Max Desfor / Corbis / AP Nation builders: Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in Bombay, 1946.

India and Ideology

Why Western Thinkers Struggle With the Subcontinent

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The Indian Ideology. By Perry Anderson. Verso, 2013, 192 pp. $19.95. 

According to Perry Anderson’s new book, The Indian Ideology, India’s democracy -- routinely celebrated as the world’s largest -- is actually a sham. It is fatally compromised by its origins in an anticolonial struggle led by the “monolithically Hindu” Congress party, which Anderson holds largely responsible for the bloodiness of the partition of the British-ruled subcontinent in 1947. Anderson describes India’s most famous leader, Mahatma (“Great Soul”) Gandhi, as a crank and a “stranger” to “real intellectual exchange.” Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s political disciple and India’s first prime minister, was a mediocrity. And both of these upper-caste maladroits were considerably inferior to their sharpest critic, B. R. Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalits (low-caste Hindus) and the main framer of India’s constitution. 

In Anderson’s telling, Nehru, who inherited the colonial “machinery of administration and coercion,” entrenched dynastic rule, thus blighting India’s political progress and failing to make an effort “to meet even quite modest requirements of social equality or justice” for the Indian poor. The much-vaunted secularism that Nehru bequeathed to India was nothing more than a cover for “Hindu confessionalism,” which is enforced to this day in the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir, where Indian troops and paramilitaries enjoy a “license to murder” that is even broader than the one their British predecessors exercised during colonial times. Yet despite these compound flaws, liberal Indian intellectuals continue to “fall over themselves in tributes to their native land,” exalting what Anderson deems to be fabricated notions of its diversity, unity, secularism, and democracy.

Such severe criticism of India was once routine. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Western observers ceaselessly deplored the country’s deficient democracy and ineffectual protectionist economy. In the last decade, however, India’s reputation in the West as a respectable counterweight to authoritarian China and an economic powerhouse in its own right has been steadily rising. Thus, Anderson’s indictment of “the Indian ideology” provoked much distress and outrage among India’s left-leaning intelligentsia when it originally appeared last year as a series of essays in the London Review of Books. This reaction was at least partly a result of the fact that the Anglo-Irish author is, as the journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2006, “the most polymathic, and at the same time the most profound, essayist currently wielding a pen” -- in addition to being one of the English-speaking world’s foremost Marxist historians and critics.

But Anderson is no flighty herald of revolution. Rather, for more than two decades, he has asserted that liberal capitalism is the ne plus ultra of political and economic life on earth. His advice to the left is to abandon its hopes for socialism and embrace an ideal of “uncompromising realism.” As Anderson sees it, today’s leftist intellectuals are compromised by their academic affiliations and have rendered themselves irrelevant with their unfathomable prose. Indeed, he finds more to admire in neoliberal prophets and partisans of globalization, such as Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman, who in Anderson’s view have “provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has stopped, after another.” Anderson reserves particular antipathy for bourgeois democrats and liberal internationalists who appear to deny or resist the steady “flattening” of the world by omnipotent neoliberalism.

It should be no surprise, then, that in his first foray into South Asian politics and history, he has sought -- and found -- evidence of delusion and self-delusion in Indian assertions of national and civilizational exceptionalism. Anderson’s Indian critics have accused him of quasi- imperialist condescension, Orientalist caricature, and ignorance. But Anderson can easily swat such charges away. He has spent more time and energy than most of his Indian critics in excoriating the pretensions of the British ruling class, and he even briefly partook of the Third Worldist fervor of the 1960s. His large and varied body of work belongs to a tradition of Enlightenment universalism that both Max Weber and Karl Marx reflected in different ways. His belief in rationalism -- which presupposes that the basic laws of history can be known with certainty and that this knowledge can help bring about freedom and justice anywhere in the world -- distinguishes Anderson from those callow supremacists who condemn the East to insuperable backwardness by proclaiming that the West was, and is, best.

In any case, it would be hard to argue with many of his judgments. Anderson is unanswerable when he points to a consistent Indian pattern of silence, evasion, and distortion about India’s military occupation of Kashmir and its attendant regime of extrajudicial execution, torture, and detention. Many readers will be struck by the evidence Anderson adduces of the insidious dominance of upper-caste Hindus in every realm of social and political life and by his portrait of the primordial politics of caste and religion, which have enshrined a patrimonial state built on nepotism and dynasty worship. Admirers of Gandhi and Nehru will encounter many awkward facts, especially regarding their roles in the partition of India, a calamity usually blamed on British colonial administrators and Indian Muslim leaders.

