Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 31

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

From the gatherings at Ashis Nandy’s home, and particularly from my numerous discussions with him I learned to think a bit more carefully about three major social concerns in India.

One was that whenever we economists faced a socio-economic problem that the standard processes of the private market forces did not resolve justly or efficiently, our immediate recourse was the state. We, of course, knew how inept or corrupt the state machinery often was. But the Gandhian in Ashis pointed to many problems where even the best-intentioned or efficient state is inherently incapable of solving. Take the shameful dowry problem in Indian marriage markets. The Indian state tried to solve it by the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961. But the problem is rampant to this day. One needs social movements and community-level reforms in norms and behavior, more than state legislation, to make a dent in this enormous social problem. In such debates I have, however, argued that while the state is not sufficient, isn’t it often necessary for social change? A law enacted by the state after a process of public deliberation can act as a guiding or catalytic or coordinating force for dispersed social movements. In the US the civil rights movement acted in unison with some landmark federal laws (Civil Rights Acts) in bringing about major (as yet unfinished) social changes.

Second, I always knew that caste was important in Indian society and polity, but I used to think that in leftist areas like Bengal class had significantly overshadowed caste. Talking to the sociologists in the group (including André Beteille, a consummate Bengali with a French father) I realized how limited this perception about Bengal was. Over time I came to understand that the cultural dominance of upper castes in Bengal is so totally hegemonic that it creates the illusion that caste is less important there.

In other parts of India there have been social upheavals partly enabled by democracy, as a result of which middle and sometimes lower castes have at least politically become very important. But in Bengal even the communist parties are mostly dominated by upper castes, just as in literature most of the life stories of the oppressed groups have been, until very recently, narrated by upper-caste writers. A part of upper-caste hegemony in Bengal lies in making even the upwardly-mobile sections of lower castes internalize the cultural norms and mores of the former and get gentrified.

Third, Ashis has eloquently written about the pitfalls of modernity and technocratic development presided over by an aggrandizing nation- state. I agree that the nation-state often organizes spectacular technological or military extravaganzas and runs mindless gigantic development projects uprooting communities and disrupting the ecological balance, and that in general the technocratic elite often imposes projects from above, not involving the participation of the local people, instead simply treating them as objects of the development process.

But I part company when I see that development itself has become a dirty word with many including some followers of Ashis (I have already mentioned an article by Steve Marglin on ‘Development as Poison’–both Steve and Frédérique became devoted disciples of Ashis). Of course, there are alternative types of participatory community-led or decentralized development processes possible, but I do not share the romanticism of many anarcho-communitarians about such development. On balance I remain a supporter of decentralized development, but there are many complex problems (including those of capture by the local elite or by forces of clientelist politics) even in such types of development which can work against the interests of common people, particularly in situations of socio-economic inequality. In the last 3 decades I (along with Dilip Mookherjee) have been working on decentralized development to explore some of these problems.

I also part company when I see many anarcho-communitarians and their cultural-studies fellow-travelers echo post-modernists against  expertise, against science, against truth, regarding all objective truth as ‘socially constructed’ and in the service of ruling powers. As Terry Eagleton, the British literary critic, recently said, “post-truth politics may have started in the left bank of the Seine, but they ended up in (Trump’s) White House”.

Some of Ashis’s social-psychological work is indeed impressive. His early work exploring the cultural politics of selfhood and his later psychological analysis of social and political violence of different forms has given us deep insights. Many people do not know that nearly 30 years back he started a project of psycho-analysis of the Hindu nationalists in India, and in that connection he had a long interview with, among others, a then-minor BJP functionary named Narendra Modi. He later described, as reported in a recent New Yorker piece, that in that interview he was shocked to find that this man “exhibited all the traits of an authoritarian personality: puritanical rigidity, a constricted emotional life, fear of his own passions, and an enormous ego that protected a gnawing insecurity”. (Incidentally, the famous 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality by Theodor Adorno and others was the product of research by a Berkeley group of social psychologists).

In our apartment complex the Nandys and us often got together, particularly with our small son and their daughter being of similar age. Also, along with Mrinal and Eva we often went to see late-night movies in New Delhi cinema halls, after our children were asleep, six of us packed in Mrinal’s small VW. I remember once as we entered the hall, before the main movie started, there was a sports newsreel where we saw a ferocious wrestler repeatedly head-butting his opponent. At this Ashis immediately remarked: “With such beautiful use of the head available, think how we are misusing ours”! (This incidentally reminds me of the memorable head-butt by France’s famous player Zidane on Italy’s Materazzi in 2006 soccer World Cup Final. I was in Italy that day and saw how afterward the bars were agog with creative speculations about what provoked it).

There was one distinguished economist who did not come to the evening gatherings in our apartment complex, but instead used to wake me up very early in the morning with his visit after a long walk from his home in the Delhi University campus: it was K.N. Raj, who was the head at DSE, and later Vice-Chancellor of the University. He had then been working on a research project on India’s agrarian economy, he showed me some draft chapters of a book on this, which I don’t think he ever published. Reading these chapters and interacting with him provided a great deal of inspiration for me in my subsequent work in the area. (Many years later I tried paying my tribute by co-editing a collection of essays in his honor). Among Indian economists, no one had a larger vision of the structure of the Indian economy, combined with a grasp of the micro features of its diverse aspects.

Raj was a pleasant, unassuming, but excitable man. As Vice-Chancellor he was often facing protests and harassments by the right-wing student groups and left-wing teachers’ union, and he used to narrate his daily troubles of the previous day to us at that early hour. His young son, Deenu, imitating the protesters, used to lead a march of neighborhood children shouting slogans like “Down, Down, Dr. Raj”, when he arrived home.