Smell the Rose

Fifty years ago today, India lost its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After India's independence from the British, Nehru was the foremost of the leading architects of modern India, dreaming of development based on technology, and a socialistic pattern of society, one based on secularism. In the most recent general elections, India's close to a billion voters said 'No' to his Congress party and its allies, inflicting a reeling defeat to his great grandson, Rahul Gandhi, and his mother, Sonia Gandhi.

One day before this milestone anniversary, on May 26, after a historic month-long polling, which constituted the largest democratic elections in the history of the world, held peacefully and where the majority spoke, Narendra Modi, the leader of the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, who has worked through the ranks of the party with a Hindu nationalistic agenda under the banner of hindutva, or “Hindu-ness.,” was sworn in as the country's 15th Prime Minister.

Even though India has made much progress since Nehru's Prime Ministership six decades ago, coming on the heels of an administration led by the United Progressive Alliance under the Congress Party, rife with corruption, staccato and whimsical economic growth, and lackadaisical leadership contributing to widespread frustration and general malaise, this is a verdict for hope, for change. Understandably, the mandate is for change of party and its leadership, for more steady economic growth; for a more efficient government. On this day especially, marking the passing of 50 years of his passing, we are prompted to ask, has the time arrived for Nehru's brand of a budding rose, which he sported in his famous Nehru jacket buttonhole, to wilt and fade, and for the lotus to bloom? [The symbol of the winning Bharatiya Janata Party is a lotus, also the national flower of India].

To be sure, for Nehru's dynasty to fade is a victory for democracy; for no democratic country ought to have unquestionable allegiance to four generations from the same family to carve out a niche for succession and lead the country. Interestingly, in a further reminder of how discerning and politically astute India's voters are, Maneka Gandhi, alienated from the Nehru-Gandhi family, and widow to Rahul Gandhi's uncle, Indira Gandhi's other son, Sanjay Gandhi, won her bid on a BJP ticket, by virtue of her strong record as a public servant.

Even within this backdrop, it is imperative to understand and reckon Nehru's legacy, albeit with limitations and complexities, recognizing some of his setbacks on domestic issues on identity politics, foreign policy debacles as in 1962 with the Border War with China, and the quagmire on the Kashmir issue, to name a few. Round I, in terms of foreign policy and regional diplomacy seems to have gone in India's favor. Skilfully and gracefully, Prime Minister Modi extended invitations to regional leaders, including the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Shariff to attend his inauguration; a historical first. Round II and successive rounds after this will be more substantive and critical. One hopes that the new generation ofleadership in the subcontinent will look at long standing stalemates such as in Kashmir more objectively, and create more pragmatic and sustainable regional ties and mutually beneficial alliances addressing territorial, environmental, water and other resource issues. The initial signs bear hope in this regard.

Six decades ago, Nehru and his brand of Congress and other leaders represented progressive thinking, and contributed to a secular democratic culture. While there remain problems galore, 50 years after his passing, and 64 years into independence, we are better for it; with a lasting democratic cultural legacy.  

India's democracy has said no to Nehru's unfit 'heirs' and ushered in a government that is led by a Hindu party, headed by a man who exemplifies the opportunities of every 'aam aadmi' ( common person) to rise to power albeit economic class, privilege and lineage. But, this is also a man whose legacy as chief minister of Gujarat, has a stellar record of economic development as well as the tarnish of allegedly looking the other way during the pogrom of communal carnage a decade ago.  In a carefully orchestrated and highly effective campaign, the supporters of Mr. Modi have successfully avoided such divisive issues; they have also skilfully used social media to woo young and new voters, the generation of 'selfies' and 'snap chats' with twitter and instant messaging. Such voters are dreaming of a new India, with an economy replicating Gujarat's glitzy economic revival.

But surely, there is more to India's democracy than mere economic revival and growth. At a minimum, the growth of the country has to include economic justice, be equitable, and inclusive.