But even those who assent to most of his criticisms might balk at following Anderson to his final destination, which is to bluntly deny India much of a future in the modern world. This world-historical pessimism is made possible largely by his reflexive distrust of religion and caste and his indifference to the distinctive characteristics of India’s politics and economy. For all its lapidary elegance and caustic energy, Anderson’s bleakness is a no more reliable guide to India than pro-globalization utopianism, with its cheery promises of imminent Indian superpowerdom, or than the more recent angry disillusion in the West about India’s economy, an attitude that has resurrected nineteenth-century European images of India’s incorrigible backwardness and venality. 

FAITH OF OUR FATHERS

Students of Marxism’s history in Asia will perhaps be less surprised than Indian liberals by some aspects of Anderson’s critique, particularly his caustic appraisals of Gandhi and Nehru. In 1939, Leon Trotsky summed up a widespread Marxist suspicion when he denounced Gandhi as an ally of bourgeois capitalism -- “a fake leader and a false prophet.” The problem, for Trotsky and other communists, was that Gandhi had appropriated the left’s form of popular anticolonialism but opposed the Marxist trajectory of proletarian revolution. Marx had seen India as a morass of superstitious, caste-ridden village communities, which industrialization might have made fit for revolution. But Gandhi, deeply hostile to scientism and industrialism, actually advocated the re-creation of self-sufficient village communities. 

Anderson’s assessment of Nehru is also fairly standard Marxist fare, but Anderson brings to it a special vigor and personal distaste. Nehru was often dismissed by American cold warriors as a pro-Soviet socialist. But as Anderson points out, the “conservative coalition” of upper-caste Hindus who led the anti­­colonial movement “neither required nor welcomed an awakening of the poor.” When unable to secure hegemony through consent, Nehru and his upper-caste-dominated state resorted to coercion, repressing India’s minority populations through military rule and draconian laws. In this Marxist vision of India’s revolution, the leaders of the Congress party enlisted the masses in the struggle only to ignore them after independence, instead manipulating the resources of the state to advance the interests of their own castes, classes, and communities. 

Anderson writes that a “rigid social hierarchy was the basis of [India’s] original democratic stability,” in the first three decades of independence. This arrangement was altered by the rise of anti-Congress Dalit political parties in the 1980s, most visibly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where one of them has periodically held power ever since. The unleashing of Dalit energies has also restored Ambedkar to his rightful place in India’s political and intellectual history. Anderson is a forceful supporter of the scholarly Dalit leader, who was the main author of India’s constitution before breaking with his uniformly upper-caste associates. At the same time, the secular rationalist in Anderson cannot endorse the “compartmentalized identity politics” of Ambedkar’s latter-day followers, including politicians such as Mayawati, formerly the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who have become known primarily for corruption and for building grand public monuments to themselves. These prodigal retailers of collective dignity seek not “to abolish caste, as Ambedkar had wanted, but to affirm it,” Anderson writes.

Anderson argues that an even greater impediment to India’s progress is the continuing role of religious faith in politics. Postcolonial India has yet to recover from Gandhi’s injection of “a massive dose of religion -- mythology, symbology, theology -- into the national movement.” The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the emergence of which in the 1980s reshaped Indian politics and culture, is merely the latest symptom of that initial contamination. In Anderson’s eyes, Hinduism is written into India’s genetic code. But India’s primary religion contains a broader range of practices and beliefs than Anderson assumes. Amorphous and protean, Hinduism cannot be used for prolonged political mobilization on confessional grounds alone, as the BJP has discovered; whatever primeval furies it evokes must be combined with rational calculations based on other factors, such as class and caste loyalties. 

Anderson does not see how Hindu nationalism has become intertwined with economic liberalization. Beginning in the early 1990s, the growth and opening up of India’s economy triggered a middle-class demand for ruthlessly technocratic leaders, along with militant disaffection among those left, or pushed, behind by the state and private business. More recently, a bourgeois elite, which feels besieged by the increasingly assertive have-nots, has begun casting around for sturdier leaders to replace its tainted idol, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose economic reforms, once much loved, are now widely regarded as populist sops to the poor. These groups, along with the country’s corporate titans, hope that India’s next prime minister will be the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who is best known for his suspected complicity in the murder of more than a thousand Muslims during riots in the state in 2002. Owing to these accusations, the U.S. government has barred Modi from entering the United States. But despite (or perhaps because of) his condemnation abroad and at home, Modi, who has presided over strong economic growth in his home state, has leveraged his reputation as a tough guy and transformed himself into a no-nonsense champion of India’s long-overdue economic modernization. 

