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The Culture of Indian Politics: A Stocli Talring

ASHIS NANDY

N India, where the immutability of social institutions is considered a major feature


of the system, the psychocultural aspects of contemporary politics become important for at least one reason: while drawing sustenance from these traditional
forces, the new politics is also expected to alter them and introduce the society to
the modernizing process. This means that it is not just the style of politics as a reflection of the community life-style which becomes the major subject of interest.
Rather it is how the people's historical experiences of politics and the links which
these experiences have had with modal identities can be hitched to the needs of new
political forms, how the primordial identities can be made to yield a culturally viable
national political style, and how this new style on its part can be integrated within
the community life-style as a legitimate force of change. Political culture in such a
case is mainly the evolving style of meeting a historical challenge.
This perspective has eluded most of those who have tried to relate the manners
of Indian politics to other aspects of Indian life. The earlier interpreters had in
mind, due to the historical realities they were exposed to, the image of a static society
subjected to an alien government which held a laissez-faire attitude to all social
practices and a handful of social reformers fighting a rear-guard action for limited
gains.' Their conceptual tools consequently have become inadequate for the analysis of a different political situation-a society receiving continuous political inputs
and trying to maintain its identity in the face of this. More recently, others have tried
to argue away cultural and psychological forces as independent variables determining
political behavior. They have seen Indian political development as a sequence of
modern economic forms vanquishing more traditional structures of behavior and
ideas to establish the supremacy of a historically superior order.2 Alternatively, these
"reflection theorists" have taken a cross-sectional view of politics and have tried to
relate it to Hindu culture or personality on a one-to-one basis." Between them, such
economic and psychocultural historicists have made political culture a static concept
with deterministic overtones. Undoubtedly, both these approaches provide important clues to the functioning of the Indian political system. But they have hindered
the growth of a truly cross-disciplinary perspective to the subject. As a result, reserach in the area has remained fragmented and noncumulative.
It is possible, however, to interpret the political process in India as a continuing

Professor Nandy is at the Centre for the Study


of Developing Societies, Delhi, India.
The author is grateful to D. L. Sheth and Rajni
Kothari whose reactions have structured this paper
to a great extent.
= T h e most successful of these is perhaps Max

Weber in T h e Religion of India: T h e Sociology of


Hinduism, (Glencoe: Free Press, 1958).
For an informative but blinkered work, see
A. R. Desai, Social Background of Indian Nationalism, (Bombay: Popular, 1959).
A recent example is P. Spratt, Hindu Culture
and Personality, (Bombay: Manaktalas, 1966).

58

ASHIS N A N D Y

attempt to reconcile older categories of thought and social character to the demands
of nation-building and political culture as a complex of continuities in the style of
response to the changing relationship between society and politics. In this overview
I propose to employ such a definition and to use the insights of a number of disparate
studies to define the psychocultural forces that have been involved in the search for
national identity in India. I shall do so without assuming an irreversible one-way
relationship between culture and politics as independent and dependent variables,
and by trying to see both as elements in the process of historical change in India.
When the first impact of the raj started bringing parts of an apolitical social order
within the compass of politics toward the end of the eighteenth century, it initiated
the first stage of India's politicization. This stage had a few basic features. First, it
favored the upper-caste social leadership in governmental appointments, professions,
and business. At that stage, their ancient caste skills in symbol manipulation helped
them to reconcile work, world view, and personality by reinterpreting traditionswhich was their prerogative as well as specialization-and by ascribing meaning
to the exogenous bureaucratic, political, and judicial forms-in which they had had
some experience in the earlier Muslim period. Also,. the colonial legal system was
built on the Dharmashastra laws of twice-born castes and its point of reference in
social matters was the brahminic culture. Both favored upper-caste elements. Though
their domination of trade and commerce ended by the 1840's (by which time business had become more a matter of ~ersonalrisk-taking, entrepreneurial acumen, and
business ethics, and less a product of political participation and government patronage), their domination of politics continued till about 1920 and that of the
professions and bureaucracy till almost recently. This monopoly in modern sector
of groups which represented the core of brahminic orthodoxy precipated a long
crisis of identity in the political elite^.^ Torn between new means of livelihood and
a secular incentive system, on the one hand, and older concepts of goodness and
rightness, on the other, they experienced a sharp dissociation between their historical
self concept and the changing realities of the external world. Unable to find support
immediately from a new integrated identity in response to conflicting norms, desires and allegiences, they were forced to engage in makeshift compartmentalizations. This was not difficult in an agglomerative culture which encouraged accretion
of new cultural elements, rather than substitution of the old. For a time at least, the
strategy took away from their sense of crisis its more debilitating and painful edges.
These developments brought within politics the purer greater sanskritic norms by
giving salience to the political identity forged by the traditional elites, their value
conflicts, and their style of political adaptation. Secondly, limited communications
among elites from different regional centers and alienation from the masses ensconced in their folk cultures-ensured by poor literacy on one side, English
4 For an interpretation which generalizes the conflict of identity in this group to the national scene,
see L. W. Pye, "The Political Cultures of India
and China," in R. M. Maru and Rajni Kothari
(ed.), China and India: Contrasts in Development,
forthcoming book. For two historical accounts of
the period, see R. C. Majumdar, British Para-

mountcy and Indian Rennaissance, Part 11, (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1961); and B. B.
Mishra, lndian Middle Classes, (London: Oxford
University, 1961). Of the Syncretist culture of the
babus, perhaps the best description is in Sivanath
Shastri, Ramtamu Lahiri 0 Tatkalin Banga Samaj
( ~ g o g ) , (Calcutta: New Age, 1957).

THE C U L T U R E O F I N D I A N POLITICS
education on the other, and orthodox attitudes to hierarchy on both-made these
twice-born political mandarins a collection of small, scattered groups. Within each of
these groups relationships became intimate and face-to-face; politicians of different
hues maintained personal links with administrators, intellectuals, and creative social
thinkers; and often these politicians held elite positions in nonpolitical sectors also.
Consequently, ideological differences, carried into face-to-face groups, had to be
tolerated and rationalized, new "codes" of primary group politics had to be developed,
and personal political success had to be defined in essentially noncompetitive terms.
Lastly, given the low levels of participation, inter-regional hostilities, and unconcern
with national issues or goals, this political awareness was highly pro-government.
The attitude was authenticated by the British, whose ruling culture was still feudal,
assimilationistic, socially noninterventionist, and commercially rather than politically
motivated. They treated the Indian elite with some respect and friendliness and
created the image of a political authority which was benevolent and impartial. All
this ensured that, to some extent at least, the crisis of identity could be solved in favor
of modernity. Cross-validating psychosocial, economic, and political forces made
changes in life style and integration of new cultural elements easier.
A more widespread internalization of Western norms started the second stage in
the middle of the nineteenth century. This took the crisis of identity to a different
level. As values began changing in the exposed sectors of the community, individuals
began judging themselves in terms of their newly acquired standards and found
themselves wanting. This deeper level personality crisis split the elites into two clear
groups: the modernists and the restorationists. Both were defensive about their
Indianness, but each chose to cope with their anxieties in a distinctive way. The former sought national salvation in total Westernization, the latter in revivalism. The
first movement was represented by groups such as the Young Bengal radicals, the
Brahmo Samaj and its splinters, British India Association and early Indian National
Congress, and by symbol manipulators like Madhusudan Dutt, Ranade, R. C. Dutt,
and Naoroji. Their style was a mixture of brahminism and Western utilitarianism.
T h e mouthpieces of the second movement were groups like Arya Samaj and
Ramakrishna Mission, and individuals like Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Dayananda
Saraswati, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and Tilak. Between them they offered the
small but growing middle classes two models of social change and two collective
identities. However, as the first group retained its links with the reformism of the
first phase-and was in some ways, its offshoot-and as the era ended up by favoring
aggressive exclusivism, the second group remains more typical of this phase. This
group grew out of the cornered traditionalists of the first phase. With increasing
participation and access to new communications media, which had been used so
effectively for reform in the earlier generations, they could now establish a hegemony
in the political sphere. Their style gave salience to the Kshatriya identification
and world image, and deemphasized the syncretic Upanishadic imageries which had
till then dominated the political idiom. It would however be wrong to explain this
style as merely an angry reaction to growing British exclusivism. In a deep sense, it
was also colored by the British evaluation of the Kshatriyas as the true Indians and
the feudal rulers as the natural leaders of the masses. The British antipathy toward
the anglicized, city-bred, effeminate babus was accepted almost fully by the restora-