Arguably, Mr. Modi's victory has transgressed ideology. Beyond the BJP and its allies, his supporters also include those who are frustrated with deep seated culture of institutional corruption and inept leadership. It is, however, also important to keep in mind that India's economic revival had already begun more than a decade ago, by an alliance that has lost people's faith today; by development that has also brought on deep disparity. The new government will be well advised to keep equity in distribution of economic benefits high on its agenda. Many argue that this mandate may have been a negative one against the UPA government, which makes it more critical for the Modi government to deliver on its promise of development before the voters become impatient.

Likewise, the new government will not be doing justice to India's progressive democratic culture, which has stabilized in India as a legacy of Nehru, to 'look the other way' on challenges to civil rights and gender equity, or ubiquity of violence against women. During the campaign, the party has successfully avoided sticky domestic issues such as secularism, minority and gay rights, and media freedom. Now that it is in power, it has a responsibility to address them.

Thus, while there is hope there is also the responsibility for the new government to strengthen, and certainly to not quell secularism, and civil rights of all women and men, of any religion, any gender, of any sexual preference. In the new India everyone is rejoicing about, there is much still to be accomplished, especially to distribute the the dividends of development to the poor, to respect the dignity of women, to stop the plunder and rape of the environment, and to honestly rid the administration of corruption.

And, in the midst of giddy exuberance, we need to pause, to hope, but also to learn from mistakes and missteps in history, ones that are six decades ago, or just a decade or so ago; of regional level; of also national and at the level of states. India would be wiser as a nation also acknowledge Nehru's as well as that of other leaders; to look beyond ideological myopia; to not throw the baby with the bath water. Despite turning out to be an ineffective PM, especially in the second term, Dr. M M Singh's ( from the Nehru legacy), thesis provided a template for development that has done India much good in the last two decades.  Perhaps there is a place in the new India for both, the rose and the lotus, to blossom and prosper. At this juxtaposition of historical moment of truth for India's future, as we ponder between Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" and Monty Python's "What did the Romans do for us?" here is an example of new India looking back at the Nehru legacy:


"To Sir, With Love"

I began my Political Science Seminar class this past January sharing some advice with my students that I had received from a professor of mine who has had a deep and lasting influence on my learning, writing, and teaching.

“Writing one page a day is all it takes…” ~ In the course of the semester, the students in this class research, discuss, and write their capstone thesis. One of the foremost challenges for students is to finish writing the final thesis, well researched, refined, and revised several times. The advice I shared with them is the one I got from one of my two major advisors, Professor Garry Clifford. As I was about to start writing my doctoral dissertation, Professor Clifford advised me that if I wrote at least one page a day, by the end of the year, I would have more than 300 pages done. Even though we all know that it may not quite work in that calendar perfect way, the underlying elements of being structured, disciplined, and having a goal are fundamental aspects of undertaking and completing an academic writing project, have stayed with me even today.

That was circa 1987. Professor Garry Clifford, graduate director and Professor of Political Science at UCONN, gave me that advice. I took it to heart then; I use it to shape and steer my own writing, and also share it with my students, even to this day.

“Good writing comes with good reading” ~ An award winning writer himself, Professor Clifford was an avid reader and researcher, and taught his students the importance of reading and research. Since I was a child, I used to read whatever I could lay my hands on, sometimes even getting in trouble for reading books and magazines that were meant for elders only in the household. I also enjoyed writing, most of all, creative and reflective essays. As I look at the national writing prize I had won in the sixth grade for writing about a journey to Paris, never having visited France, but only having read about it in books, I thank all my teachers since my school and college days who taught me how to read, and then write. But I used to enjoy creative writing more than writing political science. As I went through my graduate school course work, I struggled to write academic papers. Professor Clifford advised me to read more works on the subject matter. He taught me how to immerse in the literature, create a passion and a relentlessness for reading extensively on a particular subject matter, and then the writing would flow. Prior to working with him, I would read, but he was the one who taught me ‘how’ to read, and then incorporate the material in academic writing.

“It is not so much ‘what’ you think, but ‘how’ you think” ~ A substantive writing project like a doctoral dissertation has numerous ups and downs. There were moments when I used to become lost in the wilderness and depth of documentary evidence and material. I used to get eager to get to my conclusions. Professor Clifford guided me patiently through that maze urging me to develop a critical thinking ability, objective reasoning, and story telling.