Anderson’s description of the rise and appeal of the Hindu right misreads this history. He attributes Hindu nationalism’s ascent to the fact that by the 1990s, “the social promises of Congress had faded, markets and money filled the air-waves, customary expectations and inhibitions were eroded. In such conditions, anomic modernization unleashed a classic reaction of religious compensation.” This sociological explanation elides a peculiar dynamic of Indian politics: it has empowered politicians such as Modi, but its increasingly fragmentary nature can also thwart their ambitions. To extend his appeal outside his relatively small electoral base of anti-Muslim Gujaratis and middle-class Indians, Modi must now present himself to the rest of India as an economic reformer. But this immediately brings him into collision with the many Indians angry at their economic and social marginalization in recent years, not to mention those who vote in national elections for a myriad of regional and caste-based parties. 

A MILLION MUTINIES

A deeper problem is that Anderson’s obsessive focus on the intersection of politics and religion in India distracts him from examining the successes and failures of those who do not deploy religion as a political weapon: the relatively secular left. India’s communist parties have frequently held power in two major Indian states, Kerala and West Bengal, since the late 1950s. Since 2004, they have propped up Singh’s coalition government, exacting his support for social welfare policies as the price for their backing. Meanwhile, the militant Maoist (or Naxalite) peasant movement that began in West Bengal in the late 1960s has mutated, after a long gestation, into an uprising against mining corporations in central India, and the Maoists remain so prevalent -- they are present in one-third of India’s districts -- that Singh has described them as India’s “greatest internal security threat.” The country also faces a range of other secular-minded agitators, from farmers fighting their dispossession to make way for big dam projects to a movement to carve out a new state in a neglected region of southern India called Telangana; fierce protests, featuring more than a dozen acts of self-immolation, recently forced New Delhi to accede to the movement’s demands and begin the process of establishing the new state.

A Marxist examining this variety of political movements might conclude that the contradictions that emerged in 1947 between a bourgeois-ruled Indian state and the mass of India’s people -- especially the poor, the low caste, and minority groups -- have been rendered starker by the new inequalities of global capitalism. Uneven growth seems likely to lead to greater fragmentation and regionalization, especially as the ruling elite loses cohesion and credibility. Certainly, the current clamor by minorities for more small states and greater autonomy is likely only to get louder. Such ferment confirms India’s democracy to be an extraordinarily volatile experiment, one that leftists as well as liberals ought to closely monitor. But the rapid decline of, and challenges to, the central state’s legitimacy fails to draw Anderson’s attention.

India’s million mutinies also make the politics of its rival, China, appear insipid, as the once-revolutionary Chinese masses now timidly acquiesce to an imperious state and tawdry consumerism alike. Anderson, however, sees historical progress and what Hegel called “the cunning of reason” manifesting themselves more firmly in China than in India. Based on assumptions that owe more to Weber than to Marx, he seems to believe that China offers a better model for how to abolish feeble ideologies and superstitious practices and achieve authentic modernity in non-Western countries.

Anderson correctly argues that India’s independence, expedited by British enfeeblement during World War II, did not result in the widespread provision of public goods, such as primary education and health care. India’s bourgeois rulers also failed to achieve control of domestic politics through either consent or coercion. As for the Chinese, they founded their republic through success on the battlefield. The victory of the People’s Liberation Army, as Anderson has written, "far from leaving the economy and society ravaged, delivered recovery and stability. Inflation was mastered; corruption banished; supplies resumed. In the countryside, landlordism was abolished. . . . The People’s Republic, embodying patriotic ideals and social discipline, entered life enjoying a degree of popular assent that the Soviet Union never knew."

Meanwhile, more than a century after Marx warned against them and hoped for their eradication by modern science and industry, caste consciousness and religious belief remain sources of bitter division in India and deprive the country of the cohesion and collective energy necessary for national reconstruction. As Weber defined it, true modernity is “a world robbed of gods,” and in Anderson’s surprisingly Weberian view, India’s revolutionaries failed to grasp this as thoroughly as China’s, who carried out "a complete demolition of scriptural Confucianism, which had been the ruling doctrine of China’s socio-political order and the moral framework of educated life since Han times. Within a few years, virtually nothing was left of it: an achievement no opponents of any comparable creed, world religions -- Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist -- occupying a similar position in the ideological firmament of their civilizations, have ever matched."

Anderson sees both the ineffectually liberal and the overtly feudal and invariably sectarian-minded Indian leaders who inherited an independent state from Gandhi and Nehru as having botched their country’s progress. Meanwhile, their Chinese counterparts, inspired by a Leninist ethos, have remained “radical, disciplined, imaginative -- capable at once of tactical patience and prudent experimentation, and of the boldest initiatives and most dramatic switches of direction.”

