3 years


The Death of Ideology

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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Why is it that since 1992, despite umpteen changes of government in India and several different Prime Ministers of every ilk—left, right and centre—it feels as if we have had the same government in power for 17 years?
i.de.ol.o.gy | a system of ideas and ideals, esp. one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy

Our parties exist from a fear of theory. The voter fears that one idea can always be contradicted by another. Therefore, the parties reciprocally defend themselves against the few old ideas they have inherited. They don’t live from what they have promised, but from frustrating the promises of the others. This is their silent community of interest. They call this mutual interference, which permits the realization of only small practical goals, Realpolitik. None of them really knows where it would lead if people actually took (these ideas) seriously… But, since these ideas are never actually put into practice, the parties give these ideologies the illusion of meaning and sacredness…

If we look around, it is not difficult to find our image in these words, even though they were written by the central European writer Robert Musil in 1913. We have just spent days, even weeks, arguing about MA Jinnah as if the debate really has any meaning beyond the entertainment it provides. But does it? Jinnah is a smoke-screen being used to settle personal scores within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For proof of the ideological irrelevance of this debate, ask yourself if it is possible to tell the difference in the Indian attitude to Pakistan when the BJP, as opposed to the Congress, is in power.

The BJP, though, is not the only party saddled with the burden of inherited ideas. Prakash Karat and his men have been set back in West Bengal and Kerala, and they are likely to concede more ground. In neither state has the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) been able to deal in ideas. The only place Karat talks ideology is where he has no stake, New Delhi. In Musil’s words, which ring true for both the BJP and Left, it is precisely because they know others will frustrate them from putting their ideas into practice that the parties give these ideologies the illusion of meaning and sacredness.


Leave these two parties to the meaninglessness of their ideologies, and consider the rest of the Indian political spectrum. The truth is we have moved beyond ideology. This started as a requirement of coalition politics and is now taking on a life of its own.

Why is it that since 1992, despite umpteen changes of government in India and several different Prime Ministers of every ilk—left, right and centre—it feels as if we have had the same government in power for 17 years?

To quote Musil again, ‘Now and then a hurricane comes along and all the ministers immediately fall like practiced gymnasts, but the storm is calmed, and their successors arrange themselves in precisely the same positions, with minor changes that may satisfy the experts but must remain incomprehensible to outsiders.’

Consider the Prime Ministers we have had over these years—PV Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. Isn’t there something in common among these old men? Their long experience of public life comes with the ability to see beyond black and white. Some who rush to judgement would term their ideological flexibility ‘hypocrisy’, but a better word in our times is ‘pragmatism’.


The Indian general election of 2009 was many things, but among others it also heralded an end to ideology. Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav have been marginalised—the old consensus that drove their politics has broken down, the road that led from Ram Manohar Lohia to Mandal today leads nowhere.

Down south, the Dravidian movement has ended up as an absurdity. The legacy of Periyar and his atheism has led either to the temple hopping of Jayalalithaa, or potentially to the leadership of a man named after one of history’s most efficient mass-murderers—Stalin.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Telangana movement has led to the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) and the buying and selling of election tickets. In these two states, the most important factors in the recent election were the film stars Chiranjeevi and Vijaykanth. I have scanned YouTube and looked through every printed interview of theirs. In all that they have said, I can’t find the germ of an idea, leave alone an ideology.

In the north, the Akali Dal’s opposition to dynastic rule that began with a protest against the hereditary control of gurdwaras has ended with Sukhbir Badal, son of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. What’s more, their claim of speaking for minorities has led them to an alliance with the BJP. And, really, does it make sense to search for ideology among descendants of the Lals of Haryana?

At the risk of overkill, let us just finish with the list. Naveen Patnaik and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), ideology—none; Sharad Pawar and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)—need one repeat they were a party formed to oppose the leadership of a person of foreign birth; the Shiv Sena has gone from Tamil bashing to picking on immigrants from Bihar, and is now being rent asunder, one half seeking help from the Congress and the other from the BJP.

This leaves Mayawati, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister who has cast the Dalit heroes Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram in stone in the new colonnades of Lucknow. Does she and her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) not represent an ideology? Well, how exactly does her term as CM differ from Mulayam Singh Yadav’s in power? She may wield electoral power, but she is actually the fag end of a vibrant idea. In her search for power, she has opted for the politically expedient—yet another word for pragmatism.


If we go beyond the spectrum of Parliamentary politics, then on the far left are the Naxals, and on the far right the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its allied formations. One speaks of ‘cultural nationalism’, inspired by an atheist named Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the other of ‘revolution’ inspired by an atheist named Karl Marx. Forget the rights and wrongs of either, that is a separate argument, what is true is that these movements were nurtured by men drawn from the educated middle-class. Today, both face the same crisis—they can find no new recruits from this very class. They lack recruits who can go on to lead these organisations. It has become clear that their ideas have no takers.

The attachment to a cause that led many to leave behind college or a career to join the Naxals or RSS was also evident in another stream of Indian thought that has now disappeared—the Gandhian movement. The true inheritors of Gandhi lay outside the political sphere, men such Vinoba Bhave, Baba Amte and then the grassroots environmental movement led by people such as Sunderlal Bahuguna and Medha Patkar. It is no coincidence that these are names of the ageing or the dead. No new faces are emerging.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) was the last such movement. Those of us who were in college in the 1980s can still recall contemporaries who left their studies to join the movement, much as a generation ago many had gone to become Naxalites. Today, the idea would be laughable. The Gandhian movement has given way to NGOs, mirroring the transition from ideology to pragmatism that we observed in our politics.

