March 31, 2020
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Hibernating Idealism

The sly interplay between idealism and ideology keeps excess at bay. In these times of ‘total politics’ in India—characterised by a jam-spread of hatred that leaves isolated, targeted individuals meekly facing a gargantuan State—that healthy mutual vigil has been summarily suspended.

Hibernating Idealism
Photograph by Getty Images
Hibernating Idealism

Idealism and ideology come to us naturally, when we are young. Most of us do not have to struggle to acquire them; we are eased into them by our early life experiences and our ‘significant others’. As we pass through childhood and adolescence, we reconfigure the moral sensitivity that comes from identification with parents, peer groups, religious and political leaders, and from heroic figures we have read or heard about. Out of that emerges forms of idealism and ideology that we can call our own. Obviously, I am not talking here of the idealism associated with philosophical schools such as Neoplatonism or perennial philosophy in the West or Buddhism and Vedanta in the East, nor about ideology as defined by Karl Marx and Karl Mannheim. I am using the two concepts as they are used in everyday life and in political sociology and political psychology.

The base of idealism is laid once the child crosses the stage of conventional morality and is able to make increasingly complex, socially sensitive, moral choices. That change takes place mostly outside the range of the child’s awareness. It is part of normal child development that falls under the regime of what psychoanalysts call the superego and is part of what child psychologists Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg call normal moral development.


Bhagat Singh at a Lahore prison in 1927 with a CID officer

Politics dissolves idealism in the name of ideology, and subverts ideology in the name of political realism. As Deng Xiaoping said, “The West builds capitalism for capitalism. We build capitalism to build socialism.”

Attempts to find an ideology that demands long-term, personal commitment comes later, during adolescence. It can be a more self-conscious, intellectual search. One usually knows when one is looking for an appropriate ideology for personal use and can give reasons for one’s choice. But such reasons can be misleading. For, the choice can be shaped by deeper forces within one, to which one has no clue. An ideology can be a defensive manoeuvre to find certitudes, to keep at bay deeper uncertainties and insecurities; it can be constrained by the moral sensitivity and idealism one has grown up with. It can even be something as predictable as a disempowered, marginalised man opting for a hyper-masculine ideology to feel vicariou­sly powerful and potent.

Being a more self-conscious process, one can control one’s allegiance to an ideology. One can embrace an ideology with unbending passion or with some detachment, so as to use it as an instrument of political power, social status, academic respectability or even as a handy, post-facto self-justification for all kinds of Satanism—from organising or presiding over a full-fledged genocide to running a free-for-all kleptocracy.


Jayaprakash Narayan addressing a rally in Delhi’s Ramlila Ground in 1975

Photograph by HT

Ideology is also a time-tested way of discrediting idealism as an irresponsible, naive, romantic response to real-­life political and social issues. This is often so effective that many learn to package their idealism in the language of ideology to deflect damaging criticisms. If that does not work, you can deploy an ideology to discredit a troublesome idealism, however impressive or lofty, by calling it a hidden counter-ideology with a built-in political strategy. No wonder, many insist that, as adults, we should be able to rise above idealism and ideology and to use both in public life as political technologies at opportune moments.

However, there is also something in these two concepts that is intensely seductive, if not fatally attractive. Even those who lead an obscenely successful, high-cholesterol, calorie-counting life love to talk of fits of idealism and ideology through which they have passed. I have heard veteran politicians and successful business tycoons proudly saying how naive and idealistic they once were, till experience taught them to be tough, shrewd and cynical. Perhaps they want to convey that they too had an innocent, lovable, moral self, till they were forced to disown it to pursue a more realistic dream. Had he been young, G.D. Birla once said, he too would have joined the Naxalites.

Fortunately, those were not the days of UPA-II or BJP. Otherwise, Birla would have kept the company of the 6,000 villagers in Tamil Nadu, fighting cases of sedition slapped on them for opposing the building of a nuclear reactor in their village. Their leader Udayakumar, a peace researcher, has 101 cases against him. The villages are still trying to find out what sedition is and why, if the reactor is such a safe and beautiful thing, it cannot be built in pla­ces where the powerful and the rich stay.

Idealism and ideology are cousins. In normal times, they check each other’s excesses. But, these are not normal times in India. As in the Mahabharata, these cousins live in a dysfunctional family. They work toge­ther only when under attack from politics. The job of politics is to dissolve idealism, often in the name of ideology, and to subvert ideology, usually in the name of political realism. I can find no better example of this than a statement of Deng Xiaoping who, I am told, once claimed, “The West builds capitalism, for the sake of building capitalism. We build capitalism to build socialism.” Faced with a clash between ideology and idealism on the one side, and the politics of survival on the other, Deng was merely revealing his priorities as a practising politician.

In Indian public life, ‘doing politics’ has become a term of abuse. Yet, the ability and the freedom to do politics is the ultimate sign of life in a democracy. Democratic politics is not only the right to vote but also to organise and seek votes in the name of a party or movement of one’s choice. North Korea regularly holds elections and its dynastic rulers regularly win these elections, getting more than 90 per cent votes. Nobody has accused the country of being a democracy.

