Exclusive: Ramachandra Guha Talks To India Ink
The India Ink staff on the sidelines of a lecture hosted by the Georgetown University India Initiative on The Long Life and Lingering Death of the Indian National Congress got a chance to sit down with Ramachandra Guha, renowned historian and biographer. The India Ink staff discussed many issues of contemporary political importance. From the Congress party’s current situation, the BJP’s current position of dominance in the national political discourse to the contrasts between the leadership styles of Narendra Modi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well as the current dismal state of affairs in Jammu and Kashmir.
India Ink: In the past few years you’ve written and spoken continuously about the subject of today’s talk i.e. the decline of the Congress as a spent political force. There’s a need for a vigorous democratic and inclusive opposition more than ever at present - what are our options for this? There’s an abundance of public voices but where are our champions in the political battlefield? Can you help explain this decline? And what according to you are chances of this cycle turning in the future?
Ramachandra Guha: All entities, whether individuals, institutions, political parties, businesses, or cricket teams, rise and fall. Success is not pre-ordained or permanent for anyone. There’s been a great deal of denial around the Congress’s decline, not just within the Congress but also for people outside the party, because its existence has been so fundamental in our history. My talk today is going to contain a large part about the Congress’s historical contributions as well.
I argue in the new edition of India After Gandhi that has an additional 3-4 chapters and will be out in a few months, that the BJP today is like the Congress of the 50s and 60s. We have turned from the Congress system a la Rajni Kothari, to a system where the BJP is now dominant. But even in the Congress’s prime (50s and 60s) the ideals of the Congress were vigorously contested. In the political space at the time the seat share of different parties may have been small but the leadership was very articulate. Be it Shyama Prasad Mukherjee from Jana Sangh, Acharya Kripalani or Lohia among the Socialists or communists like AK Gopalan and then of course you had the Press. On the other hand, you did not have a vigorous civil society in the 50s and 60s like you have now. So today the BJP, like the Congress in the past will also be contested by different people and not just intellectuals, intellectuals are a small part of it, they voice a larger discontent. But, whether it be from the regional parties Mamata or Nitish, the Trinamool is solidly entrenched in Bengal, in Bihar the BJP was defeated decisively, in Kerala the Communists are in power and so on and so forth. Then there will be civil society, the intellectuals as well as voices in social media, which will hold the BJP and its policies to account.
Also, nowadays one finds an interesting phenomenon, a buyer’s remorse of sorts in civil society, amongst people who initially supported Modi rightly because they were disgusted by the Congress but now feel a little betrayed because instead of vikas and development there’s a focus on vigilante squads and the like. I think Sadanand Dhume and Tavleen Singh are good examples of this. The Congress’s role in this cacophony of voices is definitely not a dominant one; you can see this by the fact that they accepted the role of a junior partner in UP as well as in the Bihar Mahagatbandhan. In that sense, there is a very interesting parallel between the dominant but not monopolistic position the Congress had over political discourse in the 50s and 60s and the dominant but not monopolistic hold the BJP enjoys in the present day.
But then again, just as parties fall parties also rise - the BJP had 2 seats in 1984 and look where it is now. So some form of all India opposition could take shape, it could take shape in 5 or 10 years, not in the near future as by all accounts the BJP is in pole position for 2019. But it will still be a contested space; the BJP is dominant but not hegemonic today.
India Ink: After the UP elections, the Prime Minister made a speech about a New India? However soon thereafter the party put in place a man with the credentials of Yogi Adityanath as the head of the UP government, this would have generated further remorse of the kind among supporters as you just stated. But to your mind are there any leaders who can lead a pan-Indian opposition against the BJP that has now certainly become a pan-Indian force?
Ramachandra Guha: The Congress clearly cannot take up such a mantle under the leadership of the Gandhi family. Some people have recommended a hostile takeover by Mamata Banerjee, but actually a takeover by Nitish Kumar would be better. He has a vision, he has credibility, he has integrity and he focuses on growth. He did not oppose demonetization so he wants to be seen on the side of the good but he’s not sectarian, but his problem is that he’s confined to one state.
This is a thought experiment, it’s never going to happen but if Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were to invite Nitish to become the President of the Congress, just think a person of credibility, someone whom people respect, a good administrator and if he was to use the remnants of the Congress machinery that still very much has a presence in each and every state, that could possibly be interesting but then again this is just a thought experiment. In the present day inside the Congress there’s no credible leader even if you leave the family aside, there’s no one who strikes you like a Kamaraj, a Shastri or even a Narasimha Rao.
India Ink: Mani Shankar Aiyar in an interview after the UP debacle stated Congress used to be the party of all and that has gotten fragmented in today’s day and age , he stated that the Congress represents a larger ideology, do you agree with this?