ASHIS NANDY
tionists.' It is this rejection of a part of themselves in both the groups which sought
expression in their angry tone and defensive ideological closure.
Things started changing again in the Gandhian era beginning from the 1920's.
This brought both the strands of consciousness within a single political movement.
The factional structure of the new Congress included the representatives of both the
exclusivists and the syncretists and these insiders gradually stole the thunder of their
unorganized, elitist, ideological cousins outside the Congress movement. T h e leadership of the nationalist movement continued, of course, to lie at first with the upper
castes. They were helped in this by their education, exposure to Western norms of
nationalism, better skills in handling the available means of communication, and
prestige in both modern and traditional sectors. Also useful were their long experience in leading other castes in terms of traditional rules of the game, their ability to
forge ingroup solidarity on the basis of their Sanskritic identity, and their hostility
to the British for discriminating against Indians in exactly those sectors where the
modernist upper castes specialized. But the attempts to mobilize large-scale support
and to bridge the gaps between modernism and revivalism unleashed other forces.
More traditional symbols had now to be invoked, traditional groupings had to be
recognized and bargained with, the Western concept of nationalism had to be orthogenetically transformed, and traditions had to be reinterpreted so that they could
be made palatable to the modernists participating in the movement and providing
leadership. This rendered marginal the babu politics of yester years, which now
went on the defensive as ~oliticalliberalism of the Gokhale and Surendranath
Banerji variety, while the extremist style was transformed into an adventurist one,
trying to change the fate of the country through armed means. T o the traditional
upper strata of the society and to the secular modernists, the mobilizational politics
of the Gandhian type seemed ideologically impure, self-seeking demagogy or Mephisttophelean bargaining and politicians increasingly seemed crude ruthless ruralities,
given to vulgar mass politics and power seeking.
This process has continued beyond independence in 1947 in the fourth phase of
India's political development. There is of course now less necessity to "sell" participation to anyone or to make politics the pure pursuit of a cause. Conformity can now
be demanded from actors and a price set for political rewards. This has brought into
the center of political activity the influence of the peripheral groups which had been
mobilized by the nationalist movement and, later on, by adult franchise. Primordial

5For a general account of this period, see


Majumdar, op. cit, The last phase of the era has
been described by Haridas and Uma Mukherji,
India's Fight for Freedom or the Swadeshi Movement, (Calcutta: Firma K . L. Mukhopadhaya,
1958); and A. Tripathi, T h e Extremist Challenge,
(Bombay: Orient Longmans, 1967). On the varying British response to different social groups in
India see L. I. Rudolph and Susanne H. Rudolph,
Modernity of Tradition, (Chicago: University of
Chicago, 1967), Part 2. The Rudolphs also indirectly deal with some of the psychosocial forces
which helped initiate the Gandhian phase. Two

examples of internalization of Western image of


the babus, and the resulting brutal self denigration,
in nationalist writers are Bankim Chandra Chatterji,
"Babu," (1873) in Granlhabali, Vol. I, (Calcutta:
Sahitya Parishad, 1958); and Sarat Chandra Chatterji, Sreekanta, Part I (1917), (Calcutta: G. Chatterji, 1940). For examples of the same self criticisms
ending in an aggressive syncretist stance see Madhu
Sudan Dutt, "Ekei ki Bole Sabhyata," (1860) and
"Buro Saliker Gharhe Ro," (1860) in Rarhanabali,
(Calcutta: Sahitya Sangsad, 1967), and Shastri,
op. n't., passim.

THE CULTURE O F INDIAN POLITICS


solidarities and traditional hierarchies have been increasingly challenged by castebased bargaining and competition within and between parties; politics has become
de-ideologized, non-brahminic, "crude," organization-oriented mass politics; babu
politics has been given its coup-de-grace and intellectuals have been depoliticized
and rendered politically impotent. Extremist politics has also retreated into the
background in this phase and has been gasping for breath as the marginal politics
of revivalism and religious authoritarianism. More recently, even the "saintly" politics of Gandhian times has been rendered marginal and its major expositors have
become isolated messiahs whose apolitical appeal is no longer related to their political
importance.'
It is against such a rough periodization that I shall now discuss the major thematic
focii of Indian politics at which modernizing forces have been interacting with the
older society. I shall try to show how each of the so-called cultural themes in Indian
politics has served, and has been utilized for, different purposes as political development has proceeded through these four stages. In the process I also hope to show
how this history leaves its marks on the contemporary culture of Indian politics as
four strains of political adaptation.
The nucleus of the culture of Indian politics is said to be the pervasive tendency to
ignore history and the process of time-a tendency which is presumed to derive its
sanction from the value of ~ontinuity.~
T o many modernists in India, this aspect of
Indian culture has seemed the least tolerable personally and the greatest obstacle to
change socially; some of them even made their quasi-obsessive concern with time a
major personal symb01.~ And yet, all traditional societies probably have strong
resistances to accepting a concept of time which glorifies the manipulable future
or stresses the here and now? The inadequate human control over the means of
livelihood and the perceived fickleness of a nonmaneuverable nature in such societies demand a certain cynical suspicion of anything which promises future fruition against planned inputs or which glorifies human control over the process of
history. In fact, the anxious awareness that most of the worldly things, especially
those which pretend to permanance, are only ephemeral is perhaps ego-defensively
handled by the emphasis on interminance and on the "truly" permanent. Thus we
find that Indian orthodoxy sanctifies the concept of a cyclical time where the present, past, and future blend into a static timeless absolute and where the progress of
6 T h e third and fourth stages and idioms they
have generated have been studied in great detail.
Two papers which deal specifically with political
culture are W. H. Morris-Jones, "Behaviour and
Idea in Political India," R. N. Spann (ed.), Constitutionalism in India, (Bombay: Asia, 1963) pp.
74-91; and Myron Weiner, "India: Two Political
Cultures," in L. W. Pye and S. Verba (ed.),
Political Culture and Political Development, (Princeton: Princeton University, 1965) pp. 199-244.
7 S. J. Samartha, T h e Hindu View of his History: Classical and Modern, (Bangalore: Christian
Institute for the Study of Religion and Society,
1959); see brief reviews in W. Rowe, Values,
Ideology and Behaviour of Emerging Indian Elites,
unpublished monograph, 1964, p. 12; and in

Dhirendra Narayan, "Indian National Character in


the Twentieth Century," T h e Annals of American
Academy of Political and Social Science, March
1967, 370, pp. 124-132, particularly p. 130.
8 T w o obvious examples of heightened and almost obsessive consciousness of time are Rammohun
Roy and his personal collection of about 150
clocks and Ghandhi and his famous watch. A
popular nationalist myth tells how Surendranath
Bannerji once threw away his slightly slow-running
watch because he was late for a public meeting.
9 See Florence R. Kluckhohn, "Dominant and
Variant Value Orientations," C. Kluckhohn, H. A.
Murray and D. M. Schneider (ed.), Personality in
Nature, Society and Culture, (New York: Knopf,
1953) PP. 342-357.

ASHIS NANDY
enlightenment or material well being seem to bear no direct relationship to the progression in time. The theme also seems to authenticate the psychodynamically interrelated modal traits of resignation, submissiveness, and passivity, and-if literary
reflections are to be trusted-the fatalist acceptance of events and repetitious experiences.1
Naturally, the theme was not conspicuous in the first phase of politicization. T o
the this-worldly babus, often brought into politics by sheer greed, neither transmigration of soul nor renunciation could be of immediate relevance as political symbols. When, however, in the mid-nineteenth century the sense of national humiliation started growing in certain politically sensitized sectors, it came to be more and
more exploited by the modernizers seeking a means of protecting national self esteem. By assigning some amount of inevitability to British rule, by building tolerance on a fatalistic belief that the alien government would ultimately have to give
way due to the inexorable logic of destiny, and by emphasising the passive acceptance of history at a time when active intervention was almost impossible, they
helped these exposed groups to participate in the modern sector without inhibitory
anxiety?'
Since the ~gzo's, this cultural strain has legitimized the attempts to integrate
different religious communities, first, within a single nationalist movement and, then,
within a nation-state-tolerance toward other belief groups being a correlate of the
tendency to undervalue history.12 While doing so, it has also perhaps encouraged
unconcern with worldly suffering and postponed any explosive increase in consumption demands. Both are helpful to large-scale planned development through containment of consumption.13 They suggest, firstly, that a style of mobilization which
stresses personal ambitions, hopes, and achievement-concerns as the goals of economic development cannot be effective for many in the community. Secondly,
they also seem to imply that implementation, so far as it connotes a concern with
the here and now, is likely to remain a matter of unconcern in Indian public life for
some time to come. T o an extent these attitudes are validated by the stoicism and
patience of India's underprivileged (as character traits as well as stereotypes), by
their unconcern with both the process of history and the making of history, and by
O n the traits see G. M. Carstairs, The Twiceborn, (Bloomington: Indiana, 1g57), passim, particularly, pp. 137-169; W . S. Taylor, "Basic Personality in Orthodox Hindu Culture Patterns,"
Iournal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 43
(1948) pp. 3-12. T h e more intuitive and impressionistic approaches are provided by W . S.
Maughum, T h e Summing Up, ( N e w York: Doubleday, 1943); N . C. Chaudhuri, Autobiography of
an Unknown Indian, (London: Macmillan, 1 9 5 1 ) ;
T . S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton," Pour Quartets, (London: Faber and Faber, 1959) p. 13; J . B. Priestly,
Man and Time, (London: Aldus, 1964) pp. 171173.
11Some examples drawn from different periods
o f history are: Rammohun Roy, English Works,
Vols. 1-7, particularly Vol. 2 ; (Calcutta: Sadharon
Brahrno Samaj, 1947); Bankim Chandra Chatterji,
op. cit., Vols. I and 2 , particularly, the novel
Anandamath (1876-1878), Vol. I ; Swami Vive-

