Salman Rushdie on elections (WaPo)

Salman Rushdie has an op-ed in today's Washington Post on the elections. It's for registered users only, so I'll summarize and quote extensively. Rushdie argues that the results of this election resemble Indira Gandhi's defeat in 1977:

The fall of the Indian government is a huge political shock that strikingly echoes the only comparable electoral upset, the defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977. Then as now, just about the entire commentariat was convinced that the incumbent would win; then as now, the opposition was widely written off; then as now, India's voters left the politicians and media with egg on their faces. Both elections are high points in the history of Indian democracy. An ornery electorate that doesn't do what it's supposed to do is a fine and cheering thing.

He deepens the argument in some obvious ways -- comparing Indira's abuse of power in the Emergency (1975-77) to the BJP's role in Gujurat. But then he goes in a slightly surprising direction, linking the urbanism of Nehru (in the 1940s and 50s) with that of today's BJP, as against the rural emphasis of Mahatma Gandhi and the left in today's politics:

The oldest Indian rivalries of all have resurfaced in this election, as they also did in 1977. Then as now, much of the urban bourgeoisie voted for the government, while the impoverished Indian masses, in particular the rural poor, mostly voted against it. The Indian battle for centrality in the debate about the country's future has always been, to some degree, a battle between the city and the village. It is between, on the one hand, the urbanized, industrialized India favored by both the socialist-inclined Jawaharlal Nehru and the free-market architects of "India Shining," the new India in which a highly successful capitalist class has transformed the heights of the economy; and, on the other hand, the agricultural, homespun India beloved of Mahatma Gandhi, the immense countryside India where three-quarters of the population still lives and which has not benefited in the slightest from the recent economic boom.

I think his point on Sonia Gandhi's foreignness particularly salient. Many of us abroad have fought (as Rushdie himself fought, in the Thatcher days) to be recognized as full members of the societies in which we live. I fight hard to be recognized as an American. It's my passport that defines nationality, not blood, complexion, or where I choose to pray. I expect that people of foreign descent in India would be treated in the same way:

I have two immediate wishes for the new era. The first is that the debates about "foreignness" can be laid to rest. Those of us who are part of the Indian diaspora, and who have fought for years to have Indians recognized as full citizens of the societies in which we have settled and in which our children have been born and raised, have found the attack on the Italian origins of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party's leader and widow of the slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, to be highly unpleasant. Even more unpleasant were the BJP's suggestions that her children, the children of Rajiv Gandhi, were also somehow aliens. You can't have it both ways. If Indians outside India are to be seen as "belonging" to their new homelands, then those who make India their home, as Sonia Gandhi has done for 40 years or so, must be given the same respect.

Great point.


Anonymous said...

It's just plain stupid to compare it with 77. But writers and journalists and academics need to invent such things just to keep in business. There wasn't a rural-urban divide. The BJP was routed in Bombay also. Rushdie, never an insider, is busy frolicking with his wife to know what's happening.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Singh:

I don't know if you're an American by birth or naturalisation. As you know, the American constitution bars naturalised citizens from becoming President.

Analogously, the debate in India--at least the substantive portion--revolved around whether a naturalised Indian citizen ought to be elected PM (especially one who claimed Indian citizenship rather late in the day). Thus Indian-Americans who approve of their Constitutions' banning of a naturalised citizen becoming president, aren't inconsistent when they worry about Mrs. Sonia Gandhi becoming the PM.

I'm well aware that wider (and uglier) debates have swirled and helped propel this issue. But Mr. Rushdie's argument is only relevant to that wider debate, not the narrow point of eligibility for the PMO.

Btw, the wider debate also is about whether India too, like America, is a 'proposition nation'. I'm far less sure now whether even America is a 'proposition nation': At most, one can say America turned into one very late into its history, after expansive interpretation of the laws concerning birthright citizenship in the late 19th century, and onwards. But that's a debate for another day.


Anonymous said...

Be careful Mr Kumar or Singh will say that the onus is on you to prove that you're not a bigot or xenophobic or some such thing.

Rob Breymaier said...

The American law is ridiculous. why shouldn't naturalized citizens be able to be president? It's a nation of immigrants.

On the btw...it think it would be hard to argue that the United States was not based upon a philosophy. The birth of the nation was based on an ideological disagreement - or selfishness depending on one's point of view. At any rate it isn't the result of centuries long identification with the terrain and culture. (Although there are/were societies here that do/did have that type of relationship.)

The current India isn't exactly analogous though. The British India was different than the British America. And previos to the Raj, there wasn't exactly an India as much as there where smaller entities on the Indian Subcontinent. (aside: Shouldn't Europe also be a subcontinent?)

