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Peripheralism

Romesh Thapar (1922-1987) was the founder-editor of the journal Seminar and a long standing writer in EPW, specially known for his column Capital View.

This article, published in 1965, recounts the importance the Gulzarilal Nanda government gave to peripheral priorities like renaming roads whereas slum development or electricity breakdowns received no attention. This isn't restricted to any particular government though--it speaks even to the dispensation of the day.

Nothing is happening, literally nothing. Yes, Gulzarilal Nanda is drafting a so-called resolution on economic policy for the Durgapur Session of the Congress Party, and Swaran Singh is drafting one on foreign policy. Meanwhile, Sanjeeva Reddy and his bureaucratic team handling steel continue deliberately to mislead the country about their betrayal on the designing And engineering of Bokaro, TTK delivers his homilies on the prevailing crisis, always directing his barbs against his "enemies' in the Cabinet and the party. But these activities are no longer news. The same kind of noises are to be made in 1965. The same kind of apathy is to prevail. And if one is inclined to be impatient, a reference to recent by-election results has a salutary effect; the Congress continues to win.
 
Intellectuals No Better
 
Of course, intellectuals can argue that the voting pattern is no pointer to the state of the country. The voter is illiterate. Accustomed to the rule of kings and emperors, and the patient wait for a successor with the semblance of a leader, the illiterate of India keep voting the Congress family to power hoping that it will throw up sons like Gandhi and Nehru. The truth remains that no real alternative to the Congress Party has formed. Why blame the so-called illiterates when the lite-rates arc no different although they presumably have the capacity to be.
 
Nothing stirs the interest of the people. We appear to be able to carry on because over the years we have learned to handle small jobs, small decisions. We seem to be living on this expertise at the moment. Certainly, vitally important files are not moving in the Secretariat. Holidays pile up one on top of the other, paralysing one or the Other arm of the GOT The coffee-drink-ers, who boycotted the old coffeehouse during the price resistance move, jam the new quarters allotted to them by the GDI and succeed in running the most disorganised joint in town. And the shops are full of customers, prices notwithstanding.
 
When we do act, it is in aid of sorrxe rather pointless projects. For example, you would think that the Municipal Corporation of this city had plenty to do what with continuing water contamination, electricity breakdowns, deteriorating roads, slummy development and cold wave deaths. On the contrary, our corporators have turned their attention to the names of roads, streets, markets and colonies not to naming the hundreds which are unnamed and cause endless confusion, but to changing those of the ones which have names! The Ministry of Works and Housing has joined this pleasant pastime.
 
Here is a sampling of their foolishness. Jehangir Road and Nurjahan Road are to be renamed after some 'historical persons'. Hauz Khas is to change to Raghubir Nagar, Mori Gate to Nehru Gate, Fountain to Bhai Mali Das Chowk, Esplanade Road to Schdav Malhotra Marg, Dufferin Bridge to Dr Mukerji Pul and Alipur Road to Dr B R Ambedkar Marg. Streets once named after the professions of the people living in them--Basti Bagrian Bazar, Sang Tarashan, Gali Rui, Gait Maikewali, Gali Kababian, Gali Sakka-wafi and Gali Kumarahan are to be named after our Saints and revolutionaries. So it goes -Shankar Road to Buddha Marg, Old Rohtak Road to Bhagat Singh Marg; New Pusa Road to Mahatma Gandhi Road, Hamilton Road to Vivekananda Road and Kings. way Road to Lajpat Rai Marg. Even Indra-prastha Marg may be renamed again with something inspired by the central revenue buildings! By the time the capital has been given this new look, we will be well on the way to loosing our bearings.
 
Disorganisation All Round
 
Peripheral involvements consume our time and energy. The bomb-makers and those who are opposed to them, even as they mouth their slogans, doggedly refuse to subject their theorising to economic, political and military tests or to search out those who have the know-how to provide the answers to our peculiar problems. The protagonists of Hindi thrill to the idea that their favourite language will now adorn government files, but they are as dull as before about what needs to be done at many levels to make the language alive and effective. Socialists of various hues, demanding that the country's capacity for independent economic development be strengthened, hail the Bokaro agreement with the Soviet Union, but fail to fight the loaded 'turn-key' principle embodied in it which, ironically, opens the doors to massive western private capital penetration into the economy and deals a death-blow to our independent design-ing and engineering of industrial projects. We are content with fairly expert paper work on plans and perspectives, on targetology, but no one moves to clear the obstacles to implementation.
 
