One major component of modern Indian political thought is the critique of Western civilisation, first articulated by cultural nationalists, pre-eminently Dayananda, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. Rejecting the earlier notion that British rule was providential, serious questions have been raised pertaining to various aspects of Western civilisation.
In parallel, there have been arguments about Indian superiority in such aspects as spiritualism. This was couched in the assertion that ancient India had excelled even in natural sciences, a position that declined subsequently.
This relative autonomy of modern Indian political philosophy has continued even after Independence and is reflected in Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s (1916-68) philosophy of integral humanism. This is the official political philosophy of the Bharatiya Janata Party and in the centenary of Deen Dayal’s birth, the party is intent on popularising the same.
This is a calculated effort to distance the BJP from a vague commitment to Gandhian socialism to find solace in its own indigenous formulation developed during the Jan Sangh days. It was delivered by Deen Dayal in the form of four lectures in Mumbai during April 22-25, 1965. Beginning with the pre Independence political discourse he had mentioned the important roles played by Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1909) and Tilak’s Gita Rahasya (1915), to develop and conceptualise the ideal of an independent India, using significantly, the term Bharat instead of India.
This is akin to Gandhi’s use of swaraj instead of independence. Crediting his predecessors in the freedom movement, Deen Dayal lamented that even after 17 years of independence there was hardly any debate or clear direction about our roadmap towards progress.
As the Congress was an umbrella organisation with many ideologies coexisting together, it lacked a single focus. From Staunch Communists to believers in capitalism, who were totally opposed to Communism, were all represented in the Congress. “If there can be a magic box,” lamented Deen Dayal, “which contains a cobra and a mongoose living together, it is the Congress”. In the midst of such ideological confusion progress was practically impossible.
The chaotic nature of our politics was rooted in this ideological contradiction. Deen Dayal in his attempt to build a framework of consensual politics distinguished between the validity and utility of Western science, but rejected the Western way of life.
He rejected imitation and called for a serious dissection of the Western concepts of nationalism, democracy and socialism to understand our predicament and find a way out to solve our problems. Discounting the universal validity of Western ideologies, he emphasised the relationship of political ideologies to the factors of time and place. He mentioned the limitations of the Western concepts in comprehending our own complexities. Deen Dayal made a fundamental distinction between state and society. He emphasised the coexistence of a number of institutions both in state and in society. Rejecting the centrality of the state, like Tagore, he was focused on society as he comprehended the continuity of the Indian civilisation, marked by the predominance of dharma.
He rejected the imitation of the West and cautioned against glorification of the past. He advocated the need to cultivate a “sense of pride for our heritage”. He pleaded for a realistic assessment of the present to build the foundation for a more ambitious future. In his critique of Western civilisation, Deen Dayal was closer to Tagore than Gandhi. Again in his emphasis on the societal order, his views were similar to Tagore’s Swadeshi Samaj (1904). However, when he talked of synthesising and modernising tradition the imprint of the Mahatma was pretty obvious.
In his rejection of Western terminologies in constructing a political text, he was in a less comfortable position, as his emphasis was on modern political practices rather than the richness of the Western classical tradition which had answered most of his concerns and reservations about the West, one that was recognised by BC Pal. Similarly, his critique of Nehruvian socialism was superficial.
In his reckoning, Nehru lacked a clear vision; there was no attempt to understand socialism in the historical context of nation-building after Independence. In his critique of the Congress as an umbrella party, he ignored the fact that the oneparty domination, as described by Kothari, was both the imperative and the beauty of a nascent democracy. His articulation would have been on firmer ground had a parallel been drawn with the Meiji restoration.
However, it degenerated like Deng’s defence of a Communist party dictatorship, masquerading as dictatorship with Chinese characteristics. Moreover, the link between culture and democracy was a Weberian formulation and one that Huntington subsequently resurrected. Its limitations have been firmly established by the democracies in South Korea and Taiwan. Deen Dayal’s emphasis on identity was a rejection of multiculturalism; but his rejection of modern secularism as a basic ingredient of modern constitutionalism was both suspect and regressive.
Whether our secularism is similar or different from that of the West is a moot question, what is important is a balance between individual and minority rights and on this crucial question, his silence is worrisome. Deen Dayal was on firm ground when he rejected anti Congress-ism and Indira hatao, a position normally associated with Lohia.
But he totally ignored Ashoke Mehta who on the basis of compulsions of a developing economy developed a plausible argument for supporting the Congress at that time. However, he has to be applauded for advocating the emancipation of India’s backwardness through science and in evolving a consensual basis to our political debate.
His advocacy of Indianising Western idioms is again questionable as some of the basic precepts of modernity transcend all national barriers. This is the inherent lacuna in projecting India as a civilisational area which leads to a restrictive view of Indian nationalism as reflected in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy, one that he resurrects.
This incompleteness is the result of Deen Dayal not beginning with the universal premise of Erasmus with whom humanism begins. Incidentally, MN Roy’s materialistic humanism, more than Deen Dayal’s, captures the spirit of Erasmus.
While Deen Dayal identifies honesty to be a principle, the task is to make it a policy for which the beginning has to be made by reforming an overdeveloped state that is free of corruption, with a high level of human development indices, and adhering to a “world minimum” that Sakharov spoke of. For realising these concepts, his vision has little to offer.
(The writer is a retired Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi)