“After Nehru” by Perry Anderson

With all these authoritarian ruling of the Indian state, India never became a dictatorial regime. For Anderson, the reason was that Nehru and Congress faced so little political opposition and it was almost like ‘one-party democracy’, and thus “it was quite unnecessary” to do so.


BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR

Anderson begins his article with criticisms on Indian democracy since the very midnight Nehru hosted the tri-colour flag in 14 August, 1947, the birth of the nation. He is pointing out first, the birth of the nation was accompanied by“Hindu priests” only, and second, Nehru was wrong to tell his citizens that the world was asleep at a moment when London and New York were wide awake. This argument at the beginning itself clearly tells that Anderson is intended to argue, as witnessed by the follow up arguments, that Indian state has rested on Hindu society and favouring Hindus since independence and that it has not stopped making hollow promises to its people. Interestingly, throughout the essay, the central argument is that the “ideal India” that is democratic, secular and blessed with many other virtues as imagined and claimed by Nehru and others is never connected with the “real India” which is dark and cursed with many vices.

Perry Anderson at the Frontiers of Thought conference, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2013
Perry Anderson. Image: Source

In this particular essay, After Nehru, Anderson criticises (or in other words, points out the limitations of) both Nehru’s policies during the period he dominated the Congress and the Indian politics, and the legacy of dynastic rule he left. However, it can be said that Anderson’s criticism is much more than criticising Nehru and his legacy of the politics of bloodline only- it extends to the political system as well. The criticism is centred on Nehru only because, as Anderson also argues, Nehru was the one who dominated the Indian politics, the making of the nation, the policies the country carried out whether internal or external, and much of the values that shaped the nation. Nehru could do so because there were no strong rivals who could counterbalance him. And, Nehru left a legacy which is still dominating the Congress and the political system in many ways. What Anderson finds problematic with all this is that Nehru, the Congress, the State and its institutions, and the dynastic politics Nehru left have done more harm than good to the people of this country.

Anderson argues that the Congress under Nehru’s leadership tried everything to ensure its domination on the Indian political spectrum. To ensure this, Nehru and the Congress used every tactic the British taught them- electoral distortion, legal repression and even force as the situation demands. And, both Nehru and Congress could succeed effortlessly because of the social stratification India had, the caste system, and the use of colonial language which only few educated Indians could access.

Anderson also points out many other limitations on the part of Nehru at his personal level including his poor judgement of character of his colleagues and confidantes. Nehru is also criticised that the Indo-China war of 1962 could be averted but because of his policy-mistakes; and at least the defeat could be less embarrassing but because of his appointment of B. N. Kaul as chief of staff over the heads of senior officers.

On the other hand, Anderson points out the irony of Nehru’s claim of liberal democracy and his suppressive policies in the Kashmir valley and the Northeast region of the country. Use of force to annex or merge these regions to the Indian Union under Nehru and Patel’s leadership is quite clear. According to Anderson, “in 1958, Nehru’s regime enacted the most sanguinary single piece of repressive legislation in the annals of liberal democracy, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which authorised the killing out of hand of anyone observed in a group of five persons or more, if such were forbidden, and forbade any legal action at all against ‘any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers of this regulation’, unless the central government so consented.” This Act has been in operation in these regions for more than six decades.

With all these authoritarian ruling of the Indian state, India never became a dictatorial regime. For Anderson, the reason was that Nehru and Congress faced so little political opposition and it was almost like ‘one-party democracy’, and thus “it was quite unnecessary” to do so.

However, what Anderson is more concerned in this essay is with what Nehru has left- that of “dynastic system” as he calls it. Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, is considered “more authoritarian than her father”. Once in position, Mrs. Gandhi imposed emergency, arrested all the leaders of every opposition party, and imprisoned 140,000 citizens without charge. Anderson sees such acts as the “continuation of traditional instrument of British rule” much similar as the Raj applied to civil disobedience in 1932 and again in 1940. The imposition of Article 356 was also not unfamiliar in almost all the states.

Anderson also questions the claim of Congress’s belief in secularism as well. According to him, secularism in India is used by political parties to gain votes and nothing more. Anderson recognises Indian state as a Hindu state and Indian society as a Hindu society. Political parties and leaders are all grounded in a Hindu society and they never question the domination of Hindus. “Both the party and the state have rested on Hindu caste society.”

Thus, secularism, not democracy, was threatened with the emergence of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the late 1970s. However, Congress is also in both composition and practice based squarely on the Hindu community. Anderson continues to argue that the constitution Congress adopted did not describe India as a secular state. Congress has so far taken no serious effort to improve the social or political position of the Muslim minority in the country. At the time of elections, what Congress tells Muslims and Adivasis is that BJP is a greater sectarian danger.