Anderson accuses postcolonial Indian intellectuals of peddling an “Indian ideology” infused with their views of India’s founders as awe-inspiring men who led a triumphant revolution and presided over a formidable state apparatus. But his own paean to Chinese leaders exhibits a similar romanticism. Perhaps this reflects the ideological disorientation of the early twenty-first century. Or perhaps Anderson’s contrasting views on India and China are consistent with his praise for Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis and with his own admiration for the ideological insouciance of his neo­liberal adversaries. Convinced of a new inevitability in human affairs, Anderson admires China’s technocratic elites for confidently charting their country’s progress to capitalist modernity. And he cannot help but dislike an Indian ruling class that, lurching between a hollow liberalism and a debilitating Hindu confessionalism, fails to get with it.

IRON CAGES

The relentless harshness of The Indian Ideology suggests that, as far as Anderson is concerned, “populations as steeped in the supernatural as those of South Asia” may find it impossible to enter Weber’s “iron cage” -- or “the Golden Straitjacket,” in Friedman’s phrase -- of modernity. It may actually be harder for observers of South Asia to liberate themselves from the iron cage of Western interpretative categories. Anderson, too, assesses India, and its potential for even incremental change, by reference to the sociopolitical ingredients it lacks as opposed to the ones it has. He laments that in India, “caste, not class, and alas, least of all the working-class, is what counts most in popular life.” It seems as though Anderson believes that caste cannot be a viable basis for social solidarity and political change. But had he shifted his gaze southward from Uttar Pradesh’s self-monumentalizing Dalit leaders, he would have noticed how low-caste Hindus in the state of Tamil Nadu, although also mired in personality politics, have created a social and political movement that has won power and turned the state into a national exemplar of social welfarism.

Religious beliefs and the fear of losing traditional livelihoods shape the political resistance of many Indians in rural areas to aggressive government projects and profit-driven corporate initiatives. But neither the scientific materialist nor the admirer of enlightened bureaucratic states in Anderson is likely to have much time for the tribal peoples in eastern India who recently refused to open up a mountain they consider sacred to a bauxite-mining corporation. Anderson doesn’t seem well placed, either, to grasp that for these irrational folks, who fail to prostrate themselves before the modern gods of economic growth, no entity in their cosmology seems more occult, minatory, and unappeasable than the instrumentally rational states and interconnected markets that threaten their traditions and local economies. Indeed, Anderson’s avowal of the left’s historical defeat slides too easily into resentment of such people, who have failed to shake off their Eastern superstitions and appreciate the Western virtues of reason and enlightenment. It is as though the Marxist worldview, denuded of its original liberationist energy, can only betray its origins in the commercial society of western Europe and the reflexive credence both Marx and expansionist burghers gave to the all-conquering logic of Homo economicus.

A PLURAL MODERNITY

Ultimately, the question is whether Anderson’s post-Marxist realism, or any other Western analytic framework, can accommodate the complex effects of modernity in India: sometimes baneful and disturbing but also emancipatory -- often at the same time. Western observers need to entertain the possibility that institutions of democracy, capitalism, and secularism develop exceptional features in non-Western settings. They must abandon the conventional expectation of most Western sociologists and political scientists -- be they Marxist, liberal, or neoconservative -- that these quasi-hybrid political forms ought to fit the European norm and that the present and future of Asia should resemble the pasts of Europe and the United States. 

Such a radical dismantling of intellectual assumptions -- which are rooted in a seemingly ineradicable faith in progressive secularization -- would no doubt discomfit Anderson. It would mean acknowledging that the appeal of Modi among the Indian elite today is based less on Hindu confessionalism and other Indian superstitions than on his projected aura of hypermodernity: the very combination of Leninist severity and Henry Ford–style managerial efficiency that Anderson prizes in China’s post-Mao technocrats. It would involve recognizing that Anderson’s exhortation to Indians to banish the specters of caste and religion from the festival of modernization makes Anderson more akin intellectually to the ostentatiously rational Nehru than to Anderson’s hero, Ambedkar, who found in Buddhism an egalitarian alternative to oppressive Hindu hierarchies (a crucial aspect of the Dalit leader’s intellectual biography that Anderson ignores). 

To propose a plural fate for modernity in the non-Western world is not to suggest that the trajectory of politicized caste, ethnicity, and religion in India or elsewhere leads inevitably to the universal affluence dreamed of by socialists in the past and flat-earth globalizers in the present. For latecomers to modernity, progress of any kind, whether for landless Dalits or gated communitarians in Bangalore, is invariably accompanied by great losses and, as India’s faltering economy shows, is far from being continuous or irreversible. Anderson seems alert to the struggles ahead for China, a place of “colossal social energy and human vitality,” where, he has written, with characteristic acuity, “emancipation and regression have often been conjoined in the past; but never quite so vertiginously.” A similar dialectic of modernity convulses India today, but it will remain invisible to those in the West who assess the country’s economic battles with reference to GDP statistics alone or fail to see through the politics of caste and religion to the wider contests for justice, dignity, and freedom.

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