Republicanism, Indian Style
Posted on 1-December-2008
I had forgotten when Indira Gandhi's birth anniversary was until one morning in November I saw in my daily newspaper a photograph of one of the more "modern" ministers of Indian government bent in apparent great humility, hands folded, before a garlanded photograph of the Indian Prime Minister of about one quarter century ago. This newspaper picture reminded me of the Kingdom of Thailand where I have spent some time. In that country there are numerous devices for encouraging and even enforcing respect for the institution of monarchy( vide chapter Krung Thep Mahanakhon in The Waste Sad Time). One of most "respected" former kings there was Chulalongkorn, the grandfather of the present king, who died about ninety-eight years ago. It is quite common for the Thai, especially the Bangkok middle class Thai, to bend and fold hands or genuflect when they pass not only a portrait of Chulalongkorn but also a chair he might have sat on or a bed he might have slept in. But among the Thai ruling elites, there is a consensus that the monarchy is essential for peace and stability in the country. They also know that a monarch's image is his best asset.
A republic in contrast functions best around a set of values. Since the end of British rule in 1947, and formally since January 1950, India has been a republic. Even before the British left, the Indian freedom movement had been infused with the spirit of republicanism and it is doubtful if the British colonial administration succeeded in inculcating "reverence" for the British monarch except among India's Maharajas and Rajas and among a thin layer of beneficiaries of colonial rule. Against this historical background, it was natural for India's political leadership of the first two or three decades after the departure of the British to emphasise republicanism in all aspects of public life. The external manifestations of this spirit were: decisions to abolish all titles, avoiding the use of honorifics such as His Excellency, eschewing personality cults. These external manifestations embodied principles such as egalitarianism, reward for merit, rule of law.
As my most impressionable and formative years were spent when this republican spirit was strong, I am perhaps excessively sensitive to departures from that spirit of which the picture of the Indian government minister is only one example. It is now common to see advertisements or public announcements with "His Excellency" added before the names of governors of Indian states. Government ministers are rarely other than "Honourable". I have seen one or two advertisements similarly excellencying the President of India. Statues of leaders of political parties adorn many city streets as are statues of one living chief minister of one state beginning to do. Someone was proposing to build a temple for a former prime minister of India. If you have been a government minister you can nearly be assured that some street somewhere in the country will be named after you after your death. In Delhi one locality is named after one living political leader. Not only common people and favour seekers but also members of the permanent civil service, recruited not through a system of patronage but through a perfectly democratic, republican system of open competition, are getting into the habit of touching the feet of political leaders when they meet them. This gesture of touching the feet of someone needs an explanation. In traditional Hindu society you touched the feet of an elder relative, a man respected for his holiness or spiritual attainments or, sometimes, a teacher. You greeted everyone else, including a hierarchical superior in your workplace, with folded hands, standing.
Calling someone His Excellency (at other times and in other places people were required to call each other citizen or comrade) , using a relatively servile form of greeting rather than another less so (different societies use different forms of greeting), having one's statue erected in a public place, naming a street after someone could all be looked at with an indulgent smile as minor quirks and dismissed. After all , in all of India there are even now numerous places named after obscure, forgotten colonial officials whose names have been unrecognisably mangled in local speech. Statues of grandees of the British Raj, including at least one of George V, King Emperor, with a disfigured nose, have all been removed from public places and are now in some cellars somewhere. I am more concerned about the spirit behind these new departures from the habits of the earlier years of the Indian republic.
Coming back to what I started with, the government minister bowing and folding his hands before a garlanded photograph of Indira Gandhi, it is almost certain that the minister's gesture was not addressed to those who read newspapers, nor to the ghost of Indira Gandhi but to members of one family related to Indira Gandhi by blood or marriage. The common word for such a gesture is sycophancy. Likewise people who go and touch a politician's feet are sycophants seeking advantages which are not their due. And there are sycophants because there are people with powers to dispense favours who expect submission and servility. When such attitudes and habits start spreading across society that should be cause of worry to those who believe in republicanism and all that it implies.
Someone has said that there are two kinds of societies: those based on loyalty and those based on contract. The guiding principle of feudalism was loyalty: mutual loyalty between lord and vassal. More modern, republican, democratic societies are in theory at least societies based on contract, societies in which principles such as rule of law, reward for merit, equality of opportunity for all citizens are fundamental. Patronage, favouritism, sycophancy, reward for loyalty and for personal services rendered are features of nearly all politics. Modern societies seek to find ways of keeping such tendencies in check and this because historical experience shows that societies based on contract are more efficient in attaining the goal of "the greatest good of the greatest number". Or to put it a little differently, if more and more societies have adopted republicanism and democracy it is because people in those societies have demanded them. In India unfortunately there seems recently to have been a move away from the basic values of republicanism. For this the major cause is failure of political leadership.
At this writing, India is emerging from three days of violent clashes between a group of Islamic militants and Indian security forces in the city of Mumbai. Upwards of 170 people have died and a few hundred injured. The country is going through a bout of, to use common Indian journalese, "soul searching". In all probability, high level meetings will be organised, in which, in the style of Delhi Durbar, people will vie with each other to put forward clever proposals and a plan of action will be drawn up, forgetting the commonsense proposition that even a modest plan well-implemented is better than the best of plans not implemented. Neither the the high level meetings, nor the plan of action will be the first of their kind. Whether the newest plan of action will give India greater protection against the kind of violence that has been occurring this year will be known only later.
It is now almost certain that the core group of these militants landed in Mumbai on inflatable dinghies that brought them from a hijacked trawler off the coast of Mumbai. It seems that there have been any number of warnings about the possibility of a group of people coming by sea with arms and explosives to Mumbai and creating mayhem--the latest such warning having come on 18th November. People have, most unoriginally, blamed it all on intelligence failure. On four earlier occasions too when there were multiple explosions in four Indian cities, including Delhi, intelligence failure was mentioned. The Indian prime minister likes talking of systemic failure. The most important systemic failure the country is suffering from is departure from the core values of republicanism. If a person gets put in a position because he bows and scrapes before a dead politician's photograph or because he touches the feet of a living one, then bowing and scraping is what he will give and not real performance and if he has been personally loyal and useful to whoever has power and authority, he will not be punished, no matter how great his error.
Islamic militancy is not the only cause for thinking of systemic failure. The Indian prime minister has himself named Maoist extremist insurgency as the most serious security threat the country faces. And yet there is no sign that much is being done to effectively deal with it . There is regional-cum-ethnic violence in Assam--there were explosions in Guahati earlier this year--and Manipur. And then there are gratuitously created tensions between "local" populations and "North Indians" in Maharashtra and violence against Christians in Orissa, earning India a rebuke from Christendom. While each of these separate problems requires contingent action, India's salvation lies in a return to the values and the spirit with which the Indian republic started in 1947.