A cynic might be forgiven for believing that the ‘idea of India’ bandwagon is now at some considerable risk of derailing from the sheer weight of the legions of writers who have, over the years, jumped onto it opportunistically. But that would be a harsh judgment to apply to two of the newest books to emerge in the genre, The Battle of Belonging and A New Idea of India, not least because these titles offer much food for thought and address the subject with an acuity and seriousness of purpose that are praiseworthy. The attractiveness of these books is further enhanced by the fact that they present diametrically opposed visions of the idea of India, which has the potential not only to make them valuable counterpoints to each other but also to bring luminosity to a debate which has tended frequently to generate more heat than light.
Both books are set on large canvases; they cover such themes as: the place of religion/secularism in contemporary India; the management of majority-minority relations; the rights and wrongs of identity politics; the continuing relevance of the ‘constitutional settlement’ that followed India’s independence from British rule; the contours – and implications – of nationality, nationhood and patriotism; the tensions between group rights and individual freedom; the importance to be accorded to ‘civilisational’ values as India transforms itself into a modern state with aspirations to be a global economic power; the challenges of governance, including striking the right balance between wealth creation and social justice; and making the rule of law a living reality to India’s teeming millions. Each of the books also deals with discrete issues which are either not dealt with or not covered as extensively in the other (their sub-titles, ‘On Nationalism, Patriotism and What it Means to be an Indian’ and ‘Individual Rights in a Civilisational State’, respectively, are only indicative of their contents up to a point, as often happens with expansive publications).
The key to understanding the rival viewpoints lies in the backgrounds and ideological orientations of the respective authors. Shashi Tharoor, whose writings over the past four decades have given him an enviable – and well-deserved – visibility within and outside India, comes into the debate from a distinctly soft left-liberal perspective (at least in socio-cultural terms), while Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri, young entrepreneurs who have written plenteously on issues such as the political economy for Swarajya, Mint and other publications, weigh in from a broadly right-wing, pro-Hindutva worldview. More important, in this context, are their party-political allegiances/affiliations: Gupta and Mantri are unabashed votaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party and of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular, while Tharoor remains attached to the Congress Party which he represents in the lower house of India’s parliament. These party allegiances come through starkly in the analyses.
If there is an overarching thesis that each of these books revolves around, it has to do with the nature of the modern Indian state. Gupta and Mantri are emphatic that “India is a civilisation and not just a post-colonial entity”. Their conception encompasses the idea of “individual rights in a civilisational state”, where Dharma occupies an important position:
Dharma is often understood as ‘righteousness’ but depending on the context many other meanings are possible – just as they are for the words ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ or ‘justice’. India’s political-philosophical grounding is open to all external influences, but is nonetheless not entirely derivative.
Tharoor, on the other hand, is convinced beyond peradventure that that conception is flawed, his preference being for a state which is to be identified with a definable territory under a Constitution that sharply delineates the contours of the law – such as the one enacted in India in 1950 – with equal rights of citizenship being bestowed on all those who live within it. Consequently,
The modern idea of India, despite the mystical influence of Tagore, and the spiritual and moral influences of Gandhiji, is a robustly secular and legal construct based upon the vision and intellect of our founding fathers, notably (in alphabetical order!) Ambedkar, Nehru, and Patel. The Preamble of the Constitution itself is the most eloquent enumeration of this vision. In its description of the defining traits of the Indian republic, and its conception of justice, of liberty, of equality and fraternity, it firmly proclaims that the law will be the bedrock of the national project.
Even as Tharoor engages with the civilisational debate – with extensive thoughts on his view of Indic civilisation – the burden of his song is that the Gupta/Mantri view of Indian civilisation is problematic for seeing it in purely Hindu terms.
The discussion in the books also encompasses an examination of the differences between a state and a nation, on the one hand (Tharoor), and between state and society on the other (Gupta and Mantri), and between the ‘salad bowl’/Indian ‘thali’ approach to integration of different communities in a mixed population (Tharoor) and the rival ‘melting pot’ approach (Gupta and Mantri). As perceptive readers may have surmised, all this is merely a build-up to the centrepiece of the debate, viz. the place, rights, entitlements and obligations of minorities in divided societies such as India. And on this point, the chasm could not be wider between the outlooks of Gupta/Mantri and Tharoor.
