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The Progressives

Romesh Thapar knew my father. But that’s not how we met.

My father died in 1971. And by the time I first called on Romesh in 1983, over a decade had passed and I don’t think he made the connection. As far as he was concerned I was just another young (I was 26, so youngish...) journo who wanted to chat about the state of India.


My interest in Romesh Thapar (who did eventually work out who my father was and asked warmly about my mother) had been piqued by his role as the fount of all wisdom for the foreign press corps. Every time I was abroad and picked up a local paper, the reports from India would quote Romesh. The foreign correspondents of that era treated everything he said as almost oracular.


   And it was easy to see why. He was sharp, incisive, knowledgeable and well-informed. I remember Michael Kaufman, then the New York Times bureau chief in Delhi telling me that he had asked Thapar what India’s contribution to politics was. After all, parliamentary democracy came from Westminster. The federal structure was vaguely American. And so on.


   According to Kaufman, Thapar paused, thought for a while and then answered his question.


   “Rent-a-crowd,” he finally said.


   And, of course he was right. One of our great contributions to popular democracy has been the way in which we pay people to attend rallies and fill maidans with truckloads of paid attendees. (In the 21st Century we extended the same pay-the-mob principle to Twitter, but that’s another story.)


   When I got talking to Romesh (as he very kindly asked me to call him), I was intrigued by his view of India and indeed his view of the world. He and his wife Raj had been progressives in Bombay. The term means nothing these days but in that era, it was a more respectable and subtly different variation of fellow-traveller.


   Fellow-travellers were people who believed in the communist ideology but did not join the party. I had some personal experience of this. My father had been a card-carrying member of the old, united CPI but my mother, who shared his views, never actually joined the party. (This worked to the benefit of the CPI which received large donations from my mother and her cousins who came from a wealthy, mill-owning Ahmedabad family.)


   The Thapars were progressives in the sense that while they did not accept the Marxist view of the world and had no time for the tyranny-embracing Russia-love of the still largely Stalinist CPI (or the Mao-worshipping CPM) and did not believe that everything was about class, they hated the same things that the Communists hated.


   They believed that many (most, even) industrialists were corrupt and venal. They believed that pure market economics was a strategy designed to ensure that the poor remained poor. And they rejected the American model of development where foreign companies would take over the economy and we would applaud, hoping that one day, the wealth would trickle down to India's poor.


   Like the Communists, they were ambivalent about the Congress. They admired Jawaharlal Nehru but they believed that the regional bosses who ran the Congress in the states were crooks who survived on the basis of machine politics and had no interest in helping the poor.


   In essence, a progressive was a man or woman who believed that the problems of poverty and inequality in India could not be solved through strictly capitalist solutions, was leery of the capitalist class and its political supporters but rejected the semi-totalitarian (or not so semi) approach of the  Communist parties.


   We know now that the progressives were wrong about many things. (Or at least I believe that.) We recognise also that one major difference between the progressives and the communists was that communists could be workers in the village cadres while progressives tended to be middle or (usually) upper middle class, were well-educated and --- this is the crucial bit --- could have actually made much more money if they ignored the dictates of their conscience and threw themselves into the capitalist system. Cynics could argue (and often did) that it helped if at least one of the progressives in each couple had some inherited wealth. (Raj Thapar, my mother, and many others; this was not an unfamiliar pattern.)


   It is often said of those who could not understand why the best and brightest at the great British universities became Communists in the post War years, that you could not understand the choices they made unless you were there.  The world was divided into fascists, imperialists and communists. To many young people, communism seemed the most honourable of those paths.


   I imagine our progressives went through a similar process. We had just rid ourselves of Western imperialists. What was the way forward for India after Independence? Should we allow ourselves to become slaves to another kind of imperialism (American economic domination)? Or should we try and create our own path towards a more equal, more just society?


   Put that way, it is a bit of a no-brainer. Even if you rejected the lure of communism, it was logical to be a progressive of some kind if you had brains and a conscience. Even after my father (who spent nearly a year in jail for being a member of the CPI) was booted out of the Communist Party for anti-party thoughts and activities, he still thought of himself as a progressive. To be anything else would be to go over to the Dark Side.


   I did not know the Thapars when they faced these choices but I imagine they went through a similar process and asked themselves the same questions as my parents and so many other intelligent people in that generation did. As long as Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister, they still believed that India was on the road to social justice. But when Nehru died and the Congress bosses they despised took over, they despaired for our country.


"Romesh believed that the educational system needed to be overhauled. He was appalled by the lack of justice received by the victims of the Delhi pogroms."

   It is hard now to understand why so many progressives put their faith in Indira Gandhi when she split the Congress in 1969. But remember that they did not know then that we know now: that she would subvert the institutions of governance, would impose the Emergency, would clamp down on dissent and would launch a family dynasty.


   Romesh Thapar was part of her kitchen cabinet in the early years and I imagine he backed her because she seemed like an alternative to the corrupt Congress bosses (the Syndicate, as they were called). Plus, her heart seemed to be in the right place. She broke and defeated the Syndicate. She nationalised banks so that credit was freely available to the poor. She took away the titles and privy purses that had been granted to India’s princes by her father, arguing that there was no room for hereditary privilege in India. (How ironic that sounds in retrospect!)


