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Professor Rajni Kothari (1928-2015): A Personal and Public Tribute

As stated by the author in the title this is a tribute to one of the pioneers of political science in India.

                I had a rare privilege of working with Professor Rajni Kothari in the Department of Political Science in the University of Delhi for about half a decade in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As a new Reader in the Department, I was overawed by his towering intellectual presence. Yet he had a way of putting anyone in his contact at ease by his unassuming but somewhat serious demeanour partly lightened by a wry smile. One day in the commodious chamber of the Head of the Department in the Arts Faculty Main Building where he was seated on the sofa, I dared to present to him my just published book Split in a Predominant Party: The Indian National Congress in 1969 (1981) with the inscribed note ‘To Professor Rajni Kothari for my love at first reading.’  He looked up at me standing by the side and said with a chuckle: ‘MP, you are right; I still get letters addressed to Miss Rajni Kothar!’
                I also worked for about a year and a half as a Director (Research & Publications) in the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), New Delhi, when he was the Chairman and Prof T. N. Madan the Member Secretary. A new scheme that the ICSSR commissioned under their leadership was a series of authored and edited books called ‘Alternatives in Development’.
                He taught the main Indian politics M. A.  course and chose to be in charge of the new M. Phil. programme (course work followed by a thesis) rather than the  old Ph. D. (thesis only) programme, probably because  the former offered a better opportunity to initiate the young political scientists into research with a more comprehensive training regimen.  Since I taught Research Methodology, the more innovative compulsory centrepiece course in the programme, I voluntarily took upon myself the work of organising the joint weekly  mid-term seminars led by Prof Kothari , pooling all optional courses of various substantive specialisations. All students presented their draft term papers for comments by all participants – students and various optional course teachers -   with Prof Kothari moderating the discussion and offering his own comments at the end. I myself benefited from his encyclopaedic insights and knowledge reminiscent of an Aristotle and the Renaissance intellectuals. Since he seldom sat in his Departmental chamber after his lectures or seminars, I had, in course of organising his M. Phil. Seminars, the pleasure of going occasionally to meet him in his chamber in the not too far Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS, of which he was the founder Director in 1963 and from where  he had come to Delhi University as a Professor  on special offer in 1977). In going there, I had the added bonus of accessing the rich CSDS Library and running into the Senior Fellows there like D. L. Sheth, Asish Nandy, Ramashray Roy, B. V. Singh, and others.
                One morning when I reached the Department, the office assistant, Shri Nandlal, told me that Prof Kothari had resigned from the Delhi University for full time social work. It was a bolt from the blue. I could not keep my usual composure and started crying like a child. I felt ashamed of myself (luckily there was no one other than Nand Lal around), as I felt guilty about my absence from his cremation the other day at the Lodi Estate Crematorium.
                Prof Kothari became nationally and internationally recognised for his innovative and interpretative works on two  structures of crucial importance in society and polity in politics in India, i.e. the party system and caste in politics. His  three  initial interpretative papers highlighting  the characteristically national  and universal features of the post-independence Indian party system, what he called the ‘Congress System,’  were  published in the Economic & Political Weekly  in a series in the early 1960s and in the Asian Survey in 1964 and 1974. His crowning glory was his   magnum opus Politics in India published simultaneously in India and the USA in 1970. It was a commissioned standard textbook in a series of country studies in comparative politics launched under the general editorship of Gabriel A. Almond by the Little, Brown & Company in Boston, the USA. His argument, in a nutshell, was that the party system of India, originating from the ideologically middle-of-the-road freedom movement for national independence, was different from both the two-party systems and multiparty systems in Western democracies, on the one hand, and the one-party African states, on the other. It was a veritable ‘Congress System’ comprising a ‘party of consensus’ in the Indian National Congress which transcended both the government and the opposition within its own fold dominating politics at the national as well as state levels.  In other words, through its multiplicity of factions based on pragmatism, national-regional and urban-rural-divides, castes and communities, shifting coalitions of ‘ministerialists’ and ‘dissidents’, the Congress party practically internalised the effective and informal opposition for the sake of governing a consensual democratic polity. On the margins of this party system, there existed a multiple ‘parties of pressure’ that never really came to power during the phase of Congress dominance, but sought to influence the government by interacting with factions within the Congress which were ideologically or sociologically contiguous and congenial to them. Independently, the British Indianist W. H. Morris-Jones and Italian-American comparativist Giovanni Sartori made a  more or less similar formulation about the Indian party system in that phase. The former called it ‘one-party dominant system’ and the latter, ‘predominant party system.’