Democracies begin to die when normal, open interplay amongst idealism, ideology and open politics stops and ‘total politics’ takes over. Such politics has four components. First, everything is reduced to politics and politics intrudes into everything. Once, caste- and religion-based politics and dynastic politics were cases of primordial ties trespassing into democratic politics. Now they are part of normal politics. If you think they are parts of an unavoidable phase in a highly diverse, unequal society where political ideologies do not have much play, there is, for your enter­tainment, university politics (which subsumes student politics, politics of college admissions and appointment of teachers and vice-chancellors, and politics of curricula); politics of science and science-bureaucrats; politics of sports and cinema; and, cutting across some of these domains, awards politics (which was always seen as part of normal politics till it produced an unworthy progeny called politics of returning awards, which was quickly dubbed, officially, as nasty, anti-national, conspiratorial politics). Now, to this long list you could add a new, colourful entrant—the politics of post-retirement benefits.

In almost all such forms of politics, the key player has been the Indian state. Yet, no one has affirmed that the Indian state is getting overloaded. Not even the ones who spend sleepless nights on India’s overloaded judiciary; nor the ones who wonder why our terribly busy prime minister did not find time in two years to comment on the country’s newly popular sport—lynching.

Second, the technology of political warfare and poli­tical mobilisation has been changing dramatically in India in recent times. As populist rhetoric, clever use of media, esp­ecially social media, and smart sloganeering have acquired salience in political campaigns, we have failed to notice that our politicians have rediscovered an important truth, which clever demagogues and propaganda chiefs have always known: hatred goes much farther than positive sentiments in politics, particularly when you are trying to mobilise people or when the state faces a crisis of governance.

Their Line

Naxal leaders Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal

Photograph by HT

Hatred defines our enemies. And that definition is always sharper than that of our allies. That is why all nationalisms, especially if they are state-centric, tend to be hate-based. The only exceptions are those nationalisms that defy the conventional meaning of nationalism and use it as a synonym of patriotism, a much older word that refers to a natural human sentiment called territoriality. Unlike nationalism, it is not an ideology. It is easier to mobilise people against enemies than for friends; people usually know better what they hate than what they love. A dystopia can quickly produce a monolithic wall of public opinion deaf to all isolated voices of sanity.

Third, statist nationalism invariably seeks a one-to-one relationship with the individual citizen. It suspects all communities and has an instrumental view of all religions, sects, castes as well as other non-state actors—trade unions, NGOs, students’ unions, citizens’ movements and professional bodies—that can become an alternative means of mobilisation and alternative source of power. At least on this issue there now seems to be a perfect consensus among all political parties in an otherwise chaotic, bitterly divided polity.

Individual citizens, thus, increasin­gly face the state alone—with no autonomous institution, community or movement left to intervene between the two. The judiciary, one of the few checks on the state, tends to be inaccessible to ordinary citizens due to its cos­tly, time-consuming ways. And the various commissions supposed to protect the human rights of different sectors—minorities, women, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, the press—are often ineffective or, as in the case of vigilance, not in place. Over time, (1) the plurality of voices itself becomes a casualty of high-pitched, divisive politics; (2) the very existence of opposition in the polity is made to look like a conspiracy against the ruling regime and the nation-state and (3) the reigning cabal of decision-makers, small to begin with, shrinks further.

The new, post-normal life abolishes ‘normal’ to another realm. That realm is not Gandhi’s Ramrajya, which is a powerful critique of the present; but a Ramrajya that is complicit with the present and endorses it uncritically.

Fourth, the waves of what Ziauddin Sardar, philosopher and historian of science and of Islamic thought, calls post-normal times has already reached the shores of India. This requires, Sardar believes, a different set of beliefs, which even many well-meaning Indians will find difficult to gulp: “Post-normal times demand...that we abandon the ideas of ‘control and management’, and rethink the cherished notions of progress, modernisation and efficiency. The way forward must be based on virtues of humility, modesty and accountability, the indispensable requirement of living with uncertainty, complexity and ignorance. We will have to imagine ourselves out of post-normal times and into a new age of normalcy—with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations from the rich diversity of human cultures.”

If I may add a post-script to this challenging statement, we are talking of a post-normal culture of public life in which the idea of normality no longer applies to the present; it is exiled to the past, often distant past, or to the future, often an undefined future or a refurbished past-as-the-future. (This is not Gandhi’s Ramarajya, which is a powerful critique of the present; it is a version of Ramarajya that is complicit with the present and endorses it uncritically.)

The present, thus, has to be renegotiated through this dark reality and read as a transitory, doomed state of affairs waiting for a decent burial. In these times, ordinary decency, idealism of any kind, political sagacity and vision, even the distinctive spiritual contents of various religious faiths will have to survive in small oases-like locales.

As for the larger public sphere, unlike in the last days of the Roman Empire, which reportedly survived by ensuring its citizens a steady supply of ‘bread and circus’, Indians will have to be satisfied with an endless supply of ‘circus and circus’.

Ashis Nandy A political psychologist, he is one of India’s foremost philosophers

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