“We all have a story to tell, and even though the topic is something that others have written about, you have your own story to tell” ~ As I was about to defend my dissertation, which was about Cold War politics and the underlying dynamics of US military assistance to Pakistan, the Soviet empire collapsed. I panicked that everything I rationalized on the basis of Cold War foreign policy would suddenly become moot, that my thesis would not be relevant any longer. Along with Professor Hanson, Professor Clifford assured me that my story would still be valid; because I took the journey into the history, and the politics, and have a story to tell based on that experience. My story would still be unique, and valid, he said. I learned from him that yes, I have a story to tell, and it was all about how to tell it through my writing.

Coming from the hustle and bustle of a large family in Calcutta, I felt marooned in pastoral and sleepy Storrs, Connecticut. As graduate program director, Professor Clifford was my introduction to the Department of Political Science which stood beside the tranquil Mirror Lake. Those were the days before E-mail. I still regard the short letter of acceptance with assurance of financial aid, with an embossed logo of the department on crisp bond paper, signed ‘Garry Clifford’ as my stepping stone toward my graduate career. The first day, I arrived in his office with a lot of trepidation and uncertainty, but his warm welcome, and larger than life figure, with the sweetest of smiles, and a twinkle in his eyes, made me feel at home. That very day, he told me, “I will introduce you to a woman with a big heart,” and he walked me to the office of Professor Betty Hanson – who took me under her wings, mentored me, opened her home to me, and gave me a place in her heart, which I will not trade for anything. She has been my other mentor, advisor, and mother, who shaped my career and life in a tremendous way.

This past week, the sudden passing of Professor Clifford came as a shock to me and all who knew him. Fellow graduate students from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s are exchanging e-mails and social media posts reminiscing our time with him like they happened yesterday.

Such was the impact of this great soul and teacher. Such was the culture in the department of Political Science at UCONN. I still remember Professor Richard Hiskes and his wife Ann, also a professor then at the university, inviting me to their home for my first Thanksgiving in America. I remember meeting Professor Clifford’s wife Carol Davidge, a wonderful and warm person, who explained to me the meaning of Thanksgiving, of cheerleading, and many other attributes of American culture that I was not aware of. I still remember my first Christmas in America in the home of Betty Hanson, and her love for India and curry, her advice of the importance of a ‘sweatshirt’ to weather the New England chill, and hence her present of a teal green one for me. This introduction and welcome that I received from all my professors at UCONN have guided me to create a culture of giving a warm welcome to students, I have carried this learning as department chair, as a leader of global programs at the university where I teach. Along the way, I also learned to, at their request, address many of my professors by their first name.

Having Garry and Betty as my advisors gave me the training of both, history and political science. Garry’s knowledge of diplomatic history was legendary, Betty’s passion for critical analysis and penchant for perfection allowed me to hone my research and writing skills. It was Garry who introduced me to the world of archival research. It was he who was instrumental in the research grants to the Kennedy and Johnson archives. He taught me how to research oral history documents and archived papers at the Sterling (Yale) and Butler (Columbia) libraries. He seemed to know where every research documents of the period were housed; he could recall historical facts like they were everyday contemporary happenings, and I was fascinated with his ability to tell those stories.

It is remarkable that someone who loved the library and research so much would spend his last moments in front of the library, on his way to his office early on a freezing March morning. Garry, please know how much you impacted the lives of all who knew you, and your students. I for one would not be where I am if you had not selected me to come to UCONN for my graduate work, if you had not given me the confidence and opportunity to teach my first class as a teaching assistant, if you had not been so caring and understanding mentor.

As I write this on a gray Sunday morning, my heart is down, heavy as the dampness outside. Garry, as you rest for eternity, please know that your words of wisdom to me are still inspiring generations of students who are learning how to think, read, research, and write. I am sharing with them what you taught me so many years ago. I am now sharing with all my teachers and professors how much you all taught me, and how your teaching is empowering new generations. The gift of teaching and learning never stops giving. 

