This volume is a collection of fifteen essays on a bewildering array of themes, which range from a gossipy piece on factional feuds at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library to a profound reflection on the state of universities in India. Perhaps the most absorbing among them is the charming vignette of a precious Bangalore institution, the Premier Bookshop, which sadly is no more.
Established in 1970 by T.S. Shanbag, nephew of the late T.N. Shanbag (Strand Book Stall, Mumbai), it folded up a few years back. The untidy orderliness of its display was reminiscent of Rama Krishna and Sons (originally of Lahore) whose shop in Connaught Place in Delhi was on the verge of closure just around the time that Premier’s was coming into its own. At a time when booksellers of the knowledgeable and cultured kind that T.S. Shanbag represented have virtually disappeared, his decision to retire is indeed a matter of regret. Nevertheless, as Guha observes, it was a retirement that was well-earned and Shanbag was fully entitled to it having ‘carried out his calling with pride and dignity for four decades’. In a similar nostalgic vein is the tribute to Krishna Raj, a man of great charm, grace and erudition.
Between 1969, when he assumed charge of Economic and Political Weekly, and his demise in 2004 Krishna Raj worked tirelessly to maintain the high intellectual standards that gave to the journal its unique position as a forum that ‘shaped intellectual discussion in India’. He also gave to the journal its ideological orientation—a commitment to the Left in all its diversity, with some space for Left-of-centre views. Soft spoken, but firm, the most endearing quality of Krishna Raj was his humility. He was not given to advertising his far from modest achievements. The culture of austerity and hard work that he bequeathed has ensured the continuation of the academic and journalistic traditions upheld by him.
Then there is an ode to Ravi Dayal and his contribution to building the Oxford University Press (OUP) publishing empire in India. Here Guha gets somewhat carried away. Describing the endeavours of Ravi Dayal to attract learned manuscripts he states that by the end of the 1970s OUP ‘was the stamp that scholars working on the subcontinent most craved’ and these scholars were soon ‘lining up outside the OUP’s offices in New Delhi’. This might have been true of the 1990s, often for reasons other than that of going to the best publisher, but is not really an accurate assessment of the publishing scene in the late 1970s when Orient Longman, Macmillan, Vikas and People’s Publishing House (PPH) were still flourishing. One might cite the example of Sumit Sarkar to illustrate the preferences of authors in this period. His classic Swadeshi Movement in Bengal was initially published by PPH in the seventies (something that surprisingly is unacknowledged by Permanent Black in its recent reprint of the book). Subsequently Sarkar chose Macmillan for his bestselling Modern India (1983), which as a textbook on the subject remains unsurpassed even after three decades. Modern India came out almost at the same time that OUP launched its Subaltern Studies series.
Curiously Guha refers to Ranajit Guha’s important pre-‘Subaltern’ work A Rule of Property for Bengal as a ‘rather obscure book’, which it certainly was not. Moreover, even as Ranajit Guha was planning the new series with Ravi Dayal, he had given the revised edition of Rule of Property (originally published by Mouton, Paris) to Orient Longman. The second edition of the book was published in the same year as the first volume of Subaltern Studies (1982). All this is not to belittle the outstanding achievements of Ravi Dayal as a publisher but to point out that the history of academic publishing in India during the last quarter of the twentieth century is not as straightforward as is suggested by the essay.
