Yesterday, lights flashed. Thunder crashed on all sides. And the cameras rolled.
India had come to Oxford. More precisely, to the Randolph Hotel, hub of scone munching and Morse murder mysteries. The encounter was revealing at least as much for its asymmetry as for the conversation.
The Randolph’s ballroom was decked out as if for a wedding, or maybe a post-wedding disco. Chandeliers overhead, rows of white sheets and big synthetic bows over the chairbacks, round dining tables up front for the more illustrious guests. The lights dimly flickered on the stage in alternating pinky-red and blue, like a strip club in the suburbs.
One of my students, a charming French-Algerian, lit up with recognition: ‘Ah! This looks just like the place we circumcised my brother!’
In the anteroom Oxford was gathering, a little nervy in uncharacteristically sharp dress. Over shortbread, the dons eyed the TV billboards around the room. On the screen Oxford talking heads chattered on repeat, the volume down low. Not quite your average lecture. ‘India Day @ Oxford’ was going out live on CNN-IBN and various other channels, thanks to Network 18—which might sound awkwardly like a neo-Nazi outfit, but is in fact a powerful media conglomerate. This was the first in a planned series of biannual collaborations.
Time for the show. Thundering beats! Whirling graphics! Action nouns! And overhead: ‘Right here! Right now!‘ How I wish all seminars began with Fatboy Slim. ‘Put your hands together,’ a staffer hissed. ‘Put your hands together!‘
It was one of those mornings that demands a lot of italics. We applauded obediently.
First was the inauguration of a memorial scholarship. The bemused speakers herded around to light candles. There was a nicely British scene between the two Indians: ‘After you, old chap’—’no, after you, I insist’.
BadadabamBOOM. Again the gameshow music. Let the analysis begin.
The discussion topics were both ones which obsess Indian elites. How can India translate its economic progress (if this itself can be sustained) into power on the world stage? And is Indian democracy in crisis? Answering the first was Salman Khurshid, external affairs minister, with the extraordinary hair-eyebrow combination of Alistair Darling.
Alongside him, Chris Patten, Oxford chancellor and last colonial governor of Hong Kong, kicked off proceedings in typically self-deprecating style. ‘Oxford was just named the best—sorry, second-best university in the world. First was CalTech, but that’s just a little boutique place.’
What did we learn? It is a delicate path between academic honesty and diplomacy, especially before the cameras. There was a lot of pleasant Oxford reminiscing, a lot of time-frittering gags, plus the inevitable references to cricket and Britain’s dismal weather.
The usual checklist of worries featured—the growth rate has almost halved, the ‘demographic dividend’ threatens to become a ‘demographic time bomb’, etc—but overall the tone was rather optimistic. We heard too that India isn’t a world power (whatever one of those is), perhaps because it’s altogether too nice and polite. (On regional integration, the TAPI pipeline reared its utopian head again too.) The external affairs minister, of all people, suggested that foreign policy was very much subordinate to domestic politics: ‘India is like a dancing peacock: it sees its ugly feet, and begins to cry and shed its feathers.’
BJP grand dame Arun Jaitley livened things up in the second half, impatiently dispensing criticism (veiled and otherwise) on all sides. India has become far too cynical. Its population is ‘restless’. Naxalism in tribal areas worsening and all but incurable. Corruption is rife. He fears the concentration of power in the hands of one individual (though of course Narendra Modi doesn’t count). The quality of politicians is declining, he lamented, with caste and surname prized over competence.
Lest you fear this is a purely dystopian vision, he simultaneously assured us that Indian MPs are already the world’s most accountable, and only the BJP or the Congress can be ‘national anchors’ in parliament. He’s only 60, so this means he still has a quarter-century at the top ahead.
Curiouser & curiouser
BadadabamBOOM. Reviewing the event, one journalist claimed:
The decor was very much Indian – a few sarees flowing down from huge panels on the stage – but the air was very much Oxford – suffused with irony, old boy jokes and a sense of ambition that extended far beyond today’s problems and even pessimism.
Yet overall this was a classic demonstration of the add’n’stir approach to bringing policy and academia together. The politicians emphatically dominated proceedings, with only the odd mini-lecture uneasily slotted between interviews. But if ‘very much Oxford’ ≠ academia, what does it mean?
The answer may have been inadvertently provided by two questions from the floor:
‘I am a Rhodes Scholar. Why don’t you engage us in politics? We are the natural pick. All the other Rhodes Scholars get handpicked for power in their countries.’ —A Rhodes Scholar
‘Oxford stands for merit. When will merit come to India? This affirmative action for the lower castes must end.’ —A Hindu activist
Ah, of course! ‘Oxford’ in the old elitist sense. How wonderfully traditional.
The conclusion is an unsurprising one: academia and politics are tricky to mix. But silly old me—maybe that mixture wasn’t the real point. The event closed with an announcement: Network 18 is about to inaugurate a 24-hour India-focused TV news channel…right here in the UK.