On Tuesday evening, Soli Sorabjee, one of India’s most distinguished lawyers, delivered the first VM Tarkunde memorial lecture in New Delhi. Younger readers may not remember Justice Tarkunde but for people of my generation, he was somebody we looked up to. Soli paid tribute to Tarkunde’s judicial career but most of us remember him as the father of the civil liberties movement in India, as the sort of man who had the guts to stand up during the Emergency and to take on Indira Gandhi’s goons even as many others grovelled.
As I listened to Soli and looked around the auditorium at the India International Centre, where the lecture was held, I realised that Tarkunde and his ilk also represented an important force in Indian politics, one that shaped the contours of discourse through most of my formative years.
Tarkunde was a follower of MN Roy, the radical humanist-philosopher who is largely forgotten today. But he was also a symbol of a certain kind of middle class engagement with Indian politics. This engagement took many forms but it had many distinctive features: its proponents disdained the Communist Party because of its support for totalitarianism; they were broadly pro-capitalist though sensitive to the needs of the poor; they were nearly all well-educated and many were lawyers; they subscribed to liberal values and they were passionate about human rights.
And, one more thing: they hated the Congress.
It is fashionable now to date anti-Congress-ism to the horrors of the Emergency and the beginnings of dynasty. But the truth is that, for this kind of educated, politically aware person, the hatred of the Congress began as early as the 1950s.
In some ways, Nani Palkhivala, Minoo Masani and others like them (there was a strong Swatantra strand to this engagement) disapproved of the Congress because they saw it as pro-Soviet and too committed to Leftist economics. Others hated it because the Congress was the establishment, the centre of all power. They hated its corruption. They loathed its authoritarianism. And they believed — probably accurately — that
India needed a strong, ideologically focused Opposition.
The problem with these views was that while they appealed to middle class people like myself, they never found a larger constituency outside of the cities. Thus, Swatantra was forced into alliances with all kinds of dodgy maharajas and eventually into a merger with Charan Singh’s crowd. The educated activists looked for popular politicians they could support, often settling on unlikely candidates only because they seemed to have the base required to take on the Congress.
Thus, Jai Prakash Narain and his movement for Total Revolution found fans in Bombay and Delhi; among people who had never been to Bihar and had no idea what JP was talking about. Many well-meaning liberals were also drawn to the Jan Sangh, choosing to play down its communal agenda and arguing instead that it represented a democratic, economically liberal alternative to the corrupt socialist politics of the Congress.
The Emergency was probably the Golden Age of this kind of engagement. With all political activity suspended, it no longer mattered whether you could win an election. Instead, lawyers fought for fundamental rights. Activists produced secret newsletters. And as Indira Gandhi promoted her son, the thug-like Sanjay, it seemed as though every middle class paranoia about the Congress had now been vindicated.
After the Emergency, many of these people supported the newly created Janata Party, discovering new virtues in Jagjivan Ram, persuading themselves that Morarji Desai was a true patriot and arguing that Chandra Shekhar represented the future of Indian democracy.
But middle class aspirations and political reality never really matched. Despite its willingness to borrow liberal rhetoric, Janata was essentially a coalition of regional notables (many of whom had once been in the Congress) and the RSS. When petty rivalries sank the government, the voters returned to Indira Gandhi, demonstrating once more the electoral irrelevance of this sort of engagement.
After that, middle class activists decided that they were better at filing PILs than they were at winning votes. The civil liberties movement of the 1980s and the emergence of the judiciary as the educated class’s agent of change represented the beginnings of the recognition that this kind of engagement had a limited political future.
There were a few moments of hope, of course. In 1989, VP Singh emerged as the messiah of anti-Congress forces (all of whom chose to pretend that they did not remember that he had been a minister in Indira Gandhi’s Emergency government). In 1990, however, he too came to terms with the political irrelevance of urban educated activists and reached out to the backward castes. The middle class was devastated.
Throughout the last decade, I wondered about how people like myself had become so marginal to the political process. Partly, it was also that we had grown up and begun to look beyond our urban concerns. One instance: in the 1980s, I used to regard Nani Palkhivala as an intellectual giant. Reading him when I was older, I came to the sad conclusion that his was a second-rate mind with a second-hand agenda and a writing style that reminded me of a Navsari stationmaster whose entire library consisted of a well-worn copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. It wasn’t that Palkhivala had changed; more that my expectations had altered and my vision of India been transformed by time.
Looking around at Soli’s audience at the Tarkunde lecture I reflected how sad it was that Indian politics had such little use for the people in the room. In the glory years of the PIL-filled 1980s, there was a sense that we could make a difference. Now, even that illusion seemed less gripping.
Soli’s lecture could — and I mean this in the nicest possible way — have been delivered virtually unchanged two decades before. It touched on all the familiar concerns of people like myself: how criminals were getting elected to Parliament; how we did not tolerate dissent; how the free press is a hallmark of democracy; and, of course, three cheers for the judiciary!
But even as he spoke, I was struck by the growing irrelevance of our concerns. We speak of the need to help those at the margins of society. But when these people form their own parties and seize power without our assistance, we complain about their lack of respect for Westminster democracy. When they demand reservation, we hide behind the middle class insistence on merit. We complain about criminals entering politics. But when the electorate cheerfully votes for these criminals, we try and find ways to avoid blaming the electorate.
And even the anti-Congress-ism of old seems tired and dated. Indian politics is no longer polarised between the Congress and the forces of change. The situation is much more complex. Political power vests with the parties of caste, religion and regionalism. The Congress is lucky to have formed the government at all. Two-and-a-half years ago, all the people in the auditorium had written off the party.
I admired the passion of Soli’s attack on “Madam Sonia Gandhi’s authoritarianism”, the Congress’s dynastic nature and his defense of the right to dissent. Sadly, the example he chose — how Congressmen burned Sharad Pawar’s effigy when he left to found the NCP — also demonstrated how much times have changed. Clearly, Soli had not read that week’s papers or he would have known that Sharad Pawar was now installing his daughter as his successor. So much for dynasty. And I doubt if the right to criticise Pawar within the NCP is much greater than the propensity to criticise Sonia in the Congress.
But most of all, I was struck by how there is now no room for the liberal middle ground in Indian politics. Some years ago when Jaipal Reddy joined the Congress, I gave him a hard time in a TV interview. What about all the things he had said about Bofors? So did he now think Indira Gandhi was a nice person after all?
Jaipal had no real answers. But, to his credit, he chose to be honest. “There is no Third Force in Indian politics,” he said. “I have three choices. I can join the BJP and follow a Hindutva agenda. I can sit at home. Or I can join the Congress. What would you want me to do?”
Soli seemed to have come to a similar decision of his own. In his hour-long survey of the state of Indian democracy, there was not one word about Gujarat, and not one sentence about how you cannot have any respect for human rights when the state fails to protect minorities. (Even though he managed to repeat that old chestnut about how democracy involved respecting the views of the minority and not just the majority. Regrettably, he said nothing about respecting the lives of the minorities.)
It is not my intention to pass any comment on Soli’s perspective. His credentials as a lawyer and a public figure are impeccable and I am nobody to judge a man of his eminence. But just as I regard Tarkunde as a symbol of the educated Indian’s engagement with politics (in a noble and selfless sort of way), I treat Soli as an example of how people of our backgrounds who have no political axes to grind are, nevertheless, pushed — almost by default — into one consensus or the other.
The middle ground has simply disappeared.