A scintillating mind has passed into history; an intellectual who towered over his uncertain times is no more. But to consider Rajni Kothari as only an academic, albeit an extremely influential one, would be doing him injustice. Alongside his role as teacher/researcher, Kothari was cast more in the mould of a public intellectual — an institution-builder, vigorous defender of civil liberties and democratic values, and, as academic Harsh Sethi pointed out a few years ago in his memoirs, “one who has sought to combine civic activism with reorienting the institutions of the State”.
He played guru and friend to three generations of younger scholars and activists, and was generous in supporting scholars who came close, often taking immense pride in the achievements of his protégés — a sterling quality, given that so many of our academics are often too insecure about themselves.
He first burst upon the scene with a set of six pathbreaking essays, Form and Substance in Indian Politics, while still a young lecturer at Baroda University. From his seat of academic baptism, Kothari moved to Delhi in the early 1960s, helped set up the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and, along with a set of younger colleagues such as Ashis Nandy, wrote Politics in India, which first theorised the Congress system, the role of caste in Indian politics and so on, radically altering the existing thinking on Indian civil society.
Old-timers would recall how, during a critical phase in the nation’s history (when Jayaprakash Narayan launched the Navnirman movement), he became close to Indira Gandhi and mediated on her behalf with the leaders close to JP. However, the shadow of Sanjay Gandhi soon loomed large on Kothari’s role, leading him to distance himself from Indira. This phase saw Kothari’s activism being reignited, and he intervened decisively with his anti-authoritarian position.
However, the sum total of experiences that he had with the Janata Party was bitter, and from political activism he shifted to an intense involvement with the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and other civil society outfits. Along with Romesh Thapar, Kothari worked on an ‘Agenda for India’ and, for some vague reason, desisted from direct political identification despite knowing so well that politics informs each and every gamut of activity.
He was a prodigious thinker and scholar, and a favourite on the seminar circuit. He excelled in a non-State role despite serving as chairman, Indian Council of Social Science Research, or later as member of the now radically transformed Planning Commission. His prolific output — scholarly writings and newspaper columns, all seeking to intervene and shape public opinion on matters of current concern — made him truly unstoppable and his insistence on ethics and humanism as the cornerstone of his philosophy meant that the cavalcade of younger scholars trying to engage him became an abiding factor.
As several scholars studying him have recorded, Kothari represented no narrow life of the mind, despite his formidable academic contributions. His somewhat unfinished and often sketchy memoirs show how his mindset was shaped by an unusually rich life starting with his involvement in the Quit India movement and the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny pre-Independence. His was an acutely introspective mind that refused to be unnerved by the seeming contradictions in his favoured positions.
Very rarely did Kothari self-consciously assert himself, and it was not his style to titillate young scholars and readers with tidbits about the many powerful personalities who crossed his path. The one fact that is undeniable was the perseverance of the man who, despite his often dark premonitions and ruminations, refused to give up on his inherent sense of optimism. At a time when there are huge question marks over the shift in the polity, with many losing faith even in the idea of India, Rajni Kothari refused to give up until the very end, which was in a way the most sterling contribution that he made to his life and times.