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India's Dharma of pragmatism

Tony Joseph 

Roderick Matthews
Hachette; Rs 599; 378 pages

I almost gave up on this book, but the commitment to write a review made me stick with it. That decision, I can now say, has been worth it. Despite a meandering start that takes up a third of the book, it finally comes to grips with the fundamental question: how does India make its seemingly unwieldy democracy stand up against all odds, even as its smaller neighbours find that difficult to do?

It is not that the answer is dramatic, but that the quest for the answer is engaging, as takes the reader through the twists and turns of democracy in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and comes up with valuable insights from a forest of events.

For example, why was the end of imperialism in India not accompanied by a social revolution or, as Winston Churchill predicted, ruinous internal squabbles?

The answer the author picks out is the non-ideological and consensual pragmatism that guided the leaders of Congress, unlike in the neighbouring countries where majoritarianism or exclusivism took early hold. "This was not some kind of aberration. Mainstream Indian politics remains generally pragmatic to this day; yielding little space to truly ideological parties." As proof, he puts forward the fact that even when governments change hands, existing policies largely continue while changes are gradual, as also the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s breakthrough to a national majority came in 2014 when it stood on its least overtly religious, and most emphatically materialistic platform ever.

Mr Matthews identifies many reasons for this strain of pragmatism, the first being the importance of Dharma. In Mr Matthews's view, Dharma and pragmatism are very closely linked since "is an understanding of the world as it is, not as it should be … It is an explanation of what is established, not a critique of it."

He also suggests another reason: the nature of the pre-Independence Congress. "Here was an ad-hoc body striving for practical ends through practical means, while challenging an enemy that raised no insuperable ideological barriers to Indian self-government. The British argument was that Indians were not yet ready to rule themselves; the Indian riposte was to behave responsibly. The ultimate Congress aim was always to take possession of the governmental machine without damaging it, and this acted as a running restraint on the range of actions and attitudes that the movement chose to adopt." Thus, the true legacy of the pre-Independence Congress, says Mr Matthews, was neither Gandhism nor socialism; it was pragmatism.

But if there's one stand-out event that set Indian democracy off to a good start, it was the intensive three-year exercise of making a Constitution - an experience that none of the other countries went through quite in that way, since many of them were gifted a Constitution. What guided the making of the Indian constitution were the principles that Gandhi espoused: that everyone who lived in India was an Indian, regardless of caste, creed or language; none were to be excluded, and none left behind. "The results were not perfect, and many of their aspirations are still only partially fulfilled … but much of what was agreed has worked much better than many expected."

The author paints a vivid contrast between the democratic trajectory of India and that of Sri Lanka, for example - the country that was generally expected to have had the easiest transition to popular democracy. The British had always viewed "Ceylon" as a contented, orderly colony, and its highly Anglicised elite eagerly received self-government in a swift and confident manner. The transfer of power was almost like a gentleman's agreement, and was accompanied by a minimum of protection for minorities. But in this atmosphere of serene tidiness, far too many dangers were ignored that could have been foreseen, writes Mr Matthews. "The result was a political system that was wide open to majoritarianism in a society that was not politically united or culturally uniform."

The very first step that the Sinhalese leadership took was disenfranchising "Estate Tamils" or Indian Tamils, thus effectively making about 10 per cent of the population stateless, and fragmenting a minority that formed 22 per cent of the population. Sinhala was then made the only official language, thus marginalising Tamils even more, and setting in motion events that led to the full-blown civil war that lasted a quarter century. In Mr Matthews's words, "The Sinhalese felt they had got their country back, but they were now armed with a new weapon - the potential bludgeon of majority rule. Few, if any, among the Sinhala elite seem to have recognised that to use their unassailable majority for partisan purposes would be to play with fire."

The end result, says Mr Matthews, is that there are troubling questions about the nature of democracy in Sri Lanka today - as also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, all countries that are yet to develop a culture of accommodation and pragmatism, and which lack a Constitution that has wide legitimacy and support. As far as India is concerned, "the original Congress concept of India has come into being, but the Congress itself has been left behind".

Now that a decisive break with the past has been recorded with the 2014 general elections, what lies ahead? Mr Matthews is optimistic about the future, though he does point out dangers. India as a state, ancient or modern, has been resistant to control by one individual and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he writes, has consistently talked the language of democracy. The danger that the author sees is in the Hindutva project that does not accept India as she is, but as she ought to be. "It is primarily a programme of social conformity and is much more about reducing diversity - by exclusion - than about solving real differences … The central belief is not that we would all be better off if we all learned to get along … it is that many of us are not behaving correctly, and we as a social unit would be better off if we all stuck to the same rules with as little deviation as possible and no dissent permitted."

Mr Matthews has written a book mostly on Indian democracy, but the patterns and insights he draws from all of South Asia should be of interest to democrats everywhere.

First Published: Tue, March 24 2015. 21:25 IST