Sunday Levity: The Bappi Lahiri doctrine

Understand India’s foreign policy through its music

A grand popular narrative of Indian foreign policy has not yet been written. Here, offered entirely without such niceties as empirical evidence, is an attempt to reconcile two glorious traditions: Indian foreign policy and Hindi film music.

While scholars have tried to explain Indian foreign policy through an examination of the personalities of prime ministers, priorities of ruling political parties and the exigencies of coalition politics, a cursory glance at the history of post-independence India—say through a thorough study of the dust jacket of Ramachandra Guha’s tome under the stimulating influence of IMFL—will reveal that it is through the music of the times that we can best understand it.

The state-owned broadcaster’s decision, in the 1950s, not to play O P Nayyar’s trendy melodies already gave an indication that the foreign policy course adopted by the Nehru government was not quite consistent with popular opinion. Throughout the 50s and the 60s, foreign policy—like film music—was beautiful and elegant, hopeful in general but well below potential. Like S D Burman’s music, non-alignment was almost designed to inspire nostalgia in future generations.

It was in the early 70s—under the R D Burman doctrine—that Indian foreign policy came into its own. It was a burst of energy: the power of which had global appeal, yet was a product of indigenous improvisation blending well with foreign technology. It was the music to win wars by.

By the late 1970s and 1980s the Alokesh “Bappi” Lahiri revolution had India in its grasp. Here was a doctrine that was amoral in the true sense of the word: it did not matter where something came from. What mattered was where it went. What mattered was how something could be used to hold the audience in thrall. The confidence and innovation of India’s foreign policy in the 1980s was wrongly attributed to the Rajiv Gandhi age. In reality, Mr Gandhi and his team were heavily inspired by the Bappi Lahiri doctrine—they were undaunted by the “not invented here” syndrome at a time when it was perhaps at its strongest. In a sense the Rajiv Gandhi team, like Mr Lahiri himself, was comprised of people with a solid pedigree in the classical, yet with a pulse on the modern. Like Mr Lahiri, they were often ahead of their times. [The Ilaiyaraja doctrine, meanwhile, quietly and unthreateningly expanded Indian influence in the Indian Ocean region.]

Isolated Anand-Milind’s and Raam-Laxman’s couldn’t rescue Indian foreign policy from the backlash against the Bappi Lahiri doctrine in the final years of the 80s. The murky Nadeem-Shravan business exposed the inroads organised crime-terrorism nexus had made into the country. Until A R Rahman arrived on the scene with a doctrine for the post-cold war world, there was generally a sense of drift. It was Mr Rahman who inspired a new confidence, bolstered by an India shedding many of its shibboleths—the economic and the political. The Rahman doctrine pointed towards new possibilities arising from globalisation; that not only could India hold its own, it could even shape—albeit in a limited sense—global developments. The zenith of the Rahman doctrine was India’s emergence as a nuclear power.

While the Rahman doctrine still animates much of Indian foreign policy, it also empowered several innovative doctrines: from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s sophisticated coalitional cosmopolitanism, to the popularisation of Indian folk music through the specialist device of item numbers, and to the dogmatic, relentless nasality of Himesh Reshammiya. The definitive post-Rahman doctrine is still a work in progress: but it is abundantly clear that all these schools both advocate and reflect an India spreading its influence far from its own shores. If Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy is about embracing globalisation and expanding India’s soft power, it is Himesh Reshammiya that stands for a more than minimum credible deterrence. Between the two they allow a thousand home-grown item numbers to flourish.

The attitude towards item numbers, perhaps, best demonstrates the attitudes towards realism. At one time item numbers were almost solely picturised on Helen, an actress who was always The Vamp. Today item numbers are picturised on the hottest stars, and doing an item number well is often a ticket to fame and fortune. In Helen’s days, the item number was seen as a necessary evil and projected as immoral. Today it is mostly celebrated. Yet, even today, item numbers constitute only five minutes of the entire 30 minute album, suggesting that there are limits to the acceptance of realist prescriptions in the foreign policy mix. That may well be the lesson for students of foreign policy.