In a real measure, this transition is exemplified by the manner in which the outside world now sees the Narmada movement embodied in Arundhati Roy rather than Medha Patkar, though the latter has spent half a lifetime in the valley while the former has been there on and off for maybe a week at a time. Ideology has as much to be lived as professed, and in that sense let us call Arundhati a pragmatist in much the same way our politicians are, for what else is the meaning of a cry against the ‘State’ uttered from Jor Bagh in the heart of New Delhi?

What is true of Arundhati is true of the new world of NGOs, and it is no surprise that it is among them that she finds her most fervent fans. The students who would have once wandered off to the Narmada Valley to work with the NBA or to Dandakaranya to join the Naxals, work for NGOs today. It would bewilder them if someone were to suggest that ideologies have to be lived to imbue them with meaning. In their world, there is no contradiction in driving an electric car, which through attention to details such as body paint and well-finished interiors has already taken a toll on the environment, when the Gandhian answer would be to walk or take a bus. But if I pay more attention to NGOs, it is only to make the case that there are no refuges left for ideology.

The pretence of ideology in the NGO world is actually a manifestation of the same pragmatism that drives our politics, allowing people to live with contradictions.


It was not always so. After all, there was a Gandhian movement. There was the rise of the BJP and BSP. These were all products of ideologies and unfolded not all that long ago. So how did we get here? Musil noted that parties fear theories because of the reaction of voters. Somewhere along the way, we as voters have changed. The answer lies in two events that took place almost simultaneously for us—the economic liberalisation process that began in 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union.

It is easy to see how this applies to the NGO world and Arundhati Roy. Without globalisation, there is neither Greenpeace nor the host of funding agencies that enabled the transition from the Gandhian to the NGO world, and without the Booker Prize there is no phenomenon called Arundhati Roy. The critics of globalisation are as much its children as those they decry, hence their pragmatism.

As for the larger question, it has taken this much time since 1991 for the post-liberalisation generations to come to the fore. They encapsulate the new pragmatism. For them, the world is not divided into left or right.

Our politicians are only trying to cope, their pragmatism born of the demands of the electorate. Let us also not make the mistake of considering this a purely urban phenomenon. With liberalisation we have also seen the birth and expansion of mass media, and aspirations everywhere in the country have changed in its wake. Not for nothing does the driver in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger seek to murder his way to success without letting inherited ideas stand in his way.

In this context, it should not be surprising that Musil’s words echo in our times; he wrote them in 1913 towards the end of the first wave of globalisation in the world that began in the 1870s and was brought to an end by World War I. It took several decades after World War II right until the fall of the Soviet Union for those conditions to be replicated.


This globalisation is now forcing us to grapple with a phenomenon the West came to terms with a decade earlier, what has since been called the ‘third way’, neither left nor right. In economics, it goes beyond socialism or neo-liberalism, with government pragmatically intervening but not controlling the economy. The men who have come to embody this politics without ideology in the West are Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and now Barack Obama. It is no surprise that it is not possible to slot any of them into ideological boxes. Tony Blair termed his approach to the third way ‘permanent revisionism’ and his New Labour took pride in the slogan ‘what counts is what works’. In this, at least, Manmohan Singh in his pragmatism is typical of what this era demands. But men such as him are only a transition, a step on the way to what the mass media has already given rise to in the West. He and his predecessors arrived at their pragmatism though an experience located in coalition politics. But in the West politicians manufacture their image and ideas to the requirements of mass media.

This is something Blair, Clinton and Obama share and this is where we are headed. Thus it should come as no surprise that we have started demanding youth of our leaders. Not for nothing did Digvijay Singh invoke Blair’s New Labour when he talked of Rahul Gandhi’s plans for reshaping the Congress long before the process had begun. The future lies with men such as Rahul Gandhi. His backroom boys are MBAs. The ascendancy of such a degree is itself a hallmark of the end of ideology. He himself is telegenic with a bit of Blair about him, and he shows no signs of being tied down by ideology.

The BJP in turn is searching for a face of its own. Advani the ideologue just doesn’t match up to Manmohan the pragmatist, and Rahul awaits them a few years down the line. The best they have on offer is Narendra Modi, but he bears the burden of ideology, which is why he is so keen to shed the tag and reinvent himself as the man who has brought development to Gujarat. Not coincidentally, he is paranoid about his appearance. He spends hours modelling the right clothes and emoting his speeches in an empty room in the presence of a photographer to ensure that he conveys nothing other than what he seeks to project in his campaign posters.

We are headed for a world where the electoral battle will be about image rather than substance. Each of the big parties in the country today has an inhouse psephologist, and party manifestos are increasingly a reflection of voter surveys, rather than an articulation of ideology.

In this, we are only mirroring what we can see in the West. Ask yourself if the US has really changed because Barack Obama has become President. Cast aside the hype and the only real difference is one of image. We are, after all, in an era of realpolitik where the only achievable goals are those that are small and practical.

There is, however, one problem with the pragmatism of our times. Small and practical steps do not always lead to small and practical results. A year after Musil wrote the words cited above, the meaninglessness of ideologies led to the most meaningless war in history. No one can still say precisely why World War I was fought, but we can certainly say it eventually led to Hitler and Stalin. Could it be that a fear of ideologies can pave the way for ideologies of fear? Or is that another meaningless idea?