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All ifs, some buts

While pundits continue to deconstruct his statement — ‘Rahul’s trying to distance the Nehru-Gandhi family from the Narasimha Rao Congress’, ‘Rahul is talking like a feudal lord’ — I prefer to see Gandhi having indulged in that wonderful pastime of posing ‘counterfactual’ questions, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Mar 22, 2007 06:39 IST

Remember that Chetan Sharma last ball delivery during the final of Australasia Cup in Sharjah in 1986? Pakistan needed four runs to win off the last ball. Sharma ran in to bowl a full toss outside the leg stump, which Javed Miandad promptly despatched for a six. One can’t help but wonder what could have happened — what would have happened — if Sharma had bowled a straighter, shorter delivery. The stumps being skittled? Miandad slashing the ball and getting not more than a couple of runs? Many more variations can be played out in the mind’s stadium when one starts thinking along this ‘What if?’ line. But one thing seems to be certain: whenever we conduct this thought experiment, Pakistan loses.

Far from the April 18, 1986, cricket grounds of Sharjah lies the December 6, 1992, town of Ayodhya. Perhaps with the World Cup on in full swing and probably because of the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh round the corner, young and imaginative Congressman Rahul Gandhi has been naturally led to unleashing his very own ‘What if?’ idea on the nation. According to Gandhi, had a member of his family been in politics in 1992 (Maneka-chachi and Arun-tau, of course, don’t count) the Babri Masjid demolition would not have taken place.

While pundits continue to deconstruct his statement — ‘Rahul’s trying to distance the Nehru-Gandhi family from the Narasimha Rao Congress’, ‘Rahul is talking like a feudal lord’ — I prefer to see Gandhi having indulged in that wonderful pastime of posing hypothetical or ‘counterfactual’ questions.

What if Hitler had won the war? What if Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s suffering from a combination of tuberculosis and lung cancer before 1947 was not a closely guarded secret? What if Danny Dengzongpa had accepted the role of Gabbar Singh in Sholay? What if Rajiv Gandhi had not gone to campaign in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991?

These are questions that appeal to us as we wonder whether things could have been different (almost always to be read as: better), whether unfortunate incidents could have been avoided. But why bother about things that didn’t happen? There are really two answers to that pertinent question. One, that we all indulge in ‘What ifs’ on a private level in some form or the other. What if I hadn’t had that fifth drink? What if I hadn’t met her at that point in my life? Most famously, the personal counterfactual was taken to its most dizzying imaginative extreme in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, in which Marty travels back in time and unwittingly lures his mother-to-be away from his father-to-be jeopardising his own conception. Marty was simply travelling down one of the infinite possibilities of his life — other than his ‘programmed’ real life, that is.

Historical counterfactuals — that have had a long tradition of being extended to political counterfactuals — are simply the good old ‘What if?’ queries made bigger, wider and involving whole strands, sub-strands and sub-sub-strands of possibilities with the inclusion of a much larger dramatis personae. But real historians aren’t supposed to do counterfactual thinking. As historian EH ‘What is?’ Carr dismissively put it, counterfactual history is a mere “parlour game”, a “red herring”. For Carr, not only is asking ‘What if’ questions running after the wrong tree, but it is also being in denial about the ‘right tree’.

“The view that examination results are a lottery will always be popular among those who have been placed in the third class....History is... a record of what people did, not what they failed to do.” But then, from when did a country like India keep politics and history in two separate, clearly labelled jars? And unlike historians, the rest of us have no such intellectual obligation to stick to the ‘What is’. Which makes me come to the second reason why we should bother about things that didn’t happen. Because they’re not there! (Apologies to George Mallory.)

Rahul Gandhi is, of course, not the first or the last politician to go into the kaash... mode. His statement to the people of Uttar Pradesh was, after all, the unrhetorical version of “What if a Gandhi was in national politics when the Ayodhya movement was in full swing?” Most political ‘What ifs’ boil down to variations of ‘Would we have let this happen if we were in power?’ The likely answer to this is almost always: “I’m afraid so.” At least in Gandhi’s case, one can be pretty sure that at least the ‘counterfactual’ Prime Minister of the country would not have ‘slept’ while the Babri Masjid was being demolished not too far from Delhi.

But the problem with a politician wielding the ‘What if?’ question is that the ‘possibility’ that he has in mind — a brave Rajiv Gandhi stopping BJP-fuelled kar sevaks — is not the only alternate possibility. For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. With the past being connected to the present through many more points than the one that connects a nail to a kingdom, there’s no guarantee that some other bright spark won’t ask that other question: “What if Rajiv Gandhi had not opened the locks of the Babri Masjid in 1986?”