Faith in our Fathers

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Students of Marxism’s history in Asia will perhaps be less surprised than Indian liberals by some aspects of Anderson’s critique, particularly his caustic appraisals of Gandhi and Nehru. In 1939, Leon Trotsky summed up a widespread Marxist suspicion when he denounced Gandhi as an ally of bourgeois capitalism -- “a fake leader and a false prophet.” The problem, for Trotsky and other communists, was that Gandhi had appropriated the left’s form of popular ant colonialism but opposed the Marxist trajectory of proletarian revolution. Marx had seen India as a morass of superstitious, caste-ridden village communities, which industrialization might have made fit for revolution. But Gandhi, deeply hostile to scientism and industrialism, actually advocated the re-creation of self-sufficient village communities.  Anderson’s assessment of Nehru is also fairly standard Marxist fare, but Anderson brings to it a special vigor and personal distaste. Nehru was often dismissed by American cold warriors as a pro-Soviet socialist. But as Anderson points out, the “conservative coalition” of upper-caste Hindus who led the ant colonial movement “neither required nor welcomed an awakening of the poor.” When unable to secure hegemony through consent, Nehru and his upper-caste-dominated state resorted to coercion, repressing India’s minority populations through military rule and draconian laws. In this Marxist vision of India’s revolution, the leaders of the Congress party enlisted the masses in the struggle only to ignore them after independence, instead manipulating the resources of the state to advance the interests of their own castes, classes, and communities.  

Anderson writes that a “rigid social hierarchy was the basis of [India’s] original democratic stability,” in the first three decades of independence. This arrangement was altered by the rise of anti-Congress Dalit political parties in the 1980s, most visibly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where one of them has periodically held power ever since. The unleashing of Dalit energies has also restored Ambedkar to his rightful place in India’s political and intellectual history. Anderson is a forceful supporter of the scholarly Dalit leader, who was the main author of India’s constitution before breaking with his uniformly upper-caste associates. At the same time, the secular rationalist in Anderson cannot endorse the “compartmentalized identity politics” of Ambedkar’s latter-day followers, including politicians such as Mayawati, formerly the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who have become known primarily for corruption and for building grand public monuments to themselves. These prodigal retailers of collective dignity seek not “to abolish caste, as Ambedkar had wanted, but to affirm it,” Anderson writes. Anderson argues that an even greater impediment to India’s progress is the continuing role of religious faith in politics. Postcolonial India has yet to recover from Gandhi’s injection of “a massive dose of religion -- mythology, symbology, theology -- into the national movement.” The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the emergence of which in the 1980s reshaped Indian politics and culture, is merely the latest symptom of that initial contamination. In Anderson’s eyes, Hinduism is written into India’s genetic code. But India’s primary religion contains a broader range of practices and beliefs than Anderson assumes. Amorphous and protean, Hinduism cannot be used for prolonged political mobilization on confessional grounds alone, as the BJP has discovered; whatever primeval furies it evokes must be combined with rational calculations based on other factors, such as class and caste loyalties.  Anderson does not see how Hindu nationalism has become intertwined with economic liberalization. Beginning in the early 1990s, the growth and opening up 

of India’s economy triggered a middle-class demand for ruthlessly technocratic leaders, along with militant disaffection among those left, or pushed, behind by the state and private business. More recently, bourgeois elite, which feels besieged by the increasingly assertive have-nots, has begun casting around for sturdier leaders to replace its tainted idol, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose economic reforms, once much loved, are now widely regarded as populist sops to the poor. These groups, along with the country’s corporate titans, hope that India’s next prime minister will be the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who is best known for his suspected complicity in the murder of more than a thousand Muslims during riots in the state in 2002. Owing to these accusations, the U.S. government has barred Modi from entering the United States. But despite (or perhaps because of) his condemnation abroad and at home, Modi, who has presided over strong economic growth in his home state, has leveraged his reputation as a tough guy and transformed himself into a no-nonsense champion of India’s long-overdue economic modernization.  

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