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A Creeping Distemper

Sham Lal's India is at the end of its tethers. His pungent humour hides frustrated hopes.

A Creeping Distemper
T. Narayan
A Creeping Distemper
Indian Realities In Bits And Pieces
By Sham Lal
Rupa Rs 395; Pages: 524
Sham Lal is a philosopher-journalist. He has spent a lifetime trying to read meaning into events in a bid to understand India. His insightful newspaper columns over many decades, Indian Realities is, as he himself admits, "in bits and pieces". In dissecting others' views, he offers his own.

Even if it is necessarily fragmented, the collection presents a live commentary on the shaping of India, a kaleidoscope of reflections on events, ideas and trends. Sham Lal is an observer, not an ideologue, a critic who mocks the certitudes of others, asks awkward questions and poses answers in order to provoke introspection, dialogue and debate. He does not tilt at windmills but sets about demolishing humbug with pungent humour without suggesting that his own views constitute the ultimate wisdom.

Yet one discerns a trace of pessimism, certainly, scepticism in Sham Lal's writings over the years. He speaks of India's "frustrated hopes" and laments in 1991 that the country is fast becoming ungovernable, whether because of systemic or leadership factors, in a setting marked by the rise of a rich peasant bourgeoisie. For him, the clash between tradition and modernity has further aggravated matters.

Four other developments have, in Sham Lal's judgement, complicated the management of change: population; rapid technological change; populism stirred by democratisation and adult franchise leading to hung parliaments and unstable coalitions; and, globalisation, which has brought with it external pulls and pressures.

Population growth has meant that the country, in Nehru's words, has to run fast merely in order to remain where it is and not slide back in per capita terms. India was in some ways always a globalised state until the advent of western dominance. Nevertheless, globalisation does pose challenges but also opportunities, some of which the country has been quick to harvest. Technological change has also enabled India to leapfrog while its own advances in many sectors of technology has greatly enhanced its capabilities in important ways.

It is on the issue of democracy and coalitions that the author and some of those whose works he reviews can be faulted. India uniquely and consciously adopted democracy as an instrument of social and economic change rather than as an end-product of such a process, as in the West. This has not been a weakness, rather a strength in the management of change and the transition from tradition to modernity. Central to this process has been the steady, even if slow, empowerment of the submerged undermass, representing the bulk of the immense diversity of India. It is this upthrust from below that has led to the apparent fragmentation of the polity with the empowerment of ever newer communities and identities to challenge the old established order.

This has given birth to seemingly upstart parties and leaders who question the hegemony of older elites and have written a new agenda for national development and social progress. In all the seeming anarchy and cacophony and jostling that has ensued, with its attendant appearance of ferment and instability, Indian democracy has actually taken deeper root. The internal and somewhat paternalistic coalitions of yesteryear, manifested in single party dominance, have given way to frank external coalitions that have been able to negotiate and implement programmes and reforms and actually impart a new dynamism to what was earlier a more traditional, semi-feudal society.

The emergence of revivalist forces which would reconstruct history to restore past glory, real or imagined, is being countered by a process of empowerment, access and articulation of those earlier excluded. Sham Lal is a moderniser at heart and gives short shrift to those who would impose any dogma and/or ideology on the nation. He rejects both Gandhi and Marx as "isms" and has little time for Hindutva, which he would not equate with "Indianness" as Mr Vajpayee does. He laments the growth of corruption, the decline in educational standards, the vapidity of the "post-literate" visual culture of "teledemocracy" and the rise of Hinglish in the absence of a proper language policy.

There is in Sham Lal's writing a sense of despair at too much government and too little governance and the creation of privileged enclaves in a setting of inequality. He would like to see more integrity and commitment to the general welfare. Maybe the answer lies not in aiming to ensure more equal incomes but equality of opportunity for all on the basis of minimum living standards. Perhaps he goes too far in describing India, at one point, as a nation at the end of its tether. It is more truly a nation still in the making and possibly now poised to make it a little faster.

Those who looked forward to Sham Lal's columns over the years miss them today. Indian Realities comes as some recompense, recalling good, thoughtful writing in tranquillity.

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