But, the current India was also born from a philosophy. One could argue that the founding philosophy was struck a blow at the same time it went into effect because of partition though. Still, it was founded on an ideal of a secularism among other things.

Anyway, pointing to America for guidance isn't the best idea at the moment.

Anonymous said...


I'm afraid you miss the point of Rushdie's argument and my counter-argument entirely. The issue isn't whether America's constitution is wise in barring naturalised citizens from holding the Presidency.

Rather, the issue revolves around the alleged inconsistency of some Indian-Americans: Here they clamor for full acceptance, despite being immigrants, yet adopt the opposite stance in the case of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Or so Rushdie claims.

I pointed out earlier that it's entirely possible to consistently oppose Mrs. Gandhi's assumption of the PMO and hope for full acceptance here. Nothing you've written vitiates my argument.

Finally, about your remarks on America and India as proposition nations: You've merely identified a necessary condition ("...[being based] on a philosophy..") for a country being a 'proposition nation'. Necessary, but not sufficient.

Besides being founded "on a philosophy", a country must have birthright citizenship to be a proposition nation. These two conditions are jointly necessary and sufficient, I think, to identify a country as a proposition nation. America met the latter condition only in the late 19th century onwards.

The interpretation of American law which established birthright citizenship as canonical in the U.S., I've learned recently, is not without controversy. Many on the American paleocon right are very much opposed to it. Given the (surprising) strength of their case, I've growing doubts about the validity of America as a 'proposition' nation.


Rob Breymaier said...

I have not encountered the term "proposition nation" so as to include arguments of territorial birthright. That's why I didn't address it. In my experience it solely addresses the point of a nation founded on a proposition (an ideology, philosophy, etc.)

electrostani said...

I'm not sure exactly what a proposition nation is either (Kumar, could you clarify?), but I gather it has to do with a nation based on a philosophical principle rather than ethnic or religious commonality. The 'proposition' undergirding the U.S.A. is the idea of democracy.

I would push the U.S.'s adherence to that concept even further forward. I tend to think that the U.S.A. began to meet the basic conditions of a 'democracy' only after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which guaranteed enfranchisement to blacks in the south.

I don't know if I can answer why Rushdie doesn't mention the U.S. law in his piece. He's trying to create a parallel between immigrant struggles for civil rights in the UK and North America and Sonia Gandhi's experience in India.

But after reading the objections on this thread, I begin to wonder if Rushdie's attempt to make this parallel doesn't quite work. Sonia Gandhi is simply not dealing with the kinds of things experienced by working class Asians in Britain in the 1970s and 80s under Thatcher. She is not part of an oppressed minority of Italian immigrants in India. That part of Rushdie's argument just seems extraneous to me now [I might withdraw my statement at the end of the post: "Good point"].

I still think she could do a good job with it, and that her birth shouldn't be conceived as a hindrance (it's certainly not as big a hindrance as her association with the bloated, possibly corrupt, INC party apparatus).

Anonymous said...

Proposition nations demand that any 'would-be' citizens adhere to a (foundational) national creed or philosophy. Prominent, if controversial, examples would include the U.S., France & India (following Brey, for arguments' sake).

However, the American creed (filching from Huntington) consists of more than adherence to democratic principles. Surely, Dr. Singh, the characteristic American distrust in 'big government' and the resulting popularity of federalism in this country must also count as part of the American creed.

Btw, I'm referring to the early and scholarly Huntington, not Huntington in his dotage, who believes that American culture is just WASP culture writ large, in WASP as well as non-WASP communities. (See Alan Wolfe's demolition of the latter Huntington).

Does this definition truly exhaust the meaning of this phrase ? I would argue to the contrary.

As I mentioned to Brey earlier, a necessary and sufficient definition of this phrase must include rules for who becomes a citizen in a proposition nation. Liberals (broadly defined) have thought that all people born in a proposition nation ought to be counted as its citizens, consistent with the notion that a potential citizens' membership in any particular ethnos is irrelevant to questions of his/her fitness for citizenship in a 'proposition nation'.

American laws & jurisprudence have only adhered to this rule post-Civil War. For this reason, I believe America-as-proposition-nation is a rather late invention. After reading paleocon attacks on birthright citizenship jurisprudence, I fear this wholly admirable American idea may be based on poor legal scholarship.

About Mr. Rushdie: First, I have to say, I devoured 'Midnight's Children' when I ran across it during freshman yr. But it's been all downhill since for Mr. Rushdie (yes, yes, I'm exaggerating: I like 'Haroun & the Sea of Stories etc.', as well as some of his reportage on Ctrl. America).

Good writer, but a poor thinker. That's the only charitable explanation for his omission of any reference to American law barring non-native born citizens from becoming President. Mention of this would collapse his argument about Indian-American inconsistency, etc.

