I do not know why Arun Shourie has not acknowledged the important fact that most of the articles collected in this volume first appeared in the Indian Express. In a very real sense, they were made possible because of his unique position in the Express chain. What¬ever may have happened later, the Express and Shourie shared a symbiotic relationship, manifest clearly in the series of advertisements put out by the chain after he had left. I hold no brief for the Express, but the interests of scholarship demand a different set of obligations.
With that off my chest, I am ready to announce that I am happy to have Mrs Gandhi’s Second Reign in my hands. It contains all the articles that made Shourie an overnight sensation: the famous and the not so famous, the readable and the unreadable, and the ones about hope which are indeed quite hopeless. Shourie appeared at the right time, at the right place: it is to his credit that he lost no opportu¬nity to ‘seize the day’, some¬thing that cannot be said of thousands of equally talented and intelligent individuals in similar situations.
If he is a household word today, this is deserved. His meteoric rise as the country’s leading and most impactful investigator prevents most journalists from talking about him without innuendo. Most would like to minimize what he accomplished or dis¬count its significance. He has either critics or admirers, but no critical admirers. I have yet to come across any sustain¬ed critical analysis of the Shourie phenomenon. I will not attempt one here for it is an ambitious undertaking, and for once I am glad that I must restrict myself to a book and not focus on a life.
The collection reads like the output of a man who wants to be a social activist rather than a serious social philosop-her. It contains the classical elements of propaganda, agita¬tion and polemics. There are articles (‘The State as Private Property’) in which our author explores varied aspects of a central theme—the decay of existing institutions, the poli¬tical setup, the civil services, the courts and the police. There are others (‘Justice in Bihar’) in which he takes up a single issue and goes into its different ramifications. Still others (‘From an Athetoid State to an Absolutist One’) in which he carries on a running debate with the reader.
Their primary purpose (we must remember they appeared in a newspaper) is to provoke. The book in fact is extremely provocative, sometimes even a bit pompous and insulting (‘Why should I keep doing your work for you all the time?’). The general direction is to get the lay reader to think a little on the serious political, religious, cultural and eco¬nomic issues gripping the country today. It stoutly refuses to provide concrete solutions.
If this is so, one must now ask how successful the book is in provoking such reflection. The answer could be negative. Successful provocation does not merely create strong dis¬satisfaction: it should also encourage possible openings for a new process of reconstitution. Mere dissatisfaction in itself may lead to a feeling of paralysis, helplessness, or des¬pair. Shourie is aware of this. The final article included in the volume is entitled ‘Reasons for Hope’. However, there is a complete imbalance between the reasons he adduces here and the case he has built up in the major portion of the same book. Further, while his dis¬section of the system relates solely to present and imme-diate causes for alarm, his ‘hope’ is cast in a remote future:
Things will not turn about till the very minds, the very perception of large numbers have changed. And that is bound to take a long, long time.
Hope delayed must itself be a further cause of despair.
Now this raises a very funda¬mental question, related to a more basic issue: Why has Shourie no eyes for major interventions in the Indian system that have gone beyond parties and liberal institutions? Was the advent of Naxalbari, however misguided, not a sign that some individuals had already begun to try and bring about changes in perception? If one begins with the premise of constitutional politics and its exclusive transformatory mission, there is indeed very little light at the end of the tunnel. But outside the fabric of our imported and implan¬ted institutions have come major interruptions—far¬mers’ movements, student rebellions, women’s agitations, the fresh flowering of regional power.
At first glance, most of these movements seem to be anarchic and highly disorganized, often without any ‘rational’ focus. Yet all of them have arisen without the tutelage of the institutions Shourie sees as having gone to pot. In fact, I am a little disturbed that, ex¬cept for one piece (‘A Glimpse of Good Work’), Shourie has ignored the real import of the dynamic of such move¬ments, whether these originate in Punjab, Assam or Meenakshipuram. All these indicate that people are alive, that they have begun to intervene on a major scale in non-electoral politics, that perceptions are changing in large numbers of ordinary citizens—perhaps not in the direction that Shourie might wish, certainly not according to the categories he understands, but they are reasons for hope.
If, in fact, he does acknowledge their presence, he relies on the writings of one of the world’s most conservative philoso¬phers, Ortegay Gasset, to dis¬miss them. The toiling masses? They were ‘nobodies’ thirty years ago. Nobodies to whom? Not to themselves, but to the middle class. The middle class has always considered itself ‘somebody’. He talks of the vulgar, or a mass that refuses to fit into his categories. A man should be also known by the language he keeps.
Ashis Nandy has brilliantly made the point in his new book, The Intimate Enemy, that the refusal to bestow alle-giance to liberal western insti¬tutions should perhaps be understood as a feeling or con¬viction, however inarticulate, on the part of ‘non-heroic’ men and women that all such institutions comprise the new baggage of oppression. In other words, a crucial reason for the manifest decay and degeneration evident in exist¬ing social institutions may lie precisely in the rise of alter¬native ones that are increasing¬ly putting pressure on them. Decidedly, such activism may not exactly fit in with Shourie’s version of activism, for it operates without the need for Shouries or marginal men and does not originate in an intent to provoke stolid bourgeois mentalities through the press or the Supreme Court.
Shourie’s inability to transcend the restricting focus that his analytical categories inevitably provide him has its own set of debilitating causes and conse¬quences. For the sake of brevity, I shall isolate merely three. First, the methodology he uses in his articles turns out to be basically flawed; second, he is unable to get beyond the specific bias in his point of view, and, third, his categories turn out to be eventually alienating and sterile, for they remain basically without roots. Let me briefly discuss each in turn.
Shourie seems to approach socio-political questions from two distinct and irreconcilable points of view. The first one, which could be broadly des¬cribed as the objective, consists of an analysis of elements that constitute the Indian polity, the structure and institutions through which these elements mediate their relationships within the polity, and the impact of each upon the other. The second, the subjective, con¬cerns mostly the position and role of the individual within society. Shourie fails to keep these two points of view sepa¬rate, for they follow entirely different logical courses.
For example, if one uses a Marxist analysis to describe society objectively, as Shourie often seems to favour, one cannot revert to a liberal understanding of the individual if one wishes to effect a trans¬formation. It is necessary to locate the individual, too, in Marxist terms. Similarly, if one sees social phenomena as a result of the varying natures of individuals who constitute a society, and of their interac¬tions (In ‘But What, Then, is the Solution’, Shourie starts with, ‘We seem to be hurtling towards a complete rupture of the social contract’), one can¬not abruptly switch to talk of changes in the economic base bringing about corresponding changes in the superstructure (‘From an Athetoid State to an Absolutist One’).
This is the first point; the second limit to Shourie’s vision relates to his class, and more important, to the class of his targeted readership: essentially the middle class, a class that needs an articulation of its role far in excess of its poten¬tialities, a class extremely narcissitic but also predatory on the rest of society. In other words, Shourie’s readership is himself. And when the middle class honours him, it, by the same token, honours itself. ‘The middle class’, writes Shourie,
is the constituency of fasc¬ism, fascism’s reservoir of potential, and potentially eager, functionaries … And yet individual members of this class shall, without doubt, play an all-important part in the eventual rectifi-cation.
Thus, in ‘Reasons for Hope’, it is not entirely unexpected that Shourie finds an eminent role for himself. It is a half-role, but any half-role can still convey the impression that something is being done. We tried: ‘It is all that is within our capacity as indivi¬duals to deliver.’
The marginal men: a Rustomji, a jail superintendent, it is the same class that exposes, and in exposing redeems itself. Idealism: ‘India will now respond to the idealist per se.’ ‘The act of conscience is always an irrational act.’ But every idealism has its own peculiar interests. Western history is strewn with the bones of the victims of conscientious, irra¬tional idealists. Salazar was an extremely moral man, but he was also one of the longest-surviving dictators of modern Europe.
