“We are like a zoo,” the melancholy middle-class lady said in Delhi. “Perhaps we should charge.”
She lived in India: I was a visitor. She intended a rebuke, possibly an insult, but it was easy to let it pass. India was like a zoo because India was poor and cruel and had lost its way. These were things about India that, with the Emergency, she had just discovered; and they were more than intellectual discoveries. Once—like other middle-class people, like other people secure in their caste world—she might have been able to detach herself from the mess of India; now she felt she was going down with it.
Her husband was connected with the opposition; his career was suddenly jeopardized; he lived in fear of arrest. In the pre-Emergency days—when the students were rioting, the unions were striking, and it seemed possible to get rid of Mrs. Gandhi’s government and give India a fresh start—he had been a figure. Now all his political boldness had turned to hysteria. Action had ceased to be possible; the revolution at whose head he thought he was marching had vanished, leaving him exposed.
“Thousands of us will surround her house to prevent her going out or receiving visitors. We’ll camp there night and day shouting to her to resign. Even if the police arrest us, beat us up, slaughter us. How many can they slaughter? And what will they do with the corpses?” This was what old Mr. Desai, a famous Gandhian and once deputy prime minister, had promised a foreign interviewer. But then, just a few hours later, Mr. Desai had been arrested, no doubt to his own surprise (“I prefer to believe that before committing such a monstrosity Mrs. Gandhi would commit suicide,” he had told the interviewer, unwittingly showing up the vanity and shoddiness of his Gandhian posture). And there had been no uprising, no corpses in front of Mrs. Gandhi’s house in New Delhi.
Jaya Prakash Narayan, the most respected opposition leader, had been wiser. In his last public speech, in New Delhi, the evening before his arrest, he asked the students in his audience: “Will you go to classes or to prison?” “Prison!” they had replied. And he had said, “Let us see.” And the students, when the time came, had done nothing; they had become part of the great peace of the Emergency.
The revolution had turned out to be no revolution. And India, which only a few weeks before had seemed capable of renewed Gandhian fervor, had become like a zoo. The sad lady sat forward on her chair, knees apart below the wrappings of her sari, and looked down at the floor, shaking her head slowly from side to side, as though contemplating the depth of the Indian tragedy; while her husband, speaking above the traffic noise that came through the open windows, offered visions of the repression to come.
He extended his personal anxieties to the country: he foresaw that the British-built “garden city” of New Delhi, now inherited by the Indian rulers of India, would soon be barricaded against the poor and guarded by machine guns. I thought he was exaggerating, but he said that the expulsion of the poor had already begun. A squatter’s settlement in the Diplomatic Enclave had been leveled, and people and their possessions thrown out in the rain.
Many weeks later this municipal event was to appear in a London newspaper as hot news from the new India: the overthrow of socialism, the beginning of the assault on the poor: Indian events given a South American interpretation, and thereby made easier for everyone. The report was to catch the very hysteria with which the news had been given to me. But I remembered, that evening in Delhi, that such expulsions of illegal squatters were not new. In 1962, at the time of my first visit to the Indian capital, while Mr. Nehru still ruled, a similar kind of settlement had been bulldozed in the middle-class Defence Colony area. For days the collapsed brown-black spread of thatch and sacking and mud had remained beside the highway—it was as though the people who had lived there had been snuffed out, blown away. There had been a photograph in the newspaper; but not many people came to watch; there had been no outcry.
But that was in 1962, the last year of Mr. Nehru as father figure, the last year of post-Independence glory for the Indian middle class, when (until the Chinese war blew away the fantasy) India seemed to have made it, and Independence was still seen mainly as a matter of personal dignity, an Indian voice abroad, “Indianization” at home, a new kind of job, a managership, an appointment in the new diplomatic service, a new glamour, a conscious display of national costume and “culture.”
The lady who in 1975 was so sad, contemplating the tragedy of India, resenting visitors as voyeurs, would in those days have dismissed the subject of Indian poverty; she would have spoken—as middle-class ladies did then—of the happiness of the poor (greater than the happiness of others), their manners, their dignity, the way they kept their hovels clean; she would have contrasted the Indian poor with the unspeakable slum-dwellers of foreign countries. Times had changed. “Indianization” no longer meant a redistribution of jobs, a sharing out of the British legacy. It was the slogan of an opposition party, a populist-religious appeal to Hindus, a word of threat to minorities, part of the intellectual confusion, the new insecurity, the blind dredging up of dormant fantasies and obsessions, the great enraged stirring from below.
The lady looked down at the floor and, while her husband walked about and talked, she shook her head slowly, saying “Mmmm.” In that position her cheeks drooped; and they aged her, adding to her air of melancholy. She knew a family in the demolished settlement. Poor people, simple people. The man had come down to Delhi from the hills. He had found a job and built his little house on this piece of land. He had brought down his wife, and they had since had four children. He was only thirty. But, poor fellow, what other pleasures did he have? He didn’t have TV. He had brought down his brother as well, and the brother had brought down his wife, and they had begun to have their own children. Now that life had been smashed. They had all been thrown out in the rain. In the rain: the government couldn’t even wait until the monsoon was over.
But had they really been thrown out just like that? Hadn’t they been given notice of some sort? Yes, a year’s notice. But what could poor people do? It was also true that those who had registered at that time had been given building plots of their own somewhere else. But what did poor people know about registering? Who was there to help them? And, besides, the new plots were ten miles away. How would people get to work? Buses? Yes, there were buses, but I didn’t know the Delhi bus service. It was all melancholy and terrible, especially for the family she knew. Who were they? The man worked for her; he was her servant. She had lost her servant; he had lost his job.
It had taken some time to pull the story out, through the lady’s melancholy and her husband’s hysteria; and neither the lady nor her husband seemed to understand how depressing it was for a visitor, at a time of a real crisis, to have this personal loss (not yet an established loss: the servant could have got a bicycle) presented as an aspect of the national tragedy.
“I come upon people, both men and women, who seem to enjoy being illtreated by others. It is an emotional luxury for them to dwell on and speak about their grievances and wallow in self-pity. Among such people conversation means relating what they suffer at the hands of official superiors or inferiors, relatives near or distant.” This is what the seventy-nine-year-old Bengali writer, Nirad Chaudhuri, wrote in 1970, in To Live or Not to Live, a handbook for Indians on “living happily with others.” Chaudhuri, beating his own way out of the thicket of Indian attitudes, believes that Indians do not live, that they live “unsoundly,” to no purpose. “Do we live at all? This would seem an absurd question, for none of us commit suicide, though, to be honest, I would confess that I have come to feel that a large majority of the persons I know should do so, because I cannot see any point in their remaining alive.”
It was the effect on me of that Delhi evening. I had gone to that apartment expecting ideas, discussion. I had found no ideas, only obsessions; no discussion, only disingenuous complaint, and an invitation to the wallow, the sweet surrender to tragedy.
The traffic noise came through the windows and I had to strain to hear what was being said. The lights were very dim and I had to strain to see. It was a government apartment in a suburb far from the central “garden city” of New Delhi. It hadn’t been easy to find because, like many places in the suburbs of New Delhi, where streets can be nameless, it had a number rather than a guiding address. And it was numbered like a civil service file, and had that quality of being worn and much handled and about to be passed on. Our host, a civil servant, high in the service but embittered, connected with a department which was without the resources to do what its name suggested, had very soon detached himself from us. He left his plain wife and bespectacled adolescent son—old error, new hope—to sit with us while, standing in gloomy corners, shielding his prey of the evening from our sight, like an animal eating in secret, he worried and importuned a minor—and exceedingly stupid—provincial politician. The ambition was like despair; it shrieked more than the hysteria of the opposition man who feared arrest and the wallow of the woman who had lost her servant.
