposed to be doing so, namely university social science, economics and related departments, as well as responsible newspapers, radio and other mass media. Julian Benda once titled a book The Treason of the Intellectuals. India will begin to have a normal political philosophy when the treason of its modern intellectual classes begins to be corrected.
It is not a treason in which the state has been betrayed to an enemy. Rather it is one in which the very purposes of public conversation, such as the discovery of the public interest, have been betrayed in the interests of immediate private gain. This may help to explain why there is so little coherent public discussion in India today, and certainly almost nothing on television, or in the business papers or what passes for academia.
June 1, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
US election ’08:
America’s Presidential Campaign Seems Destined To Be Focussed On Iraq
By Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman,
Editorial Page, Special Article, June 1 2007
Like baseball and American football, it is not easy to comprehend modern American politics from the outside world. The very idea that most American voters are either “Democrat” or “Republican” throughout or over much of their lives is itself a little odd. In an ordinary social or job-environment, a single Republican in a group of Democrats will feel uncomfortable as will a single Democrat in a group of Republicans.
Typically, each is in favour of some and against other specific “issues”, or, more accurately, specific political slogans. A Republican may be typically in favour of “free enterprise”, “limited government”, “a strong military”, and “family values”. A Democrat may be typically in favour of a woman’s “right to choose” (whether or not to abort a foetus), “gun control”, “universal health care” and tolerance of diversity. Republicans typically charge Democrats with being tax-raisers, profligate spenders of public money, soft on defence and crime, promoters of homosexual rights and generally daffy-headed hippies. Democrats typically charge Republicans with being stooges of the rich, oppressors of middle and working classes, proto-fascists and jingoists, and lunatic religious fundamentalists.
The mood is vicious, and in small social gatherings (even between husband and wife) tempers flare and can only subside by reference to some other neutral subject such as sports or by making a joke. Comedy is a major forum of political discussion and means of tension-release.
Greasy pole of power
A typical politician may rise from being an elected local official to running for the State legislature and thence running to be State Governor or a US Senator from the State, and thence either make a bid for the White House perhaps or fade away as a senior statesman. George W Bush was Governor of Texas, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Ronald Reagan of California, Jimmy Carter of Georgia. George Bush Sr became Reagan’s Vice President after being a Texas legislator, head of the CIA and UN Ambassador. Gerald Ford went from House Speaker to Vice President and then President due to collapse of the Nixon Presidency. Richard Nixon himself was Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President and before that an abrasive Senator from California. Eisenhower was not a politician but a retired soldier, the war-hero who led the Allies to victory, and became perhaps the most popular and competent of all modern US Presidents.
In a nutshell, American politics is about the reputations of individuals acquired along the way, which then their friends and allied interest groups seek to publicly enhance and their enemies seek to publicly destroy as they try to climb the greasy pole of political power. The media, especially television in the last fifty years, becomes pivotal, as each side tries to ferret out and expose publicly any dirty deeds of the other, or failing that, at least create a monstrous image based on a voting record in the public domain.
As the 2008 Presidential Election approaches, both major parties will witness ruthless slug-fests as candidates for the party’s nomination battle one another to see who is the last man/ woman standing. That person then gets to choose a Vice Presidential candidate, and the two form the “ticket” which will fight the other party’s ticket. This inter-party contest for the White House (and hence some 4,000 executive jobs in Washington DC for four years) has been compared by astute American observers to a nationwide popularity contest. It is certainly not the most reliable method in the 21st Century by which to find the wisest government of the world’s strongest (and perhaps most aggressive) military power.
The Iraq war has come to wholly dominate America’s current political debate. The number of American soldiers dead in Iraq is now well over 3,400 and climbing quickly; the number seriously wounded by roadside bombs etc is in the tens of thousands.
Among the Democrats, the perpetually ambitious Mrs Hilary Clinton is hard-pressed to explain how she, as Senator from New York State and someone with experience of her husband’s Presidency, backed his Republican successor’s jingoism and chose to be blind to all the official mendacity. She is unable to explain herself. Her rivals include Senator Barack Obama ~ the son of a black Kenyan graduate student in Hawaii and a white woman from Kansas, which, in American terms, brands him as black. He is a Harvard-trained lawyer married to a Harvard-trained lawyer, and though there is glamour and excitement in his candidacy as a young freshman Senator who voted against the Iraq war, it is inevitable many whites will see him as being a black man while at least some blacks will see him as being not black enough in not having been seared by the history of black people in America. His enemies have been already delighted to suggest he is Muslim with a middle name “Hussein” and that Obama rhymes with Osama. Such prejudices may be too much to overcome. The Democrats also include John Edwards of South Carolina, who was John Kerry’s running-mate in 2004, and who presently gains from being neither female nor black. It is not impossible once these and others like Governor Bill Richardson and Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd have bruised one another sufficiently, a heavyweight old candidate joins the Democratic race like Al Gore (who likely had beaten Bush in 2000). But Gore is now facing a personal obesity problem.
The leading Republican contenders are trying to outdo each other on harshness towards alleged terrorists trying to attack America (something which can simply mask racial and religious prejudices and sadism). Arizona Senator John McCain’s claim to fame is that he many years ago was a POW who suffered under the North Vietnamese. He was once seen as a reasonable politician but his outright support for Bush’s aggressiveness abroad goes against the 70% of voters who today think Bush has been dead wrong. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made his name by apparent efficiency and compassion during the 9/11 attacks. He now seems to see his task as one of outdoing McCain’s jingoism. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has positioned himself to seem the most “standard” candidate around; but he is a member of the Christian sect known as the Mormons, prejudice against whom remains deep in the country and Romney may eventually face the same uphill task as Obama.
New shoots of life
Surprise factors have been upstart anti-War candidates. Mike Gravel, a principled former Senator from Alaska, forced his fellow-Democrats to face up to their hypocrisy over Iraq and war in general. But Gravel is the longest of long shots, and lacks the power of any of the Democratic special interest groups on his side. Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul is the dark horse in the entire field at the moment. He is staunchly libertarian or “classical liberal” on principle, believes in a wholly non-interventionist American foreign policy, consistently voted against the Iraq war and has never voted in favour of raising taxes. He is the runaway favourite of the Internet where America’s real political discussion is increasingly taking place, and his grassroots support among both Republicans and Democrats opposed to the Iraq war is swelling fast. An obstetric surgeon by profession, Paul, at age 71, has been and remains married only once (an American rarity), and may well appeal to all sides of the political and economic spectra although his technical monetary economics is weak. What his emergence does show is how American democracy is yet able to spring healthy shoots of new life from within a decaying morass.
Correction : In my previous article “On Indian Nationhood”, it was said Independence came “forty years” after Montagu-Chelmsford when it was thirty years. The error is regretted. I had meant the Morley-Minto period of 1906-1908.