A curious aspect of this important but fraught debate overall has been that very few commentators have caught the bull, so to say, by its horns and tried to address two key, if uncomfortable, facts when discussing the subject: first, that the ‘minority problem’ in India has overwhelmingly been confined to Muslims (with a few stray cases involving Christians arising occasionally in relation to evangelist activities or when there have been localised attacks on churches); and, secondly, that the roots of the problem lie only peripherally in doctrinal disputes with Islam and more in the social and economic conditions in which most Muslims find themselves across the country. Allied to the second fact is another awkward issue, namely the extent to which the plight of the Muslims is attributable solely to discrimination and not to other factors such as what Hamid Dalwai, one of the community’s own reformers from Maharashtra, called ‘Muslim obscurantism’. Gupta and Mantri discuss this issue at some length, arguing that the need of the hour is root-and-branch reform within the community, including women’s emancipation through education and employment, and also, as many others have suggested, freeing them from the shackles imposed by self-appointed custodians of the faith. They make a further elemental point about the need to look at those belonging to minorities not as part of ghettoised groups but as individuals endowed with, and deserving of, rights personal to each of them, firmly repudiating the view (articulated by, among others, a US-based academic) that “[t]he idea of India has a clear place for minorities as minorities, not minorities simply as individuals”.
Tharoor’s exegesis, while long on a critique of the BJP’s – and its ideological allies’ – treatment of Muslims, is disappointingly short on any meaningful interrogation of the effects of decades of misguided policies adopted, often in pursuit of nakedly selfish objectives, by Congress governments going back to his political hero, Jawaharlal Nehru. As Gupta and Mantri acidly note:
…[T]he Congress party borrowed the Muslim League’s demagoguery … and adopted policies in state and Union governments that seek to enfeeble Muslims and keep them backward, thus maintaining its grip on political power … This mindset shackled India’s Muslims and kept India behind, for no nation can become developed if 15 per cent of its population remains economically and socially isolated.
For Tharoor to argue, given this undeniable reality, that charges of Muslim ‘appeasement’ levelled against the Congress party are “bizarre” – simply because Muslims continue to under-perform relative to other communities – would invite the retort that he is, among other things, unwilling to consider arguments which point either to Congress incompetence in delivering welfare in effective, targeted ways or its complicity in keeping Muslims poor and backward for partisan electoral advantage.
On the same theme, anyone looking for a discussion in the Tharoor book on, say, Rajiv Gandhi’s actions in relation to the Babri Masjid (1986-89), the Shah Bano case (1985) or Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) will be looking in vain, as would be anyone wanting to know about his mother, Indira’s, thinly-disguised attempt to stoke Hindu communalism during the Kashmir Assembly elections in 1983 (Tharoor may argue that some of those issues were discussed critically in a previous book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, to which reference is made in the bibliography to the present one, but reasonable readers will consider such sign-posting insufficient). A fairer analyst would have acknowledged that the manipulation of minorities in pursuit of power is not an exclusively BJP stratagem.
Selectivity in the choice of examples and arguments is, of course, not completely absent from the Gupta and Mantri book either. Many will look askance at, for example, the duo’s avoidance of any comment on the well-documented criticisms that the Modi government has attracted over the encouragement, whether by accident or design, of crony capitalism, the ham-fisted manner in which the demonetisation exercise of 2016 was carried out, or the avoidance by the Prime Minister himself of any opportunity to be questioned spontaneously and directly by the mass media through interviews of the kind that are the staple of free societies.
Even where Gupta and Mantri do identify shortcomings in the performance of the BJP government, they either deal with them perfunctorily or deflect the blame away from the executive branch of the government. A telling example relates to the pathetic performance of India in the matter of enforcement of contracts: the country was ranked 163rd in a league table of 190 jurisdictions surveyed by the World Bank in October 2019. The government’s unconscionable actions concerning the treatment of the Vodafone and Cairn arbitration results – which indicated a cavalier attitude to the honouring of binding legal commitments and which have the potential to make India a laughing stock in the world of global business – tell a story which is as harrowing as it is shameful, and which could have been dissected by Gupta and Mantri to give their readers a more rounded picture of the BJP government’s business-friendliness.
More generally as well, serious questions can be asked about the competence of the Modi government, especially when it comes to its oversight of the Indian judiciary. Even if the wilder conspiracy theories that have been swirling around in recent months about undue executive interference with the working of the courts are discounted, the fact remains that the government has failed abysmally in ensuring that the courts are fit for purpose – an obligation universally recognised as a minimum requirement for the maintenance of the rule of law. Tharoor makes some pertinent observations on the subject, which repay study, and no one can fault his conclusion that “considerable damage [has been] done over the Modi years to the institutional credibility of the Supreme Court”. But his criticisms would have carried greater conviction had he devoted some firepower to assailing the fundamental and lasting damage that successive Congress governments, notably those of Indira Gandhi, did to the judiciary since at least 1973, not to mention the crippling blows she and her henchmen delivered to that institution during the spurious state of emergency in 1975-77, the gory details of which have been retold very recently in an illuminating study of that period, India’s First Dictatorship, by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil.
Gupta and Mantri devote an entire sub-chapter to the ills plaguing the judiciary, and they deserve credit for throwing the spotlight on a number of worrying developments and trends, including notably: the runaway growth of judicial activism; the unsustainable entrenchment of the ‘basic structure’ doctrine which has concentrated a disproportionate amount of power in the judiciary at the cost of other organs of governance; the deeply-flawed collegium system under which, in an egregious and blatantly unlawful power-grab, the judges have arrogated to themselves the privilege of choosing other judges; and the scandalous manner in which public interest litigation has been allowed to ride roughshod over time-tested rules of standing and procedure to the detriment of the proper administration of justice. But this critique, welcome as it is, fails to identify many of the root causes of the malaise – a discussion of which would require more space than is available in this review – and offers solutions which are simplistic and superficial.
One of the arguments in the Tharoor book which has made headlines – and which the author has projected as a cardinal contribution to the debate on the idea of India – is that a distinction needs to be drawn between ‘ethnonationalism’ and ‘civic nationalism’. He defines the latter as
a concept that drives those states that derive their political legitimacy not from ethnicity, religion, language, culture, or any of the immutable trappings that people acquire from birth, but from the consent and active participation of their citizens, as free members of a democratic polity. Civic nationalism requires liberal democratic institutions, constitutionalism that guarantees freedom of speech and association, and representative democracy, and is therefore the form of nationalism most closely associated with the modern state.
By contrast, ethnonationalism (which Tharoor considers a “fundamental challenge” that the Hindutva movement has posed to people’s understanding of nationalism and which, in his view, is leading the country towards a ‘dictatocracy’) relies, he asserts, on the identities that a person is born into. Tharoor uses this phrase as a portmanteau term, ascribing many, if not most, of the shortcomings and misdemeanours – as he sees them – of the Modi government to this form of nationalism. Whether that scatter-gun approach aids or detracts from the case that he attempts to build against the Modi government – and the broader Hindutva movement – is debatable. So is the other central argument of the book, namely the differentiation that Tharoor attempts between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’ (he nails his colours firmly to the mast of patriotism, as can be expected). Constraints of space prevent a discussion of the implications, or even the robustness, of that line of reasoning, but an obvious riposte – at least from an unsophisticated reader – would be that it is little more than semantic nitpicking.
A more serious indictment of the Tharoor approach would be that, like all metropolitan elites (the ‘everywheres’ as opposed to the ‘somewheres’ in David Goodhart’s handy phraseology), he is disdainful, even contemptuous, of the implications of the democratic principle when they produce results that are not to his liking. A conspicuous example of this can be seen – apart from his excoriation of the Modi government which forms the raison d’etre of his book – in his verdict on the Brexit referendum vote in the United Kingdom: as well as characterising the result of that plebiscite as “mendacious xenophobia”, he loftily proclaims that it was “a crude affirmation of the ethnic nationalism of the ‘Little Englanders’, a far cry from the cosmopolitan multiculturalism propounded by that nation’s civic nationalists”. It is precisely this attitude that has produced all the ‘populist’ developments which he so stridently rails against. A little humility on the part of the rootless elites, many would argue, would not be out of place. Discerning readers will also wish that all three authors had shown a greater willingness to shed their tribal allegiances to their respective parties and acknowledged, as those in similar positions frequently do in the more mature democracies, the imperfections and weaknesses of their own side while still robustly defending broader policy positions and objectives.
All that having been said, there is so much else in both these books that offer intellectual nourishment of a high order, and for that reason alone they need to be warmly welcomed. Aesthetes will also be heartened to note that, contrary to the depressing trends in contemporary Indian writing and publishing, the quality of prose as well as the standard of proofreading in both volumes is noticeably high. Such imperfections as remain (in the case of the Gupta/Mantri book, occasional inelegant sentence constructions, and in the case of the Tharoor volume, a slipshod back index) are, in the larger scheme of things, wholly excusable. Writings such as these bode well for a resurgence of the culture of scholarship that has, alas, seen a sharp decline in India in recent decades, and it is a matter to be celebrated that public discourse is now being enlivened by meaningful participation from the younger generation (Gupta and Mantri) even as it continues to be enriched by provocative outpourings from seasoned commentators (Tharoor).