Brainstorm Think

Where Are You Marching To?

It was just another evening in Heaven. Mohandas Gandhi was out on his evening walk again, which the residents affectionately referred to as ‘Dandi with a Danda.’ He had walked a few miles when he came across two men at the side of the road, sitting cross-legged on the ground, waiting for something. They were Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Rabindranath Tagore.

“Babumoshai,” said Gandhi cheerfully, addressing Mookerjee, although it could be argued that Tagore was also a Babumoshai. “What are you doing sitting here? You look like you are waiting for something.”

“Yes,” said Shyambabu, as we shall call him from now on. “I am waiting for my French Press milk to brew.”

In front of him, Gandhi noticed, was a French Press with hot water and some white beans. “What are those beans?” asked Bapu, as we shall call him from now on.

“Those are cow beans,” said Shyambabu. “You gotta remember, this is heaven, we can’t mistreat real cows here. So we get our milk from cow beans. Amazing technology. Any moment now my alarm will ring and I will plunge the plunger.”

Just then, from Shyambabu’s phone, the sonorous strains of ‘Jana Gana Mana’ burst forth. Tagore visibly winced, and gave his fellow Babumoshai a withering sideways look.

“It’s ready!” said Shyambabu, and plunged the plunger. Then he poured out a cup of milk for himself. It was clear to Gandhi that Shyambabu would not offer him any, and to evade the awkwardness, he moved on to Tagore.

“Robida,” he exclaimed with such cheerfulness that it seemed he might burst into song now. “Robida, what are you waiting for?”

Robida glowered at him, and said, “I’m waiting for that bloody Brainstorm to resume.”

*

And so, with profuse apologies, Brainstorm continues. Our fifth participant, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, has been indisposed, and might join the conversation later. We shall move on for now. To refresh your memory, we’re discussing The Future of the Indian Republic, and here are the essays so far on this subject:

The Future of the Indian Republic — Amit Varma

If We Can Keep It — Nitin Pai

Democracy vs The Republic — Shruti Rajagopalan

We Reap What We Sow — Jayaprakash Narayan

The Nationalism of an Idea — Shashi Tharoor

In this post, I’ll try and sum up the insights so far, and to raise some small questions that cropped up while I read these pieces. Each of the participants will then write a short piece, in which they can either respond to my questions, or to what other participants have said, or raise questions of their own, or even continue the story of what Robida and Bapu spoke about in heaven while Shyambabu sipped his milk.

In my introductory post, I pointed out the unique nature of the challenges that India faces at this point in time. Nitin, in his essay, provided some context:

On 26th January 1950, the Enlightenment—a historical process of intellectual development that evolved in Western Europe and the United States over centuries—was injected into the veins of Indian society in the form of a written statute. We are still dealing with the shock of that moment.

The shock of that moment, he wrote, had three side effects. One, “a contest of values, between those enshrined in law and those hallowed by tradition.” Two, “iniquitous federalism.” And three, a mismatch between political idealism and the state machinery. He wrote, “India is entering the Information Age of the twenty-first century with an administrative structure designed for the Industrial Age of the nineteenth.”

Shruti’s essay is about how a democracy and a republic are separate things, often at cross-purposes. In India, she writes, “democracy is cannibalizing republicanism.” She describes how “the constitution has completely failed in protecting republicanism from democratic excesses.”

Jayaprakash has been both a bureaucrat and a politician, and having fought the good battle while the rest of us have theorised from our armchairs, gets to the heart of the problem:

Changes in technology happen swiftly, and often conquer all barriers and change lives instantly.  But changes in laws and institutions are more uneven and halting, particularly in the absence of an elite imbued with common vision and a clear sense of purpose beyond lust for power. Change in attitudes is hardest of all; it often takes generations, and therefore a reformer’s task is infinitely hard.

Shashi, also one of those rare public intellectuals who has fought (and won) elections, believes that we are currently engaged in “a battle for India’s soul.” He writes:

All of us who believe in the liberal values embodied in our Constitution must strive to ensure that the ultimate winner must be the Idea of India.

So here are some questions I’d like to raise. To begin with, I’ll take the liberty of quoting from a piece I wrote for the Times of India, which is was partly inspired by Nitin and Shruti’s Brainstorm essays:

Much modern politics is the battle between these competing visions of the state. Should the state be a superstructure that imposes certain values, decided upon by elites, upon society? Or should it be a servant to society, protecting its traditions without judging them from the prism of other value systems?

So here’s my first question: It seems to me that society at large does not share the common values the five of us are espousing. Are we just elites in an echo chamber? And, most importantly, if we want to get our values shared by society at large, how are we to do this? How can we make sure that the people of India, and not just the elite of India, care about free speech and free markets? Were we ever winning? Have we already lost?

Ya, as you can see, I’m the cheery optimistic type. My second question: my friend the activist Barun Mitra likes to invoke VS Naipaul and speak of the ‘million mutinies’ within India. Do you agree that these mutinies exist, or are bubbling? What do you think are the largest causes or triggers for these mutinies? What can we do about them?

And finally, for my third question, I will ask you to take off the India cap and put on the Human cap, and think about the world as a whole. How will the direction that India takes affect the rest of the world? (And equally, if you wish, how can the rest of the world affect our future?) As the Maha Upanishad says, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

Feels like homework, doesn’t it? Our participants don’t have to focus on these precise questions, though: the topic is vast, our country is vaster, and somewhere in a corner of the even vaster heaven, a man named Robida reads this and sighs with pleasant anticipation — when his compatriot’s alarm goes off again, and he groans.

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About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.