kananda, Modern India, (Almora: Advaita Ashram,


1913). See also more recent attempts in S. Radhakrishnan, Eastern Religions and Western Thotight,
(London: Oxford University, 1 9 4 0 ) ; K . M. Panikkar, Hindu Society at Cross Roads, (Bombay: Asia,
1955).
l2D. E. Smith, India as a Secular State, (Princeton: Princeton University, 1963) p. 40.
13See K. W . Kapp, Hindu Culture, Economic
Development and Economic Planning, ( N e w York:
Asia, 1 9 6 3 ) ~for an interesting discussion o f the
relationship between concepts of cyclical time to
resistence to economic growth. See also J. Goheen,
M. N . Srinivas, D . G. Karve and M. Singer,
"India's Cultural Values and Economic Development: A Discussion," Economic Development and
Cultural Change, 7 (1958) pp. 1-22, which deals
with the problem of relating such themes to economic growth in general.

T H E CULTURE OF INDIAN POLITICS

63

the legitimization of certain forms of political alienation and apathy by reference to


karma or performance in previous births. Later, we shall return to this point.
A t the same time, however, during the third and especially the fourth stage, this
world image has been increasingly negated by political mobilization and competition
on the basis of parochial groupings such as caste. Though apparently caste loyalties
are being strengthened by this, the concept of fixed caste-specific status is being continuously challenged by a system which allows a caste the chance of building its fate
on its ingroup solidarity, organizational and coalition-building capabilities. This by
partly invalidating the fatalist rationale underlying traditional hierarchies may be
loosening the belief in cyclical time and karma. Resignation and apathy in some are
in consequence clashing with hope and self-confidence, generating tension and perhaps some amount of anomia. These attempts to change the "fated" actively through
self-created roles are reflected in the self-induced politicization of previously powerdeprived parochial groups, in disintegrative political behavior of the more sensitized
among them (as a reaction to earlier power-deprivation), and in the adaptive as well
as anomic responses to social mobilization and competition in the traditional elites
threatened by status deprivation and political displacement."
Belief in karma and timelessness also gives Indian subjectivity its resilience. The
notorious Indian spiritualism supposedly seeks expression in rejection and reification of reality, premature generalization, a global and "besetting passion for metaphysics and philosophising," and in the "complete abstraction of time, history and
person." The concepts of maya (illusion) and anasakti (the consequent detachment)15 entered politics in the early stages as symbols providing psychological rewards to the prosperous gentlemen-politicians voluntarily participating in active
public life. They became more important when, toward the end of the second
phase, participation also came to mean a rather unpleasant form of defiance of authorities. But the prepolitical antimaterialism also had persisted. The ambivalence
was expressed in self-esteem builders like Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Vivekananda,
and Tilak who, while invoking these symbols, also tried to move away from their
world-denying subjectivist connotations. With the growth of modern political institutions and movements, presuming a greater acceptance of competitiveness, personal ambition and organizational capabilities, this theme became somewhat anachronistic for political functionaries in the third stage. The Gandhian renunciation, its
later-day derivative, handled this by making the saintly style a criterion of charisma
in mass politics.16 By attaching antimaterialist self-denial to denial of the tendency
1 4 Some aspects of these attempts to alter traditional status and the conflicts associated with these
attempts have been analysed by M. N. Srinivas,
Caste i n Modern India and Other Essays, (Bombay:
Asia, 1962); L. I. Rudolph and Susanne H. Rudolph, "The Political Role of India's Caste Associations," Pacific Affairs, 33 (1960) pp. 1-22; see
the series of studies in Rajni Kothari (ed.), Caste
i n lndian Politics, (New Delhi: Orient Longmans,
1970); for another indirect reference to this problem in the context of the emerging elites, see Margaret Cormack, She W h o Rides a Peacock: lndian
Students and Social Change, (New York: Frederick
A. Praeger, 1962), pp. 18-19.
1 5 For detailed analyses of these Concepts in

Western terms, see H. Zimmer, Philosophies of


India, (London: Pantheon, 1951); see also A.
Schweitzer, lndian Thought and its Development,
(New York: Beacon, 1959). Brief introductions
are provided by R. N. Dandekar, "Brahmanism,"
W. T. de Bary et al. (ed.), Sources of lndian
Tradition, (New York: Columbia University, 1958)
pp. 1-36; and R. E. Hume, T h e Thirteen Principal
Upanishads, (London: Oxford, 1958) pp. 32-42,
52-57.
16W. H. Morris-Jones, op. cit.; D. M. Dutta,
"Political, Legal and Economic Thought in Indian
Perspective," C. A. Moore (ed.), Philosophy and
Culture, East and West. (Honolulu: University of
Hawaii) pp. 569-593.

64

ASHIS NANDY

to seek "safety" in political passivity and withdrawal, it introduced the concepts of


active pacifism and directed asceticism. While overtly compatible with traditional
norms, these actually emphasized intervention in history and justified the renunciation of the profits of the colonial system.
These contradictions have not fully dissolved. While the brahminic tradition
cannot sometimes conceive of competition for material gains as a legitimate feature
of the polity, some acceptance of "self-seeking" or personally ambitious political
leaders, political hard-headedness, bargaining, and organizational shrewdness are
required by today's politics. Fortunately, sacred texts can be interpreted in a variety
of ways. And this built-in mechanism to neutralize their inevitable prophets of asceticism is often used by historical societies to solve their more immediate day to day
problems. In modern India such reinterpretations are evident in the new self-image
and ideologies which primoridal groups entering the modern sector have been developing, to justify their status-seeking through their newly acquired political roles.
Caste histories are being rewritten, new meaning is being given to certain occupations, and claims to new community status are being advanced on the basis of political or economic power. This wider search for a new shared identity implicitly denies
the supremacy of a supra-individual ahistorical spiritual reality. Interestingly, support for these changes has often come from the reinterpretation of the same ancient texts used earlier for justifying anti-materialism and from resurrected accounts of commercial involvement, entrepreneurial risk-taking and business acumen
of earlier generations. These interpretations themselves remain as important a datum
as the times and people they describe.17 They show that Indian traditions could
sometimes be used to legitimize this-worldliness and to help the individual to internalize a new reward-punishment system through ideological adjustments.
Transcendentalism in India is also associated with a concern for monistic unity
which denies the difference between the self and the nonself, the alive and the dead,
and the active and the passive. In the greater Sanskritic culture, this is expressed in the
living belief that the individual is one with everything and that reality is ultimately
unitary. The concept thus helped the culture to underplay individual personality
not by superceding it, but by subsuming it under the awareness of a "collective, impersonal and timeless ab~olute."'~Traditionally, this attempt to transcend dvandva
or opposition legitimized judicial, legislative, and bureaucratic decisions which supported reconciliation and nonalignment. Traditionally too, the strongest sense of
Indian unity and originality and the tolerance of evolution and dissent were rooted
herein.''
Advaita Ashram, no date). This is reflected in
social interpretation too, see Goheen et al., op. cit.,
and the response to it in D. Dasgupta, Economic
Development and Cultural Change, 13 (1964) pp.
17 TWOexamples of authoritative attempts at reinterpretation are Shri Aurobindo, T h e Life Divine,
(Pondycheri: Shri Aurobindo Ashram, 1943);
Swami Vivekananda, Prachya 0 Praschatya (1900~ g o z ) ,(Almora: Advaita Ashram, no date) 100102. Also Panikkar, op. cit. and also Dutta, op, cit.
see my "Defiance and Conformity in Science: The
Identity of Jagadis Chandra Base," forthcoming
monograph, for a discussion of the process of

reinterpretation as a part of historical adaptation;


also J. Elders, "Industrialism in Hindu Society,"
Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 1959.
Reincourt, op. cit., p. 9 ; see also R. N.
Dandekar, Role of Man in Hinduism, (New York:
Ronald, 1953); and Dutta, op. cif., pp. 574-575.
For a more extended discussion of the textual basis
of the concept see Hume, op. cit., pp. 9-69.
1G. Murphy, In the Minds of Men: T h e Study
o f Human Behauiour and Social Tensions i n India,
(New York: Basic Books, 1953) pp. 44, 268;
M. R. Anand, Is There An Indian Culture, (Bombay: Asia, 1963), p. 80; F. Carnell, "Political Ideas