My taxi driver that evening was a Sikh. He had been a sportsman in his time and still had the sportsman’s presence. He knew foreign countries by the sportsmen they produced, and he spoke English well; he was a diligent reader of the newspapers. He owned his taxi and had a place in the taxi-rank of the hotel. I thought he was better off than most people in India. But his thoughts were of migration. He wanted to go to one of the Arab Gulf states. He had paid a large sum of money to a middleman, a “contractor.” His papers were almost in order now, he said; all he was waiting for, from the contractor, was his “no objection” certificate. Yet the thought of the large sum he had paid to the contractor worried him. He spoke like a man who knew he had waited too long and had begun to fear that he had been cheated.
For so many people India seemed to have gone wrong; so many people in independent India had become fugitives or sought that status. And this was in Delhi, a migrant city in the better-off north, where people were awakened and energetic, and for whom India ought to have gone right. The land stretched a thousand miles to the east and the south, through the overpopulated Gangetic plain and the rock plateau of the Deccan. At the end of that bad evening it seemed barely imaginable—the huts of the landless along the Poona-Bombay road, the child laborers of Bihar among the blond hanks of jute, the chawls and squatters’ settlements in central Bombay, the starved squatters in bright cotton slipping in and out of the stone ruins of Vijayanagar, the famine-wasted bodies just outside Jaipur City. It was like a calamity that no one could come to terms with. I was without the Indian defenses, which were also the attitudes that contributed to the calamity. I could only wait for the morning.
An immovable government, one-party rule, a democratic system which engaged only a fraction of the population, a decadent Gandhianism expressed in the white homespun of the Congress politician, no longer the sign of service but the uniform of power, the very sight of which could enrage, and now the Emergency, a censored press, secret arrests: it was easy to enter into the hysteria of the opposition man.
But it was also easy to understand why the revolution had evaporated. The leaders, offering what they saw as unassailable Gandhian truths, offering themselves as so many Gandhis, were misled by the apparent answering fervor of the crowds. But the India of 1975 was not the India of 1930 and the Dandi Salt March. Political action couldn’t be concentrated in a single symbolic act (picking up a handful of salt from the shore at Dandi), a religious act, a ritual cleansing of a subject and defiled land. The needs of 1975 were more worldly and difficult. India wasn’t to be cleansed again; it was (as Mrs. Gandhi intuited) to be cleaned up and got going; it was to be seen to be offering worldly opportunities. The very fierceness of the Emergency answered the public mood, assuaged old frustrations. The crowds went home in peace.
And the Gandhianism of a man like Mr. Desai was as exhibitionist and hollow as the Gandhianism of the men he opposed; it offered nothing. The sacrifice was for others (those corpses outside Mrs. Gandhi’s house); Mr. Desai (according to that interview he gave to the foreign journalist) saw himself as secure, immune even from arrest. The revolution was an expression of rage and rejection; but it was a revolution without ideas. It was an emotional outburst, a wallow; it would not have taken India forward; and the revolutionary crowds knew that. At its core, absurdly elevated to a political program, was a subtle distortion of the old Gandhian call to action. At its core were the old Indian attitudes of defeat, the idea of withdrawal, a turning away from the world, a sinking back into the past, the rediscovery of old ways, “simplicity.”
Simplicity: it was the obsession that evening in Delhi of the opposition man, and it made discussion impossible. Simplicity was the old India and Gandhi. It was the opposite of everything that independent India had committed itself to, and as a motive for political-moral protest was inexhaustible. Everything that had been done was wrong; nothing was right. The opposite of simplicity was the power politics that had come to India; the opposite of simplicity was repression, concentration camps, Hitler. This was the direction in which India was going, and it was better for this India to be smashed into little bits. Czechoslovakia was a small country: had Czechoslovakia suffered? This view of recent history was startling. But he was a wounded man; and his Gandhian simplicity—like Mr. Desai’s—had become indistinguishable from a primitivist rage.
His simplicity was something that could be defined only by negatives. It was a turning away from the idea of the modern state. (Defense? Who would or could conquer India? And this from a responsible man, a maker of opinion, in just the twenty-ninth year of full Indian Independence, after a thousand years of invasions and conquests!) Simplicity was, above all, a turning away from the idea of industrial development, the idea of the machine. The Gandhian spinning wheel and the handloom would have saved the peasantry and kept India secure in its villages. (Such engineering effort, though, such a need of electrical power, such organization, such a network of brick-lined canals, to take drinking water for the first time in history to the desert villages of Haryana in the north: and not water for every dwelling—that was impossible—but one or two standpipes per village.)
