AN OXFORD TRIAL: MARXMEN Vs RAJIV GANDHI

[This piece was written by Salman Khurshid at Trinity College, where he was Lecturer in Law, on the eve of Rajiv Gandhi's election to Parliament in 1980. Since then he has returned to practice at the Supreme Court of India. Some of the persons portrayed in the piece too are back at important jobs in the public and private sector while some others are working in international organizations.]

You defended your position admirably. I hope you did not take our criticism personally. An unmistakable Indian commentary and Indian sentiment on an Indian occasion in Oxford about an event in India. The immediate vehicle was a polite note acknowledging my hospitality the previous evening in my rooms at Trinity College to a group of lively and motivated Indian students and an incongruous economics professor visiting Oxford. I dislike the word motivated because it reminds me of a psychopath or an automobile (the propensity to kill or demolish being shared by the two). However, what else can one call a group of young Indians who give up a beautiful summer evening to discuss the advent of one Rajiv Gandhi', a pilot by training. I add that phrase in the hope that it may mean something to the reader. Something that I missed each time it was repeated during the discussion as though losing it would amount to losing one's intellectual bearings.

It all started with an innocuous proposal to discuss the future of Indian politics (as though there was not enough in its present) in view of Rajiv Gandhi's Amethi expedition. Discussion and debate are a typical Oxford exercise apart from printing so I offered my rooms. Fifteen young men and women turned up. That was quite remarkable considering the usual attendance at official seminars on Indian politics. Of these some were the silent type though not necessarily with any strength. These are the sort, who do not shake off the habit of being followers even at Oxford. Others spoke with great conviction though not always with matching substance. I shall proceed to give them names that are more interesting than their real names. Most articulate and self-assured of them was the Professor. But then a Chair can easily lead a comfortable postures to reassure the rest of a man's personality. I shall call him the Prophet (of Doom, needless to say!). Close on his heels (in more ways than one) came Telescope, meticulous to the world, who saw so much so far in Indian politics that he could not trust his memory alone and produced a laboriously compiled dossier. A Merit turned out to be of the other (in olden days, gentler) sex and as things turned out, was the prompt author of the sympathetic thank you note. Prism took upon himself to battle against any monochromatic perceptions and preferred to share everything said by everyone. That did cause great irritation to the aforementioned persons but most of all to Shadow who followed them faithfully. Knowledge surprised himself more than others at the vast blanks he had in his world view. Most of them as their vocabulary suggested were of extreme left wing persuasions. But as I discovered not mere communists. I shall therefore call them Marxmen. Finally, of course, there was the unsuspecting your truly, the Devil's advocate (for who else needs to defend his position?).

So much about the people. Now to their pursuit that evening. The opening salvo was fired by Telescope. He was so depressed and pessimistic about India's future that he proposed that I start with my message of misplaced hope. I tried the easy opening “ Rajiv Gandhi as an Indian citizen was like any other candidate. This was said with all appropriate somberness of people discussing constitutional law in India. Unhappily that did not take us very far. The Marxmen thought the matter was rather complex and my attempt was a reductionist insult to their perceptions. Rajiv Gandhi was more (much more) than an ordinary candidate. Wasn't that why we were foregoing the pleasures of a summer evening to discuss him. But I was further informed that he was but a symbol and his importance stopped right there in my room. In India what really mattered was materialistic dialecticism or was it dialectic materialism. Ironical that, for Rajiv was not even in my room, though there was an ample presence of the competing matter.

Be that as it may, important or insignificant, Rajiv Gandhi had to face up to the allegation of dynasticism. Since, his own thought on the subject had not been made public, and not being an addict of dynasticism myself, I thought that would be the tricky one to tackle. With patience that surprised my corpuscles I explained the basic tenets of democracy that perhaps due to their simplistic nature had or become obscured in the esoteric world of gypsy scholars. The proposition I posed was simple “ people of Amethi had to choose. If they wanted Rajiv Gandhi, so be it. Prophet and Telescope thought that was highly undemocratic. Telescope mumbled something about media management to which I retorted that there was sufficient scope for counter-management. Prophet was not to be tricked into shabby marginal arguments and proceeded to question the very notion of choice in Amethi, Delhi, Jhumri Taliya or any other place. He explained with the help of an idiots guide and some regressions that a choice is not what it seems to be. Of course, he did not appreciate my paraphrasing the predicament thus: so the one who loses is actually the winner. Prophet took a deep breath and proclaimed that there was no democracy in India because to him democracy meant something else. I sensed at that stage that Amethi could not hope to contain us. I was asked to consider China's example. Which year? I replied. I was sternly told not to dwell on mistakes that revolutionaries made but to submit to the superiority of the dialectic methodology. Alright, cultural revolution might have gone awry but what is so sacrosanct about the coke revolution? Where else is one to look for examples of noble revolution “ the slaughter houses of Kampuchea, the collective farms and psychiatric waves of Russia, the streets of Poland or the mountains of Afghanistan? The Prophet remained unperturbed “ there were alternative explanations for all that. My middle class morality did not allow me to see them. But predictably there was only one explanation for poverty in India “ the elites' constant preoccupation with self-perpetuation. Rajiv Gandhi was the latest ploy.

