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Caught between Ramraj and Swaraj April 1, 2014

Posted by ruthgamble in : India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback

Vikas Kumar

In the run-up to the forthcoming parliamentary election in India, a few political parties initially tried to choose candidates through innovative methods. For instance, the Congress, India’s oldest political party, briefly flirted with the idea of holding elections within the party to select candidates. On the other hand, a key feature of the selection procedure of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), one of the youngest parties, was a nomination form for prospective candidates, which checked among other things if applicants were familiar with the book Swaraj written by the party’s National Convener. Candidates were given eleven lines to share their opinion regarding this “manifesto of the India of tomorrow”. The mini-book reviews were supposedly meant to serve as screening devices. We can use the book for other purposes, though. For instance, it can help us understand the counter-institutional policies of AAP’s short-lived government in Delhi. Here we will use the book to compare the historical narratives that inform BJP’s Ramraj (government fashioned after the epic state ruled by Lord Rama of Ayodhya) and AAP’s Swaraj (self-rule).

At the heart of the short work Swaraj, which presumes that “we have forgotten our own culture”, is a very brief history of India. In ancient India, rulers were servants to gram sabhas (village assemblies). That good old India is exemplified by the ancient Vaishali, “the first democracy in the world”, where people could randomly identify any girl as the city courtesan and also render the king homeless to please her. Since the rulers had no agency and were merely obedient servants to the honest masses, the state was obviously untainted by corruption. According to Swaraj, this fantastic state of affairs prevailed as late as the year 1860, when the British belatedly replaced it with Collector Raj (District Collector-centric administration). The reader is not told why the British took so long to attack the key obstacle to their colonial enterprise. In any case, after independence our corrupt politicians refused to return to the pre-1860 arrangement. So, we continue to suffer Collector Raj and the long cherished dream of Swaraj remains unfulfilled.

This history is remarkably similar to another history championed by the BJP, which suggests that the once glorious country of Rama and Krishna was reduced to rubble after the advent of foreign religions.

The competing narratives share a number of structural similarities. They reduce history to a fable by stripping it of facts and neatly dividing characters into distinct camps – Honest common men vs. Corrupt/exploitative colonialists, bureaucrats, big businessmen, and politicians; Bharat Mata (Mother India) loyalists vs. The Rest. This makes history simple and straightforward and, hence, also self-explanatory. So, people can engage with these histories without the intervention of experts, which facilitates mass dissemination unobstructed by social and cultural diversity of the country. Moreover, unlike academic histories they are presented both as reminders of a glorious past as well as plans of action to achieve that glory again rather than as mere descriptions of the past. Also, both BJP’s Ramraj and AAP’s Swaraj selectively draw upon early 20th Century political debates in the country. But the similarities between the two do not end here. There are correspondences between them in terms of actual content as well.

Both posit a Golden Age devoid of problems in a distant past, which is identified with the ancient “Hindu/Buddhist” period rather than medieval “Muslim” period. That distant past is further identified with a historical site in the Gangetic Valley – Ayodhya/Vaishali. Current problems ranging from poverty and illiteracy to casteism and communalism are explained by invoking outside intervention – British or Muslim/Christian. The persistence of problems after the outsider’s retreat is explained by drawing attention to the presence of anachronistic vestiges of the period of direct foreign control. In the AAP’s history the successor to the colonial bureaucracy and its contemporary political patrons play this role in a nominally independent India, whereas in the BJP’s history secular Hindus and converts to foreign religions play the same role in a numerically Hindu India. Bureaucracy and politicians are susceptible to the charms of global capital, whereas the religious minorities are vulnerable to Middle Eastern influence. Interestingly, the vestiges of outside influence are given the opportunity of redeeming themselves by joining the party; otherwise bureaucrats and politicians need to go to jails, while the minorities should leave for another country. In other words, the country can be restored to glory simply by emasculating the bureaucracy and the political class or religious minorities, depending on which history is consulted.

The parties that endorse these histories build emotional campaigns around issues like Jan Lokpal (People’s Anti-Corruption Ombudsman) and Rama Temple, which are kept unresolved to serve political convenience. These fantastic histories also explain the predisposition of these parties for crusades against things repugnant to a conveniently and spontaneously constructed majority consisting of aam aadmi (common man) or hindu aadmi (Hindu man). These parties encourage character assassination of non-partisan observers and institutions that stand between them and targets of their righteous fury. They need not appeal to any external authority to validate their choices because the majority can presumably reach correct decisions effortlessly, that is, without wasting time and resources and without recourse to alien institutions. This is possible because of three additional assumptions. First, the majority is devoid of internal contradictions: the AAP’s aam aadmi and the BJP’s hindu aadmi are untouched by caste, class, language, and regional divisions. Second, the presumably weaker party is naturally driven by good faith: the majority is a collection of hapless victims of an unjust, alien system – Collector Raj or Secular Raj (secular Indian state). Third, the people on the ground understand problems better than distant bureaucrats and technical experts/academics (secular social scientists).

In short, the mutual aversion of the AAP and the BJP notwithstanding, their nearly identical understanding of history is problematic. They espouse a majoritarian vision of politics that is incompatible with democracy in a plural society. Furthermore, they advocate a return to roots – whether in Vaishali’s Swaraj or Ayodhya’s Ramraj – by deliberately overlooking the enormous socio-economic and institutional differences between the purported Golden Age and the present.

It is unfortunate that in a country like India, which has a rich history and enormous diversity, majoritarian parties driven by utterly simplistic historical narratives are being presented as the only alternatives in the forthcoming election.

An earlier version of this article appeared here in the Deccan Herald.

Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.


1. Sandy Gordon - April 1, 2014

Thanks Vikas for an excellent piece.

Sandy Gordon