Continuités et discontinuités — 1
Discours et réalité dans la culture politique
Paul Brass, Politics (1990)

8 novembre 2018

Paul Brass, The Politics of India Since Independence,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990

Extraits de l'introduction.
Continuities and discontinuities between
pre- and post-Independence India
[Indépendance de l'Inde et du Pakistan: 15 août 1947]

En quelques pages claires et concises, Paul Brass définit les traits spécifiques de la culture politique et de l'habileté politique ou politique en action (statecraft) en Inde aujourd'hui. Je fais ressortir en gras les phrases qui me semblent essentielles. Il est important de tenir compte dans la lecture de Paul Brass du fait que cette synthèse date de la fin des années 1980 et qu'elle est antérieure à l'extraordinaire transformation de l'économie et à l'urbanisation massive qui rendent obsolète trente ans plus tard l'idée d'une société essentiellement rurale (an agrarian society).

Culture politique: discours (rhetoric) et réalité

(14) It became apparent very quickly after Independence that fundamental transformations were occurring in the actual functioning of the institutions and practices borrowed from the West in which adjustments were made that reflected indigenous cultural and behavioral patterns, but without any conscious modeling on its own traditions.

Some observers [Myron Weiner, 1963] attempted to encapsulate the process of contradiction and adjustment that was going on by arguing that there were several "idioms" or "cultures" in fundamental conflict with each other — a modern or Western idiom, centred in the ideas of the nationalist elite and in the institutions in Delhi, a traditional idiom or culture, rooted in the kin, caste, and communal relations of village, localii:y, and province, and a "saintly" idiom characteristically Indian, associated with Gandhi and his disciples involving selfless devotion to constructive work for the good of society and immune from the mimicking of foreign models or from contamination by the archaic superstitions and feudal practices of Indian society.

These useful attempts to categorize the basic contradictions between Indian politics and society, however, left many adjustments, adaptations, and everyday practices not satisfactorily explained. Little attention, for example, was paid to indigenous traditions of princely rule and their effects upon contemporary political practices, demonstrated every day in the morning and evening durbars or audiences held by every prominent politician in the land, in the duty of prominent people to provide support and protection for their clients, in the responsibility of those political leaders who achieved power and control over public resources to distribute them lavishly to their followers, and in the practice of dynastic succession to leadership in India.

It soon became evident also that there was a massive contradiction between the rhetoric of Indian public discourse and the reality of political practice, which expressed itself in many forms. For example, although the secular ideology of the Indian National /15/ Congress became dominant politically in India after Independence, and the newly independent Indian state proclaimed secularism as the official state ideology, the post-Independence Indian state leadership has nevertheless felt compelled to make official distinctions between the Hindu population and the non-Hindu populations of the country by such measures as the passage of the Hindu Code Act [= Hindu Code Bills, 1955–56]. which established a uniform civil code for all "Hindus" (including Sikhs) in the country, while leaving Muslims with theic own system of Personal Law. It has often also been alleged that many of the politicians of the country who proclaim their adherence to secularism as a state ideology actually harbor Hindu ommunal sentiments. The persistence of explicitly Hindu political organizations and movements in contemporary Indian politics also has been widely noted.

One of the great, enduring games of political analysts of India has been to assert the tacit dominance and to predict the ultimate emergence of a militant Hindu nationalist political category which will overwhelm the Indian state and establish its mastery over the Indian population. Since the late nineteenth century, there have been numerous movements of "Hindu" political mobilization, which have taken a variety of forms. These include the Gaurakshini (Cow Protection) Sabhas formed in the 1890s, which have agitated for laws preventing cow slaughter in India from time to time and launched a major mass movement as recently as the 1960s; the movement to promote the development and spread of a standardized Hindi language written in the Devanagari script, rather than Urdu in the Persian-Arabic script, as the official language of education and administration in north India and ultimately as the official language of the country; and the Hindu Mahasabha which worked to create a Hindu political community and to define the Indian nation through symbols drawn exclusively from "Hindu'' texts, beliefs, and practices and from non-Muslim history. This Hindu "revivalism" or militant Hindu nationalism has persisted up to the present and has manifested itself in various political organizations and movements and politicized religious movements. Such organizations and movements include: the Rashtryiya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu "cultural" organization organized into cells, whose members practice martial arts, and /16/ which promotes also an exclusively Hindu definition of the Indian nation; the Jan Sangh, originally the main political party offshoot of the RSS, but now a rump of quite extreme anti-Muslim supporters of Hindu nationalism; the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), the more broadly based descendant of the original Jan Sangh; and such other organizations as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is currently engaged in a campaign to "liberate" alleged Hindu religious sites from their occupation by Muslim mosques built on top. of them.

There is also presumed to exist a Hindu "vote" in India which can be mobilized for the sake of national unity against the secessionist or otherwise excessive demands of minorities such as Sikhs and Muslims. It has been noted that in the 1984 parliamentary elections, held in the aftermath of the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards, the issue of national unity was communalized and made into the central issue in Rajiv Gandhi's landslide election victory.

Nevertheless, there remains in India today considerable ambiguity concerning the use of the word "Hindus" to define any clearly demarcated group of people in the subcontinent and considerable doubt about the existence of a Hindu political community. On the one hand, the historic problem of a split between so-called "caste" Hindus and untouchables persists in contemporary Indian politics, as do divisions among the "caste" Hindus themselves. On the other hand, there has also been an historic tendency to subsume Sikhs, Jains, and others in the "Hindu" fold. While this tendency is bitterly resented by some groups, such as most Sikhs especially, and is considered to be part of the absorptive quality of "Hinduism," it also suggests the continued indefiniteness of its religious, social, and political boundaries. Revivalist or militant Hinduism nevertheless remains a pervasive and politically important presence in contemporary Indian politics. The tendency among militant nationalist organizations such as the /17/ RSS and the BJP to insist that Hindu and Indian are virtually interchangeable categories has spread bey0nd the organisational confines of these two organizations. Even more pervasive and subtle has been the more recent tendency to secularize the meaning of the term Hindu by going back to its earlier meaning of "native of India" and identifying India as the nation of Hindus without, however, eliminating from it all the religious associations which are offensive to true Muslim, Sikh, and other believers.

A second example of a contradiction between rhetoric and reality in contemporary Indian politics concerns the disjunction between the language of planning, equality, socialism, and social justice spoken by party leaders in the country and the practices of day-to-day politics. Immediately after Independence, the leading opposition parties were the Communists and the Socialists, promoting variants of the wholly Western ideologies associated with those labels. Yet, those ideologies bore little relation to the social structure of Indian society, which lacked the class distinctions and contradictions upon which the ideologies were based. None of the political parties in India proved able to imitate the European political party traditions of disciplined behavior in the legislatures to which they were elected. Instead, Indian politicians began early to display, indeed had been practicing at the local levels since the nineteenth century, a strong penchant for opportunistic behavior in pursuit of personal ambition to achieve high office and control public resources for personal advantage and for distribution to one's followers.

The reason for this persisting disjunction between public political party discourse and actual political practice, which render meaningful comparisons between Indian and western political parties difficult, is that the issues and social forces which impinge upon party politics in India today are entirely different from those which have confronted either contemporary or nineteenth century Europe and America. There are three such sets of issues, social forces, and aspects of social structure that contribute to the distinctiveness of Indian politics: the issues of control over agrarian resources, including control over land and the work force; social fragmentation; and center-locality relationships. The primary economic, social, and political resources in India today continue to be the land and its /17/ products and the primary struggles concern access to the inputs necessary to increase productivity and control over the produce from the land. Land being inherently a local resource and rural social classes being notoriously difficult to recruit into permanent extralocal organizations, the importance of land control and issues relating to it necessarily impart a local and personal character to politics. Governments in India may pass laws abolishing landlords and intermediaries, establishing land ceilings, and protecting tenants, but their implementation depends upon local patterns of domination and control by land controllers over land, resources, and people.

Those who get elected to state legislatures from rural constituencies in India themselves either come from important local land·controlling communities or depend for support upon them. What matters most to such people is local influence with government departments that disperse resources for agriculture, adjudicate land matters, or control the local population, particularly the police. These local politicians do not care much for party manifestoes, policy pronouncements, and development goals. They will vote as disciplined members of ruling parties in the legislatures as long as such behavior gives them access to ministers in the state government who can control local resources and the local administration and as long as there is no better alternative. When there is a better alternative, particularly one that gives them a place in a ministry where they can exercise direct control themselves over local resources, they will defect and switch to another party or coalition.

The second great feature of Indian society that imparts a distinctive character to Indian politics is the social fragmentation associated with caste. Caste too, in some of its most fundamental aspects, permeates Indian politics with local and personal features. Success in elections in rural constituencies depends primarily upon the ability to establish a base in one of the locally dominant, land controlling castes and then combining that support with an effective approach to one or more other important local caste groups or a low caste group or the local Muslim minority. Influence in the bureaucracy and in public agencies generally depends upon personal networks of kinship and caste. Legislators and politicians generally who depend upon such local support bases and are themselves part of such personal networks again are not moved or inspired by party /19/ manifestoes and pronouncements, but are moved by what benefits they can get to distribute to their supporters, friends, and relations.

These two great features of Indian political economy and social structure — land control and caste — also contribute to a third political characteristic that imparts distinctiveness to Indian politics, namely, the necessity for those who wish to build power in state and national contexts to maintain direct or indirect links with those who can control local structures of power. Since government now provides or controls the greatest share of external resources of use in the local environments and since government also can threaten the hold of powerful local groups through land laws or police harassment, it is equally important for locally powerful persons to maintain connections with those who wield power in the state and national governments. These relations once again do not concern ideology, policy, and programs but concern control over resources and people, protection from harassment by the bureaucracy and the police, and the trading of political support and votes for such resources, protection, and other services. It should hardly be surprising, therefore, that the public politics of Indian political parties and legislatures, which are modeled after the British pattern and in which a language familiar to students of European politics is spoken, should in fact be dominated by faction, personal and local interest networks, struggles over patronage and distribution of resources, and political opportunism.

Indian politics have lacked the ideological underpinnings of European political traditions. In common with American political traditions, however, there is a strong moral streak in Indian commentary on politics which is displayed in constant condemnation of the corruption of the politicians and the bureaucrats and of the relentless pursuit of power. Such moralism, usually drawing inspiration from Gandhian ideals, gives force from time to time to mass mobilizations to bring down the ruling party. However, these mobilizations have not so far been as effective as the recurrent reform movements which every now and then have transformed American institutions and political practices. Nor has it been possible for most political parties in India to adhere to a consistent ideology in the manner of many European parties which formulate manifestoes, whose programs they actually implement when they /20/ achieve power. Rather, Indian politics have been characterized by an all-pervasive instrumentalism which washes away party manifestoes, rhetoric, and effective implementation of policies in an unending competition for power, status, and profit.

If American political traditions have continued to emphasize the importance of limiting the role of the state while Western Europe has adopted the model of the welfare state and the Socialist countries the model of a socially transforming state, India has adopted the model of the state which exists for its own sake. It is a good in itself and the source of all goods. It exists to provide everything that Indians need and require: sovereignty, unity, welfare, jobs for all, social justice. It is the duty of the state and the holders of its offices, moreover, to provide these goods and services directly to the people, irrespective of any ideology or any notion of a broad common good. It is there to serve everyday's interests, not just an abstract "public interest." Of course, no state can serve everybody's interests and the Indian state has not succeeded in doing so. The contradictions between the foreign models adopted, the Indian traditions which have permeated the actual practices within the Western-derived institutions, and what can actually be achieved in an agrarian society, a caste-dominated social order, and a heterogeneous civilization have been of the essence of Indian politics since Independence.