   In the end, the Thapars gave up on her (and she on them) because they realised that the progressive promises she had made were no more than a means to an end. Nobody doubted her patriotism. But it was as clear that in her vision of India, the people could only be happy if Indira ruled forever.


   During the Emergency the Thapars took a brave and principled stand against the curtailment of civil liberties but I am not sure how much Mrs. Gandhi cared. The progressives had served their purpose and were past their sell-by dates.


   By the time I met Romesh Thapar in 1983, Mrs. Gandhi had returned to power. She had declared that she would follow liberal economic policies but her focus had to be on keeping India together. Violent insurgencies and protest movements in Assam and Punjab threatened the stability of the country.  All talk of ending hereditary privilege had long been forgotten. When Sanjay, her chosen successor, had died, she had replaced him with his older brother. The answer to the question, After Indira Who, was clear: her descendants.


   Was Romesh Thapar disillusioned with the way things had turned out? I think he was.  Was he angry about Mrs. Gandhi? Oh yes, that he certainly was. And was he optimistic about India? Oddly enough, he seemed to be much more optimistic than anyone else. He had faith in young people. He believed in the idea of India. And he believed that ultimately, demographics would work in our favour.


   There were changes he wanted, of course. He was keen on the idea of smaller states. After 1985, he was openly contemptuous of dynasty, coining the term ‘babalog’ to describe Rajiv Gandhi and his political friends.


   Romesh believed that the educational system needed to be overhauled. He was appalled by the lack of justice received by the victims of the Delhi pogroms.


   We didn’t agree on everything. He asked me to write a piece for Seminar, after Rajiv’s landslide victory in 1984/5.


   I began the article by saying that I was putting forward a series of propositions that the regular readers of Seminar would violently disagree with.


   I went on to say that I believed that ordinary people were losing faith in Indian democracy. Once parliamentary democracy failed, then people returned to the loyalties that proceeded the emergence of our political system: to religious, caste and ethnic loyalties. The Punjab problem (then raging), I argued, had little to do with any discrimination against Sikhs. It was a symptom of the greater problem of frustration with the Indian system that many in Punjab felt.


   It was therefore in everyone’s interests --- including the readers of Seminar --- to hope that the Rajiv government succeeded because Rajiv had received a national mandate that cut across religion, caste and region. If the government failed, then Indian politics would once again become about caste and region. More worryingly, it would become about religion.


   The article never appeared. Raj wrote me a postcard to say that it had reached them too late (in those days we used snail mail). In any case, she said, no matter what I believed, she knew that nothing would change in India unless the guilty men behind the Delhi riots were punished.


   Well, yes. But I thought the Thapars missed the bigger picture. The Rajiv government did fail and the politics of caste (Mandal) and religion (the Babri Masjid) did take over.


   Still, it was nice to argue with the Thapars. Not only were they bright, they had seen so much and done so much that there was so much to learn.


   Were they often wrong? I think they were. I think all progressives, including my parents, made a fundamental error: they put too much faith in the state. They genuinely believed that state intervention was the answer to everything. After all, didn’t the state represent the people?


   All of Mrs. Gandhi’s state interventions were disastrous. The nationalised banks did nothing for the poor, they became lazy and overstaffed. Politicians plundered them to give loans to cronies. A new generation of banks swept away what used to be India’s greatest banks. And as for helping the poor, more farmers commit suicide because of debts to money-lenders today than they ever did before bank nationalisation.


   So it was with ITDC. This was a catastrophic misjudgement by Mrs. Gandhi. She took over a clutch of government-owned and partly government-owned hotels (like the Ashoka), created a new tourism development corporation and put Romesh Thapar in charge. In today’s terms, this was like nationalising the Oberoi group and making Amartya Sen the new Chairman. The Thapars never really understood the business and their faith in the state led them completely astray. In her diary Raj Thapar writes about how sloppy the service at government hotels was. This, Romesh and she believed, was because Indians were unsuited to hoteliering.


   Of course, she was wrong. Indians went on to run the world’s best hotels. It was the government that was unsuited to running hotels, not the people of our country.


   But, the fallacy stemmed from a larger one: their faith in the machinery of the state.


   There’s no one like Romesh Thapar today. There is nobody who saw government and political decision-making from up close, who spent so long thinking about the future of India, who dedicated his life to devising ways to make things better for our people and who raised the level of debate in our country. (And who managed to costar in a film -- Footpath – with Dilip Kumar.)


   That generation, that progressive spirit and that desire to function at the level of ideas and ideals have all died out. Yes, the Thapars, like all progressives, made errors of judgement. But whatever they did, they did it from a desire to build a better India.


   I miss them. And I miss their generation of idealists.




  • Devanshu 12 Oct 2017

    Leftist utterly failed remaining a "clutch" instead started driving the bus...and journalists behaving larger than their role of "4th estate"...and their "we know better and can run government"...
    with hand in gloves Industrialists polluted and brought Indian Parliament to what it is today...a pupate in hands of die hard capitalist who can do anything and everything including siding, seating, leaking of communal forces to see their interests are protected.

Posted On: 26 Sep 2017 10:30 AM
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