BOOK: The Indian Ideology
AUTHOR: Perry Anderson
PUBLISHER: Three Essays Collective
Rajesh Sharma Delhi
New Left historian and political essayist Perry Anderson’s latest book The Indian Ideology (2012) appears at a time when several mainstream publications are proclaiming India’s arrival on the stage of world history. Many of these are truncated histories of the so-called arrival which, interestingly, do not go back beyond the 1990s. The self-defined limits are convenient as they sustain faith in the Indian ‘miracle’.
Anderson, however, digs further back, beginning with the country’s anti-colonial struggle under Gandhi’s leadership. His objective is to haul into light the historical unconscious of the Indian polity. In the process, he offers quite a few rational, historical explanations of several ‘miracles’, including those of India’s unity as a country and its stability as a democracy.
Anderson’s narrative is gripping, suitably spiced here and there, and supported by adequate notes and references that any serious work of history needs. He hammers away delicately but firmly at the gods of modern Indian historiography to undermine the “pieties” (pg 5) that have kept truth a prisoner of darkness for too long now.
Invoking Marx and Engels’s German Ideology, Anderson’s book sets out to test the ‘idea of India’ against the reality. That ‘idea’, comprising primarily the triune of democracy, secularity and unity, constitutes, according to him, the ideology of the Indian republic. Significantly, the historian in Anderson departs from his acknowledged ‘German’ intellectual predecessors in more clearly articulating ideology as grounded in history — in “the conditions and events that generated them” (pg 2). Yet, that does not mean he would deny the crucial agency of political leadership. On the contrary, he sometimes appears to be conceding too much power to personal agency as the producer and director of history.
The book is based on three essays published in the summer of 2012 in the London Review of Books. Anderson’s central argument is that the Indian State continues to bask in the memorial glow of the anti-colonial struggle, and this clouds its vision of the reality which is at serious odds with its ideology. While there is a fair degree of tolerance of criticism of the country’s track record as a democracy, the tolerance decreases when it comes to secularity, and disappears altogether when it comes to unity.
As a continuation of the nationalist movement, Indian democracy excludes, practically, vast sections of the people. Historically, he says, the Congress has been “controlled by a coalition of rich farmers, traders and urban professionals” (pg 110). If the exclusion of such large numbers of people has not translated into electoral retribution, the reasons lie in the linguistic diversity of India and in the entrenched divisive
system of caste.
The role of caste in the country’s political system has of course changed over the years since independence, yet “what would not change (is) its structural significance as the ultimate secret of Indian democracy” (pg 112).
He likewise questions the Indian State for the self-congratulatory noises it makes over secularism. He acknowledges, though, that the Indian State is more secular than the society (pg 145). Going back, he squarely holds Gandhi’s infusion of a Hindu imaginary into the nationalist discourse as the founding moment of the Indian State’s persistent ambivalence over secularism. Nehru too, Anderson rues, chose to succumb to Gandhi’s whims which had unpalatable consequences. Yet, this might have been unavoidable, he suggests, given the reality of India’s political culture.
Hence, his semi-exonerating verdict on the Congress that “the secularism of Congress had been a matter, not of hypocrisy, but of badfaith” (pg 139).
The historical narrative would have been richer if Anderson had treated the Indian Left’s fate and role as well, which he has chosen to keep out except for some passing observations. He does not explain the Left’s relative decline in India over the years, nor does it tell us why the Left — of all the political stakeholders — should possess effectively no agency to shape history. This sounds awkward in a work that seems to grant, as I said above, an excess of agency to even some individuals.
At places Anderson relies on inadequate sources, giving the impression of having selected the sources to suit the narrative. Although he does not often attenuate the historian’s rigour for the powers of polemical rhetoric, yet he sometimes does resign to the temptation.