THE CULTURE OF INDIAN POLITICS

65

It is through this linkage that the theme became important in the first phase of
politicization. Firstly, the high castes exploited the sanctity attaching to the idea of
unity of knowledge to learn exogenous symbol manipulation skills and to deliberately
expose themselves to a new culture. Secondly, the intellectuals who then dominated
politics equated brahminic scholarship with the exposition of a monistic world image.
They were then the only interpreters of the changing world to the laity and the most
consistent opponent of defensive responses, and monism was their main means of legitimizing "assimilative" politics and reinterpretation of traditions. As the major
cultural support for disjunctive innovations, it allowed nonconformism in the political participants and resuscitated the community usage of exploiting commentaries
and elaborations as the preferred style of expression of dissent. Understandably, most
Indian modernizers preached monistic synthetism, and some of them were keen on
reactivating Upanishadic monism as the core of a modern Indian univer~alism.~~
Also, both the belief that differences somehow represent aspects of the same ultimate reality and the rejection of Cartesian dichotomies between the good and the
evil and the right and the wrong allowed for ideological flexibility, secular integration of parochial groups, and more efficient faction management in colonial politics. For a time at least, the pliability of Indian political processes, and their ability
to absorb alien ideas or forms as well as a variety of objective or subjective group
demands from within, derived strength from this theme.
In the second phase, when the intellectuals became the main defenders of community self-esteem, monism became a sign of Indian ~upremacy.~'It was used not
only to prove the universalist content of the previously decried folk anthropomorphism, but also to demonstrate the superiority of indigenous metaphysics over
its Western counterpart. Also, it seemed to justify transcendental deductive scholarship and a revelatory attitude to all knowledge-sources of embarrassment earlier?2
Intellectuals and political leaders in this sense became the prototypes of Brahmins
"giving" or interpreting "given" laws and prescribing doctrinaire purity.
In the Gandhian era, the theme of creating or maintaining a balance among inconsistencies and disharmonies entered political relations and allowed the politics of
mediation to infiltrate into almost all parts of the society.23 The age-old decisionmaking style of village India combined with the ideology of anthropomorphism to
and Ideologies in South and South East Asia," in
S. Rose (ed.), Politics i n Southern Asia, (London:
Macmillan, 1963) p p 261-302; Dutta, op. cit.,
p. 575; R. Bhaskaran, Sociology of Politics, (Bombay: Asia, 1967) pp. 57-58; see also my "Defiance
and Conformity," which develops this theme in
some detail.
20A. Tonybee, A Study of History, Vol. 8: T h e
Modern West and the Hindu World, (London:
Oxford University, 1954) pp. 580-623; S. N. Hay,
"Western and Indigenous Elements in Modern
Indian Thought: The Case of Rammohan Roy,"
in M. B. Jansen (ed.), Changing lapanese Attitudes
Towards Modernisation, (Princeton: Princeton University, 1965) pp. 311-328. Chaudhuri gives a
scintillating, albeit literary, account of this synthetism; see his Autobiography, pp. 178-218; also
S. S. Tangri, "Intellectuals and Society in Nineteenth Century," Comparative Studies in Society

and History, 3 (1961) pp. 368-394.


21 For example Aurobindo, op. cit., passim;
Vivekananda, op. cit., passim.
22 See my "Defiance and Conformity;" E. Shils,
"The Culture of the Indian Intellectual," (Chicago:
University of Chicago Reprint, 1959); P. T . Raju,
"Religion and Spiritual Values in Indian Thought,"
C. A. Moore, op, cit., pp. 263-292, particularly
pp. 282-284.
23 An example of a Gandhian Islamic scholar
articulating the idiom is A. K. Azad, Speeches,
1947-1955, (Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India, 1965) pp. 20-21; also Abid Hussian,
T h e National Culture of India, (London: Asia,
1963); S. R. Radhakrishnan, op, cit., and East and
West: Some Reflections, (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955) p. 40. All of them trace the various
aspects of Congress consensualism to this linkage.
See a brief review in Rowe, op. cif., pp. 11-14,

66

ASHIS NANDY

strengthen this pluralism by basing it on the level-wise and sector-wise multiplicty


of sacred and profane authorities. Political mobilization at a large scale was possible
in an amorphous society mainly because this new connotation of monism allowed
both interest aggregation and conflict resolution through legitimate means.
All this, however, has now made it difficult to displace the semi-sacred concept
of consensus strengthened by Gandhian politics. Secular national consensus, demanded by present-day politics, therefore has to continuously compete with the entrenched concepts of apolitical primordial consensus, traditionally brought about
through a highly specified system of unanimous allocation of rights, duties, and
responsibilities to meet the diverse conflicting ends of the individuals involved. This
ancient preference for harmony over abstract justice survives as a marginal ideological strain in some contemporary leaders who use the doctrine of synthesis to
plead for a noncompetitive partyless p0lity.2~Profane consensus on a competitive
electoral system and on political goals which are attained at the cost of others remains suspect as a result of this surviving idea of sacred consensus. Within the "oneparty dominance system" of the last two decades, for instance, the predominant mode
of decision-making consisted not so much of a consensus of program, political
ideology, or mutual benefit, but of a subtler group dynamics growing out of modes
of demand articulation, communicated expectations about desirable interpersonal
behavior, shared beliefs about conflict-resolution techniques, and the image of a
leader as a faction-managing consensus builder.
These changes in the meaning and function of this theme has been associated
with drastic changes in the political fate of the groups which used it as a symbol. The
shift to mass politics which began in the third phase of politicization caught the intellectual elites on the wrong foot. The indigenous version of white man's burden
which had been functional to the elitist politics of the first two stages now successfully isolated the upper-caste literati from their contemporary society. Gradually,
their impact came to be restricted to a small, often-ineffective, urban minority. Once,
the Sanskritic self-concept of these scholar politicians, supported by brahminic socialization and elitist politics, had helped to project into politics the demand for
Platonic-often Fabian or Marxist-acharya-kings who would provide brahminic
governance. Now, it made them poor political bargainers and the first victims of
adult franchise. The consequent diminution of the political influence of intellectuals
and their self-induced depoliticization have been throwing up, since the Gandhian
times, professional politicians less committed to ideological or doctrinaire p0sitions.2~
Political divisions have now started reflecting the nondoctrinaire interest-aggregation
2 4 On the older concept of concensus in the context of a changing society, see J. D. M. Derrett,
"The Administration of Hindu Law by the British,"
Comparative Studies in Society and History, 4
(1961) pp. 15-16. L. I. Rudolph and Susanne H.
Rudolph, Modernity of Tradition, (Chicago: Chicago University, 1967) pp. 187-190, 254-268;
E. Wood, "Patterns of Influence within Rural India,"
in R. L. Park and Irene Tinker (ed.), Leadevship
and Politicai Institutions in India, (Princeton:
Princeton University, 1959) pp. 372-379. For systematic statements of the modernized and politicized versions of an ancient position, see M. N.
Roy, Power, Parties and Politics, (Calcutta: Ren-

naissance, 1960); and J. P. Narayan, "Organic


Democracy," in S. P. Ayar and R. Srinivas (ed.),
Studies in Indian Democracy, (Bombay: Allied,
1965) pp. 327-344; for analyses of the role of the
theme in party politics see Rajni Kothari, "Opposition in India," Robert A. Dahl (ed.), Regimes and
Oppositions, (New Haven: Yale University, in
press).

2 5 Edward Shils, "Influence and Withdrawal: The

Intellectual in Indian Political Development," D.

Marvick (ed.), Political Decision-makers, (Glencoe:

Free Press, 1961) pp. 29-59; Selig Harrison, "Lead-

ership and Language Policy in India," in R. L.

Park and Irene T i k c r , op. cit., pp. 151-166.

THE CULTURE OF INDIAN POLITICS

67

of the unexposed rural sectors and power is slowly seeping through the fingers of
the politically conscious urban centers, making the latter the spheres of anomic
agitational politics growing out of political impotency and fears of economic discrimination. This defeat further diminishes the influence of sophisticated political
theories and concepts, of both domestic and imported varieties, and potentiates the
pull of more mundane and less brahminic values, laying down the basis of what
has been called "unheroic politics."

