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Home > 2022 > Reading? Subhas Bose Is Dead, Isn’t He? | T J S George

Mainstream, VOL LX No 7, New Delhi, February 5, 2022

Reading? Subhas Bose Is Dead, Isn’t He? | T J S George

Friday 4 February 2022, by T J S George



Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between yesterday’s India and today’s India is by looking at the way reading habits have changed. In the old days our leaders attached great importance to books and writers, trying to benefit from the ideas they promoted. A glance at their way of thinking will show us how much we have lost since then.

Consider Subhas Chandra Bose. The general impression is that he was an emotional firebrand, out to destroy British imperialism as spectacularly as he could manage. No doubt he was a firebrand. But an active intellect worked behind it all, making Bose a thinker. When he was in jail in 1936, he sent a request to Jawaharlal Nehru. "My dear Jawahar," he wrote, "if you have the following and can conveniently spare them, do send them c/o the Superintendent of Police, Darjeeling."

What followed was a list of book titles. Not just any book, but volumes that analysed history intellectually and in-depth. He asked for "Historical Geography of Europe, Short History of Our Times, World Politics by R. P. Dutt, Science and the Future by J. B. S. Haldane, Africa by Aldous Huxley."

Can we imagine today’s leaders thinking about books of this kind — or of any kind? Would Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath, or Rajnath Singh know who was J. B. S.
Haldane, let alone his contributions to modern history and his decision to migrate to India formally at the invitation of Prof. P. C. Mahalanobis.

Narendra Modi, more shrewd than his colleagues, has been trying to project himself as a thinker and intellectual in his own right. Considerable publicity was given at one time to a book written by him: "A Journey: Poems by Narendra Modi." It was available at 24 percent discount as per market information. There is no evidence that the discount made the book a best seller.

Focussed publicity also tried to project Modi as a committed reader of books. Google says that his current reading includes heavy stuff such as "A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisation State." Those who accepted Google’s projection must have felt good, thinking that India’s Prime Minister was up-to-date with the challenging titles of the day.

Neither Jawaharlal Nehru nor A. B. Vajpayee showed any interest in publicising their intellectual pursuits. They felt no need to do so. Nehru was an internationally respected author; Vajpayee was a recognised poet. The situation is different now. Modi’s poems may not have attracted the kudos Vajapyee’s did. But he has tried (successfully, it seems) to put oratory above literature. No one can deny that his oratory has risen to unprecedented heights. All through history, oratory has been a mark of leadership. Motivational speakers always cite examples like Churchill and Lincoln at one level, and Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King at another. Socrates was no great orator, but his mastery of rhetoric made him a legend. Steve Jobs’ commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 was notoriously brief, but it is among the masterpieces of history.

One benefit of oratory is that it can give history the dimensions the orator wants. People’s experience may be one thing, and the orator’s interpretation quite different. It is the orator who wins. Always.

These realities are of a kind that cannot be ignored. It is now known, for example, that the "disastrous currency ban in 2016" and "a nasty roll-out of Goods and Services Tax" hit business hard, leading to joblessness and a slowdown in investments. Unemployment climbed to a 45-year high in 2017-18 and has nearly doubled since then. More than 75 million Indians have plunged back into poverty, setting back half a decade of gains, according to Pew Research. But citizens’ voices on these matters were drowned in the oratory from those in power.

Oratory was the more effective because there was nothing to counter it from forces said to be in opposition. Sashi Tharoor, a devoted Congressman, sounded desperate when he called repeatedly for "a permanent President" for the party. Well, Sonia Gandhi was looking as permanent as anyone could, wasn’t she? Tharoor saw the discordance in the situation, hence his emphasis on something more democratically honourable. "If the Congress has to come back," he said in a warning tone, "the change should happen quickly."

Change has not been happening, even slowly. Which implies, in Tharoorian style, that there is no comeback prospect for the Congress. In astrology, experts say, power signs are associated with extreme power which can be dictatorial and headstrong. In today’s India, astrology rules. Subhas Bose is dead.

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