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Rajni Kothari (1928 – 2015) - Eminent Social Scientist and Democrat remembered

some tributes by scholars and from social movement bodies

27 January 2015

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[Posted below are tributes to Rajni Kothari by scholars Shiv Vishvanathan, Partha Chatterjee and Suhas Palshikar and by PUDR and NAPM]

The Hindu, January 21, 2015

A prophet abandoned by his own community

[by] Shiv Visvanathan

A tribute to political scientist extraordinaire and teacher, Rajni Kothari (1928 – 2015)

How does one talk of a man who defined a subject, determined its directions, was its dominating presence without a shade of pomposity or status. Rajni Kothari was clear about some of the subjects of his studies, irreverently and pragmatically certain that the Indian elite was knowledge-proof, that the only changes it would accept were pressures from below or by mimicking its colonial masters. Here was a man far ahead of his times, a futurist in perspective.

Today the tributes will flow and embalm the man. Dissenting imaginations are best sanitised lest they destroy the hypocrisy and the current clichés of the establishment. The obituaries will recite how he started election studies, how he set up the institute of Chinese Studies, founded journals like the Alternatives and the Lokayan Bulletin. They will dub him the author of Indian Political Science’s only durable classic — Politics in India. Oddly, Kothari was embarrassed by the longevity of the book and even tried to stall further publications but the book like many of Rajni’s inventions had a wonderful life of its own.

To me it was not just the inventiveness of the man that is important. It was the vision he brought to his work. Rajni’s enduring passion was his commitment to democracy, its sustainability, its creativity and its vulnerability. The sense of democracy was not an abstract one of formal definitions. He saw democracy as a way of life and wanted people to live it out and celebrate its everydayness.

As founder of CSDS

This is what impelled him to create that wonderful institution the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). CSDS was a community, a perpetual adda built around the gossip of democracy. Without this passion for democracy his many projects would have made little sense. They were mere pretexts for sustaining the texts of democracy which in a holistic sense went beyond elections, data analysis, governance and grassroots studies.

“Rajni’s enduring passion was his commitment to democracy, its sustainability, its creativity and its vulnerability”

Two things must be stated clearly, CSDS was a collage of friendships and Rajni invented many of his ideas along with his friends. He had an acute sense of the inventive and followed it up creatively. In that sense the idea often originally belonged to the others. Rajni’s idea of the Congress as a coalition of competing confusions was Gopal Krishna’s. The idea of Lokayan as a grass roots experiment belonged more to Ramashray Roy and D.L. Sheth. Rajni took it and transformed it.

As a commons of ideas, CSDS was extraordinary. For me, CSDS is that wonderful pack of quirky incorrigible scholars like Ashis Nandy, Basheer Ahmed, Sudhir Kakkar, Giri Deshingkar quarrelling over ideas at every lunch as if democracy was a hypothesis that had to be digested every day. No group had a greater passion for politics, its myths, its facts and its folklore.

The style, the theory, was as important as the substance. Neither CSDS nor Rajni will rest in peace if I do not resort to a few anecdotes.

I remember how he recruited me. Rajni was chairman of ICSSR and he had heard rumours about me as a rebellious and even problematic PhD student at the Delhi School of Economics. He dropped in one day for a casual chat and asked me to join CSDS. Some of my teachers warned him against it. And one of them even complained that I was a goonda, a gangster. Rajni smiled and said, “I need a few intellectual gangsters for my new project.” He had an easy charm that soothed opponents and part of it came from his acute ability to listen. If you insulted him, he listened intently almost as if you were wooing him.

Role during the Emergency

CSDS and Rajni became institutional legends during the Emergency. It was during that monstrous period that Centre became home for every dissenting imagination: George Fernandes, Romesh Thapar, Arun Shourie and Kuldip Nayar were frequent visitors. This hospitality to dissent seeded the creative style of the future where the Centre became home to critical studies, social movements and the search for alternative imaginations. The Centre, which glorified the Nehruvian era and the initial creativity of the Congress, now became Indira Gandhi’s fiercest and most obsessive critic. It became the hub of human rights movements, environmental struggles, and development battles that insisted that democracy had to reinvent itself beyond its electoral form. Civil society became the creative subject of study: a counter to the elitist preoccupation with the state and its development project.

