In that 1971 classic essay, ‘After the Revolution: The Fate of Nationalism in the New States’, Clifford Geertz alluded to the ‘darkened mood’ that had descended upon the new states. The great cultural anthropologist talked of a creeping ‘disenchantment with party politics, parliamen-tarianism, bureaucracy, and the new class of soldiers, clerks and local powers; in uncertainty of direction, ideological weariness, and the steady spread of random violence.’ And, in this majestic overview, Geertz feared that most of the new states were in for a spell of ‘commonplace rulers’.
None of the eleven leaders included in this catalogue of iconic ‘makers of modern Asia’ can be called a ‘commonplace ruler’. Each was a transformational leader; each sought to roll back the ‘disenchantment’ phenomenon, noted by Geertz; each was a consequential leader who repainted the landscape in his country.
Some succeeded brilliantly (like Deng, Lee,), some not so wholesomely (Bhutto, Sukarno); others (Gandhi, Mao, Nehru, Ho) devised and shaped their new nation’s foundational direction and drive; while some others (Indira and Chou) reinvigorated the state’s bureaucratic depth and reach. What Odd Arne Westad says about Mao and Deng—‘for bad and good they made China into the country it is today’—can also be said about other leaders, who whipped—some gently, some roughly—their disparate population into a people, and then induced them to think and become one nation, and then, mid-wifed and nurtured that nation into a modern nation-state.
Ramachandra Guha’s beef is with the current occupation with ‘economic growth’ as the sole criterion for national success among Asian countries. He regrets that in this age of globalization and borderless capitalism the intellectual and scholarly yardsticks of ‘success’ in evaluating a ‘leader’ have been revised to over-emphasise economic factors—to the near-exclusion of issues of republican virtues, democratic values and social cohesion and harmony. His preference, simply put, is to ‘place politics before economics’. This is not a historian’s partisanship to his craft. There was no economic success before the political command and control.
Behind the economic success in Asia, Guha argues ‘lies a now somewhat obscured history of agitation and consolidation that created unified, stable (or more or less stable) nation-states out of fragmented territories and fractious social groups.’
Guha insists, and rightly so, on highlighting this obscured history. And this is achieved through a leader’s biography. There can be argument with Guha’s selection of these eleven leaders to qualify for the ‘makers’ dhobi-mark, but there is little room for disagreement that each of them shaped, moulded and moderated his or her country.
In his introductory essay Guha suggests that each of these ‘makers’ had to weave in a few common themes—anti-colonial revolution, nationalist consolidation, choice of political system, economic strategy, foreign relations, and state-society relationship—as they whisked nationalist energy and sentiments in his country.
Except Gandhi, all of these makers were engaged in ‘ruling’ their countries in the postcolonial years. ‘Ruling’ is—has always been—a deeply divisive business because at its core ‘ruling’ involves making and imposing authoritative choices and seeking society’s compliance with those choices. There is opposition, even armed resistance to choices of policies and constitutional designs; and, the [new ]state finds itself obliged to resist those who choose to resist it. Ugliness makes its ubiquitous presence felt in every ‘ruling arrangement’.
Consider this. Of this Guha XI, three—Gandhi, Indira and Bhutto met violent ends; Mao was always killing his ‘rivals’ lest they get him killed; Zhou Enlai, at the end of his life, was subjected to cruelty at Mao’s behest; Deng Xiaoping escaped near death twice; Sukarno was under house arrest when he died; Chiang was in exile on a small island. Only Nehru and Ho died a natural, peaceful death.
Guha and his co-authors very correctly do not pass moral judgments about their subjects; certainly we cannot expect them to be going about handing out the Washington-minted certificates of good conduct to these brave and innovative nationalists par excellence. These revolutionaries and patriots (and one saint) are to be judged by their own standards.
One outstanding quality and asset many of these ‘makers’ had was a skill and a capacity for forging a semblance of unity and a convergence of purpose among warring groups and factions in order to chisel out a new nationalism.