For the record: I think worries revolving around Mrs. Sonia Gandhi's naturalised Indian citizenship are entirely legitimate. And I mean that literally--it's Mrs. Gandhi's particular record I find worrisome.

She took Indian citizenship only after her husband became PM apparently. Had she come to India as a child, say, and become an Indian citizen after becoming an adult, I would not be worried. This is a defeasible worry on my part, one which Mrs. Gandhi has not done much to address substantively. Come to think of it, she hasn't addressed any other issues facing India substantively either !

Anonymous said...

ooops...forgot to sign off :)


Rob Breymaier said...

I think offering her the PM office is interesting but not necessarily in this "proposition nation" frame. We can go back and forth all year on what the definition should be and how that changes Rushdie's argument (even though he never used the term that I remember).

Rushdie does seem to omit certain facts against his case - #1 being that the US has a law against foreign borns being president.

To me it's an interesting issue because Sonia is Italian (read European). As I pondered earlier, I wonder how much this argument would alter if she were from a non-Western nation. Certainly, if she were from Pakistan or China the idea of her being PM would be out of the question. But, if she were from say Zimbabwe or Singapore or would she be questioned in the same way? Or, would it be different if she were from an Indian family in Italy?

I think it smacks a bit of colonialism that an Italian-born woman could be PM. Could that ever happen in the reverse? Would Italy ever stand for an Indian-born woman as PM? Probably not. Could an Indian woman ever be a successful politician in Italy? Probably not. So, why does India have to bear the burden of being tolerant? And, does that just play into the "tolerant/non-confrontational India" stereotype? (see: Sandy Gordon's India's Rise to Power in the 20th Century and Beyond for a look at this sort of patronizing critique. She states that India is not likely to produce a nuclear weapons program because India is non-confrontational. Oops.)

In short, I think it's legitimate to ask why India sould behave differently than the West.

Anonymous said...

It is not your passport that defines your citizenship. It is the level of your empathy for your fellow citizens. It is the depth of the roots that you have in your country of citizenship. An engineer like me knows that but an academic who specializes in secularism, globalization and other associated shit doesn't.

Anonymous said...

Well done Brey. For a change you said some intersting things.

Rob Breymaier said...

I'd like to go down on record as saying I like the idea that a naturalized citizen could be a PM or pres.

On the citizenship thing. I think you're arguing qualitatively different types of citizenship. One formal, the other emotional. I don't know enough to definitively say this; but, from what I've read and heard Sonia would be a citizen in both respects.

BTW, who would be better suited to be PM Anonymous?

Anonymous said...

A naturalized citizen should have the same legal rights as any other citizen. He or she should be allowed to run for any office. But people should not vote for candidates who don't have roots in the country. And most of all, people should not vote for a woman whose chief qualification is that she is the matriarch of a family.

Anonymous said...


Yeah, as I said earlier, the debate about India as a 'proposition nation' is in the background. Just an additional note: Given that a nation is a historical entity, any satisfactory definition of nationhood must include ways of identifying a nation over time.

A natural way to do so is to specify rules for growth of the nation over time, i.e., who is and isn't allowed to become a citizen. And for a proposition nation, that necessarily means entry/membership is predicated solely on adherence to the foundational creed, not on ethnicity.

Rushdie does tend to argue like a lawyer doesn't he? But that's only natural. Mentioning facts that tell against his thesis would hardly serve his project of labeling many Indian-Americans as hypocrites.


Rob Breymaier said...

The WP commentary wasn't Rushdie's finest. But, in Imaginary Homelands and Step Across This Line Rushdie does write eloquent essays that aren't so divorced from logic.

Sure, he's guilty of the trappings of celebrity. And, he's a bit of an arrogant ass (I'm not sure he'd be a great friend for example). But, he's also an important thinker. Midnight's Children alone makes him worthy of praise.

Rob Breymaier said...

On the historical entity. A nation does (re)define itself over time. But, in the case of a"proposition nation" such as the US that (re)definiton is within the framework of the founding proposition. Thus, in the US the framework will always be basically how to provide life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness though democratic means.

Addressing immigration and naturalization would fall within that framework by debating who should be included in the democracy. While there are certainly problems with the progress in th US on this issue. The historical trend is that an ever expanding group of people are granted access to the system. Eventually, that should include naturalized citizens ability to become president.

Anonymous said...


I demur from your praise of Rushdie-the-thinker. But you're right about Rushdie-the-writer: Extraordinarily gifted, creating a great book in Midnight's Children. Yes, he deserves all the praise he's gotten for that book.

Briefly on America: As I've mentioned earlier, there is a growing body of paleocon opinion which doesn't agree with the idea of America as a proposition nation. It will be interesting to see if they are successful.


Anonymous said...
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