Yogendra Yadav has diagnosed my critique of the seven-point (or rather, point 7.1) Mission Jai Hind as a psychological condition: rooted in being a victim of Communism and Cold War anxieties.
I’d defer humbly to the view of any experienced shrink. Especially, if there is one who has been keeping track of my symptoms and conditions over the decades, evident in my published work. Yogendra hits the bull’s eye about my deep grudge with Communism.
There is no fear worse than ignorance. That’s where my fear of Communism is rooted. In decades as a political journalist, Communism is what I have learnt the least about. I spent my school and college years wrestling with botany-zoology-chemistry (having gratefully left physics and math behind in Class XI). In the small towns of Yogendra and my home state, then under Chaudhary Bansi Lal’s rule, campus politics was unthinkable.
So, the fact is, I was spared the usual campus tryst with Left thought. I am not even sure the Left has ever won a seat in a house of any consequence in India’s most non-revolutionary state — Haryana. No grudges here.
Rewinding the Red
What I have imprinted on my head—and I had salted it away for my memoirs—is something Bansi Lal said in a public rally in Rohtak when George Fernandes was bringing the Railways to a standstill in early I974.
Nobody quite knew what the colour of Fernandes’ Union’s flag was, and I know the perils of confusing a Lohiaite with a Communist, but this is how Bansi Lal’s view unfolded…
Apparently, some Communists were holding a crucial election rally, but their top orator had a runny stomach. The fellow comrades said, if he didn’t come out to speak, the election will be lost. And then a wise comrade came up with a solution.
“Take this,” he said, offering a piece of red cloth to the Great Orator, “tie it like a langot under your dhoti, and come to the rally. You will be fine.”
“Tera kya dimaag kharab ho liya hai bhai (have you lost it?),” asked the senior. But the wise comrade said: “Yeh laal jhanda hai. Isko dekh ke Birla-Tata ki badi-badi factoryan band ho gayin, tera pet kya cheez hai (This is the Red banner. It has shut down the factories of Birla and Tata, your stomach is nothing).”
Crude, you might say. But everybody judges us Haryanavis. Also, something that would leave an impressionable 17-year-old with deep anxieties about Communism, isn’t it?
It got worse. This was the peak of the Cold War, so the mailman routinely delivered to many Indian households propaganda literature from both the US and Soviet embassies.
We so looked forward to the Soviets sending in collected works of Marx, Engels, etc. simply because these were brilliant for our tiny bookshelves bereft of any hardcovers because we could never afford anything other than pulp. So, an entire row of Communist equivalent of the Bible, all Testaments, sat on the top shelf, proudly sharing it with a framed portrait of John F. Kennedy, which had arrived in mail from the US Embassy several years earlier. Since those volumes on Communism were so forbidding, Kennedy was like the tiny Hanuman Chalisa booklet in your wallet, to keep your fears away.
The fear and victimhood lodged only deeper as I went on to study journalism at Panjab University, where Yogendra taught subsequently. He didn’t teach me, so please don’t hold that against him.
It was the Emergency (the real one, not what the 31 worthies in this 7.1-point charter invoke), so there was no politics at all on campus. But one of our classmates was a pucca bearded Comrade, a magnet for the women. I did once bet Rs 10 to him on whether E.M.S. Namboodiripad was dead or alive, and lost. Wouldn’t I feel scarred for life? Ten rupees was a lot of omelettes in 1975.
Sixteen years later, I went to see EMS, former Kerala chief minister, in Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram). In 1991, I was writing an article along with my colleague Ramesh Menon on the literacy drive the Left Front government had launched. I told EMS about the bet I lost. The old man took it brilliantly. He looked at me in mock horror and fear, then stuck his arm out, and said, “Please, please you check (my pulse). It is possible that you were right and I am dead.”
I could see finally that Communists could be funny, even laugh at themselves. Although they also give you plenty to laugh at them about. In 1988, I wrote my first story on Left politics after spending a week in Calcutta (Kolkata). Why were India’s Communists not changing when Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping were transforming the Soviet Union and China, I asked Saroj Mukherjee, the redoubtable Communist Party of India chief in the state, in his office. “Because my Communism,” he said, throwing up his arms in pride, “is purer than that of Deng and Gorbachev.” That conversation is available in India Today’s beautifully maintained archives. Along with his picture speaking to me, under giant portraits of Lenin, Marx and Stalin.
