Every so often, it seems, Gurcharan Das comes out with another potential best-seller on India's growth story. The title of his latest, India Grows at Night, alludes not to our population growth, which is no longer a sexy development story. Nor does he refer only to the growth of the IT-BPO sector and its millions who work night-shifts, another story which hogged a lot of the limelight until recently. Rather, his metaphorical claim is that a 'strong Indian society' has kept the growth drivers going so far, in spite of a flailing State.
Since this cannot be sustained for long, Das exhorts the educated middle class to plunge into politics, to revive the flailing State and to revive and reform its institutional instrumentalities. He wonders how much faster India can grow if only State and Society, the day and night, were to work in tandem.
An important point Das makes is that we must find a way to communicate the vision of a strong and yet a liberal State to the aam aadmi, by aiming at his heart rather than reason, much like Gandhi energized the masses for the freedom struggle, with an appeal to the morality of the masses through Sadharana Dharma. In concrete terms, we must learn to speak their lingo of benefits and day-to-day duties of citizens in a liberal but strong State.
Yet, Das is not in favour of apolitical, non-parliamentary movements, for example India Against Corruption with Anna Hazare as its mascot, however well-intentioned they may be. But again he is full of praise for Hazare for mobilizing the middle class in fighting corruption. Are such movements not the first introduction of the middle class into active politics, capable of creating thousands of active grass root level political leaders, including among women?
Das's inward focus in projecting dharma as a panacea is at variance with Amartaya Sen's view that an external perspective is very useful in ethical choices.
Nor even in agriculture. Das seems to have a blind spot in ignoring India's agricultural growth after independence - an example of success of heavy interventions by the State. The much-vaunted private sector or 'society' was nowhere. In fact, the Swatantra Party batted for the erstwhile princes and feudal landlords. The only positive outcome of pressure by leaders like Rajaji was that Nehru quickly abandoned his fascination with 'collectivization of agriculture'.
Das rightly punctures historian Ramachandra Guha's claim that Nehru cannot be blamed for initiating the mortgaging of the Congress and the country to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Das points out that it was Nehru who got Indira Gandhi appointed the President of the Indian National Congress in the late 1950s, over the heads of several veterans who had contributed much more to the party and the country. Political commentators of those days had also assessed the so-called Kamaraj Plan as a Nehru-hatched plot to clear the way for Indira Gandhi to succeed Nehru, very much like the rumoured shake up of the Congress today by Sonia Gandhi to anoint Rahul.
Like Ramachandra Guha, Das believes that creation of linguistic states has helped preserve India as a nation and State. However, Das is silent on its inevitable but undesirable fallouts: 'sons of the soil'; linguistic chauvinism; weakening of national level parties and political discourse; confounding of unrelated issues like river water disputes and linguistic loyalties and so on. If Das blames the Nehruvian economic framework for the slower growth till 1990s, his blessing for the reorganization of states on linguistic basis should be blamed for these. I also find it difficult to attribute failure to personalities, rather than to the political economy, processes and the intellectual environment of those times.
But how strong is society, really?
But far more than these points of disagreement along the narrative, I find it particularly hard to accept the very premise of the book - that Indian society was and is 'strong', and somehow it encouraged all of us to follow the path of dharma, another of Das's panaceas for our ills. If indeed it was true that India's society and dharma were so strong and effective till date, why is this not reflected at all in a host of self-governing institutions outside the ambit of the State?
Be it medical doctors, chartered accountants, lawyers, builders, stock brokers, media-men, advertisers, industry bodies - none of the so-called self-governing bodies of any of these professions enforce any dharma howsoever defined. In fact society seems to have shown its strength precisely in those areas Ambedkar feared it might: khap panchayats, senas of various ilk, a rush towards official 'backwardness', casteism and parochialism. The night-time growth story simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and the evidence is easily found - in broad daylight, actually.
Reinhold Niebuhr, in his classic, Moral man and Immoral Society, insightfully observes that as we aggregate individuals into family, kin, caste, state, nation as 'units of analysis', what is considered 'immoral' becomes 'moral' along the way. Examples of these are 'lying to protect one's family honour in child abuse cases', and 'killing suspected criminals through staged encounters'. Das's inward focus in projecting dharma as a panacea is at variance with Amartaya Sen's view that an external perspective is very useful in ethical choices.
Given that Das rightfully focuses on the processes and institutions driving Indian polity and society, it is surprising there is not much in this book on the role of electoral processes in shaping Indian polity. The only useful thing suggested is that our laws should fast track cases involving elected representatives. That's pretty clever. It sounds like a favour to these VIPs, but in fact such a law will motivate the really guilty not to stand for elections! But even this will not help at the extremes; Bal Thackeray remote-controlled Maharashtra, not by voting or contesting.
Another surprising blind spot is the total absence of any substantive discussion on the contribution of the corporates to this mess, especially when Das claims he has been a victim of the license permit raj. A Ramalinga Raju cannot blame state control for his fraud. Nor can DLF blame real estate laws, as the builders, and not the Haryana Government, pretty much seem to have drafted them. Like the Dhridhirashtra of his favorite Mahabharat, Das is blind to these dirty deeds. Instead, I would have expected him to have been more like Sanjaya describing the war for his benefit of the king.
For all this, the book is bound to sell well, riding a wave of writing 'by Indians about Indians'. And there are a lot of things to agree with inside
the covers. The theme itself, however, isn't one of them.