The Left was the dominant intellectual imagination of the period. Rajni had no quarrel with the left, only with leftists who romanced with the state, infiltrating government committees as if they were party cells. Oddly, both the Left and the Right were obsessed with being legitimised by the state. During the infamous controversy involving History text books when ideologists went hysterical, Rajni observed quietly: “That both sides wanted the state to approve of their version of history”. This intellectual dependency on state approval of scholarship worried Rajni. Did truth need to be approved by power?

Rajni had a playful response to criticism. I remember when a Serbic Marxist wrote a critique of his work claiming that Kothari had forgotten to mention the word class. With easy equanimity Rajni replied that he had not mentioned cucumbers either. This ease was important because the period of the 1960s and the 1970s was dominated by a pompous left which treated Marxism with a form of idolatry. Rajni felt that Marxist critiques dealt more with the formal economy and had little place for marginal groups and the informal economy. Little protests did not acquire the officialdom of trade union struggles. The movements alone in the era, Chipko, Narmada, Balliapal and fishermen struggle in Kerala had to struggle with the official radicalism which refused to go beyond conventional categories. CSDS became an archive and a sounding board for many of these struggles which linked ecology, livelihood and empowerment to the still life of electoral democracy. Rajni had an easy way of pushing younger colleagues to stretch beyond themselves. I remember when the Bhopal gas disaster occurred. He looked at me and said, “Let’s see if your work on science helps. Pack up. You are leaving for Bhopal tomorrow.” When I began my work on science and violence, he sent me to Hiroshima requesting the Mayor to take me around the city. He believed that projects should begin as pilgrimages; he was always nudging us to see linkages and connectivities. He never lectured, and wanted us to discover and internalise and share our insights. For him mistakes were something precious one owned up to. He was a great teacher but always taught by anecdote and example.

I must confess that in the final decade, many of us moved away from the Centre and Rajni. Quarrels are important because they mark the contours of a relationship. One felt that the Centre was now imitating itself rather than inventing ideas. In spite of having moved on and all the distance I realised how much the Centre had taught me.

In his final years, Rajni Kothari was a lonely man — ill and broken by the death of his wife Hansa and son Smithu. In the meanwhile, political science had lost its flavour of dissent. It had become a game of think tanks and Rajni must have watched it with wry sadness, a prophet abandoned by his own community. But the future will no doubt celebrate the man.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist.)

o o o

The Telegraph - 26 January 2015

A homegrown liberal - Rajni Kothari (1928-2015)

[by] Partha Chatterjee

I first met Rajni Kothari in 1973 when, as a callow researcher with a recently secured doctorate, I went to Delhi looking for a job. He was in his office in what was then a single-storied bungalow on Rajpur Road that housed the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, known to academics as "Kothari’s institute". I knew Kothari from his book, Politics in India (1970), which I had used to teach a course on Indian politics at the American university where I had done my PhD. The prevailing orthodoxy at the time among American political scientists writing on what was called political development - that is to say, the politics of developing countries - was that the modernization of State institutions and laying the foundations of capitalist enterprise must come first; democracy could wait. The preference for authoritarian modernization was barely concealed in the writings of influential political scientists such as David Apter and Samuel Huntington. Although Kothari’s book appeared in an American series on Comparative Politics dominated by such views, his approach had struck me as significantly different.

He described the Indian political system as one of consensus-building, marked by a federal state structure as well as a federally organized ruling party. Even though the Congress party thoroughly dominated the system, it allowed for the articulation of a variety of contradictory interests within its own organization and had evolved democratic mechanisms for arriving at decisions that reflected a broad consensus.