Time for a slight diversion, I thought. Granted that there is a political elite and economic oppressive class in India. And that Rajiv Gandhi was born into that elite. Why not submit that elite structure to some degree of meritocracy. Amethi is not merit replied none other than AMerit. Was A Merit sitting in Oxford because of sheer merit or her own ability to utilize the elite system to her advantage. On unqualified merit of course. I suggested that the presence of 10 Stephanians in that room pointed to something different. Just think, 690 million Indians and when 15 of them sit in an Oxford room to discuss Rajiv Gandhi, 10 are from a red-brick structure in Delhi. Rest are from a handful of similar institutions in metropolitan India. I found that staggering. A Merit was quite amazed at my naivette. Prophet remained silent as a sphynx, unable to produce a Marxian maxim that would salvage the conscience of a Stephanian. But his intellectual cache was far from exhausted. Where has the present system got us in 30 years?, he enquired with a feline look of a inquisioner. Where should we have got to in 30 years?, I retreated in great earnestness. Nothing was said (perhaps in disbelief) but I gathered we should have been anywhere but where we were. The purposeless alternative syndrome is difficult to question. Somehow Prism acted with transparent revolutionary zeal as the light began to fade, both outside the windows and in the discussion. He refocused on the Congress Party and with a preemptory air announced that Mrs. Gandhi was a third rater and therefore she surrounded herself with third raters. But why shouldn't she, he added with sarcasm. She wanted mirrors, not prisms. This was said with a sense of personal tragedy and we all felt sorry irrespective of our political persuasions. He did not attempt to rate Rajiv Gandhi. Perhaps that required greater reflection. But he did make a devastating observation to the Marxmen: Are you blaming Mrs. Gandhi or the people of India?" Whose side is he on, I thought? Telescope burst into a booming of storm of hollow to describe the Congress Party. Hollow because it had no support. Because it would collapse after Mrs. Gandhi. Then why worry about Rajiv Gandhi, I wondered. Because he would provide the symbol to keep it together. That is a head-spin if ever there was one. I ventured to suggest that Mrs. Gandhi had only one super performance (of 1971) when she went to the 1980 polls. There was the Congress (U) as an alternative if people were fed up with the Janata jam. Clearly by reverting to Mrs. Gandhi the people of India had indicated a clear preference. I thought the Telescope was being ever so slightly myopic. But of course all this could well be elite window dressing. After all, who does not know how much Justice Shah admired Mrs. Gandhi! The hostility towards me was beginning to turn to an uncomfortable complexion of sympathy. That I did not want. So when I was asked whether India was to have the future of Maruti Cars Ltd. I paused theatrically and said Biscuits. Prophet took that to be a ¦ attempt to associate him with right wing fanatics like Jyoti Basu and classified that Jyoti Basu was another elite wolf in sheep's clothing. That did take the breath out my lungs. Had I been shadow boxing a spirit? Speaking of spirits, the sherry and juice had been drained by now. The trial seemed over with the obvious in conclusion of any trial without a judge. The parting shot must perhaps find a place in the record. One of the Marxmen put his arm around me and said that he was glad I believed what I had said (Why didn't he?). Another said he wished (Did he?) Rajiv Gandhi well. On the other hand if Rajiv Gandhi won, it would not mean anything. However, if he lost, we could celebrate democracy. Knowledge came last, nodded gravely and said he was amazed to hear that Rajiv Gandhi was a "good guy, a Cambridge man and even came close to threatening his class aspirations. Why was he interested in politics then? I smiled benevolently hoping that knowledge had slept well in his corner. Impact, who had made very little of himself inquired why the ¦ did I waste my time on these jackasses. Democracy, I said. And a little bit of the summer madness. SALMAN KHURSHID

TRINITY COLLEGE OXFORD

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