In fact, Anderson claims, there is very much discrimination against Muslims in India. This discrimination began with the Constitution itself. It accorded rights of representation to minorities such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but denied to Muslims saying that, being a secular state, this right could not be extended on religious grounds. However, the gross discrimination of Muslims in India is clear with the fact that there is no single Muslim in the country’s intelligence forces and very less number in the security forces, that too, in lower ranks. Muslims, according to Anderson, are treated as second-class citizens. One’s prospect of succeeding in careers is also determined very much by being a Hindu by birth.

However, Anderson finds it problematic with Indian intellectuals “embellishing” Hinduism as plural, peaceful and has the capacity to embrace everything when he finds everything opposite.

Anderson sees the emergence of Dalit politics not very much a sign of success of India’s democracy. Though it could give an impact upon national politics and Congress, it is confined to “identity politics”, the competition and electoral fights confining among themselves only.

On the other hand, Anderson points out the problem of corruption in the country, criminalisation of politics, nepotism and dynastic politics as undermining Indian democracy. However, Anderson argues that the corruption and dynastic politics were already started at national stage by the Nehru family.

Today, the only institution that saves Indian democracy is lauded to be the judiciary, yet he shows concern because of its increasing power.

Further, Anderson argues that “unity” of India is something one cannot question in the country, and doing so is punishable by law. Quoting Meghnad Desai, he says that territorial integrity in India has become a central element to the narrative of nationhood. That is why all the possible means-military or otherwise- is employed to suppressed any secessionist demand in various parts of the country, particularly Kashmir and the Northeast region. This, however, leads to what Ananya Vajpayi calls the existence of two nations: India and non-India. Non-India functions as a military state, it is a shadowy nation and it is not exposed because it is not under a formal dictator. One important coincidence or otherwise Anderson points out here is that “the hand of AFSPA has fallen where the reach of Hinduism stops” (all the AFSPA affected regions follow different religions other than Hinduism).

Anderson also points out that there is a lack of political discourse on Indian democracy by India’s political scientists and intellectuals. They are not self-critical enough. There is not enough discourse on civil rights and other critical issues that are hampering Indian democracy.

Anderson, towards the conclusion of the essay, suggests that the exit of Congress from the Indian political scene is necessary for the revitalisation of Indian democracy. Though he says that BJP is still worse, he thinks it as “the real party, with cadres, a programme and a social base.”

By Way of Conclusion

Few would be as critical as Perry Anderson regarding Indian politics, the Indian state, the Indian democracy, the Indian Constitution, the founders of ‘modern’ India (specifically Nehru and his legacy of dynastic politics), the political institutions of India, the Indian society, the Indian economy- in fact, almost everything that has been occurring as part of India’s political process since independence.

Anderson argues that India’s independence was given to Congress by the British; the Indian democracy was created by the colonial Raj; and the colonial legacy has been continuing and maintained by the Congress and Indian political system throughout the past six decades and is counting unless the Congress exits from the political scenario. This is so because of the dynastic system Nehru has left. This is the obstacle to the growth of Indian democracy.

Besides, Perry Anderson in this essay considers Hinduism and caste as the limits of Indian politics and political imagination. He sees modern Indian politics parochial, sectarian, and saturated in Hindu superstition (Nehru no less a believer).

Anderson also sees the Indian state having double-standards. It is speaking of liberal democracy, liberal rights and equality, etc., but at the same time it is suppressing and repressing its own citizens whose voice is met with bayonets. The major justification it gives is the indestructibility of its territorial integrity. However, Anderson sees such policies are at the cost of India’s own advantages.

Besides, Anderson argues that the dynastic politics of Congress is the biggest obstacle to the growth of Indian democracy. However, it sounds not very right on his part to argue that the exit of Congress and the rule of BJP (a party Anderson himself denounces as more dangerous than Congress) will strengthen Indian democracy. For democracy to be strengthened, India needs more committed and strong leadership. It is not always the party, but the person who leads it; and it is not always the government but the person who leads it that can bring the country into new avatars.

To conclude, everything Perry Anderson argues in this essay may not hold their ground or may not be true. However, what is considerable in this long and critical essay is the argument that Indian democracy today has touched its lowest bottom-line and it needs revitalisation and rejuvenation. Well, there may be scholars who find Indian democracy more matured and satisfactory at this phase. However, the criticisms Anderson has made in the essay are not all wrong. Even if certain criticisms and arguments of the essay are considered to be groundless or too much, the essay needs to be considered and examined. It is always best to see both sides of the coin especially in the academics.


*The critical summary is of the following article: Anderson, Perry, “After Nehru”, London Review of Books, Vol. 34, No. 15, (2 August, 2012), pp. 21-36.
The article “After Nehru” is now part of The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson.
This review was done during my postgraduate studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Note: A great response to this book is by some reknown Indian scholars including Partha Chatterjee, Sudipta Kabiraj and other. They written a book, The Indian Ideology: Three Responses to Perry Anderson. You may also want to look at The Indian Ideology with Replies to Questions and Criticisms by Perry Anderson.

 

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