Even though I had my reservations on what seemed to me Kothari’s overly optimistic consensual model of the Congress system, I was pleasantly surprised by his generosity in listening to my undoubtedly poorly formulated and perhaps dogmatic criticism of the entire history of Congress rule since Independence. He asked me, in the kindest of tones, a few searching questions on my plans for further research on Indian politics. I said something about working on modern Indian intellectual history. I doubt very much that what I said made much sense to him - justifiably so, since I did not then have too many sensible research ideas myself. He didn’t have a job to offer me but asked me to talk to Ashis Nandy who, he said, was a young man doing interesting new work. Nandy was not around. My first visit to CSDS came to a rather uneventful end.

Over the next few years, as I settled down to a life in Indian academia, I became acquainted with the wide range of Kothari’s writings. More importantly, I developed an enormous respect for his ability to build institutions and lead large projects of collaborative research. He had already established himself as the pioneer of election studies in India, building a team at CSDS that included D.L. Sheth, Bashiruddin Ahmed and Ramashray Roy - all major analysts of electoral behaviour - and starting the first data bank in India on electoral surveys that would in time grow into the Lokniti data unit - the most important resource today for deciphering the mysterious doings of the Indian voter. As part of this project, Kothari led a team of scholars who set out to study the phenomenon of caste in the evolving democratic politics of different states and regions. The volume he edited, Caste in Indian Politics (1973), still remains the most influential book ever published on the subject. In his introduction, Kothari argued that India’s electoral democracy had extracted caste from its traditional ritual and religious moorings and turned it into a modern and malleable form of mobilizing social and economic demands. This became a foundational formulation for all subsequent studies of caste as a political phenomenon.

In the early 1970s, Rajni Kothari was known to be close to the ruling establishment in New Delhi. He was involved in the founding of the Indian Council of Social Science Research as the premier funding body for social science research. He was regularly consulted in matters of planning and development. By 1974, however, it became clear to him that the Congress system he had described so meticulously was being systematically destroyed by the centralizing thrust of Indira Gandhi’s regime. A new group of Indira loyalists spouting fiery leftist rhetoric now began to attack Kothari for his allegedly bourgeois-liberal theories and American academic connections. I remember some of these virulent and sometimes abusive criticisms of Kothari that were published in the social science journals of the time. Despite my own pronounced Marxism, I found these diatribes shallow, irritating and, considering the deeply authoritarian strain that ran through much of their anti-imperialist and socialist verbiage, utterly insincere. Kothari’s disenchantment with the Indira regime led him and many of his CSDS colleagues to embrace Jayaprakash Narayan’s Navanirman movement, doubtless confirming every suspicion that his leftist critics held against him. CSDS came under a cloud and, in one of those arbitrary acts of petty retribution that characterized Emergency rule, its funding from the ICSSR was drastically slashed.

With the dramatic elections of 1977, however, the tables were turned. Kothari had had a hand in drafting the manifesto of the Janata Party. He now became a member of the Planning Commission and chairman of the ICSSR. Needless to say, in the academic world no less than in politics, the knives were out for those who were believed to have been close to the Emergency regime. But Kothari supervised the new dispensation at ICSSR in the most impartial and gracious manner imaginable. He even refused to restore the unfair cut in the ICSSR grant to CSDS, arguing that with him at the head of both bodies, the move would amount to an unacceptable conflict of interest. For those used to the goings-on in Indian cricket today, Kothari’s position might seem like something out of a fairy tale. CSDS had to wait for the end of Kothari’s term, and the coming of Sukhamoy Chakrabarty as the new chairman of ICSSR, before the anomaly could be rectified.

The 1980s marked a distinct turn in Kothari’s thinking. He set up Lokayan as a platform for the coming together of a whole range of new social movements and virtually became their mentor. He now argued passionately for the broadening of democratic participation by launching radical movements outside the rigid control of party organizations. He was at the forefront of the civil liberties movement, being a founding member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and was one of the authors of the historic report, Who Are the Guilty? that named the Congress politicians responsible for organizing the Delhi pogrom against Sikhs in 1984. It is during this phase of his life, from the late 1980s, that I met him a number of times and came to know something of the depth of his commitment to a life of the mind.

