Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Making of the Mahatma

Book Review: Non-fiction/Gandhi before India by Ramachandra Guha, Penguin/Allen Lane, p.673, Rs899 (Hardback)
When India’s leading historian Ramachandra Guha writes on Mahatma Gandhi, the nation’s father, the account is naturally steeped in the wider discourse. After all, the writer of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, one of the most incisive commentaries on India’s tryst with nationhood, certainly has the authority and command to touch upon the main currents of India’s modern history. For over two decades, Guha has brought historiography within his purview, proving to be unprecedentedly receptive to greater social ideas.

On that basis, he has covered the history of cricket, environmentalism and the overall emergence of India as a young nation with old civilisational characteristics. And Guha’s new book, Gandhi Before India, which aims to inquire into and showcase Gandhi’s metamorphosis into the Mahatma over the years, is yet another significant addition to his body of work. Meticulously researched and richly detailed, the book is characteristically humane—a reflection of the fact that Guha has long been a most devoted scholar of Gandhism.

Attempting to explore lesser known facets of the life of Mahatma Gandhi, this first book of a two-part biography project focuses on the time between his birth in Porbandar in 1869 till his departure to India from South Africa in July 1914. “Before I come to the argument about the man, I thought that I should first understand the man. During my research, I realised that virtually everything written on Gandhi was in Gandhi’s own words, all that he said or wrote. I wanted to go beyond Gandhi’s point of view, everything that he wrote on including caste, culture, and religion,” Guha has stated.

The configuration in Gandhi Before India is between India’s greatest man and a scholar. The book’s content proves how majorly Guha has been influenced by the life of Mahatma Gandhi and his worldviews—and there are very few who could’ve penned it in the same spirit. For there have been many an attempt to evaluate the great man, but few have been truly successful—some works oversimplify the narrative while others falter when pushing forth unreasonable doubts.

What is visibly amiss in such cases is an interest in Gandhi’s diversified persona, which is difficult to reject, even in the course of a subversive analysis. Based on archival research in four continents, Gandhi Before India gives an account of Gandhi as an individual and the world he lived in, a world that was apparently constructed of sharp contrasts, such as those witnessed during his movements between the coastal culture of Gujarat to High Victorian London and then to empire-ruled South Africa.

The book is tastefully directed to explore Gandhi’s experiments with dissident cults such as the Tolstoyans and vegetarians, his friendships with radical Jews, devout Christians and Muslims, his enmities and rivalries and his failures as a husband and father.

All these had, after all, contributed to the process of his becoming the man he would forever be known as around the world, a mass mobiliser for the emancipation of humanity. Gandhi’s biggest triumph thereafter was probably his determined reliance on non-violence to fight the brutality of the racist regime in South Africa and the colonial occupation of India.

In the course of time, after plenty of blood, sweat and tears had been shed, the erstwhile colonies became free democracies—and Gandhi’s role also deserves to be seen in the context of his championing of a better western idea.

Although a democrat to the core in action, principally, Gandhi had backed the conception of ‘nation and nationhood’ without sliding from the backup of conventional wisdom. He was part of a vital stream of tradition and modernism. So, as Guha understood it, revisiting Gandhi should take consideration of his personal beliefs as well as his dealings with the world. For he was foremost a man of immense integrity, one who never denied his weaknesses, and who rose to inspire the ethical consciences of millions.

Guha is able to do justice to his chosen theme, depicting Gandhi as simultaneously a fallible man and an unparalleled reformer who changed the entire course of history. The basic contention of the book reasonably notes that Gandhi was not born great but that it was his honest overtures with unusual circumstances in alien lands that had befitted him for the purposes of activism.

He soon emerged a great visionary, a beacon of hope for all the pockets of colonial oppression around the world, one who was intent on sticking to the path of non-violent revolution in order to curtail and diminish the might of imperial power. His approach was not hard-hitting as such, but his conviction and ability to communicate was forthright with effect. A great writer himself, Gandhi linked activism to the pen and peaceful demonstration—a phenomenon shift in the medium of protest in the post-industrialised world.