This peripheralism could be ended by a leadership or a party with a sense of direction. But Cabinet meetings, from all accounts, are a bedlam Parliament, too, finds it hard to maintain a -quorum. And the Congress party seems to have become a plaything in the hands of dadas and the like. Yes, the bureaucracy, civil and military, maintains some degree of cohesion, but only to project its own very selfish and retrogressive interests which are in conflict with the declared objectives of national policy. Opposition groups, which could have disciplined the ruling party, are themselves in disarray. Witness the Socialists and Communists, or the Swantantras and Jan Sanguis, anable to mount a single campaign of consequence in a period of crisis.
 
The Dangers
 
The dangers inherent in this kind of apparently normal situation are to be seen not only in the more obvious con-fusions in our national and foreign policies, but: in developments like the Nepal King's decision to address an RSS rally in India, in the Army Chiefs involvement in the recent TELCO strike, in our acceptance of Michael Scott's so-called pacification role among the Nagas, in our ambivalent attitudes to the mischief-making of Abdullah and Bakshi m. Kashmir, in our surrender to the demand that retired I C S and military officers be handed critical fob's for which they arc most unsuited and in our willingness to keep superannuated politicians in harness. These are only a few examples of the practices which help spread demoralisation and are now breaking even the optimism of the incurably optimise.
 
I said earlier that nothing is happen ing in the Capital. This is-an exaggeration. Peripheral activity notwithslanding, I find that those who would like to see a drastic change in the present set-up are becoming more vocal In fact, speculation is fairly widespread about whether Shastri will be able to carry on for long with the team he has assembled. Many who supported him at the time of his rise to prime ministership are now wondering what persuaded them. The truth is that Shastri is safe so long as a viable alternative does not present itself. And nobody has so far been able to spot this alternative.
 
Threat to Shastri
 
But it would be shortsighted to assume that a leaderless country can continue to indulge in peripheralism at a time when the economic situation is certainly out of hand. Shastri must either change radically the composition of his government or risk his own continuance. The consensus which brought him to power exists, as I have said, only in the absence of an alternative—and this is unhealthy, to say the least. A new and more dynamic consensus has to be sought if we are to move forward. Will Shastri do the finding or be content to be thrown aside.
 
The discussions at Durgapur might yet provide us with pertinent evidence of the mood of the ruling party, although there seems not a ripple on the surface at present. Could it be that the rot has gone so deep that only a series of upheavals can shake the party out of its stupor? Many subscribe to this view, but qualify it with the theory that the people of India are tolerant and patient, that much time will elapse before anything resembling an upheaval occurs. That there is such speculation underlines the gravity of the political paralysis.
 
Needless to say, this state of affairs is likely to be seized upon by those influential and interlocked financial interests within this country and without who imagine that India has only to open her doors to private entrepre-neurship to usher in an era of plenty. Our own TTK, although he plays the radical on controlled food distribution to make Subramaniam sound fame, has encouraged this kind of thinking among his political colleagues and those bureaucrats through whom he operates. Indeed, the systematic popularisation of 'turn-key' arrangements with foreign collaborators, beginning with Soviet-aided Bokaro and the western-backed fifth steel plant, prepares the way for the entry of foreign capital. Report already has it that US experts in Delhi are hawking the idea of a 40: 40:20 equity holding formula; equal shares to be held by our government and the foreign investor (whether private or public) and (the fly in the ointment!) a crucial minority holding to be reserved for the private investor in India (who is expected to 'play ball' because these shares are to be quoted on foreign stock markets!). The technique of divide and rule Is being given a new look,
 
Time to Speak Out
 
You would think that there are enough people at ministerial and bureaucratic level in the Government of India to see these moves for what they are, but such an assessment would be wide off the mark. Peripheralism breeds precisely the opportunist pragmatism which is used theoretically to justify compacts of this sort. Those who oppose are dismissed as 'wooden', as 'dogmatists' as if the experience of other nations has no relevance to us, very special creatures. The critics are on the defensive. Strange, for this is the time to speak out.
 
Yes, there is little doubt now that 1965 will become significant only if the younger elements in our political parties mobilise to break the hold of the aged, exhausted elite which rules today, Judging from the controversies raging within the political parties, the possibilities for new alignments are unlimited. Today's situation cries out for the forging of a catalyst group to spell out the basic issues and to strengthen the Centre to launch the attack on them. Will this group form? Here's hoping that 1965 will offer an answer— and in the affirmative.

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