Here I was, scarred by Communism in my teens, in my twenties and then thirties. So you are so right, Yogendra.
Prozac, one of the first proven medications for many mental health issues, came to the market around this time. And perfectly timed with it was the therapy for Communism and Left thinking. The Cold War ended, Soviet Union disappeared, the Berlin Wall fell, Gorbachev moved to American liberal campuses and Deng made his immortal ‘it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice’ turn.
What didn’t change was Indian Communism. But that never mattered. India’s curse was its political socialism. That’s why just when the Cold War was ending and the states liberated from the Soviet Bloc were going out seeking Western ‘capitalist’ investments, India, under V.P. Singh, and the most disastrous daily-wage coalition in our history, was reliving his Raid Raj fantasy. Madhu Dandavate, as finance minister, made that statement only an Indian socialist (not even Communist) would have in 1990: “I am not against FDI. But I will not go out looking for it.” This, addressing India’s leading industry chamber.
By the end of 1990, India was staring at a balance of payments crisis. An old socialist like Chandra Shekhar had the smarts to fly out and mortgage India’s gold to escape default. Soon enough, the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh minority government was at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on bent knees. They delivered the Prozac for India’s 43-year socialist depression, the 1991 reform.
Yogendra Yadav’s psychoanalysis of what bugs me is brilliant. Just that he’s got his virology, or the identification of the bug, wrong.
The fairytale of Communism
India’s good, or maybe bad, fortune is that it was never ruled by Communists. Bad, I say, because if it did, even for a little time, generations of Indians would remember its economic excesses, as we do the Emergency’s political ones, and swear: never again.
I was taught this by a bright, jobless computer engineer driving his Trabant (remember those) as an illegal taxi in Prague, 1990, when Václav Havel’s crowds filled the avenues chanting ‘At Jize Haval (Long Live Haval)’ and I was covering the unravelling of the Soviet Bloc for India Today. He cursed the Communists, and I reminded him that they were still winning some elections in India, especially in some of our most intellectually-endowed states and that the ideology still had much sex appeal on some campuses.
“That’s because you’ve never been ruled by Communists,” he said. Your Emergency, he said, took away your political freedoms, you realised these were valuable and fought back to regain them. Your economic freedoms have been stolen from day one by stealth, under the cover of morality by (Nehru-Indira) socialism. You don’t even think of fighting for economic freedoms, because your country never experienced any. We had economic freedoms, Communists stole them, so we value what we have won back.
I have already said my piece on the fantasy of this 7.1-point charter here. I see the need to change nothing. Except to add, that there are 11 economists among the signatories. All eminent, much published, peer-reviewed. Yogendra has probably read them all. How would he characterise them: Left, Right, socialist? If, in this virus, they see what they have waited for almost three decades now, an ally to reverse 1991, they deserve a push-back. Especially from the generation of Indians who benefited from that reversal of India’s fake, old Socialism.
India needs more resources, and wiser economists will have ideas on where to find these. Raising tax rates on income won’t work now because those you tax at 43.5 per cent plus DDT plus LTCG plus 18 per cent GST plus, maybe, 150 per cent on fuel, won’t have much income in a recessionary year. You go after the assets they’ve built in the past with their hard-earned, tax-paid earnings, you will need Mao Zedong, the Gang of Four, the Cultural Revolution and the confiscatory Red Guards. Nut cases raise tax rates in a crippling recession.
My fight is not with Communism. I don’t hide behind anything, especially with a friend and sparring partner who is open to disagreement. I find Communism more entertaining than dangerous in India. My argument is with the political economy that you and your co-signatories believe in. You are not hypocrites. You’ve honestly spoken your minds and put your signatures on the document.
Again, I believe you are right in your diagnosis, but your prescription is snake oil. India’s problem isn’t that it has too many rich. Nor is that why India has too many poor. It is that India has too few rich. Why, how and where to remedy that, is a continuing argument. Povertarianism is not merely an economic thought in India, but the dominant political ideology across parties. You want to know more about our intellectual and political elites’ self-serving glorification of poverty and demonising of wealth, please do check out this 2001 National Interest, inspired by Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai.