Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Saagar manthan (Churning the ocean)

Mr. Advani has predictably raised a storm back home with his Jinnah/secular remark in Pakistan. See news stories here and here. From what one knows of his habits, Mohammad Ali Jinnah was obviously no fundamentalist. Even in his political life, there are two phases: one where he was purely supporting the cause of Indian independence (somewhat desultorily, by many accounts) and then, when he was made the urbane spokesman of the two-nation argument. Be that as it may (this posting is not about whether Jinnah was secular or not: secularism, as only a very few realize, should not be about EQUAL treatment to all religion by the state - which is impractical - but should be about being BLIND to religion in matters of state), I am extremely pleased with this development – and, to the extent that we won’t see another backtracking of the type “I have been misquoted; what I really meant was the exact opposite of what you heard”, this is a (or the beginning of a) momentous development in our politics.

Till date, we struggled to choose from Congress-I (center-left, old, ever willing to pander to all kinds of minorities in the name of secularism and social justice, corrupt, centralized, autocratic), regional parties (parochial, rural focused, state-as-a-gravy-train mentality), BJP (extreme right-wing, old, corrupt) and the Left (irrelevant but refuses to die). With this development what I see is – shorn of all (and there will be many during the transition) complications – the emergence of the first center-right national alternative (while the NDA was, arguably, center-right in its conduct, that was much more due to the compulsions of coalition politics than there being a unifying center-right ideology to begin with).

It is imperative that, over time, we reach a point where (with economies of scale kicking-in for the political process) the electorate has clear choices to make between center-left and center-right alternatives (should the 2-3 party kind of system truly take root, they will each be somewhere close to the center), instead of choosing from numerous competitors and then leaving the bartering (with all attendant shenanigans) to the elected representatives (or, to their leaders/brokers). This is required for our executive (as long as the executive comprises a sub-set of the legislature) to be incented in taking a pan-India, development-focused view on issues.

I have been – and, as of now, remain – strongly against BJP policies (e.g. education, role of religion in public life, swadeshi vs. free-trade, etc.). But, as this drama plays out – and it will take years, not months or days, I hope to be one of the many who will have a real choice between two parties that have the same warts (the two-party system won’t necessarily take out corruption, centralization-of-power etc. issues) but different promises on (goals of and path towards) social and economic development.


Amit Chibber said...

Your sentiments are right on the money, though the latest news of Advani’s resignation points to some of the potholes we can expect on the road to a true center-right party in India.

Incidentally, Advani reads Jinnah more or less correctly. The best exposition on the subject is found in Ayesha Jalal’s The Sole Spokesman, laying out the once-radical but now academically accepted claim that Nehru’s Congress, not Jinnah’s Muslim League, architected partition.

However, I am inclined to disagree with your claim that “only a very few” know the “correct” definition of secularism. The standard you articulate—equal blindness rather than equal affirmation—is that of the First Amendment tradition in the United States. But secularism comes in various flavors. India has picked the doctrine of equal affirmation, while France has gone a third way: not blindness, but rather “establishment”—if there can be such a thing—of atheism itself, a strident, officially sanctioned purging of all religion from public life. Who’s to say which one of these is “secularism,” rightly understood? The concept must of necessity be adapted to the social and historical forces of each nation.

NPOjha said...

On Mr. Jinnah, see Ian Talbot's piece (So Many Jinnahs) in today's Indian Express. It encompasses more than just Ms Jalal's characterization and makes the simple point that Mr. Jinnah went through many phases where his views changed (I don't fully subscribe to the charge that it was exclusively or mainly due to audience-focus) and that a number of attempts at appropriating Mr. Jinnah for contemporary causes have all glossed over these contradictions to suit their own interests.
Also, I have further commentary on the definition of secular in a new post (The many denominations of secular).

Amit Chibber said...

Ian Talbot offers a historiography on Jinnah, and a necessarily bare-bones one at that. Jalal, Seervai, and Rajmohan Gandhi all come out in roughly the same place, offering comprehensive theories of their own that collectively provide the best explanation I have found for why Jinnah's views and tactics seemed to shift as much as they did over time. These three -- particularly Jalal and Seervai -- drew on a vast array of primary sources unavailable to prior scholars (including Stanley Wolpert), such as the 12 volumes of India Office records known collectively as The Transfer of Power, 1942-47, and released during 1970-82 (as the statutory seals came off). Seervai's argument also drew on a careful analysis of those parts of Maulana Azad's autobiography first released to the public in 1988.