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India International Lalu

Lalu says that he wasn’t surprised when he was turned down for IIC membership. After all, it is an upper-caste body, writes Vir Sanghvi.Write to the author

india Updated: Apr 17, 2007 16:42 IST

On 30 March, MGK Menon, president of the India International Centre (IIC), communicated to Dr Karan Singh that the IIC had decided to accept his resignation from the body. Dr Singh, a former president and the longest-serving life trustee had submitted his resignation some months earlier but the Centre had taken a while to convey its formal acceptance.

If you are reading Counterpoint in Bombay, Calcutta, Chandigarh or in any of the other cities where the Hindustan Times is published, you might wonder why Dr Karan Singh’s resignation from a club (a ‘Centre’ if you like) that you’ve never heard of should provoke me enough to devote an entire column to the issue. But bear with me — I think this is more significant than it may seem at first.

For a start, you need to understand why Karan Singh resigned. He had supported Lalu Yadav for membership of the Centre. The admissions committee, in its wisdom, had turned down Lalu’s application. Dr Singh felt that the IIC was making a serious mistake in rejecting Lalu.

If you live outside of Delhi, then you may not understand the importance of the IIC to the capital’s intellectual life. I am the sort of person who is reluctant to apply for membership of any club. My father, who stubbornly refused to join any of Bombay’s so-called elite clubs, taught me that any organisation that presumes to judge your social acceptability on the basis of some burra sahib criteria is worthy only of derision and contempt.

But, over a dozen years ago, I made an exception for the IIC because it was the one club I knew of that operated on criteria my father would have approved of. It paid no attention to wealth or social standing but selected members only on the basis of intellectual attainments and their ability to contribute to the building of modern India.

Thus, while it includes a fair number of bureaucrats (Probir Sen and NN Vohra, two of the finest civil servants I have ever known, have served as secretaries), the IIC has always excluded the whiskey-sodden generals, haw-haw buffoons and retired spies who get into the Golf Club and Gymkhana and sought out genuine intellectuals, thoughtful lawyers, perceptive journalists (which is not an oxymoron), writers, artists, film-makers and top scientists.

Whenever I take friends from Bombay or Calcutta to the IIC, I always tell them that it epitomises all the things that make Delhi so special. It has none of the flash and wealth of Bombay; none of the pretentious self-conscious Bengali intellectualism of Calcutta; and it symbolises the India of my dreams — meritocratic, idealistic, unmindful of money, and steeped in ideas.

I was invited to become a member in 1993 because the IIC believed that it needed to keep injecting new blood (I was in my 30s) to avoid becoming stale and to remain at the fulcrum of thinking India. It was a philosophy that lasted through the 1990s.

Which is partly why I am so saddened by the circumstances that led to Karan Singh’s resignation. The IIC has always been ideologically neutral. It might be home to a certain kind of intellectual (when Inder Gujral became Prime Minister in the 1990s, wags sneered that he was the candidate of the IIC), and it might host a Saturday lunch for some of India’s leading liberals (among them, Manmohan Singh, in his time) but it has never closed its doors to those outside the standard liberal consensus. I have had many pleasant lunches at the Centre with Jagmohan at a time when some liberals regarded him as the villain of Kashmir and you’ll find Arun Jaitley there on many evenings.

All this, I suspect, led to Dr Karan Singh to believe that there would be no objection to Lalu’s candidacy. And frankly, I agreed with him.

If Lalu applied for memberships of the Bengal Club or the Bombay Gym I imagine they would turn him down (“I say, old boy, don’t play much golf do you? What about rugby?”). Certainly, going by the loathsome standards of social acceptability by which such clubs are run, poor Lalu would be regarded as too peasant-like for membership.

But, surely, the IIC is different? Table manners are not the only criteria for entry. The things that should matter are education, the ability to make a difference, the capacity to generate ideas and the power to transform the intellectual consensus.

Even if you go by the hand-woven, vegetable-dyed FabIndia norm of intellectual acceptability (a standard I happily subscribe to), then Lalu makes the cut.

He has the education (a law degree — and no jokes about Patna University, please), the ability to change the way India is governed, the capacity to turn around the Indian Railways and the power to make us think again about the nature of political influence in the cowbelt.

So on what possible grounds could the IIC turn him down?

Well, the official reason is that charges have been framed against him in a court of law. This does not convince Karan Singh who argues that a man is innocent till proven guilty. Besides, he says, charges are filed against Indian politicians all the time. Use these grounds, and LK Advani and most of the BJP leadership would be ineligible. So would nearly every cow-belt politician. Moreover, it is unclear whether the IIC’s rules stipulate this as a condition for entry. And nor is there any evidence that the committee reviews the lives of all members regularly to check if they have been charged with anything. This sounds like a rationalisation to explain a decision made on other criteria.

Some months ago, when I interviewed Lalu for my NDTV show, I asked him about his failed application for membership. Till that moment, he had been the sparkling, witty Lalu we are used to seeing on TV. But when this subject came up, his whole demeanour changed. He had never wanted to apply, he said defensively. His friend Prem Gupta had filled in the membership form in his name. It was a huge mistake. And no, he wasn’t surprised when he was turned down for membership. After all, the IIC was an upper-caste body. Why would it possibly want to admit a socially disadvantaged person like him? And so on.

When I read about the IIC’s decision to accept Karan Singh’s resignation in Friday’s papers, I thought back to Lalu’s wounded response. And I wondered about the manner in which India is changing.

The sad reality of today’s India is that Lalu is right. We are still a deeply casteist society. And even middle class intellectuals have difficulty in recognising that political power has passed down the caste hierarchy.

Some of us — especially those of us who defend the IIC — take pride in saying that any organisation that includes the BJP is open to all political persuasions. But it’s not so simple. Way back in 1977, most members of the IIC would have voted for the Janata Party when it included the likes of LK Advani, AB Vajpayee and Arun Jaitley. The notion of the BJP being intellectually beyond the pale only came about in the 1990s. And even now, its leadership is solidly middle class — full of people that IIC members may disagree with but can still share a coffee with.

But the rise of caste-based politics is another matter entirely. Many middle class people today would rather invite Narendra Modi to their homes than have dinner with Mayawati. Even those of us who disapprove of the BJP’s politics still regard its leaders as People Like Us. The caste politicians, on the other hand, are still part of Them.

It is not an attitude that can easily be justified. No matter how much we try and rationalise it away, the truth is that
India is changing faster than the selection committee of the IIC is willing to recognise. The cosy certainties of the old intellectual middle class are rapidly shrinking; and a new breed of thinkers, movers and shakers is knocking at our doors. The middle class likes to think that it is intellectually open — which may be true. But it is often only open to other middle-class views.

I’m not ready to give up on the IIC. It still epitomises much of what I cherish and respect about the Indian intellectual class. But this sorry episode tells us something about the confusion that results when a society is in such rapid transition.

Only a decade ago, would you have thought it conceivable that a former maharaja would resign his membership of a club he helped found only because its solidly middle class members refused to admit a backward caste?

That’s how quickly India is changing. And woe betide those of us — including the IIC — who refuse to accept the transition. Because the Indian transformation will not wait for any of us.

First Published: Apr 07, 2007 23:02 IST