But perhaps this idea of simplicity—though backed up in the Indian way by quotations from Western sources, and presented as a basis for political action—was something more debilitated, something older. Perhaps it was no more than a turning away from the difficulties of a development that had been seen to be impossible, a consequent intellectual surrender, a religious giving up, a yielding to old Indian fantasy: the mystical sense of the Indian past, the idea of eternal India forever spontaneously having its rebirth and growth, the conversion of the destitution and serfdom of rural India (and the heavyfooted vultures squabbling in the rain over the bloated carcasses of dead animals) into a memory of pastoral: a memory of the time, so recent, just out of reach, when people knew the undefiled gods, and the gods gave brahmins all the answers, and the bull drew the plough and the cow gave milk, and the manure of these animals enriched the fields, and the stalks of the harvest thatched the simple huts of the pure.
That Indian past! That fantasy of wholeness and purity, confusing the present! On the evening before his arrest, the seventy-year-old opposition leader, Jaya Prakash Narayan, delivered a long public speech in New Delhi. Indian opposition groups in London have circulated a text of this speech. It is quite different in tone from the pious venom of Mr. Desai’s interview that same day with a foreign journalist. The Narayan speech explains and informs; it is the speech of a constitutionalist who has assembled his facts and references; it quotes the Indian Supreme Court judges and Sir Ivor Jennings. But it is also the speech of an Indian political campaigner addressing a mass audience; and there is a philosophical-historical passage which has to be quoted in full.
The youth, the peasants, the working class, all with one voice must declare that we will not allow fascism to raise its head in our country. We will not have dictatorship in our country. We will carry on our people’s government. This is not Bangladesh. This is not Pakistan. This is Bharat. We have our ancient tradition. Thousands of years ago we had small village republics. That sort of history is behind us. There were village Panchayats in virtually every village. In the times of the Mauryas, Gupta, the Pathan, the Moghuls, the Peshwas, we had our Panchayats. The British deliberately broke this tradition in order to strengthen their own hold on the country. This ancient tradition was in Bangladesh and in Pakistan, but they seem to have given it up. But our leaders sought a reawakening. Gandhiji always said that Swaraj means Ramraj. Swaraj means that every village will have its own rule. Every village, every mohalla and town will manage its own affairs. What they must not do is just hand over the lot to their representatives to get it all done at a “higher level.”
The passage that begins with an anti-fascist call (and gives India a working class, almost as if to equip it for that modern struggle) quickly becomes less straightforward. India becomes the ancient and sacred land of Bharat, and its past is mystically invoked: leaping the defilement of the British period, the speaker looks back to the eighteenth-century Maratha bandit kings, glances at the Moslem conquerors (the Mughal, the Pathan), jumps a thousand years to the purely Indian Guptas (AD 320-600), and goes back a further 500 years to the Mauryas (322-185 BC). Through all this—empires, achievement, chaos, conquest, plunder, the steady loss of Indian territory to the world of Islam—India is said to have kept her soul, to have preserved the democratic ways of her village republics, her “people’s government.” Democracy hasn’t come to India from an alien source; India has had it all along. To rediscover democracy, India has only to rediscover herself.
But then Narayan turns this rediscovery into something more mysterious. “Gandhiji always said that Swaraj means Ramraj.” Swa-raj means self-rule, self-government; it was the word used in the British days for Indian Independence. Ram-raj is something else. It is Rama’s rule, a fantasy of bliss. Rama is the hero of the Ramayana, the sacred Hindu epic. This epic echoes events of 1000 BC, was composed or set down (by a named poet) at about the same time as the Aeneid, but (unlike the Aeneid) has always been a living poem, more than literature, possessed by all Hindus, however illiterate or depressed, from childhood. Rama incarnates all the Hindu Aryan virtues; he is at once a man and God; his rule—after exile and sorrow—is the rule of God on earth. The narrative of his adventures fills the imagination of the child; and no Hindu can forget that early closeness to figures and events he later learns to be divine, to be legend and not legend.
