Sunday, June 18, 2006

An investigation into the origins of a popular slogan (2)

Hinduism is meant to have 330 million deities. This means that until the 20th century, there were as many gods and goddesses as their worshippers in what is now India. Democratic India has kept the tradition alive by building the cult of the Gandhi family. Amar traced the origin of a particularly ghastly slogan by the 1970s Congress party to the Nazi Germany. But the absolutism inherent in identifying an individual with the state and the people of course goes back much further.

‘L'√Čtat? C'est moi’ — France’s King Louis XIV is meant to have said in the 17th century. This Sun King’s descendents, and all that is ancien, were overthrown by a revolution at the end of the 18th century. That revolution, like so many others over the past couple of centuries, resulted in the rise of a strongman who used populist slogans and selective reforms to install a counterrevolutionary regime.

When asked what he thought of the French revolution, Zhou En Lai is meant to have said that it’s too early to tell. Writing nearly a century earlier, Karl Marx dubbed the phenomenon of revolutions ending in counterrevolutionary dictatorships as Bonapartism (not after the Corsican general, but his descendant).

Acolytes of the Gandhi family are probably not indulging in Bonapartism. After all, people do freely vote for and against the Gandhi family run Congress. And to the extent that the Gandhi name has a brand value, it is perfectly rational for the Congress party to run on it. After all, if not for the name recognition factor of his opponent in the 2000 election, would we be discussing Al Gore’s 2008 ambitions?

Yes, there is a fine distinction between elected politicians capitalizing on their family names and the incumbent identifying him or herself with the state. Former, if successful, is clever politics. Latter is one step away from authoritarianism.

Indian democracy has survived such forays into authoritarian rule. The other two successor states to the British Raj have not. Pakistan’s founding father is supposed to have quipped that he and his typewriter created that country. Mr Jinnah’s successors all the way to General Musharraf have behaved as if their personal wellbeing is the same as that of the country. Indira’s contemporary in Bangladesh went one step further instituting a one-party state. After he was massacred with his family in August 1975, some insolent people added the words ‘all end in one night’ next to the slogan ‘one leader for one people’.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, said Marx. Let's hope that the politics of 1970s are not repeated.