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The BJP Dreamland

by Jean Drèze, 28 April 2009

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“No nation can chart out its domestic or foreign policies unless it has a clear understanding about itself, its history, its strengths and failings.” Jawaharlal Nehru could not have put it better. The author of this noble statement, however, is none other than Murli Manohar Joshi, in his preamble to the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), signed by him as Chairman of the Manifesto Committee.

Ironically, this statement is at odds with the preamble itself, which peddles a series of myths (of the “India Shining” variety) about Indian history and civilization. According to this preamble, India used to be “a land of great wealth and even greater wisdom”. It was not only the most fertile land but also far ahead of other countries “in the technical and educational fields”, with “a well organized health care system” as early as 400 AD. Even “plastic surgery” has been “practiced for centuries” in India according to Mr. Joshi. These achievements had their roots in the “Bharatiya or Hindu world view” of ancient sages and Vedic Rishis.

Interestingly, the evidence given for these feats does not consist of Indian historical records. Instead, Mr. Joshi invokes scattered testimonies of foreign travellers, including some rather unreliable ones such as Megasthenes, whose account of India was embellished with stories of dog-headed giants and other fantastic creatures. The testimonies are highly selective, and, in some cases, grossly distorted. A few illustrations may help.

Mr. Joshi describes pre-colonial India as a “land of abundance”, with an “economy as flourishing as its agriculture”. Hunger and famines, in his perception, were obviously unknown in that period. But the fact is that famines have a long history in India. They are mentioned in the Jatakas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Arthasashtra, and Manu’s Dharmashastra, among other ancient texts. As historian Romila Thapar notes: “Famine was common and is mentioned in Indian texts. We do not have to go looking for certificates of merit from foreign visitors.”

In a similar vein, Mr. Joshi states that Gandhi was “absolutely right in saying that India was more illiterate in 1931 [than] in 1870”. The fact, however, is that Gandhi was wrong on this. We know that from Census data. Perhaps Mr. Joshi considers Gandhi as a more authoritative source than the Census. But Gandhi, for all his wisdom, was not infallible, and this is not the only occasion when he was carried away. Elsewhere he touchingly described “the Indian shepherd” as “a finely built man of Herculean constitution”, at a time when the vast majority of the Indian population was wasted and stunted, with a life expectancy of less than 30 years. His hasty comment on literacy belongs to the same genre – wishful thinking.

The most insidious part of the BJP Manifesto’s preamble is a fake quote attributed to Thomas Babington Macaulay. According to Mr. Joshi: “India’s prosperity, its talents and the state of its high moral society can be best understood by what Thomas Babington Macaulay stated in his speech of February 02, 1835, in the British Parliament. ‘I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief, such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such high caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage…”

This “quote” (abridged here) is a wonderful prop for Mr. Joshi’s arguments. But there is a catch – Macaulay never said this. The quote is a well-known fabrication, which has been the subject of many comments and articles. This does not prevent it from being publicized on numerous Hindutva websites. On a dissenting note, one of these websites (www.dandavats.com, dedicated to the cause of ISKCON) advises against using this quote, as it “has a bad reputation amongst scholars of Indology who generally ridicule it”. Mr. Joshi is evidently not among these “scholars of Indology”, despite his emphasis on the need for the nation to “understand itself”. Incidentally, Macaulay was in India on 2 February 1835, making it rather unlikely that he would have addressed the British Parliament that day.

Hopefully, these examples suffice to show that the BJP Manifesto’s preamble is an exercise in obfuscation. As it happens, large portions of this preamble were posted the same day on Wikipedia, in the entry on “Indian culture”. Perhaps a well-wisher thought that inserting this gem in Wikipedia would add credibility to Mr. Joshi’s propaganda. Be that as it may, this entire portion of the “Indian culture” entry was removed from the Wikipedia website a few days later.

Behind this fairy tale are useful insights into the psychology of Hindutva leaders and the political strategy of the BJP. The dominant theme of Mr. Joshi’s preamble is the hurt pride of the higher castes (or “of India” as he calls it). Humiliated by foreign dominance in so many fields today, their coping strategy is to claim that “we were actually ahead all along”. Their agenda is to restore India’s lost glory as they perceive it. This lost glory is nothing but the traditional, exploitative social order dominated by them. Over the centuries, this domination has been achieved partly through force, and partly through deception. The BJP Manifesto’s preamble continues this tradition of “deceive and rule”.

[A different version of the above paper under the title "Interpretation of Dreams" appeared in The Times of India, 28 April 2009]