Last week, Times Now’s Navika Kumar went to town berating those Muslim politicians who refuse to sing Vande Mataram. Ever since a part of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s poem was adopted by the Indian National Congress as the national song in 1937, some Muslims have rejected it as idolatrous. Hindutvavadi politicians know a wedge issue when they see one. They’re exploiting Vande Mataram fully by forcing students and legislators to sing it. Communally minded Muslim leaders are equally savvy, and have consolidated their base by lining up against mandatory singing.
There is symmetry in the motives of these Hindu and Muslim leaders, but no equivalence of logic. The conscientious objectors are right in pointing out there exists no constitutional or legal requirement for Indian citizens to sing the national song. I hope it stays that way. Those like me who heard it almost every day for ten years, have a Pavlovian response to it. It evokes memories and emotions that are good or bad depending on whether we liked or hated school. Since I fall in the “hated school” camp, I’m fully with the likes of Asaduddin Owaisi in not wanting to sing it. I just wish Owaisi and his ilk would be consistent in standing up for individual freedom in other cases. This would involve not demanding the arrest of writers who read from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, for example.
Getting back to the national song, during one of Navika Kumar’s prime time scream-fests on the subject, a panellist raised the issue of infant deaths in Gorakhpur, the constituency of Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who has been in the forefront of the make Vande Mataram mandatory movement. The Times Now anchor accused the panellist of “running away from the real issue”, and reaped a whirlwind of critical tweets.
The flowery praise of the motherland, described in Bankim’s verse as a giver of ease, contrasts rather harshly with news coming out of Gorakhpur. The clash of the two in the week leading up to the 70th anniversary of Independence exposes the gap between dreams of the Indian nation and the reality of India’s state.
Gandhi and Nehru
The primary nature of nations is symbolic, while states are political and economic entities. Put the two together and you get a composite creature called the modern nation state. Nation states combine an ideological realm, a sense of shared values and culture, with a practical domain defined by matters like citizens’ incomes, education levels, health, and safety.
Independent India took shape as a Gandhian nation and a Nehruvian state. The differences in their respective visions is obvious. One focused on non-violence, village life, and on respecting religious belief systems while reforming their inequitable social foundations; the other was internationalist, urbane, and concerned with economic progress through industrialisation. There was enough common ground in their shared ethic of autonomy, self-reliance, tolerance and pluralism for the Indian nation state to appear relatively coherent.
The state that developed under Nehru, however, possessed features he would be hard pressed to defend. It was dominated by a heartless bureaucracy with little accountability and no great concern for the powerless. Some would say it was largely a colonial inheritance. I believe this theory over-states the importance of the Raj, but don’t have space in this column to explain why. Whatever its origins, under Indira Gandhi the Indian state grew monstrous. It wasn’t as dreadful as certain other newly independent states, for sure, and could boast of a few bright spots, but was terrible by any objective measure.
Liberalisation led to a speeding up of economic growth, and a consequent reduction in levels of extreme poverty, but also an abdication by many in government of the state’s responsibilities. Amitabh Kant, a powerful bureaucrat about whom I wrote a recent column, exemplifies that abdication. Travelling to affluent regions of the world where governments provide excellent education, health care and security from cradle to grave, Kant returned not with a better comprehension of how the state could better invest in basic services and infrastructure, but a conviction that private capital was better suited to deliver those things.
Instead of developing a will to transform the state, we lost faith in the state’s potential in the era of liberalisation, and failed to harness the gains in revenue from a quarter century of high GDP growth. The state itself remained substantially unreformed through that process.
There have been a few alterations, I admit. Narendra Modi’s speech from the Red Fort on Independence Day highlighted technology-driven initiatives towards greater efficiency, for which he and the Bharatiya Janata Party deserve credit. Even Congress haters accept that the United Progressive Alliance’s institution of the Right to Information Act was a major step in making government more transparent. But these and similar pieces of legislation and programmes have not and will not change the fundamentally opaque, obstructive, and unresponsive character of the Indian state.
The Modi administration, like the Congress before it, has done almost nothing to make government officers more answerable to the public and to the criminal justice system. Corruption at the highest levels of the central government is by all accounts lower than it was under Manmohan Singh, but the layers of government with which most citizens interact are as rotten as ever. Instead of well thought out legislation promoting accountability, we have faced harmful stunts like demonetisation. Whistle-blowers from within the system, meanwhile, are guaranteed harassment and demonisation.
The dozens of preventable deaths in that Gorakhpur hospital last week encapsulate much of what is wrong with the state, as will the whitewash that is bound to follow. But such tragedies, though disturbingly common, make headlines all too infrequently. The talk on television channels and social networks revolves around nationalism and nationhood. We debate national boundaries, national songs, national traditions and national heroes. We argue about what goes in school books, what can be shown in films, what ought to be worn in college, whom we can desire. These and a dozen other issues related to culture and history that generate much heat and little light on prime-time debates are important. I do not want to diminish their significance, for nation states cannot be expected to exist without debates on the nature of the nation.
What is missing is an equally urgent discussion about the nature of the state. Absent that conversation, our idea of India becomes unbalanced. Nationalistic pride fills in for systemic shortcomings and inequities. Our sense of ourselves and our place in the world is uncoupled from the way most of us live.
One of the best basketball players in the world, Kevin Durant visited India last week to promote the game. Driving to the Taj Mahal, he was overwhelmed not just by the grandeur of the monument but by the squalor surrounding it. He came with no preconceptions of India, and naively spoke of how shocked he was by what he saw. He has since apologised for giving offence, probably prodded by a sponsor with business interests in India, and been subjected to racist abuse by Indians.
Durant’s unmediated response to what he saw is telling. The divide between the Indian nation and the Indian state is a bit like the gulf between the Taj Mahal and its surroundings. I hope a time will come when the symbolic and the practical will come closer together. However, I’m pessimistic about that happening because Indian thought is peculiarly comfortable with a separation between those two dimensions. The Ganga, no matter how filthy, is always perfectly pure.