Originally, the concept of dharma, or duty, acted as the final source of temporal
power in India. Perceived as man's differentia, it influenced the organization and
legitimacy of political power, decision-making authority, and law. Also, drawing
support from the popular idea of nishtama karma, or desireless work, dharma
superceded personal morality by an impersonal amoral sense of duty and equated
inward detachment with freedom from the sense of good as well as evil. The system
was supported by traditional patterns of socialization which ensured diffusion of
identifications and partial individuation in the individual. H e therefore tended to
rely upon norms, rules and constraints which were more aggregative in nature and
this reliance was psychologically validated by his extended family, caste, and village
republic.26
Though this discouraged individual autonomy and initiative, there are in this
stress on familism and "communality" the ingredients of integrative commitments
and a sense of collective responsibility in politics can perhaps be built upon it.27
Moreover, complex civilisations often have inbuilt checks against their own excesses.
Thus, the emphasis on dharma also seems to breed a special individualism of sociopolitical isolation and alienation. By admitting the possibility of individual salvation
and by believing that the individual soul is coeternal with God rather than created
by him, it indirectly holds each man responsible for his own worldly status and
gives him the power to make a new status for himself in another life. On the
other hand, this primordial individualism, possibly what Spratt diagnoses as secondary narcissism, dissociates community responsiveness from individual responsibility and equates individualism with withdrawal from profane group efforts of a
political type.28 It also probably underwrites the tendency to perceive politics as an
amoral, affectless, ruthless pursuit. We shall come back to this point.
-

2eThe concept of dharma is almost impossible


to translate. "Duty" is a very inadequate rendering.
The best description the concept is of course in
P. V. Kane's History of Dhmmashastsa, (Poona:
Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1946), Vol.
3, pp. 241, 825-829. More sociological analyses are
available in Irawati Karve, Hindu Society: An
Interpretation, (Poona: Deccan College, 1961); and
P. H. Prabhu, Hindu Social Organisation, (Bombay: Popular, 1954). On the influence of the concept on traditional power structures and jurisprudence, see R. Bendix, Nation-Building and Citizenship, (New York: Wiley, 1964) pp. 215-298. The
concept of nishkama karma of Geeta has also been
repeatedly given new meanings by different commentators. Some of the most influential of the
reinterpretors have been Vivekananda, Tilak, Auro-

bindo, and Gandhi. Personality correlates of the


theme have been mentioned by W. S. Taylor,
op. cit., passim; Carstairs, op. cit., pp. 137-169.
27 R. K. Mukherji, Social Structure of Values,
(London: Macmillan, no date) p. 83; E. Green,
The Far East, (New York: Rinehart, 1959) p. 310.
2s On the metaphysical and personality correlates
of this primordial individualism, see Dutta, op. k t . ,
pp. 571-573; and P. Spratt, op. cit., passim; on
the individual's withdrawal from public concerns,
see D. N. Sinha, "Psychologist in the Arena of
Social Change," Presidential Address, Section of
Psychology and Educational Science, ~ 3 r dIndian
Science Congress, (Chandigarh, 1966) p. g; A. Cantril, "The Indian Perception of the Sino-Indian
Border Clash," (Princeton: Institute of International
Social Research, 1963). Also, Beatrice Lamb, India,

ASHIS NANDY
This textbook theme had its more mundane hardheaded coordinates in even the
traditional system.29 By giving absolute legitimacy to ascribed parochial roles and by
making personal achievement ego-alien, it reduced both free-floating power, status,
and economic resources and the psychological range of political, social, and occupational choices. This tendency to regulate society through external rules or concepts of
fixed duty was-and perhaps still is-a major obstacle in Hindu theology to the
integration of different ethnic, occupational, and religious groups within the framework of a nation-state?'
In the age of elitist politics, the concept of dharma deepened the gap between
achievement-emphasizing, competitive, individual-choice-oriented politics and the
collective identity of the masses. But in the elites themselves a persistent ambivalence
toward older duties and ascribed roles were generated by the "large-scale introduction of achievement rite ria."^^ This in course of nearly two-hundred years continued to invalidate older attitudes toward personal autonomy, achievement, and
initiative. The groups which, however, dominated the professions and politics in the
course of this long period and in whom the ambivalence was generated, have been
slowly elbowed out by mass politics. Undoubtedly in the new groups too, personal
achievement and initiative are gaining grounds as important values and individual
freedom and rights are becoming potent political symbols.32 But to them at a certain level, competition and achievement are even now pejorative ideas and they have
to be sanctified with reference to ~articularisticgroup goals. Consequently, in competitive politics, tension management still involves the reduction of this normative
dissonance to make the realities of an achievement-criteria-dominated politics meaningful to the new groups entering politics.
The nationalist movement, in this respect, played a special role. T o mobilize
large-scale support it constantly fought against two processes which the concept of
duty validated: segmentation and political perfecti~nism.~~
This retarded the growth
of these traits within politics. But after 1947, when the culture of this movement was
displaced by a system oriented to governmental or bureaucratic procedures, the concern with segmentation sought expression in interpersonal distance, ritualization and
formalization, and rule-bound incompetence in governmental functioning. Simultaneously, with ascent to political power, it became possible to indulge in the luxury
A World in Transition, (New York: Frederik A.
Praeger, 1963) p. 41; Morris-Jones, "Behaviour and
Idea," p. 83.
29 Kane, op. i t . , Vol. 5, p. 1629; B. K. Sarkar,
The Political Institutions and the Theories of the
Hindus, (Leipzig: Market and Petters, 1922). For
analysis of this in the context of traditional sectors
in modern India, see D. C. McClelland, The
Achieving Society, (New York: Van Nostrand,
1961); and "Motivational Patterns in the South
East Asia with special reference to the Chinese
Case," 1ournal of Social Issues, 16 (1963) p p 9-19;
J. T. Hitchcock and Leigh Mintern, "The Rajputs
of Khalapur," in Beatrice B. Whiting (ed.), Six
Cultures, (New York: Wiley, 1963) pp. 203-361.
Smith, op. cit., pp. 25-30, 40.
3 1 M. Weincr, "The Politics of South Asia," in
G . A. Almond and J. S. Coleman (ed.), T h e

Politics of Developing Areas, (Princeton: Princeton


University) pp. 153-246, see pp. 166-167.
32 Joan Mencher, "Growing up in South Malabar," Human Organisation, 22 (1963) pp. 54-65,
Cormack, op.cit., 1961, p. 21.
33 On segmentation see Morris-Jones, "Behaviour
and Idea," pp. 82-83; Rowe, op. cit., p. 16; and
Margaret Cormack, T h e Hindu Woman, (Bombay:
Asia, 1961) p. 25. On ~oliticalperfectionism see
W. H. Morris-Jones, "Stability and Change in
Indian Politics," S. Rose (ed.), Politics in Southern
Asia, (Bombay: Asia, 1963) pp. 9-32> especially
pp. 10-11. Segmentation also reinforces the distinction between the functions of political and
religious authorities, and the resulting contemporary
stress on secularism. Smith, op. cit., Chapters 2, 3,
and 4; M. Weiner, op. cit., pp. 153-246, particularly p. 160.

THE CULTURE O F INDIAN POLITICS

69

of doctrinaire rigidity and factionalism, based on political perfectionism which was


in turn embedded in a purist tradition.
The movement also had to fight against the belief, long authenticated by the idea
of duty, that all relationships are or should be hierarchically arranged and that power,
responsibility, and the prerogative to make decisions should only lie with ascribed
leadership. This gave a special meaning to the equalizing forces of new politics. T o
the numerically weak traditional elites, handicapped by a participatory system, most
politics began to seem illegitimate, with the possible exception of the marginal politics of authoritarianism or violence. T o the more numerous traditional groups or to
groups in good bargaining position due to their strategic location, politics became
a means of rising in the traditional hierarchy. These have unleashed four forces.
Firstly, the changing hierarchical relations and status hunt continue to be brought
within competitive politics and they provide part of the ideational basis of political
commitment, with both disintegrative and integrative consequence^.^^ The principle
of hierarchy was invalidated by a second development which took place in the third
and fourth phases. Some of the older skills of traditionally low-status groups became functional in a changed context, and groups previously low-placed in hierarchy were thrown into dominance because of their innovative behavior and/or
organizational skills. These communities, as already mentioned, started trying to
sanctify their new-found status by a second reinterpretation of sacred texts, group
histories, and community myths. Simultaneously of course, the traditional skills of
some of the other groups became disfunctional and these groups lost status. For instance, the symbol manipulation skills were no longer the cutting edge of politics,
and upper castes which specialized in these lost some of their political significance.
Thirdly, to turn around a much publicized point, while the nationalist movement
and the subsequent political developments have given a new lease of life to caste
groups by validating caste identifications, broadening the basis of caste ties, and
politicizing caste associations, it has by these very means changed the nature of
caste and has undermined many of its traditional normative a s s ~ m p t i o n s .Castes
~~
now compete, cooperate, or fall apart in a manner which explicitly invalidates
traditional hierarchy. And lastly, the growing selfesteem of the previously low
castes is giving a new prestige to a less Sanskritic style of political expression. As the
interests, fears and values associated with Sanskritisation are loosing their salience,
this emerging style is entering the culture of politics as part of a more "hard headed"
and "down-to-earth" ideology. This also is undermining the ideological basis of
fixed status relations.
Nonetheless, of all the cultural "immutables" in Indian politics, the theme of
hierarchy perhaps has shown maximum resilience. As Srinivas points out, even the
much boosted Indian tolerance is bound within the compass of hierarchy?' The
accepted style of handling heterodoxy has been to bring the latter within the hierarchical order and assign it a relatively harmless role. In this connection, it is worth
noting the fate of new occupational choices and work relations which opened up for
3 4 See the papers in R. Kothari (ed.), Caste i n
Indian Politics, op, cit.; also F. G. Bailey, Tribe,
Caste and Nation, (Manchester: Manchester University, 1960).

