Politics is often discussed in negative terms by those outside politics, being outside power. The reasons are obvious to all decent persons. But what is not often stated by everyone of us, the decent persons, is that there is no life possible without politics, decent or dirty! Every society has to operate and operates only on some well-defined political philosophy. This basic realisation hasn’t been brought about by our leaders, in the past or at present. Nor by the mainstream media. Nor by the academic community.
Politics has always been a mix of good and bad. And every generation likes to look back and remember only the past leaders. Mr.Narasimha Rao is perhaps the quintessence of all that is good and bad in politics, as politics was always! If the media is now full of scandals and conspiracies, it is only a reflection of the growing public awareness of public life. All leaders always were men with clayfeet, they had their Achilles heels!
The latest New College Record, a periodic publication from my old Oxford College (founded in the year 1379) contained a number of obituaries of the Old Members. One was about my own beloved tutor in history and politics, James Joll. The names evokes warm memories of a bygone Oxford era, the years of the early Sixties, when Oxford was as its heights in certain intellectual disciplines, speciallyin philosophy.
And more to the point, my own College was very much at the centre of philosophical debate. I was lucky to be able to rub shoulders, as it was, with giants in this discipline. Prof. A.J.Ayer was in my college. For Indian readers, it must be mentioned that Ayer was the youngest philosopher who triggered off the most potent controversy with his book, Language, Truth and Logic, when he was still in his Twenties. The book still remains in print and makes excellent reading. I bought the copy, my first buy, as soon as I sighted the title behind a glass panel of a bookshop on Broad street. This I did even before I became aware of Ayer’s importance in Oxford philosophy.
It was after few months I started to look to him as an intellectual rebel. He was very much there, I used to see him every Monday morning when he would carry his baggage from his trip to London (where he was professor before he took up the Oxford chair) as my room was on the Northern Quad from which there was an entrance. It was later I started attending the special classes he would conduct for graduate students.
I did this after I became more interested in philosophy and politics than economics (in which I was supposed to take my degree). My philosophy tutor was another brilliant philosopher who was then Anthony Quinton (now Lord Quinton and head of an Oxford College). Quinton set my first essay question: what is certainty! He also gave me some passages to read, principally from Descartes. As I was already an M.A. from India I did what I was accustomed to.
I quoted in full all I wanted to say. In my very first tutorial (the most distinguished feature of Oxford education) Quinton listened patiently for what I read before him. Then he said : “I knew all the quotations you wrote already from the texts. Now, what you have got to say yourself?” That put me off completely! I had nothing to say myself. Will any Indian student be able to think for himself?
Anyway, the atmosphere in Oxford and in New College was particularly exciting. In the College itself there were brilliant minds. Prof.H.H.Price, teacher of Ayer, Ayer himself and Isaiah Berlin, the great intellectural who taught us political philosphy. There were many others. Oxford then and even now personifies in a way how intellectuals are taken seriously.
Now, coming to the obituary of my late tutor Prof.Joll, I have been reminded of what he wrote and what he taught us, the graduates, specially students like me, who were from developing countries. In my case it was an encounter and exchange of views as if between two equals.
I was already footed in my tradition and convictions by my Santiniketan education and in a way the old Congress traditions of fierce nationalism and patriotism,.
Once, after a brief visit to Ireland where I met the then President of the Republic, the great revolutionary-turned nationa builder, Eamon de Valera, I returned to my tutorial one day and met Prof.Joll. I told my tutor in a strong language about my disappointment with the British hypocrisy against India and Ireland. We were taught till then about British history, institutions and the history of Britain’s policy towards India and Ireland as if they were high-minded imperial policy.
There was this “goody-goodness” in teaching and learning about British history and politics in general. After my initial outburst I found Joll almost perspiring and dumbfounded. But here was this rare quality of Joll. He smilingly conceded all my criticisms. I recall his words to this day. He said : “Yes, Murti, yes you are right. We have been patiently wrong towards Ireland and even in India. there have been many blunders of policy and the Irish people paid dearly….”
I also remember Joll calling me one dya to tell me that he came just from a seminar on India and in which Jayaprakash Narayan, Arthur Koestler, F.Schumachar and others participated. He asked me many pointed questions about JP and informed me that he was composing a book on anarchists in politics and JP was a test case for him. I came to know of Joll’s other books and interests and got to learn much from his tutorials. The obituary fully brings out Joll’s contribution to scholarship and particularly his book, Intellectuals in Politics (1960) brings out his interest and concern with ideas and people. The essay on Leon Blum, the intellectual turned statesman of France has many lessons for other intellectuals entering politics. Says Joll ; “An intellectual in a country where to be an intellectual is a title of praise” found, in the case of Blum, that politics is an area where disinterestedness padi and also didn’t pay in terms of “success” in politics. The point with Blum was he struggled hard to reform france and he preserved the life of intellectual and the moral standards of his earlier years in the hurly-burly of political life. Joll developed an idea, even a thesis of sorts after his study of the life career of Leon Blum’s and his social government in the war years. The thesis is : “men are moulded by assumptions.” which they develop early in their careers and their decisions are to be understood in the light of those assumption”. He further said : “It is only by studying the minds of men that we shall understand the causes of anything.”
