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This chapter looks at two of the most radical political thinkers in human history, but their radicalism is on such dramatically opposite lines that any meaningful comparison seems unrealistic. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi heads the list of iconic apostles of non-violence. Four centuries earlier, Niccolò Machiavelli had proposed violence in many guises, from open warfare to covert assassination, as the default mode of successful political strategy. For Gandhi, politics was inseparable from ethics, while Machiavelli placed the two in uneasy tandem at best. Gandhi never mentions Machiavelli in his writings, even to oppose or dismiss him. Nonetheless, I would like to explore a deeper paradigm where both might find a place.
When the Boer War broke out, Gandhi and his associates were faced with a political choice that was also a moral choice. Should the Indian community seize this opportunity to have their own back on the British by siding with the Boers? Many thought so, but Gandhi argued for supporting the British, and that actively by setting up an ambulance corps. In his words:
Our existence in South Africa is only in our capacity as British subjects. … And if we desire to win our freedom and achieve our welfare as members of the British Empire, here is a golden opportunity for us to do so… It must largely be conceded that justice is on the side of the Boers. But every single subject of a state must not hope to enforce his private opinion in all cases. The authorities may not always be right, but … it is [the subjects’] clear duty generally to accommodate themselves, and to accord their support, to acts of the state.
We have here an extraordinary mix of moral and political arguments, principles and pragmatism. Moreover, the moral factors are conflicting, as Gandhi believes the Boers to have justice on their side. Yet he would support the British, not only out of ‘clear duty’ but to serve the Indians’ own long-term interest. Of two moral alternatives, he chooses the one (arguably the less moral) that happens also to be the better tactical strategy. He was to advance the same justification for Indian participation in the First World War. Needless to say, he later rejected these arguments during India's independence movement, by which time he had challenged the identity of Indians as British subjects.
Sometime in 2016, the idea of a seminar on Niccolò Machiavelli, at once contextualizing his writings and studying their impact on our own times, took root in Prasanta Chakravarty's mind. It was a diffident intuition. Was the thought historically too adventurous? Was it tenable to universalize Machiavelli and read him from an Indian location after so many centuries? On what grounds could one advance such a politically charged proposal to a literature department? His nebulous thoughts began to take shape when Christel Devadawson, then Head of the Department of English, University of Delhi, said she would back the idea. By the latter half of 2017, Prasanta was mailing a host of Machiavelli scholars across the world, asking whether they would be willing to travel to New Delhi in October 2018 for a conference on Machiavelli and his ideas. The Department could offer hospitality and three days of strenuous jousting with the man. A number of scholars immediately agreed. Those who could not, offered enormous support and goodwill. Thus, in the autumn of 2018, the Department came to host a conference entitled ‘Machiavelli in His Time, and Ours’. Most of the chapters in this book originated in that conference. The rest are by scholars who could not make it there but have been an integral part of the larger collective. Our thanks to all these distinguished contributors.
Rajeev Bhargava and Sukanta Chaudhuri were involved from the start as advisers to the project. Professor Bhargava has continued his exchanges with Prasanta on the political and philosophical ramifications of classical and Early Modern thought in our times. Sukanta Chaudhuri's association culminated in his co-editorship of this volume.
Sincere thanks are due to Rimli Bhattacharya, Rahul Govind, and Madhvi Zutshi, who participated untiringly, over a year and more, in academic and logistical planning of the conference. It would have been impossible to conceive the seminar and the book without their grace and guidance. Tanya Roy, Department of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of Delhi, and her co-participants brought the comic power of Mandragola to life before the conference audience by their spirited play-reading.
The Ambasciata d’Italia, Nuova Delhi, generously supported the conference. Our gratitude to them.
Finally, we thank Qudsiya Ahmed, Anwesha Rana, Aniruddha De, and Purvi Gadia of the Cambridge University Press, New Delhi.
Machiavelli's ideas are as important in our time as in his own. His insights and prescriptions help us make sense of today's political upheavals and natural calamities and reduce them to a working order. The chapters in Machiavelli Then and Now explore Machiavelli's central concerns: statecraft and order, liberty and citizenship, diplomacy and leadership, modes of strategization, the quest for empire - all set against the basic contention between autarchy, oligarchy and democracy. They also address the ethical and behaviourial factors behind political practice, such as force, suasion, ambition, corruption and vigilance in public discourse. The contributors consider the role of language, text and the imagination in Machiavelli, and they also bring the Machiavellian discourse closer to our own times, in relation to Gandhi, Gramsci and Althusser. The book will interest historians, political scientists and students of public policy; philosophers, rhetoricians and literary critics; and no less institution builders, diplomats and, administrators.
Rabindranāth Thākur (Tagore) practised nearly every literary form, but his primary mode is lyric poetry. He defines his artistic persona in its terms: all his other work takes its bearings from it. He wrote no epics, virtually no long poems of any kind. Of some 4,500 poetical items, nearly 2,200 are songs, and many more song-like though not set to music.
The poems cover an extraordinary formal range. Traditional Bengali verse-forms like the payār couplet appear along with blank verse and the sonnet, derived from the West though assimilated in Bengali by Rabindranath's day. There is a huge range of lyric stanza-forms. His later poetry employs a distinctive type of irregular couplets as well as vers libre. This variety contrasts markedly with the uniform style and structure of Rabindranath's own English versions, couched in a formalized, somewhat archaic poetic prose. They hold no clue to the formal energy and versatility of the originals.
The English selection also creates the misleading image of a largely religious or spiritual poet. Undoubtedly, a sustained vein of philosophic spirituality runs through his poetry. He wrote many hymns for the Brahmo Samaj, the reformed Hindu community to which his family belonged. His poetry shows profound assimilation of the Vedas and Upanishads. But it mostly upholds no doctrinal religion and is often incompatible with any. He consistently finds a spirit immanent in nature and human life. The interaction of the natural with the supra-natural is presented in many veins, from the theistic to a kind of refined animism.
A great many poems address human matters pure and simple, human love above all. His own art is a regular theme. There is some political poetry, from local satire to fierce attacks on the global order. Many poems concern the inner life and external situation of women, complementing his fiction and essays on the subject. There is an unsuspected amount of humour, whimsy, and nonsense.
Rabindranath's poetry comprises a whole universe of themes and concerns. This chapter is a very brief overview of a vast, hugely varied, mostly untranslated, and intellectually complex body of poetry. That poetry does not evolve in a straight graph.