Ramraj is something the Hindu always knows he has lost: in one way remote, impossible, just a word, in another way only as remote as childhood, just out of reach. From Punjabi Century (1963), the autobiography of one of India’s most distinguished business administrators, Prakash Tandon, we can get a fuller idea of the Ramraj Gandhi offered in 1919, at the start of his Indian agitation, and of the political effect then, at a time of high emotion, even on a professional family. “These visitors,” Tandon writes,
spoke about the freedom of India, and this intrigued us; but when they talked in familiar analogies and idiom about the Kal Yug, we saw what they meant. Had it not been prophesied that there were seven eras in India’s life and history: there had been a Sat Yug, the era of truth, justice and prosperity; and then there was to be a Kal Yug, an era of falsehood, or demoralization, of slavery and poverty…. Gandhi rechristened India Bharat Mata, a name that evoked nostalgic memories, and associated with Gao Mata, the mother cow…. He…spoke about the peace of the British as the peace of slavery. Gradually a new picture began to build in our minds, of India coming out of the Kal Yug into a new era of freedom and plenty, Ram Rajya.
Nearly sixty years later, in 1975, Jaya Prakash Narayan’s appeal is the same, “Swaraj means Ramraj.” We have gone far beyond the Indian “working class” and the antifascist struggle, beyond political systems and the contemplation of the past; we have gone back to the beginning of the Hindu world, to “nostalgic memories.” We have gone back to the solace of incantation, and back to Gandhi as to the only Indian truth. As though Britain still ruled in India; as though Gandhi hadn’t been created by specific circumstances; as though the Indian political situation remains unchanging, as eternal as India itself, requiring always the same ideal solution. The irony is that the Indian tyranny against which Jaya Prakash Narayan is protesting, and the sterility of contemporary Indian political life—immovable power on one side, and on the other side frustrated and obsessional “Gandhian” protest, mixing political and historical fantasy with religious exaltation—the irony is that both tyranny and political sterility were ensured by the very success of Gandhi.
It was Gandhi who gave the Congress a mass base, a rural base. Four out of five Indians live in villages; and the Congress remains the only party in India (except for certain regional parties) which has a rural organization; it cannot lose. The opposition parties, even a revivalist Hindu party like the Jan Sangh, the National Party, are city parties. In the villages the Congress is still Gandhi’s party; and the village tyrannies that have been established through nearly thirty years of unbroken Congress rule cannot now be easily removed. In the countryside the men to watch for are the men in white Gandhian homespun. They are the men of power, the politicians; their authority, rooted in the antique reverences of caste and clan, has been ennobled by Independence and democracy.
Like the two who were introduced to me, late one afternoon, at a great irrigation scheme in the south, as “farmers.” I had asked—after lunch and visits to offices and viewing points—to visit fields and see farmers; and the irrigation administrator, in spite of his jacket and tie (emblems of his high administrative rank), became nervous, like a man fearful of trespassing. The ragged men gathering silently around us, obviously connected with the work of the land, were not farmers, as I had thought. What were they? They were laborers, less than laborers, nothing; the administrator seemed not to see them. A government jeep was sent to get the two farmers the administrator said he knew; and we waited for a long time in a damp timber yard, in the dying light of a rainy, overcast day, the crowd around us growing, until the farmers arrived, men in their early fifties, hopping nimbly off the jeep in full Congress uniform of white Gandhian homespun, one man freshly bathed and speaking fluent English and with a big wrist-watch, the other man tall and pale and paunchy, with a Gandhi cap: not farmers at all, but landowners and politicians, rulers of the district, acting out for the visitor the democratic charade of being farmers and living each man off the income of six acres of land: taking me, after all that waiting, just across the road from the timber yard to a small, over-irrigated field, now in darkness, where their white homespun yet glowed: around us the serfs, underfed, landless, nothing, less than people, dark wasted faces and dark rags fading into the dusk.