                Equally notable and path-breaking was Kothari’s seminal editorial Introduction to a volume of empirical studies Caste in Indian Politics (1970). He questioned the prevailing dichotomy between tradition and modernity that puts a cognitive blinder to proper interpretation of dialectical interaction between sociological phenomenon of caste system and democratic politics. He delineated three stages  in this process of gradual democratisation of the traditional Indian society. The first phase marked the competition between  the ‘entrenched castes’ in social hierarchy and the ‘ascendant castes’ in the democratic political order. Economic and political changes slowly but surely began to undermine the jajmani system and other socio-economic structures of patron-client relations. In the second stage the competition between entrenched and ascendant castes was ‘now supplemented by intra-caste competition and the process of politicisation’(emphasis in the source itself).  This process of factionlisation first began in the entrenched caste(s) and rival factions within the dominant strata itself  co-opted  leaders belonging to castes down the hierarchy to strengthen their relative political power. In this stage there thus emerged more inclusive competing caste coalitions in electoral and legislative politics. This led to a ‘still greater diversification of the base of politics, and with factors other than caste entering into the picture.’ As in the case of the party system, in this case too similar interpretative attempts were made independently by the American political scientists Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph.  
                Rajni Kothari, an early  academic ideologue of the Congress system, soon turned critical of it by the time of the gathering storm of the Gujarat Movement led by Morarji Desai and the Bihar Movement that spread across North India down to Karnataka under the leadership of Jyaprakash Narayan (JP) against creeping authoritarianism and corruption within the Congress regime under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during the turbulent 1970s. The Politics and the People (two volumes)(1977) and State Against Democracy (1988) represent the new twists and turns in his thought and interpretation. During this phase, even though he had turned critical of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and supportive of the JP Movement, this did not incline him to hold back his incisive and critical interventions as a political scientist in the political goings on. He was also disappointed with the Janata Party experiment but its role in recovery of the democratic process after the authoritarian Emergency regime was recognised.   
                All along, but specially after the early two books on the party system and caste in politics (both published in 1970), Kothari’s  writings and activities moved on a wider political canvas. These new explorations moved into two new directions: (1)  quest for global equity and justice and sustainable development [ represented by his works such, for example, as Footsteps into the Future: Diagnosis of the Present World and Design for an Alternative, 1975; Rethinking Development: In search of Humane Alternatives, 1975; Transformation & Survival: In Search of Humane World Order, 1989] and (2) non-party political processes  in NGO as well as social movement modes  in post-Gandhian  explorations and experimentations articulated in a series of articles in the Seminar and the Economic & Political Weekly. His increasing involvement in social activism found institutional expression in his launching the Lokayan in 1980 as a common platform for sharing experiences between academics as well as grassroots activists in the Non-Governmental Organisations and social movements from across the country.
                His high profile as a social scientist is reflected in his Chairmanship of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and his association with International Foundation for Development Alternatives.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   All along, his prolific writings and Memoirs, Uneasy is the Life of the Mind  (2002) leave behind a glorious trail of academic excellence as well as genuine social and political activism in public interest.
His high profile social and political activism for the cause of democracy was recognised by making him  the  President of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL). As its President, he took the initiative of forming a National Council comprising people of diverse backgrounds and ideological persuasion. However, his desire of unifying the liberal PUCL and the leftwing People’s Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR) could not materialise.
                In 1985, Lokayan was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, popularly known as the alternate Nobel Prize.  The citation of this prize underlined the role of the Lokayan in the ‘consolidation of democracy, for exploring the possibilities and principles of coherence within the explosion of democratic assertions, for equity and people’s control over natural resources, women’s empowerment, cultural plurality, health and well-being for all.’
                Being a quintessentially liberal, Kothari was probably more concerned about the threat to democracy from authoritarian trends in the state and the civil society. The threat to democracy from corporate capitalist sector does not seem to figure much in his writings. This may presumably be due to the fact that neither in the Indian experience nor in that of the advanced capitalist democracies in the post-World War – II period this danger has become an immediate problem to reckon with. In the post-Cold War period the gradual folding up of the welfare state and the collapse of socialist states has caused the propagation of the idea of the neoliberal state all over the world. The changing contours of relationship between democracy and capitalism is now emerging as a new problematic of political analysis in India as elsewhere. The theoretical framework of analysis is still in the process of formulation that goes beyond history and addresses itself to the newly emerging challenges and opportunities. There is no reason to believe that Kothari was and would have continued to be committed to the cause of democracy in the contemporary predicaments unfolding before us. We get a glimpse of it in his earlier writings as well. His Rethinking Democracy (1989), which looks at its problematique through bifocal lenses in universal as well as Indian terms, views the challenge of democracy as to ‘how to relate and join the deeper drives of Indian citizens and communities to the broader challenge of socio-political transformation and emancipation; how to engage in preservation of freedom and autonomy in the face of external confrontation of both corporate and transnational varieties, and the confrontations found within the nation state such as economic divides based on class and caste, and the more threatening communal drives.’
Mahendra Prasad Singh: Formerly Professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi and presently an honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Multilevel Federalism, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Email: Tel. No.: 9910327394 (M)