Ramachandra Guha: I don’t agree with Mani Shankar Aiyar at all, the Congress represents nothing, no ideology. I mean if you ask for Imam Bukhari’s vote how do you represent the old Congress ideology at all? There are a few chamchas in Delhi worshipping Rahul Gandhi. Even the few state leaders like Siddaramiah in Karnataka who came up on their own are now continuously undercut by the Congress High Command, he doesn’t even have the autonomy to appoint his own Rajya Sabha MPs. People like Mani Shankar Aiyar have been part of the coterie for too long, they don’t understand the derisiveness with which RG is treated all over the country and how he is an object of ridicule.
In 2015 after the Labour Party was defeated by the David Cameron led Tories, Ed Miliband who was the leader of Labour resigned, I tweeted about it comparing Miliband’s act to that of the Gandhi family. They after coming down to 44 were still not willing to take the blame and step down, showing their ignorance for a possible want of change.
India Ink: In Patriots and Partisans, there’s a brief passage in the book, when you engage in a "what if" question, regarding Indira Gandhi’s entry into the Congress, if Lal Bahadur Shastri hadn’t died. Do you think a historian could look back, some 20 years on, on the day Narendra Modi offered his resignation to BJP in Goa (2002) and wonder what if BJP had accepted that resignation?
Ramachandra Guha: Absolutely, Narendra Modi is now a force of nature, a considerable figure, a man of enormous energy and ambition, and a popular leader across large parts of India. However, just as the BJP today in its overwhelming superiority resembles the Congress of the past, similarly there are some uncanny resemblances in the political styles of Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. The latest act of Prasar Bharati floating an idea of an international media channel to counteract negative narratives from the West about Indian politics is one example. The government is paranoid about western style reportage of India and they want to start a new channel , but this echoes serious Indira style paranoia.
If Vajpayee had gotten his way in Goa at the 2002 party session , of course, and Modi had to leave office as Chief Minister, this would have been a different India, whether better or worse one cannot say, but certainly different.
India Ink: Also in Patriots and Partisans in the chapter titled Hindutva Hate Mail you try to understand where such feelings emanated from. In today’s Twitter world there is immense irrational hate spewing that young people indulge in. To Barkha Dutt in an interview last year on the launch of Democrats and Dissenters you stated that the one positive is that young Indian society is changing, becoming more progressive. However is it not a worrying trend today that there is such an immense catchment of pseudo nationalists masquerading as freedom loving desh-bhakts? The BJP recently has even given this a fillip recently, by appointing Tajinder Bagga, a similar kind of social media warrior as its Delhi Spokesperson.
Ramachandra Guha: This is worrying but to be honest, we don’t know how large the proportion is, often the people who shout loudest are not necessarily in the majority. But it is certainly worrying, the online anger is a curious kind of paranoia, where you’re so prickly about the reputation of your country. A civilization as old as India, should be more confident and should be able to look itself in the mirror.
As for Tajinder Bagga’s appointment I think much of this comes from Amit Shah. I’ve often said that Narendra Modi would be well advised to take less advice from Amit Shah, because he has a very ruthless approach to politics. Narendra Modi is a conflicted person, one part of Narendra Modi wants to leave a positive legacy; he’s a phenomenally intelligent man. He knows if he’s going to build a Ram Temple, history’s not going to judge him well. But if he can help generate economic growth, reduce poverty, and skill Indian citizens he will leave a positive legacy. One part of Modi wants to do this, he needs the electoral mandate, so he needs Amit Shah, who’s a masterful organizer, but Amit Shah’s whole approach to politics is instrumental and vindictive.
One saw this during the UP elections, during the elections people focused on Modi’s remark about Shamshan Ghat and Kabristan - but actually a much more dangerous remark was Amit Shah’s Kasab remark, wherein he tried to be clever and say the opposing parties were like the 26/11 terrorist. The benchmark for viciousness, vendetta politics and name-calling is being set by Amit Shah. This is his style of politics and in my opinion it isn’t good, even people and senior ministers in the party fear him. He inspires respect through fear not through achievement. On the other hand Modi is a mixture, he’s ferociously hard-working, he’s learnt enormously on the ground, you may not agree with his vision but he knows that there are many different dimensions to how India must develop - be it through the lens of energy policy or through the lens of economic policy. Whereas someone like Amit Shah’s only interested at winning at any cost and by whatever means. And he’s in charge of the party so he has most likely sanctioned Bagga’s appointment.
India Ink: In Ullekh NP’s recent book, he portrays Vajpayee as an astute democrat someone very inspired by Nehru and how he managed to keep the RSS at arms length while in government. This could largely have been due to him being the leader of a coalition government in contrast to today. What is the comparison you see in the present day political relationship between the BJP and the RSS as compared to the Vajpayee era?
