Friday, January 22, 2010

Our leaders on the Marx scale

Karl Marx summed up a complete philosophy when he coined the principle: “From each according to his ability”. A person’s worth must be measured by what he gives, or achieves, in proportion to his ability. When we use this yardstick, the legacy of our tallest leaders will fall into perspective.

After Indian communism accepted the parliamentary system for better or worse, it produced two pre-eminent leaders, Jyoti Basu and E.M.S. Namputhiripad, men of exemplary qualities respected for their intellectual calibre as much as for their political sagacity. Their influence within the party was unrivalled too. This combination of brain power and intra party clout gave them an ability level that was unique.

Were their achievements in proportion to that level of ability? Led by the best instincts, both saw land reform as a priority. Interestingly, the implementation was strongly influenced by textbook ideology, not the practicalities of life. Thus land reforms in both Kerala and West Bengal aimed at ending feudal landlordism. This was achieved. But in the process, no attention was paid to the critical issue of agricultural production. In Bengal regional imbalances developed and grassroots poverty levels remained unacceptably high. In Kerala agriculture generally collapsed and the state today is dependent on imported foodgrains and vegetables.

EMS and Jyoti Basu had a kind of supremacy that made them capable of reforming their party for the changing times. Deng Hsiao-ping did this with exemplary efficacy in China. Two fundamentals were introduced by him: Promotion within the party on the basis of meritocracy and limiting of terms for top power-holders including the President and the Prime Minister. If EMS and Jyoti Basu had used their influence to introduce similar reforms within the party, the story of Communist Power and the history of India itself would have been different. But they chose to let the party run to the ground as long as they themselves were left unchallenged in their heights.

The story is no different in other parties. What fabulous popularity Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed, with a parliamentary majority to back it up. He did introduce attitude-changing policies that helped modernise the country. But he paid no attention to a badly needed reform only he could have pushed through. This was in respect of the basic colonial infrastructure inherited from the British. The civil service and the police force had been consciously developed by Imperial Britain to act as masters and oppressors of the people. They remain exactly that half a century after independence. Nehru had both the ability and the opportunity to easily transform civil servants and policemen into what they are in civilised societies – friends and facilitators at the service of the people. It will not be easy now.

Indira Gandhi’s power and popularity reached dizzy heights in 1971 following the Bangladesh war. Yet, within four short years she took the country to its lowest-ever ebb with the Emergency. Rajiv Gandhi’s parliamentary majority reached a record 404 out of 533 in 1984. And he did start off promisingly with unprecedented forward movement in key areas like telecommunication. But when the crunch came he proved too weak to stop family and allies from manipulating the system for their private ends. The system devoured him.

Even A.B. Vajpayee chose to miss the bus. Both his instincts and his intellectual thinking told him that there were serious limitations to the politics of hatred in a country of India’s diversity. He even dared to speak up when all boundaries of democratic decencies were broken by his party colleagues in Gujarat. But he buried his better instincts and let evil prevail. He had the stature to save his party just as Jyoti Basu and EMS, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv had. None of them rose to the level of their abilities. The loss was not Karl Marx’s. It was India’s.