To make democracy work, Jaya Prakash Narayan suggests, to undo tyranny, it is only necessary for India to return truly to itself. The Ramraj that Gandhi offered is no longer simply Independence, India without the British; it is people’s government, the re-establishment of the ancient Indian village republic, a turning away from the secretariats of Delhi and the state capitals. But this is saying nothing; this is to leave India where it is. What looks like a political program is only clamor and religious excitation. People’s government and that idea of the ancient Indian village republic (which may be a fanciful idea, a nationalist myth surviving from the days of the Independence struggle) are not the same thing. Old India has its special cruelties; not all the people are people. And (though Narayan doesn’t seem aware of the contradiction) it is really against that old India that, later in his speech, he protests.
She [Mrs. Gandhi] speaks of the welfare of the Harijans [untouchables]. Does she not feel any shame for all the misdeeds done recently to the Harijans? In U.P. [Uttar Pradesh, Mrs. Gandhi’s home state] and in Bihar [Narayan’s home state] whole Harijan villages have been put to the torch. One Harijan was burnt alive. She does not have any right to speak on behalf of the Harijans. Those poor people, they do not understand all the sophisticated talk. Recently I was in the Bhojpur area. How many Harijans were mercilessly butchered!
India is to be returned to itself, to surrender to its inmost impulses; at the same time India is to be saved from itself. The synthesis of Marxism and Gandhianism which Jaya Prakash Narayan is thought by his admirers to have achieved is in fact a kind of nonsense; he offers as politics a version of an old religious exaltation; and it has made him part of the sterility he is protesting against.
A passionate Marxist journalist—waiting for the revolution, rejecting all “palliatives”—told me that the “workers” of India had to be politicized; they had to be told that it was the “system” that oppressed them. After nearly thirty years of power the Congress has understandably, become the system But where does the system begin and end? Does it take in religion, the security of caste and clan, Indian ways of perceiving, karma, the antique serfdom? But no Indian cares to take political self-examination that far. No Indian can take himself to the stage where he might perceive that the faults lie within the civilization itself, that the failure and the cruelties of India might implicate all Indians. Even the Marxists, dreaming of a revolution occurring like magic on a particular day, of tyranny swept away, of “the people” then engaging in the pleasures of “folk” activities—the Marxist journalist’s word: the folk miraculously whole after the millennia of oppression—even the Marxists’ vision of the future is not of a country undone and remade but of an India essentially returned to itself, purified: a vision of Ramraj.
An extraordinary feature of Indian opposition right-wing parties in exile has been their insistence on the antiquity and glory of India. In April this year, in London, at an “International Conference on Restoration of Democracy in India,” the audience heard that Alexander the Great, on his march into India (327 BC), had not defeated King Porus of the Punjab. Western histories had lied for two thousand years: Porus had defeated Alexander and compelled him to retreat. Half true about Alexander in India; but the topic, in the circumstances, was unexpected. Yet it was in character. In the, program booklet for the conference an Indian merchant in the Dutch West Indies (secure in someone else’s economy and political system, the creation of another civilization) had taken space to print this quotation from Swami Vivekananda, the Vedantist who at the turn of the century exported Hinduism to the United States.
Our Punya-Bhumi and its Glorious Past. If there is any land on this earth that can lay claim to be blessed Punyabhumi, to be the land to which souls on this earth must come to account for Karma, the land to which every soul that is wending its way Godward must come to attain its last home, the land where humanity has attained its highest towards gentleness, towards calmness, above all, the land of introspection and of spirituality—it is INDIA.
Protest! The restoration of democracy!
“To be critical and not be swept away in a flood of archaic emotions is a much greater effort for us Indians (and I include myself),” Dr. Sudhir Kakar, the psychotherapist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, writes in a recent letter.
The Indian intellectual’s struggle is on two fronts—inner and outer—for it has been our developmental fate that, in contrast to say France or Germany, it has always been earliest childhood that was seen to be the golden period of individual life history, just as the remotest past is considered to be the golden age of Indian history.
So, in all the distress of India (now a fact of life, and immutable), protest looks back to the past, to what is thought to have been violated, what is known to be lost. Like childhood, this golden Indian past is not to be possessed by inquiry; it is only to be ecstatically contemplated. The past is a religious idea, clouding intellect and painful perception, numbing the stress in bad times. And it is into this past—achingly close in the heart—that Gandhi has been absorbed. He too has become part of what India has lost; he is himself the object of nostalgic memories. To possess him, or to act in his name, is to have the illusion of regaining purity and the past; and in order to possess him, men have only to look inward. Everyone in India is Gandhian; everyone has his own idea of Gandhianism, as everyone has his own intimation of the Ramraj he offered.
In 1971, after she split the Congress, Mrs. Gandhi called a midterm election. I followed this election in one constituency, Ajmer, in the semi-desert state of Rajasthan. The candidate standing against Mrs. Gandhi’s man was a blind old congressman who had taken part in the Independence struggle and had gone to jail. He was a little vain of having gone to jail, and spoke as though the young people coming up who hadn’t gone to jail (and couldn’t have, because the British had gone away) couldn’t be said to have “a record of service.”
He was a Gandhian and he wore his elegant homespun and he was honored and he was a man of the utmost probity, and quite rich, too, as a lawyer specializing in land revenue cases. He told me that poor peasants sought him out from all over the state. His record as a legislator after Independence was blameless but null, though he thought that his stand on matters like cowprotection could bear examination by anyone; and he said he had also been connected with a campaign for the correct labeling of certain cooking oils. If he hadn’t done more, it was perhaps because he didn’t see that there was more for him to do; his main duty was, as it were, to keep the Gandhian prayer wheel turning.
Rajasthan is a state of famine and drought, and it had just been scourged by an eight-year drought; parts of the state had been stripped of trees and turned to desert. But during his campaign (or what I saw of it) the old congressman made no promises to anybody, and offered no ideas; all he offered was himself and his Gandhianism and his record of service. (There were, it should be said, many complex caste matters to be straightened out.)
I asked him one day, as we were racing across the desert in his campaign jeep, what it was about Gandhi that he particularly admired. He said without hesitation that he admired Gandhi for going to Buckingham Palace in 1931 in a dhoti; that act “put the picture of poor India before the world.” As though the world didn’t know. But to the old congressman India’s poverty was a very special thing, and I got the impression that, as a Gandhian, he didn’t want to see anyone spoiling it. The old man disliked machines; he told me he had heard that people in the West had begun to turn against them as well; and—though in a famine region, and though asking people for votes—he strongly disapproved of having piped water and electricity taken to the villages. Piped water and electricity were “morally bad,” especially for the village women. They would be denied valuable “exercise” and become “sluggish,” and their health would suffer. No more fetching “healthy water from the well”; no more corn grinding with the old-fashioned quern. The good old ways were going; everything was being Westernized.
The old congressman lost the election, and lost it badly. The reason was simple. He had no organization; the local Congress organization (which he had once manipulated) was solidly behind Mrs. Gandhi and her candidate. The old man had forgotten about that. On the afternoon the results were announced I went to see him. He was sitting on a string bed in his drawing room, dressed in white, grieving, supported in his loss by a few silent followers sitting flat on the terrazzo floor. After decades of power, he had been overthrown. And in his defeat the old congressman saw the death of Gandhian India, the India where, as he defined it, people believed that “means should be as fair as the end.”
“There are no morals now,” the old man said. “The Machiavellian politics of Europe have begun to touch our own politics and we will go down.”
Blind to his own political nullity, the idle self-regard of his own Gandhian concept of service, he was yet half right about India, for a reason he would not have understood. “Archaic emotions,” “nostalgic memories”: when these were awakened by Gandhi, India became free. But the India created in this way had to stall. Gandhi took India out of one kind of Kal Yug, one kind of Black Age; his success inevitably pushed it back into another.
(This is the seventh in a series of articles about India.)
October 28, 1976