I discovered that Kothari had been born in 1928 in a wealthy Jain family of Gujarat. When, as a young man just out of college, he declared his intention to go to London for further studies, his uncle arranged for a visit to an astrologer who predicted that the young Rajni would never secure admission to a British university, and even if he did, would fail his exams. But Kothari defied the stars, secured a London degree, dissociated himself from the family business and, in 1953, took up the low-paid job of university lecturer in Baroda. Ten years later, he set up CSDS as a venue for creative and critical thinking. Perhaps as a protest against the domination of Indian social science by a pedestrian variety of economic technicians, he introduced the unwritten rule that CSDS would never employ an economist in its faculty.

Liberalism in India has a long history going back to the 19th century. But in its utilitarian, Gladstonian and Fabian phases, it always carried in both content and style the marks of its Western origin. It routinely repeated the doctrines of individual right and private property without seriously examining the conditions of their importation into a land with a completely different history of legal and political institutions, and quite slavishly imitated the formal practices of Westminster-style democracy or American capitalism, if necessary by keeping out of the hallways of power the unlettered and unwashed representatives of the native masses. Kothari had first-hand knowledge of both British and American liberalism. But he developed a liberal vocabulary and liberal practices that were of a sturdier vernacular make.

In his Memoirs (2002), he describes the intellectual circles of Baroda where he first encountered the rough and tumble of Indian political debate. It was characterized by a conversational style that could be combative, sometimes acerbic, but always patient, unhurried and generous. Every debate would be adjourned to the next day; no argument was ever finally clinched. Not for him the Powerpoint presentation with 15 slides in 15 minutes. His death, I feel, marks the end of an era in India’s intellectual life.

The writer is honorary professor, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, and professor at Columbia University

o o o

The Indian Express - 20 January 2015

Rajni Kothari, the political scientist of India

Written by Suhas Palshikar

It is not often that an academician has potentially something to offer for well over half a century. In the realm of political analysis, longevity is even rarer. It will therefore be a fitting tribute to Rajni Kothari if we note how his rather forgotten but oft-quoted political analysis resonates with our contemporary political moment — and how, by taking it forward, the enterprise called Indian politics could be better grasped.

Since last May, not a week goes by without reports about the resolve or lethargy of the Congress party to rise from the debris of its defeat. Analyses of the 2014 election were also marked by jubilation over the demise of caste — making way for “development-oriented” politics. Ever since the BJP rose to prominence in that election, the discipline of political science has been struggling to make sense of the development. Is Kothari’s political science helpful in resolving these puzzles?

Not that he explicitly answers all these puzzles. Some emerged only after Kothari ceased to be intellectually active due to age and illness; some failed to attract him since he chose to move away from analysing politics to critiquing it. And yet, if there was one Indian political scientist with some insight to offer on the contemporary political predicament, it was Kothari.

In a discipline short on theorisation and bold conceptualisation, this must be regarded as a Herculean contribution. And if India’s political science is still famished for analytical frameworks, it only shows the weakness of receptivity and creativity in the discipline.

Kothari is associated with the coinage of the term “Congress system”. Sure, he was talking of the Congress of the 1960s, but that analysis still throws light on the “un-Congress”-like politics that the Congress party steadfastly conducted for more than four decades thereafter. In one sense, that analysis implicitly posited that there is a model and a deviation, or an idea and the practice. (Kothari was critical enough of the practice to invite the wrath of the government, but he remain ed convinced about much of what constituted the idea called “Congress”.)

In the more than half-century since the formulation of the “Congress system” came into being, it is waiting to be decoded at the disaggregated level. We do not have accounts of how the Congress system evolved and dissolved in different states. For instance, what was the Congress system like in, say, West Bengal, and how that was different from Uttar Pradesh. If we had such accounts, we would have been in a better position to understand the demise of the party. Soon after Kothari’s Politics in India (1970) appeared, he moved on to become a critic of the new Congress that had emerged, and also a critic of the prevailing democratic theory. As important as this role was, the analysis of Indian politics lost a political scientist who had the capacity and inclination to engage with real-world political processes. With Kothari departing for a different zone of intellectual pursuit, political science in India conveniently forgot his analysis by iconising rather than expanding it.