35 Kothari, op. n't., passim; Rudolph and Rudolph,


op. cit., Part I; Srinivas, Caste i n Modern India,
passim, particularly Chapter I.
86 Ibid., particularly pp. 87-97, I 12-1 19.

70

ASHIS NANDY

the individual in the last two centuries. Though apparently catalyzing social change
by allowing traditional, emergent, and functional hierarchies to operate at crosspurposes, they often have only managed to deepen the moorings of hierarchy as a
group value.37 For instance, Western education, while it has increased social mobility
and class distinctions and, thereby, has partly invalidated older criteria of social
grouping, has also created in the process new status relations. Not only the system
itself has become "crushingly hierar~hical,"~'but even those who have dominated it
have created an ingroup almost primordial in its characteristics.
The principle of hierarchy also persists in the special style of Indian authoritarianism. Authority in India was traditionally not so much a concentrated source
of power and coercion, open to competition, pressures, and threats of dislodgement.
It was a passive, apolitical, ascribed role which could not be contested by anyone
from within the system. The pattern was validated by the absolute patriarchy of
village and caste elders in group decision-making and conflict resolution and by the
history of distant arbitrary political authorities who rarely interfered with the day
to day living of their subjects. In present-day Indian politics too, authority continues to have its "natural, substantially hereditary seats" and cannot be dislodged
without radically modifying the entire hierarchicalstructure within which it ope r a t e ~ .This
~ ~ is expressed in the fear and unconditional acceptance of established
authority (remember for example, the long history of collaboration with alien rulers
at various levels and the more recent tendency of elections to give a ruling party always an edge over its opponents40), the widespread faith in the supralogical intuition
of accepted political leaders,41 and the manner in which individuals wield political
charisma on the basis of their nonpolitical authority. Yet, on the whole, authoritarian rigidities have not been very conspicuous in Indian party politics and democratic institutions have shown a remarkable resilience up until now. Perhaps the
hierarchization that goes with Indian paternalism, though it touches every social
stratum, was especially a feature of the upper-caste elements. When these groups
dominated politics, not only was the traditional hierarchy validated, but also the
traditional self image of these castes and their concept of political "mission." For
instance, the type of political identity Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Tilak, and Subhas
Chandra Bose offered had clear authoritarian streaks; at some level their ideologies
established links with the traditional concepts of leadership, hierarchy, and brahminism. While some of these links persist in the latent ideology of certain political
groups, they have become marginal to the system, mainly because of the diminishing
bargaining power of the groups which these individuals represented.
Suppression of desires has been another significant theme in Indian politics. The
traditional concept of purity connoted cleanliness of mind as evidenced by the ability
to subjugate hatred totally. There seems to be substantial agreement among social
M. Weiner, op. cit., p. 166.
Edwards Shils, "Indian Students; Rather Sadhus
than Philistines," (Chicago: University of Chicago,
Reprint, 1961) p. 3.
39 W. H. Morris-Jones, Parliament in India, (London: Longmans, 1957) pp. 33-37; "Behaviour
and Idea," pp. 78; Dutta, op. cit., pp. 576-577;
Murphy, op. cir., p. 56; H. Tinker, "Authority and
37

88

Community in Village India," Pacific Affairs, 32


(1959) pp. 93-133; L. I. Rudolph and Susanne H.
Rudolph, "Generals and Politicians in India,"
Pacific Affairs, 37 (1964) pp. 3-19,
40M. Opler, W. L. Rowe, and Mildred L. Stroop,
"Indian National and State Elections in a Village,"
Aiyar and Srinivas, op. cit., pp. 641-654.
41Lamb, op. cit., p. 106.

THE C U L T U R E O F I N D I A N POLITICS

71

scientists that this demand for total nonviolence actually represents a latent conflict
about aggression in the modal Indian. It seems that child training in India neither
gives the aggressive impulses a chance to be patterned or shaped nor equips the individuals with internalized techniques of resolving intergroup conflicts. Consequently, when aggression is aroused under economic or political stress, it bursts out
in a "primitive chaotic way."42 In spite of all ideological emphasis on pacifism, thus,
themes of hostility predominate at the projective level of personality functioning.
This further increases the concern with aggression control and the fear of one's
loosing control.
The theme was first used in politics in its connotations of charity and daya
(mercy) by some of the early reformers. For instance, one of the earliest attempts to
renovate the antedeluvian social ethics of this peasant society used the theme as the
basis of a new, more universalist, political ethics.43 It was partly in this sense and in
the sense of self sacrifice of brahmacharya (abstinence) that it became associated with
politics in the second stage. It then started legitimizing the individual's political
participation and made political protest a sacred obligation for some. Pre-Gandhian
brahmacharya also, following ancient texts, conceived of power mainly as power
over self and conservation of this power within self through impulse control and
sexual abstinenceP4 The bond between political conservatism and revivalism, on the
one hand, and personal anxiety about loosing purity through "dissipation" and impulse indulgence, on the other, was mainly established in this era. Conservation of
that which is already there became, in this idiom, a valued political goal, and everything new, unstable, and smacking of impulse gratification a source of suspicion and
fear. Power-oriented politics in consequence could not but become a constant attempt
to conserve purity and potency at all cost. Simultaneously, the deep-seated fear of
pollution through contact that pervaded Indian folklores, classics, rituals, and interpersonal relations, became a restorationist defense against all cultural encroachments.
The equation which Gandhi made between self-discipline and self-government
in the third stage is of course much more well known. Blending Jain, Vaishnava,
and brahminic asceticism, he for the first time underlined the connotation of aggression control in the theme. The brahmacharya of the revivalists and extremists did
not have this connotation. Such a symbol had become necessary because of the felt
need to mobilize the peripheral sectors of the community by giving them a new sense
of personal efficacy and political potency. This was the time when both the extremist
challenge and constitutional liberalism had failed. The first because of nonchalant,
unorganized apolitical masses and the organized might of British empire supported
by a loyal army and police; the second because the mood of both the rulers and the
ruled had changed and none were willing to use the liberals as brokers. In such a
situation, unarmed pacifist satyagraha was perhaps bound to become a concern of
colonial
The intersecting demands of these political forces and traditional
42 Murphy, op. cit., p. 52; see also N. C.
Chaudhuri, The Continent of Cirre, (London:
Chatto and Windus, 196j) pp. 97-115. Hitchcock
and Mintern, op. cit., passim; Carstairs, op. cit.,
passim.
43 Rammohun Roy, op. d.,
Vol. 2 , particularly
pp. 135-189. Roy also explicitly rejected pacifism

because he considered it a cause of Hindu degradation.


44Carstairs, op, cit., passim; Arther Koestler,
The Lotus and the Robot, (London: Macmillan,
1g60), Part I.
45 See M. K. Gandhi, My Non-Violence, (Ahmedabad: Navajiwan, 1950); and N. K. Bose, Selections from Gandhi, (Ahmedabad: Navajiwan, 1948).