The hero emerges from the pool of marginal men, and it is the hero who remains all-impor¬tant, not the people he leads: the people are mere pulp.
Individuals or groups per¬ceive that the state of affairs is a result of what they and others are doing and thus set about improving it, by first transforming their own conduct.
Yet how often have we not seen that these marginal men, placed at the helm of affairs, have rapidly turned as corrupt or tyrannical as the rulers they displaced. There are good men, but there are no good men in power. Power corrupts all. Heroes without a corres¬ponding check on their power, without or outside society’s sanction or control, are danger¬ous myths.
It must due to my Catholic upbringing, but I often find that Shourie, in his role as a marginal man, acts in a man¬ner similar to the Sunday preachers in the church I used to attend. He conducts the investigation, invites and builds up cynicism, lays the system bare in all its horrifying detail, and then moves in to offer hope. The congregation listens, the congregation marvels at the extraordinary abilities of the preacher, and the congregation goes home unchanged.
The third point: Shourie’s sterile categories, and his inability to grasp what is hap¬pening at the grassroots. When Shourie describes the hoi polloi, he turns out to be not very different from V.S. Naipaul. The product of a partial western tradition, he can only express total shock at the goings-on everywhere. But why should Indians behave precisely as people do in other countries? Is it so difficult to accept that Indians do what they do, did what they did, for extremely, sound reasons? What if all our existing imported institutions had functioned well? Is the present democratic pattern of the West something that must be indiscriminately admired?
Practically all our existing institutions, from the nation-state to village level panchayats, and inclusive of the press, the judiciary and the police, are modelled on the Western, more specifically, European, pattern, and based on princi¬ples developed in that part of the world, while the people these same institutions were designed to serve or catalyze are Indians rooted in a tradi¬tion much, much older than that of Europe.
The rampant individualism of the middle class usually enables some of its individuals to look upon themselves as heroic men, who in turn discard the rest as inferior or downright corrupt. Nothing makes this clearer than in Shourie’s attack on Justice Bhagwati of the Sup¬reme Court. But if you exa¬mine the facts, if you do not go by motives, you will dis¬cover that both have performed similarly with regard to the institutions they represent. Ex¬pediency, if there has been any, has been a common feature—Shourie in his sup¬pression of the strike of Express employees (confer the sober assessment of Adil Jussawalla in the Sunday Observer) and Justice Bhagwati in his role during the Emergency. The surprising thing is that both individuals—if motives are kept out of consideration—acted to preserve the long-term interests of their institutions, the Press and the Judiciary. Both believed these institutions to be of fundamental impor¬tance, an assumption that is the basis of the middle class and its perceived notions of what is important to the functioning of a healthy demo¬cracy.
The middle class distances itself from the vulgarity of the masses, but its own vulgarity is of longer standing. ‘Deli-cious’ is the word that Shourie uses when he finds he can trip officials more oppressed than he could ever be. The word occurs, not in an essay on ice-¬cream, but in the article on the macabre Bhagalpur blindings. This is a sign of involution, not revolution. The manifest horror of the vulgar masses makes the middle class recoil in distaste, as Naipaul finds Indians, coping with overwhel¬ming realities, a matter for comedy. Expose the system, says Shourie, and shows how it can be done. But for those outside the stolid security of the middle class, the oppressive nature of the system has been clear as daylight for decades.
More important, it is the vulgar intelligence that has the sharper eye for the causes of oppression, for it includes the middle class with its Shouries within this all-encompassing understanding. Kamla entered the middle class consciousness and got a journalist handsome monies and the Supreme Court a radical image, before she was stolen off the streets. The mid¬dle class will discover other Kamlas, not merely for our titillation, but so we can use them and their continued op¬pression to refurbish our hitherto bankrupt images or to enhance our sense of moral rectitude, while we conti¬nue to avoid the vulgarity of millions who live without a shred of dignity, and denied a role—or, if they seize one, denied the worth of it.
Claude Alvares is the author of Homo Faber and a freelance journalist based in Goa.