Finally, I remember coming from a culture in which we addressed male professors as ‘Sir,’ to a culture in which it was common for graduate students to refer to their professors by their first name. I had a very difficult time doing that. On the day I defended my dissertation, Professor Clifford shook my hand and said two things, “Congratulations, Dr. Datta [and, this is the only time I will call you Dr. Datta]”, and “From today, you will call me ‘Garry,’ from now on, we are colleagues.” How I wish I could go back, even a week, and share my debt of gratitude with you, Garry. Since I can never thank you enough, and never see you again, I say this to you, one last time, ‘Sir’ with love, that I will miss you!

~ RD, March 30, 2014

Deleting the Private, the Public, and the Space Within


 “I am sorry!” I spontaneously blurted out as soon as he looked up and I made eye contact with him. I had just clicked a photo of him without his permission. I immediately deleted the picture from my phone and a deep sense of guilt and embarrassment gripped me. I will never forget his deep, dark eyes. Why did I do it? It was so insensitive; I had invaded his private space. I wanted to disappear in the Calcutta crowd, far from the moving gaze of the man who had seen me taking a picture of him taking a bath on the street!

Yes, it happened as I walked through a busy backstreet in Calcutta recently. I came across this scene of a man taking a bath by the sidewalk. A municipal faucet served as a public good and this man's source of running water, which he was collecting in a blue plastic bucket, the cracking rims of which were showing signs of over use. With a small mug, he was pouring the water from the bucket on to his head and body, cleansing his weariness. He was taking a ‘bucket bath.’ Growing up in Calcutta, this scene was not unusual for me at all. Yet, this time it seemed different.

I could not help noticing that the man stood behind a car to get some privacy from the passers by as he took his morning bath. The shiny new red Toyota car, glistening in the crisp December morning sun of Calcutta, provided a sort of a shower curtain for him. I immediately wanted to record it as a sign of the ‘paradox of development.’ I could use it for a class on the vagaries of development, and the coexistence of income inequality, I thought. The crimson Toyota, trying to squeeze its way into the serpentine alleyways of a city that peacefully coexists between the old order and the new, brandished the symbol of a rising and shining India. The man taking his bath on the street, was a reminder that this race for prosperity has left many behind; many who did not even have proper housing that provided a private bath or running water.  

Yes, I felt that not only had the system let this person and millions like him down, by taking his picture, I too had violated his ‘private’ space. Deleting the picture did not comfort me. I could not help asking myself the question: have we become nonchalant about such inequalities foraying into robbing the less privileged of their human dignity?

A few days later, I raised the question with some of the country’s leading researchers who study urban, economic, and human development. They explained to me that I was perhaps not seeing it from the perspective of those who inhabit the ‘public space’ in urban sidewalks and make alleys their homes, using a standing vehicle as their wall of privacy. They live in harmony with others, those who live with them in makeshift sheds, those who live in high-rise buildings neighboring such shelters, and those who drive by them in honking new cars. The babies crawl, children play, people fall in love, start families, some work, cook, sell goods, others beg or steal, or get sucked into darker worlds of crime. But the zeal to live humanely with one another, in the streets, makes them a part of one big community, blurring the dividing space of private and public. For them, there is no separation between private and public space. They ‘live’ in the public space, they ‘own’ it, and hence, the man taking a bath on the street does not consider it an affront to his dignity or privacy; nor should I feel guilty about taking his picture, it was a part of the cityscape. It would perhaps be equivalent to taking a picture of a busy street, and a man happening to be part of it. I felt something was missing.

The assurance did not bring closure; the questions linger. For those of us who study political, economic and human development, how do we really explain the continuity of such living conditions amidst a country’s progress? Have those who have made the streets their home, really blurred the boundaries of private-public space? Or, are these merely the explanations of rational minds wanting to suppress their guilt about rising inequality in a growing economy? Until I find those answers, I have to reiterate, “I am sorry!” If, for nothing else, for taking his picture without his consent. I have deleted it from my phone, but am still looking for answers to the private-public space continuum and the class structure in society which gives new meaning to it.

~ RD, March, 2014.