72

ASHIS NANDY

identities made unconditional ahimsa not only a technique of protest, defiance, and
change, but also the major support for consensual decision-making and conflict resolution in intergroup and interpersonal contexts. This partly negated the older Indian
concept of politics as a dirty, aggressive, alien game and made political participation
seem a legitimate, sometimes almost saintly, behavior. On the other hand, it stressed
total unconditional acceptance of consensus-through-any-means as a cureall of all
political ills and seemed to emphasize the "perverseness" of competitive party politics
in comparison to the primordial purity of the sarvodaya movement.
In "inner speech" the search for political potency still involves the principles of
impulse-control and self-abnegation. And, socially too, these are a vital source of
legitimacy and charisma. However, the present system tends to invalidate the
Gandhian style and this has become a source of conflict. Firstly, the experience of
the nationalist movement, which proved the politics of ahimsa and satyagraha to be
efficacious tools of pressure and mobilization, still tends to justify agitational strategies and leads to the undervaluation of formal means of demand articulation and
protest. Simultaneously, persistent implicit assumptions about Indian passivity and
pacifism induces authorities to disregard demand management till extra-systematic
pressures are applied. This reinforces the agitational strategy and heightens further
the participating Indian's inner doubts about his capability to control and channelize
hostility. A highly successful attempt to resolve these contradictions was Nehru's
concept of peaceful coexistence or nonalignment. It shunted away the saintly style
into the nation's international relations. For a time at least Indian foreign policy
seemed to offset the diminishing Gandhian influence in national politics. Irrespective
of its success or failure in the international sphere, it was therefore part of the politics
of national consensus building. Now, with the lessening appeal of Nehru's moralistic
idiom in India, the confrontation between the styles may again become sharper.
Secondly, the Gandhian emphasis on public purity, expressed in the concern with
incorruptibility, invulnerability, and cleanliness of mind and body, is also capable
of becoming the fear of being "let down" by the corrupt and the vulnerable in
politics. In this respect it may confirm the lack of trust and mutuality and reduce the
ability to share responsibility at different levels of political f~nctioning.~'
Another dimension is added to Indian politics by the agricultural ethics of the society. Expressed in the plurality and situation-specificity of group values and individual morality, this traditionally sanctioned the diversification of ethical commitments, "inner compartmentalisation" and tolerance of dissent, and claimed that
"there are as many moral codes as appointed stations in life, rather than one common ethical system for all men regardless of position and social function."47 Typically, the concept of rightness and goodness varied with caste, occupation, age, and
sex roles, and even the gap between personal values and cultural configurational
values widened and shrank with the valuer's social situation. Both this ego capacity
to accommodate contradictory ethical systems specific to diverse political, economic,
For two interesting analyses, see Susanne H. Rudolph, "Self-Control and Political Potency: Gandhi's
Asceticism," American Scholar, 35 (1965-1966)
pp. 79-97; and Joan Bondurant, T h e Conquest
of Violence, (Princeton: Princeton University,
1958).

46 Morris-Jones, "Stability and Change," p. 11;

Cormack, op. n't., pp. 24-25; see also M. K. Gandhi,

Hindu Dhurma, (Allahabad: Navajiwan, 1950)

p. 16.

47 Reincourt, op. n't., p. 51 ; see also Rowc,

o p cit., pp. 34-36.

T H E CULTURE OF INDIAN POLITICS

73

and cultural orders and the availability of alternative goals and criteria to the individual for this purpose have at different periods of Indian history neutralized dissent and radical innovations by seemingly accommodating them into the consensual
system.48In nineteenth and twentieth centuries particularly they have made politics
and politicians meaningful parts of an apolitical society.
The avoidance of sharp choices according to a single moral code and the absence
of an "active ethics" tended, especially at times of flux, to seek expression in the concept of ethical irrelevance and in the weak personal commitment to social or political values. This "avoidance of personal moral issues," sometimes referred to in
virulent and apocalyptic tones and sometimes in tones of mild exasperation, had a
certain functional validity in an agricultural society.49It helped maintain the viability
of the system by underplaying individual judgement and preferences and by controlling self righteousness and bigotry:
"Monism . . . inevitably creates a moral climate quite different from that created by
the dualism to which the West is more accustomed . . even if some things are
more divine than the other, evil does not have the hard, tough reality that it has in
the religious beliefs of the West.5o

T o the extent, however, that universal and absolute "inner controls" or moral
imperatives are essential to the growth of complex systems of secondary relationships
requiring competence in undefined social situations, the acceptance of such "external" values as authoritative preferences undermined organizational skills and
interpersonal competence in contractual situations. The weakness was reinforced by
the modal traits of interpersonal hostility and suspicions which in the peasant society stood in the way of mutuality and eficienc~in secondary groups.51
The tradition-directed tendency to base values on external controls--of sacred
texts, brahminic commentaries, and rituals-had another corollary. The awareness
and even cultivation of alternative ethics, the tolerance of any dissent which can be
interpreted as a commentary or reinterpretation of sacred texts, and the living faith
that all dissent represents aspects of an indivisible truth and therefore reconciliation
somehow is always possible, were all strengthened by this weak and fragmented
commitment to one's own values. This was particularly true of politics where the
long deprivation of power and absence of legitimate authority-in the sense of the
legitimacy arising out of meaningfulness as opposed to the legitimacy arising out of
the tendency to submit to all authority-retarded the crystallization of explicit
political values and symbols. This combination also accounts for the observed potentiality of Indian society to generate "a certain cynical ruthlessness" and "naked
48011 the relative autonomy of politics from
society see M. Weiner, "India's Two Political Cultures," in Political Change in South Asia, (Calcutta:
Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, 1965); "India: Two
Political Cultures;" Morris-Jones, "Behaviour and
Idea," and "Stability and Change;" M. N. Srinivas,
Caste in India; S. N. Eisenstadt, "Transformation
of Social, Political and Culutral Orders," Amevican
Sodological Review, 30 ( 1 ~ 6 5 )pp. 659-673; Smith,
op i t . , pp. 57-62.
49 Chaudhuri, Autobiography, pp. 214-21 5; A.
Schweitzer, op. cit. See a review of this argument
in W. F. Gwdwin, "Mysticism and Ethics: An

Examination of Radhakrishnan's Reply to Schweitzer's Critique of Indian Thought," Ethics, 67 (1956)


pp. 25-41. Brief discussions of this subject are available in T . M. P. Mahadevan, "Indian Ethics and
Social Practice," in C. A. Moore, op. cit., pp. 476493; also A. B. Keith, The Religion and Philosophy
of Veda and Upanishads, (Cambridge: Harvard
University, 1925) pp. 584-586; Hume, op. i t . ,
p p 58-66.
5 0 Lamb, op. n't., p. 113.
61 On the lack of mutuality and interpersonal
distrust, see Chaudhuri, Autobiography, pp. 212213; Carstairs, op. cit., Chapter 3, particularly.

ASHIS NANDY
realism" in political matters, which can exploit the imageries of Mahabharata and
Arthashastra to picture politics as a situation-specific amoral pursuit.62
In the first three stages of political development, the need to alter this ethical
system was sensed by the modernizers. Till almost Independence, therefore, the
struggle for political changes remained associated with religious reform. Continuous
attempts were made by the political leaders to universalize and deritualize Hinduism
and to forge new religious ideologies out of older texts to justify individual responsibility and individual morality. These reform movements not only fought against
the form and substance of the older ethics, but also sought to justify public concerns
and political responsiveness on the basis of individual conscience and a new image of
sacred authority.
Simultaneously, a number of attempts were made during the first three stages to
utilize the normative pliability of the Hindu society to integrate Western political
ideas and forms. This was possible because the principle of person and situationspecific dharma provided the individual a rationale for meaningfully separating
politics from society and then judging politics on its own terms. This special secularism was reinforced by the nine-centuries-old reality of a superimposed, alien,
political framework, the gradual diminution of the. sense of political efficacy and
potency in Hindus, their large-scale withdrawal from subcontinental politics, and
the erosion of commitments to public values or symbols in them. There was consequently no need for the modern political forms to fight against established nonsecular political institutions or ideologies.
With the increasing tempo of economic and social change and the expanding
sphere of participation, the specialized capacity of the Hindu society to absorb new
ideas and the ideologies, through segmentization and moral neutrality, may fail to
act as a safety valve. This special capacity had grown out of special experiences. The
type of heterodoxy the society had faced over the centuries in the form of Buddhist,
Jain, and Islamic intrusions or in the frequent growth of denominations and cults
starting from Vaisnavism and Shaivaism and ending in Brahmoism and Arya
Samaj movement has mainly been ideological, in the sense that the life style and
means of livelihood of the majority were not touched by these. Only in recent times
has the community met the joint challenge of scientific and technological sgrowth,
large-scale changes in means of livelihood, and new political forms. The type of
problems, crises, and anxieties that have been typical of the elites until now may soon
therefore become the lot of the entire society. The institutional pliability and interpersonal skills which can cope with such nonideological challenges, particularly
challenges which are cross-validating, are yet to be demonstrated and are perhaps
still to develop.
Nevertheless, the long tradition of tolerance of heterodoxy has given a certain
viability to the present political system. The legitimacy of the political opposition
and the disproportionately important role assigned to its leaders till 1967 (when the
election results at least provided them with a formal basis), the ability to make largescale "amoral" political compromises (which contributes to the image of sanctimonious Indian leaders) and the agglomerative nature of the party of consensus,
Indian National Congress (and increasingly of the major opposition parties), reflect
62 Reincourt, op. n't., p. 400; K. M. Panikkar,
A Survey of Indian History,(Bombay: Asia, 1963)

pp.

18-20.

76

ASHIS NANDY

values) is itself, in this context, a major aspect of the nation's political culture. It
reflects the reality of a fragmented society, characterized by a wide variety of marginal as well as changing cultural strains and their distinctive histories. The new
links which are being forged among these primordial cultures, and between them
and more secular political forces, are opening up new areas of culture conflict as
well as new possibilities of cultural consolidation. The overall tendency has been to
shake the organic balance of the traditional society. The historical compatibility
among its autonomous subsystems is breaking, though politics is yet to give meaning to the rearranged relationships among these subsystems.
Fourthly, the ways in which politics of dominant decision-making groups summates the political cultures and life-styles of little communities are probably as important as the content of individual cultural themes. The operant political values in
India are, in this sense, the result of the confrontation among sets of political values,
and among sets of symbols which integrate as well as aggregate. The unique features
of these local and regional cultures-reinforced by different histories, weltanschauungen, and, ultimately, by different patterns of socialization-interpenetrate to some
extent in the leadership values of a pluralist society. These interchanges within the
themes are often as important contents of the political'idiom as the themes themselves.
Fifthly, the phase-specific adapative style of Indian politics has bound together, at
each historical phase, the phase-specific meanings of all the themes salient in public
life. In fact, one can even go further and say that both the changing significance and
salience of themes have been defined mainly by the basic adaptive problems of the
community at each historical point.
Lastly, it appears that over the last hundred and fifty years, political values have
been increasingly drawing strength from the pragmatic nonbrahminic aspects of the
cultural themes I have listed. This movement away from textual aspects of the
themes is perhaps another sign of politics becoming a part of day-to-day living of
ordinary people.
In conclusion, let us briefly discuss the characteristic features of Indian nationalism which, utilizing these thematic complexes and building upon primordial allegiences to older apolitical symbols, has been trying to create a new awareness of the
nation and responsiveness toward national efforts. In a society with a colonial past,
nationalism is perhaps the major pacesetter in the immediate post-colonial period.
As a process which has coped with the confrontation between two complex cultures, the growth of nationalism in India has not only determined the exogeneous
elements which could be integrated within the self definition of the political community without destroying self-esteem, but also the selection, redefinition, and rejection of tradition-elements for the purposes of developing the idiom of new politics.
Having been historically an elite response to alien rule, Indian nationalism has
had three main features. Firstly, over the entire nineteenth century it conceptualized
political authority as a stabilizing, modern, liberal instrument that could be utilized
for reformist purposes. The pro-British sentiments of indigenous elites in the last
century were not merely a reaction to seven-hundred years of muslim rule or the
crumbs of colonial exploitation which the elites were then collecting. It also grew out

THE CULTURE OF INDIAN POLITICS

77

of the utilitarian sense of mission of the nineteenth century British, which had its
reflection in the brahminic sense of mission of Indian leaders. This mutually reinforcing sense of a "cause" was gradually destroyed by British superciliousness generated by the quickening tempo of industrial and scientific revolutions in the West,
the gradual entry of British middle-class elements into the ruling junta of India
(a group itself searching for the self esteem their Victorian society denied them and
trying to find it in the white man's burden), and the growing feelings of inferiority among Indians. Nonetheless, the old expectation that the government should be
the major agent of social change persists in certain groups. Much of Indian socialism
and communism, led by educated Westernized upper- and middle-class elements and
drawn from traditional social elites, could in this sense be a remnant of the long experience of high-caste urbanites working with, and through, the British government
toward a more modern society. The "demand explosion" in these sections in the
fourth stage probably is a delayed result of the hopes of Indian liberal reformers of
the nineteenth century whose support for, and expectations from, the government
were often
Starting from a different vantage but converging with this, twentieth century
politics has confirmed this authority image by its intermittent references to socialist
centralized models of social engineering and by bringing in through Nehru, Patel,
and others the sources of charismatic authority within the government. In the process, it neutralized partly the Gandhian emphases on voluntary nongovernmental
reformist politics and directed it away from the mainstream of Indian public life.
This demise of voluntarism in politics was further encouraged by the cultural disinclination to interfere with life processes, the growth of a psephocratic model of
democratic participation where power was relinquished to "elected kings," and the
gradual association of professional politics with competition among the "natural"
leaders of ascriptive groups, played out above the level of the laity.
Secondly, the ineluctable logic of colonial politics managed to associate nationalism in some to attempts to cope with personal feelings of inferiority. Whether it was
a culturally modal fear of inadequacy or a sense of inadequacy generated by internalization of Western norms, a major coping mechanism for many became the reaffirmation of one's nationalist self and identification with national interests. The
result was chauvinist self righteousness or aggressive moralistic feelings of cultural
supremacy.54 Because nationalism was extremely weak in the first phase, when
cultural syncretism was the main substance of politics, no strong bond between the
two strains could perhaps grow.
Thirdly, in the second phase Indian nationalism became associated with "imported" values and structures-an association later consummated by the Westernized
nineteenth century leadership and self-imposed Western political forms. Probably
from this are derived part of the legitimacy-and illegitimacy-of the new system,
the load that it carries by way of the ideological overconsciousness and national
sensitiveness in the exposed elites, and the underestimation of nongovernmental
mass efforts even at the highest political echelons. Though the Gandhian style
countered this in some ways, the association between Westernization and political
53 Mujumdar, op. cit., Chapter I ; Mishra, op cb.,
passim.
54 John and Ruth Useem, T h e Weslern Educated

Man in India, (New York: Dryden, 1955); Dhirendra Narayan, op. cir.; Chaudhuri, T h e Continent
of Circe.

78

ASHIS NANDY

authority persisted and was in fact strengthened by the Gandhian protest movements in certain other ways. The challenge of legitimacy in India resides therefore
not so much in the public evaluation of new political forms and authority, but in the
containment as well as exploitation of the percept of omnipotent politics in the
elites, and the dissociation of politics from its image as a disruptive, radical, alien
instrument among others.
I shall conclude by offsetting these features of Indian nationalism against the
four styles of political culture and by briefly specifying the role of nationalism in
relation to four different strata of Indian personality.55
The first style invokes a period when nationalism was a relatively greater awareness of the nation as a field of expanding economic and occupational opportunities
and of an alien political power. At that stage it did not arouse deeper psychological
conflicts because of two reasons: one's self image as an Indian was not internalized
enough to contradict one's deeper concepts of authority, hierarchy, and power
(which at that time was not challenged by the British), and nationalism was an
aspect of the salient and successful defence of identification with the aggressor.
Aggressive integration of the new and aggressive universalism remain therefore the
major feature of this idiom and intellectuals its major carriers. The idiom seems to
tap the weak male identification, the diffusion of identifications ensured by multiplicity of authorities within the joint family, and the search for absolute authorities
who like the father are "intruding strangers" and by identifying with whom one
could affirm one's masculine self.
The second idiom represents an attempt to bind feeling of personal or national
inferiority by revivalist nationalism. Identification with the nation here helps one to
restore self esteem by projecting one's unacceptable self on to scapegoats within and
outside the system. The major element of this style are the imageries associated with
the nation: the conception of a motherland by identifying with whose aggressive
motherliness one could restore the sense of infantile omnipotence. This style derives
its strength from modal phantasies and cultural myths centering around the mother
and from the way in which these become associated with the preservation of one's
"true'' self as a son of the soil. Aggression geared to The Cause becomes this way
a defense against ambivalence toward the first and only intimate authority the
individual has to cope with in a traditional Indian famliy. While this gives the
commitment to nation a deep embeddedness in the traditional culture-personality
system, it perhaps allows less political maneuverability and is conducive to chauvinistic conservatism if the individual's self-system is under pressure.
The third style utilizes nationalism to tackle superego problems of a particular
type. Ideological purity, doctrinaire conformity to pacifism and impulse-control, and
search for political potency through renunciation are used here to cope with personal feelings of shame about impulse indulgence which participation in the modern
sector induces. In a deep sense the style is reparative: participation in public affairs
and organization building are used here to combat latent destructive impulses.
Politically, the style is mobilizational, psychologically it emphasizes conquest of the
self and self-realization and, ultimately, mobilization of one's ideal self.
The fourth style links nationalism to organizational skills, attitude to profes55 Some of the studies which provide empirical
basis of the observations made in this section are

Carstairs, op tit.; Rudolph and Rudolph, up. cit.;


Hitchcock and Mintern, op. cit.

T H E CULTURE OF INDIAN POLITICS

79

sionalization and specialization, competitiveness, and to bargaining. It demands


from the individual a sense of interpersonal competence and appeals to his needs
for achievement, profit, or gain. It taps a relatively more modern stratum of Indian
personality which is yet unacceptable to the individual. It is basically nonbrahminic
in content and it rejects both ideological purism and social inflexibility. The challenge of this phase, it seems, is to legitimize these aspects of national character with
reference to traditional ideals and to make them part of more conscious perceptions
in the elites.