Guha’s book allows readers to be informed on all counts—including on the many inconvenient truths and misnomers surrounding Gandhi’s legend. Unlike most other attempts, this book does not intend to mystify; it aims instead to make Gandhi accessible to the greater masses, an admirable effort towards what is called the ‘democratisation of historiography’. Gandhi Before India is thus a beautifully written book that will no doubt create anticipation among readers for its sequel. And Guha, reportedly, is already at work on the same.

Even after 66 years of independence, the fog that surrounds Indian history is still quite dense—bizarre given how we’ve had generations of historians who’ve been scrabbling to find the pulse of significant events from the past. Unlike many of them, however, as a free thinker, Guha is probably in a better position to write the new history of modern India, or its ‘social history’. Gandhi Before India pays testament to his skills therein, and his capacity to shape an accessible and engaging narrative with remarkably gathered facts and balanced perspective—quite a rare achievement when it comes to something as complex as India’s history.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on Novemver30,2013)

Choices to make

As the November 19 election for a second Constituent Assembly (CA) nears, the question is whether the imminent electoral exercise will inevitably cause the political parties to head for more confrontation or if it will outline a strategy of cooperation and co-evolution instead.

The developing political scenario suggests that political parties are sticking more closely with the two contentious issues of the last CA—federalism and the form of government post-election. In the absence of collaboration, it will be tough for the CA to write a well-structured constitution, which is what the country needs.

Since 1990, Nepal’s democracy has been grappling with consistent flip-flops and political maneuverings. It has already lost over two decades in coming out completely from the shadow of royal institutions. The current constitutional crisis would have been unlikely if political principles were in alignment with peoples’ aspirations.

Nepal’s tryst with democracy hasn’t always been painful—the country witnessed full-scale transformation into a ‘democracy’ within a short span of time, compared with other South Asian democracies. The first generation democratic leadership of the country deserves closer evaluation, as they had a clear grasp over their goals and intentions. Sadly, things are dramatically different now.

Nepal has failed to capitalise on many chances to cement its democracy. The eventful 1990s were spent initially in a ‘tug-of-war’ between the king and the political forces, and later in the Maoists v everyone else. The last decade began with an unfortunate royal massacre, which not only ended the monarchy’s natural continuity but also greatly affected the natural progression of democracy.

Since 2001, what has dominated the major political discourse in Nepal should have avoided—intense factionalism, directionless ideological formations and fragmentations, unprecedented rise in regionalism and an excessive focus on the federalisation of the republic. Demands were mostly routed through demonstrations, discarding basic civic and moral sense.

At this crucial juncture, the reckoning should be that Nepal fared well under a central command. It is a small country where territorial divisions are not as important as its emancipation as an economy and democracy. India and China can be the good examples for Nepal, given how far these countries have traveled from medieval monarchies into modern states.

Nepal, however, always has the option to keep the constitution-making exercise simple and inclusive. As a modern parliamentary democracy, it can go the Indian way—where the constitution was made through a rigorous consultation process and by adopting the wisdom/aspirations of the land along with fine examples from outside.

The Indian Constitution, at least notionally, embodies the best of democratic values; and this despite diverse ethnicities and massive size. Whatever the verdict of the election, all political parties should approach constitution-making as a consensus-driven exercise. For this, the trust in the existing parliamentary model needs to be incorrigible. Sans faith in the present system, it will be impossible for the political parties to offer a better alternative to the Nepali people, who are more interested in a dignified life.

Meanwhile, the adamant stand of Mohan Baidya-led CPN-Maoist against the election only proves once again the directionless working of his camp. Baidya should revisit the basics of communism, which teaches that a ‘connect with people’ is supreme. Second, he needs to figure out the constituents of a ‘class structure’ before fighting for the cause of ‘invisible proletariats’. He is about to commit a bigger blunder than his alma mater, the UPCN (Maoist), when recognising the divide between the ‘elite’ and ‘oppressed’.