The same thing happened in the case of Kothari’s analysis of the interaction between caste and politics. Here, Kothari refused to be cowed by the then dominant modernist tendency of looking upon caste, religion and the like as “pre-modern” factors, hindering modern, secular, democratic politics. Instead, he draws attention to the dynamic interaction between caste and politics, whereby caste becomes a political resource and, in the process, loses its traditional nature. The caste that we encounter in politics is thus different from caste as a hierarchy-based social formation that divides. It becomes a formation capable of uniting as much as dividing; and as post-Mandal developments have shown, of redefining itself.

Thus understood, caste does not become a hurdle in the process of democratisation. Instead, it becomes a factor — like many others — shaping the nature of democracy and political competition. In the process, caste also does not remain a permanent and assured explanatory factor of politics. Those who were surprised by the rise of caste-based politics in the 1990s and, again, those surprised by the decline in the salience of caste since 2009, have a lot to learn from the way castes entrench themselves through electoral competition and the political economy of the region in which they operate.

In his formulation of the Congress system, Kothari does not go to the state level; he confines himself to the grand narrative of the “all-India”. But in dealing with caste, he and his collaborators focus on the states. That focus helps explain region-specific expressions of entrenchment and possible frictions, as they existed in the late-1960s. The 1970 study of “Caste in Indian politics” thus frames the agenda for further study and it has been waiting to be revisited for over four decades now.

Since the BJP rode to power in 2014, we have been preoccupied with the question of whether this was a one-time stroke of luck coinciding with the rise of a new plebiscitary leader. In his famous formulation of the Congress system, Kothari presciently says: “..the question remains whether the new party… provides us with another consensus or is an expression of accumulated protest… which is likely to wither away after a short time in office.” This summary observation encompasses the possibility of analysis of the post-Congress polity since 1989. As Kothari suggests, that phase went through short-term eruptions of public disappointments. Have we finally reached a “new consensus”? That would be the single-most important intellectual agenda for political scientists for the coming decade in understanding the final collapse of the Congress.

But above all, Kothari’s analysis of Indian politics will be remembered for its deep engagement with democracy. This is evident in both his pre-1975 scholarship and his post-1980 introspections. What is common to both is a firm belief not only in something fuzzy called democracy, but also in our capacity as a society to chart a democratic path, as well as his confidence that India (or any other “new democracy”) does not have to adopt the received models of democracy because, just as American — or any other Western — democracy, with all its idiosyncrasies, is an instance of democracy, India’s democracy can also have its own trajectory, with all its deficits and faults.

It was with this confidence that Kothari dealt with the Congress system, not as an aberration but just another way of doing politics — and hence, “an interesting addition to the present typology of party systems”. This confidence was not about his formulation, but about India’s democratic politics being another normal way of conducting politics, rather than a queer animal in the zoo. Apart from the creativity of his conceptual formulations, this understated assertion about different expressions of democratic politics sets Kothari apart as India’s political scientist par excellence.

The writer teaches political science at the Savitribai Phule Pune University

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People’s Union for Democratic Rights

PUDR Salutes Prof. Rajni Kothari

People’s Union for Democratic Rights expresses its sincere condolences on the death of Professor Rajni Kothari, public intellectual, civil rights activist and institution builder. A leading intellectual, Prof. Rajni Kothari’s academic pursuits emerged from his democratic commitments and deep concern for the marginalised and deprived sections of society. Prof. Kothari was not satisfied with his personal contributions and successfully demonstrated the path to being an institution builder. He was instrumental in setting up the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies, Lokayan, amongst others.

As an activist he has made a valuable contribution to the civil rights movement in India as General Secretary and President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). PUDR remembers Prof. Kothari with fond gratitude for his readiness to commit PUCL to the joint responsibility, along with PUDR to publish “Who are the Guilty?” a report on the anti-Sikh massacre in Delhi in 1984. The decision demonstrated the courage of conviction, and the collaboration helped both organizations weather the storm brought upon them by the then ruling party Congress I, whose leaders had been named by survivors to be allegedly involved in instigating and leading mobs of rioters.

