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.

14 thoughts on “Sunday Levity: The Bappi Lahiri doctrine”

  1. 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.

    Profound. Hats off to you.

  2. I could not make head nor tail of the post. Seemed like gibberish to me. Must…try…to…make…sense…No, head hurts.

  3. Atanu,

    Even IMFL can’t help you. For anyone who has not spent a lifetime studying the obscure cultural phenomenon called the Hindi film industry, this post will appear as gibberish. It will also appear as gibberish to those who have actually spent a lifetime studying the obscure cultural phenomenon but have not spent a lifetime studying that even more obscure phenomenon called Indian foreign policy. Since it is a mathematical impossibility for anyone to spent a lifetime studying both, because most of us have only one lifetime, and that by definition the current lifetime is not complete, it is stands to reason that it will appear as gibberish to nearly everyone.

    The correct social behaviour at such occasions is to simply repeat the comments of those who have commented before you. Or alternately, to simply disagree with the comments of one or more of the people who have commented before you. Or both. But admitting that it is gibberish gives the game away.

  4. “say through a thorough study of the dust jacket of ….”

    Hahaha…me, likey! Btw is Guha mere eminent or supereminent?

  5. Nitin:

    I figured as much — it is my lack of familiarity with the Lahiris, the Nayyars, and Rahmans (*) compounded with my total ignorance of Indian foreign policy that makes your post gibberish to me.

    Note that I wrote, “I could not make head nor tail of the post. Seemed like gibberish to me.” I said the same thing when I read my friend’s 13-page math PhD thesis (UC Berkeley) on algebraic geometry. I could have lied and said, “Wow, that is so accurate. Totally agree.” I was just awed that what appeared to be gibberish to me makes sense to someone else and indeed gets people awarded PhDs.

    (*) I am a big fan of old Hindi film music but don’t know the finer details of who was the music director for a specific song, which movie it is from, who wrote the lyrics, which raaga it is based on, etc.

  6. Socal,

    I’m not qualified to comment on the degree of Guha’s eminence; a very subjective matter. I can however comment on his book’s prominence on my bookshelf. Being big and heavy (I refer to the book, of course), I couldn’t place it in the middle of the shelf. It was only after L K Advani’s equally prominent book arrived late last week that the problem was solved. One on each side and the balance of power was restored.


    You should not talk about being drunk in the past tense. Bad habit.


    The importance of paying attention to two two letter words is now clear to me.

  7. “The importance of paying attention to two two-letter words is now clear to me.”

    There, I have fixed it. And with that I will conclude my totally frivolous and irrelevant comments on this matter 🙂

  8. Atanu,

    Since you have already admitted your lack of familiarity with foreign policy, you probably are not aware that hyphenation is against the national interest. (Moreover, the sentence would be at least a third less clever.)

    But since this blog in general and this post in particular is aimed at students of foreign policy, your “frivolous and irrelevant” comments have highlighted a profound point—dehyphenation.

  9. An intellectual take on two cultural realities relatively bereft of intellect. Bravo!

    I wonder what parallels Bappi Lahiri’s jewelry in Indian foreign policy 🙂

  10. “I wonder what parallels Bappi Lahiri’s jewelry in Indian foreign policy”

    Perhaps NAM or our so-called “independent” foreign policy. They measure quite well in tackiness and lack of substance.


    The label ’eminent’ has been taken, so was just curious which one is applied to Guha. Thought you might know, not what would be your choice. If you don’t mind me telling, which side of center do they each occupy? Assuming you read from left to right. 😉

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