Ramachandra Guha: Modi in Gujarat had pushed the Sangh Parivar to a side. He started as a RSS pracharak and he grew up the ranks and then became CM. And after he became CM steadily grew in confidence and made the CMO pre-eminent and marginalized the RSS and the VHP. But then he needed the RSS to fight and win the 2014 general election. The RSS although initially not pleased because they saw him as a bit of a betrayer, saw that in terms of charisma there was no one to match him, therefore they backed him by putting out their cadres to help him win the election.
On assuming office, Modi may have thought he will strike a deal with them wherein economic policy and foreign policy he would keep to himself but give the RSS a say in education and culture. But education and culture took over the national headlines, given all the absurd appointments to educational institutions such as Sudershan Rao and Gajendra Chauhan by Smriti Irani. So at the outset that was the kind of bargain he thought he could strike with the RSS. But now it seems he’s increasingly capitulated to the Hindutva hardliners both intellectually and ideologically. Adityanath’s appointment is recent, but from 2014 if you look at the kind of appointments that were made, people who were sent as university vice-chancellors or the above examples you’ll see a clear trend. However, foreign policy is one area where Modi’s held his own.
India Ink: Don’t such appointments signify the government catering to their voter base; the government’s argument will indeed be that a large number of Individuals will support such appointments?
Ramachandra Guha: Leadership is largely about taming the beast within you and bringing out the best in you. People do identify with their caste, religion, linguistic groups and these primordial affiliations are important, particularly in India. But that is not how you build a great country, that way you go down the route of Bangladesh or Pakistan. You’ve to think of the consequences of such actions on the country as a whole. Modi is an incredibly successful politician but whether he’ll be remembered as a statesman is open to doubt. For example he should have spoken out on the beating of the Africans in Noida, let him not speak on the Alwar incident, but he should have spoken on the beating of Africans. That’s what a leader would have done, that’s what Vajpayee would have done; Nehru and Gandhi would have done it for sure. If Vajpayee was on twitter he would surely have come out against it. This is actually a person who will go to Twitter to wish Sachin Tendulkar Happy Birthday, but won’t tweet on an issue that will cost him zero political capital. It’s at moments like these that you transition from a successful politician to a successful leader.
India Ink: In today’s day and age, who would you consider as truly thinking politicians in India?
Ramachandra Guha: If you think of people with political intelligence, who understand the complexity of India - Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar are both thinking politicians. They’re different to a Trump or a Rahul Gandhi or even someone like Mamata Banerjee whose motto is oppose oppose oppose. Modi and Nitish have a larger conception of India’s place in the world, they are both incredibly smart - both recognize each other’s intelligence, no wonder they’re not too fond of each other.
India Ink: Today we saw the deferral in an election in Kashmir (Anantnag) for the first time since the troubles in the mid-90s. What do you make of the present situation in Jammu and Kashmir?
Ramachandra Guha: There are three actors in Kashmir and all of them have their hands dirty, there is Pakistan, then there is the Separatist movement which is becoming increasingly Jihadist - there used to be a secular element to it but that has waned, Geelani is like a medieval theocrat. And then there’s the Indian government. My view is while acknowledging that Pakistan has only malign intentions towards us and while acknowledging that the separatist movement is becoming increasingly Islamist and that they haven’t really acknowledged the horrific persecution of the Pandits, Indians and the Indian Government have our faults and our problems. If we actually believe that Kashmir is a part of India we have to reach out to them and make them feel as a part of India. I was in Kashmir in 2015, there was great hope for Modi. A flood had just happened in 2014 and there was great hope for the central government to provide sufficient relief. However that too was stalled because the BJP in Jammu did not want people in the valley to get proper flood relief. Then when the first troubles started last summer (2016), and CM Mehbooba Mufti went to Delhi, Modi did not meet the state chief minister, he kept her waiting and subsequently sent her to meet Rajnath Singh. Even here the contrast with Vajpayee is clear, because even if Pakistan will continuously stoke trouble in Kashmir we have to build bridges and inspire trust and confidence.
Today ordinary Kashmiris ask legitimate questions, they ask when we are protesting on the streets we get pellet guns when the Jats in Haryana do the same, why do they not get the same treatment. How do you answer that?
I’m not someone who believes in India-Pak bhai bhai. Kashmir is how Pakistan wants to bleed us and the Kashmiri freedom struggle has been really weakened by the fact that they have never atoned for the horrific treatment of the Pandits. Having said that, the Government of India has a duty to the people of Kashmir to come to their aid in times of succor. And at this point I think even our media needs to introspect, when the army went and provided aid during the floods, the media was jingoistic, demanding that the Kashmiris should be abjectly grateful for rights that were theirs as citizens of India. The likes of Arnab Goswami should be chastised for this, theirs is a far greater disservice by the media than a negative New York Times editorial can be.
What does 6% voting mean in Kashmir, it means the people want to show how little faith they have in India and what it’s institutions offer to the people. It’s very worrying, and all Indians should wake up to this. The Kashmir question is something that cuts across party lines. If you want Kashmiris to be a part of the country, you need to show them concern.