We are told, for example, of ‘Sukarno’s obsession with synthesis and with accommodating the disparate voice of Indonesian nationalism.’ His success was in roping in ‘not only the nationalist-Islam-Marxism strains but also the Javanese and Sumatran strains.’ Not only did he become ‘the face and voice of defiant nationalism’ he also became Indonesia’s leading ‘solidarity maker.’
Similarly, Ho Chi Minh had to demonstrate a capacity for making people work together for a larger cause, ‘power to heal factional divisions in the early days of the Communist movement.’ Sophie Quinn-Judge notes Ho’s ‘his desire to unify all Vietnamese patriots into one movement was far stronger than his attachment to Communist dogma; he preferred peaceful political transformation to revolutionary violence, in strong contrast to Mao Zedong’s outlook.’
And just as Ho Chi Minh had the gift for making concessions to the rivals to secure their cooperation, Nehru too had willingly shared power not only with Sardar Patel, but also invited and involved non-Congress personalities like B.R. Ambedkar, S.P. Mookherjee in getting the new nation going. On this count, Bhutto was an oddity; his willful unwillingness to share power with Sheikh Mujib brought about a destruction of Jinnah’s Pakistan.
One of the key ‘ruling’ arrangement that each of these leaders had to work out was the nature and content of civil-army relationship. And, this relationship necessarily had to be shaped in the context of the particular nationalist discourse of the age. In India, the Gandhian accent on nonviolence ipso facto meant that the guardians of the state’s coercive powers had to take a backseat after Independence. Things were different in China. Because the Communist Party itself was in the vanguard of revolutionary violence, access to and control of the ‘armed’ wing of the revolution was key to a leader’s efficacy. Deng, for instance, could not get full control of China till he was able to secure the backing and indulgence of the Army. As Westad observes, ‘his closeness to the military would later stand Deng in good stead.’
Trouble erupted when the relationship was not settled. In Indonesia, for example, Sukarno ended up giving army an institutional role as an arbiter and in the process lost out to the generals. Similarly, Bhutto connived with the generals—first joining Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s cabinet, and then becoming their cat’s paw—and then getting sent to the gallows by another general.
Wherever the ‘makers’ were able to sort out this relationship, they set their country on a path of untroubled growth and progress. In the Guha XI, most of them are wonderful orators; some may even be thought of as dangerous demagogues. But they all drew strength and sustenance from this skill.
Sukarno, we are told, recalled how a ‘shiver went through me when I first discovered the kind of power that could move the masses’. In later years, he seized every opportunity to talk to his people. He soon became ‘the lion of the podium.’ He mesmerized crowds all over Java, formulating, he said, ‘my people’s hidden feelings into the political and social terms with they would have themselves if they could. I became their mouth-piece.’
Nehru was acutely conscious of his capacity to strike a rapport with the masses, to captivate them, hold their attention. This skill was particularly decisive in the early post-Independence years he took on the Patel-Tandon crowd.
But perhaps the most outstanding orator in this Eleven has to be Bhutto. He is described as careening ‘through a dizzying round of mass public meetings, mainly in West Pakistan, where millions drank his heady brew of populist politics.’
To be sure, all of these ‘makers’ were not uniformly successful in whatever they set out to make of their country. The key it seems would be the leader’s success in ensuring how his ideas and polices got privileged institutionally. Nehru, Deng and Lee believed in the instrumentality of an elite—a select group of dedicated, motivated men and mandarins, joyfully affecting a esprit de corps—that would mobilize millions into tasks of national unification and revival, as envisioned by the ‘maker’. Against this recognition and respect for competent, meritorious, talented elite is the one-man show model, most graphically represented by Sukarno and Bhutto.
The collective tale of these eleven remarkable nationalists does not answer all the questions about obligations and duties of leadership. Nationalism is a very powerful driver of societies but in the hands of an expedient and opportunistic demagogue like Bhutto it can become a dangerous tool. Unalloyed and uncompromising nationalism can only be a mixed blessing.
Harish Khare, a veteran Journalist, was a former media advisor to the PM (June 2009–January 2012).