Baidya’s half-baked political programme may not lead him too far. Earlier too, the Maoists performed miserably on crucial socio-economic as well as cultural matters while they were in power. That was at the cost of a rare political edge, which was post the diminishing status of the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML.

For long, Nepali leaders have not looked at political developments beyond the ‘surrealist order’, which allows ‘unconscious choices to be expressive’. This is an existential downplaying and must not be continued. The Nepali people’s faith in democracy should reflect in its institutions.

Political leaders have to be sensitive to this or they will end-up undermining democracy and finally their own utility in public space. They have to make choices and the poll is going to be most opportune for hat. This election will decide whether democracy in Nepal is a lame duck or a winner.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on November10,2013)

Wealth of the nation

Book Review: Non-fiction/Before and after the Global Crisis by T T Ram Mohan, Gyan Publishing House, p.352; Rs990 (Hardback)
T T Rammohan makes a brilliant diagnosis of what’s currently ailing the political economy of India

T T Rammohan is an academician of repute from IIM Ahmadabad. But unlike the rest of his creed, his writings are diverse and are meant for all kind of readers. Besides academic and consultancy overtures, he has been a widely-read and admired columnist with India’s leading pink paper for over two decades. With hundreds of articles on macroeconomic policies and other significant issues to his name, Rammohan is amongst the formidable scholars of his generation.

Before and after the Global Crisis is a collection of articles Rammohan had written during the 2004-12 period. Taken together, they add more value, and help tabbing the pulse of Indian economy in the post economic reforms years. This book enriches the understanding of India’s political economy and reads very well. Particularly, the chapters on how Indian economy stood in pre and post world economic crisis of 2008, are worth reading.

His earlier book Brick by Red Brick: Ravi Mathai and making of IIM Ahmadabad was a tribute to Ravi Mathai, who outgrew personal aspiration for shaping an institution and finally nation-building. The work is a biography with a difference, as it dealt with two institutions of different dimensions, IIM-A and Ravi Mathai. It got well deserved attention from readers and critics and the new book opens another round of idea exchange, focussed on the state of Indian economy.

This book is divided into five parts. The major areas covered under this are: macro economic variables, economic reforms, fiscal consolidations and disinvestment policies. The essays place rational arguments by allowing opinions to contradict the flawed current policy mechanism of the government. At some points, the author does not hesitate to approve the good works being carried out by the centre. He knows the beauty of keeping balanced views.

The next part of the book deals with banking sector reforms. The essays make the case for proper human resource development, besides favouring the prospects of inclusive banking. As the new bank licencing is imminent now, the chapter on financial inclusion has high relevance.

The third part of the book takes stock of world economy, particularly, the genesis of global economic crisis and role of international banking in the whole episode. Spread on a broader spectrum, the complex issue of ‘economic recession’ is still a puzzle. one among the formidable reasons of that has been the ‘shady regulation’ of Anglophone financial markets.

The lackluster regulatory approaches had prolonged the adventure of unsustainable financial businesses—and things hardly changed, even after the west suffered unprecedentedly through Subprime Crisis to the mass failure of banking structure.

T T Rammohan, a keen observer of global economic policies, naturally appears a very insightful narrator through his first hand experiences. As at the heart of this book is to unleash the background and foreground stories of world-wide economic crisis, the author’s specific leaning on the world economy, is justified. The world still has not come out of the grip of economic recession and although bank collapses are rare now, still the old confidence in financial markets is hard to be seen. Somewhere, it reflects the bigger mishandling of governance and regulation.

The timing of the book could not have more apt than now, when India is really passing through a tough time, by relentlessly witnessing a downward trend in its growth curve. And without growth, the principal stand of economic reforms would falter in no time. Rest, the provision of ‘redistribution of wealth’ is living uncertainty.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Millennium Post on November17,2013)