PUDR salutes the memory of Prof. Kothari and vows to keep striving to remain true to the democratic commitments his life represents.

Megha Bahl and Sharmila Purkayastha New Delhi, 23rd January 2015

(Secretaries, PUDR)

— -

[Statement by National Alliance of People’s Movements on January 20, 2015]

Prof. Rajni Kothari’s life and work will continue to guide and inspire People’s Movements

“People’s movements are based on deep stirrings of consciousness, of an awareness of crisis that could conceivably be turned into a catalyst of new opportunities. They are to be seen as attempts to open alternative political spaces outside the usual arenas of party and government though not outside the State, rather as new forms of organization and struggle meant to rejuvenate the State and to make it once again an instrument of liberation from exploitative structures which the underprivileged and the poor are trapped”- Rajni Kothari (Excerpts from the article ‘The Non-Party Political Process’)

20th January 2014, New Delhi: With lines quoted above, we remember Prof. Rajni Kothari as one of most influential public thinkers of our times who theorized the role of people’s movements in India and the third world and whose work continues to provide intellectual sustenance to the movements and the civil society at large. It is indeed a great loss to the people’s movements of India that Prof. Rajni Kothari is no more with us.

Combining academics and activism, merging research and action, uniting intellectual and political work, Prof. Kothari’s contribution to the realm of people’s movements has been immense. Further, his critiques to established development paradigm and political systems accelerated his quest for alternatives that operated outside the framework of mainstream politics and brought him even closer to the space of people’s movements. His direct involvement in the resistance against the Emergency and later through People’s Union of Civil Liberty (PUCL) as well as constant involvement with struggles for people’s rights and civil liberties over decades speak volumes about his committed activism. He was the first signatory to letter on Narmada issue to the then Prime Minister Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and since then, continued to be a pillar of support to various movements.

He was an inspiration and a mentor to generations of social scientists and activists alike. He founded CSDS and Lokayan, which are the premier platforms of research and interaction between intellectuals and activists respectively, and have been taking forward his belief that intellectuals must intervene in the political processes by linking critical ideas to political debates. His books and articles on themes such as politics, democracy, politicisation of caste, development, alternatives, have been guiding texts to understand and engage with the contemporary realities of India.

Through his tireless work as an ideologue, a scholar and an activist, he has left behind the legacy that attempts can indeed be made to produce a knowledge that goes beyond explaining the world to changing it. The National Alliance of People’s Movements pays a heartfelt tribute to Prof. Rajni Kothari, our saathi and our guide in the struggles for people’s rights, democracy and justice.

Medha Patkar - Narmada Bachao Andolan and the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM); Prafulla Samantara - Lok Shakti Abhiyan &Lingraj Azad – Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, NAPM, Odisha; Dr. Sunilam, Aradhna Bhargava - Kisan Sangharsh Samiti & Meera – Narmada Bachao Andolan, NAPM, MP; Suniti SR, Suhas Kolhekar, Prasad Bagwe - NAPM, Maharashtra; Gabriel Dietrich, Geetha Ramakrishnan – Unorganised Sector Workers Federation, NAPM, TN; C R Neelkandan – NAPM Kerala; P Chennaiah & Ramakrishnan Raju – NAPM Andhra Pradesh, Arundhati Dhuru, Richa Singh - NAPM, UP; Sister Celia - Domestic Workers Union &Rukmini V P, Garment Labour Union, NAPM, Karnataka; Vimal Bhai - Matu Jan sangathan & Jabar Singh, NAPM, Uttarakhand; Anand Mazgaonkar, Krishnakant - Paryavaran Suraksh Samiti, NAPM Gujarat; Kamayani Swami, Ashish Ranjan – Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan & Mahendra Yadav – Kosi Navnirman Manch, NAPM Bihar; Faisal Khan, Khudai Khidmatgar, NAPM Haryana; Kailash Meena, NAPM Rajasthan; Amitava Mitra & Sujato Bhadra, NAPM West Bengal; B S Rawat – Jan Sangharsh Vahini & Rajendra Ravi, Madhuresh Kumar and Kanika Sharma – NAPM, Delhi

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