Joll later moved out to London School of Economics where he was professor of International History. I spoke to him once while in London and we talked about our past days and the developments since we last met. He was also gracious enough to write an appreciative review of my book on my Oxford years. Joll helped me to understand history and politics, the English mind and in a way the mind of Europe on which he wrote objectivley without any preconceived notions of European greatness vis-a-vis other nations. Back in India, I myself underwent much mental change to translate my ideas and idealism in practical life and in practical politics. I have come a long way since then. Politics and public life in India has changed beyond recognition, beyond some rationally explainable fashion.
Every year we see journals like the Time for instance, bring out younger men and women, in the age group 30-35, who concern themselves with activities that show which the world even now is not without serious minded youngsters. As I relate myself, though I should consider myself as belonging to a much senior age group and as such concerned with more worldly wisdom, after having seen men and women of my own generation, I should confess some cynicism about human nature.
I have worked closely with men of achievement. Kamaraj and other senior Congress leaders were my guides and even allies. I aligned with the radical Congress leaders, also, the socialists, and my political and public life took me nearer regional leaders like C.N.Annadurai, M.G.Ramachandran and others. My own education and intellectual pursuits took me closer to a long line of Communists. There was a time friends and even “enemies (in practical politics you have to learn to live with detractors and I faced the fury of this lunatic fringe) were used to be surprised to find me in the company of leaders and thinkers belonging to diverse political ideologies, Communists and even the DMK men interacted with me closely.
I have always believed I could forge links with intellectually inclined politicians. But alas! After Indira Gandhi came to power, the whole process got turned upside down. After Sanjay, the scene became bizarre. While Rajiv Gandhi promised to bring back some medicum of modernity of politics, it was a misnomer for cronyism.
Intellectuals must be realists if one is to keep one’s sanity in politics. Intellectuals are not often moralists. So, politics needn’t be an arena for moral battles. It is more a question of organising the lives of people onsome enlightened compromises. The role for intellectuals in politics is as old as Plato. The grim warnings of political moralities, at last reach the poor masses. It is through arousing mass psychology and mass consciousness that intellectuals succeeded in bringing new paradigms in politics. The last such great instance in India is as recent as in 1989.
I had tried to reach out to some `pillars’ of democratic society to build my political platform. Partially I succeeded, but in a major way, at the local and national level, I haven’t. Analysing the experiences I went through has been a great intellectual exercise. I was keenly aware of the power of the media and I myself founded one or two small magazines in English and Tamil. This media power enabled me to win a keenly contested election from the prestigious Graduates Constituency to the Tamil Nadu legislative Council. This victory astounded at that time even Kamaraj and also C.N.Annadurai, the former’s first victory after his own and the Congress party’s defeat. For the latter, it was his first “defeat” after the astounding victory for his DMK in 1967.
I then built up a constituency among the teachers to give a modern ideological orientation for a progressive, liberal type of politics. But alas, the teachers became a sectarian element. I wanted to reach out to the masses. This came to me through my direct participation in the farmers’ agitations which in Tamil Nadu took a mass turn. This is an experience that gave me some insights about how the mass could be mobilised.
In my own way I had a large university-level academic community, of friends, scholars/scientists interacting with me in my publishing and media activities. This community, though still a relevant factor in my outlook, however, is moribund force. The media power still holds promise and I look to this force to bring about healthy change. Even extreme direct political action I don’t rule out in democratic politics, for in some situations only extremisms leads to change.
The lesson is: politics is not for the faint hearted. Nor politics is for absolute morals or truths. Politics is power and unless you are ready to `grab’ it, it `ditches’ you!
Political parties and even remaining a member of a political party is a honorouable thing at all times. There is an uncritical public view that politics is dirty and no decent person will associate with it. In all countries, this is being said. This is true and not true. But then at all critical moments in our own life and in the life of the country it is to politicians we turn. We have to! So, then why leave politics to dirty men? Be part of a process of change. This is the message we have to get across all classes of people, specially the young boys and girls of today.
In election time, some extra effort will make some difference. In fact, those who have some time and money or connections must offer themselves as independent candidates so that the voters are given some talking points. Some comparisons can be made with the “good” and “bad” candidates! An appreciation for politics is what I am trying to do these days through media and by various ways setting a personal example.