The title of the book is more relevant to the nine essays which comprise the first part of the collection. Guha begins by declaring that he is ‘a person of moderate views’. This obviously means that as opposed to ‘partisans’ he is a liberal, although it is not clear whether partisans can be patriots as well. The first chapter, ‘Redeeming the Republic’ identifies essentially two types of partisans: those on the left and those on the right. Both are enemies of ‘the plural, inclusive idea of India’. More specifically, the two forces that have sought to undermine the Indian nation conceptually and ideologically are ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ on the one hand and ‘Communist dictatorship’ on the other. Against their partisanship is the liberal vision. This position is elaborated further in an essay that looks at ‘the past and future of the Indian left’ in the wake of the defeat of the CPI (M) in the 2011 Bengal State Assembly election. The thesis outlined by Santiago Carrillo in his controversial 1977 (not 1978) book Eurocommunism and the State is summarized to demonstrate that unlike the dogmatic and old-fashioned Left in India, western European Communists have been more innovative. Carrillo, who had succeeded the legendary Dolores Ibárruri ‘La Pasionaria’ as general-secretary of the Communist Party of Spain, had put forth a supposedly novel version of Communist principles against the backdrop of the death of Franco which opened up possibilities of fresh alignments in Spain. The key feature of ‘eurocommunism’ was repudiation of links with the Soviet Union in the hope of enlarging the mass base of the party. It is with this objective that Georges Marchais and Enrico Berlinguer of the French and Italian parties, respectively, too distanced themselves from Moscow, becoming advocates of ‘euro-communism’. That nothing much came of these experiments is another matter. In the context of India Guha makes an insightful comment, namely, that ‘the central paradox of Indian Communism is that its practice is vastly superior to its theory’. And he is all praise for the spartan lifestyles of many of the Indian Communist leaders. He might have added that most of those who belonged to an earlier generation were deeply influenced by Gandhiji’s asceticism.
Defence of the liberal vision is carried forward in an essay on Nehru which examines the ‘rise and fall’ of his reputation. Yet in equating Left-wing criticism of Nehru with all-out Right-wing vilification of everything he did is surely rather unfair. For a scholar and political commentator of his standing it is disappointing that Guha does not differentiate between the denigration of ‘Nehruvian secularism’ by a seasoned practitioner of communal politics (Advani) and the disapproval by a Marxist (Ashok Mitra) of the extent to which the new nation state was willing to accommodate religious ceremonies at the official level. ‘For both Mr. Advani and Dr. Mitra’, he remarks, ‘their political project is best defined negatively: as the repudiation of the economic and social philosophy of Jawaharlal Nehru. Lifelong political adversaries though they may be, the left-wing Indian and the right-wing Indian are joined in a lifelong fight against a common enemy …’. It is this kind of balancing act that weakens the case for a liberal middle ground.
The liberal perspective that Guha identifies himself with is ultimately much closer to the ideological positions of the ‘mainstream’ Indian Left. Both are strongly opposed to communalism (we learn that ‘Hindutva hate mail’ which Guha receives is abundant), and to the uglier aspects of capitalism. The opening chapter catalogues quite comprehensively all that ails the Republic today. Whereas the diagnosis is fairly accurate, no solutions are offered other than a sentimental hope that good shall eventually prevail. How the neo-liberal model of so-called development will allow this to happen is a question that is left unanswered. Consequently in the essay entitled ‘The Professor and the Protestor’, which juxtaposes the ethical norms adhered to by the Prime Minister to those followed by Anna Hazare, the failures of the UPA regime, especially during its second term, are explained in terms of some of the personal shortcomings of Dr. Manmohan Singh. His timidity, ‘bordering at times on obsequiousness, towards the president of the Congress party’; his ‘lack of judgement when it came to choosing key advisers’; and his ‘keenness to win good chits from western leaders’, are listed as the major faults of the Prime Minister. What is overlooked is that Dr. Singh has hardly been timid in relentlessly implementing neo-liberal policies. It is these policies and not the personal inadequacies of the Prime Minister (even his fiercest critics do not question his integrity) that are responsible for the mess that the Republic finds itself in. Of course, there are longer underlying causes. With all his good intentions, Nehru could not have possibly reversed the logic of travelling along the path of capitalism. His greatness lay in persisting nonetheless with policies that might in the long run lessen the misery of the poor. It is for this reason that Nehru’s contribution to the development of heavy industry and the public sector, disparaged by his own party since the days of Rajiv Gandhi, is still considered by sections of the Left to be of lasting historical relevance. That is an opinion that these sections have in common with the liberal position that Guha espouses.
Amar Farooqui is in the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.