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”, the India Ink staff got a chance to sit down with Ramachandra Guha, renowned historian and biographer.
The India Ink staff discussed many issues of contemporary political importance. The current situation of the Congress, the BJP’s dominance in the national political discourse, the contrasts between the leadership styles of Narendra Modi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the dismal state of affairs in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) were all discussed.
India Ink: In the past few years you’ve written and spoken continuously about the subject of today’s talk, that is, 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 the chances of this cycle turning in the future?
Ramachandra Guha: All entities – whether they are 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 1950s and 1960s. We have turned from the Congress system, a la Rajni Kothari, to a system where the BJP is now dominant.
But even in their prime, the Congress’ ideals were vigorously contested. In the political space at that 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. 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 they all voice a larger discontent (the intellectuals being a small part of it). The discontent can be voiced by regional parties led by Mamata or Nitish (the Trinamool is solidly entrenched in Bengal, the BJP was defeated decisively in Bihar, while in Kerala, the communists are in power). Then there is the civil society, the intellectuals as well as voices in social media, which will all 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 (development), there’s a greater 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 (grand coalition). 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 equally non-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 – but not in the near future as, by all accounts, the BJP is still 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 you just stated, among reporters. 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, credibility, integrity and he also focusses on growth. He did not oppose demonetisation (because he wants to be seen on the side of the good) but he’s not sectarian. His problem is that he’s confined to only one state.
This is just 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 and if he was to use the remnants of the Congress machinery (that still has a presence in each and every state) things could possibly be interesting again. However, this is just a thought.
Today, the Congress has no credible leader. Even if you leave the Gandhi 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 – least of all, an 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 (boot-lickers) 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. Siddaramiah doesn’t even have the autonomy to appoint his own MPs in the Rajya Sabha.
People like Mani Shankar Aiyar have been part of the coterie for too long. They don’t understand the derisiveness with which Rahul Gandhi 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 the Labour Party) resigned. I tweeted about it comparing Miliband’s act to that of the Gandhi family. Even after their seat-share was reduced to 44, they were still not willing to take the blame and step down. This showed their ignorance towards a possible want of change.
India Ink: In “Patriots and Partisans“, there’s a brief passage in the book where 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 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. They want to start a new channel, but this echoes serious Indira Gandhi-style paranoia.
If Vajpayee had gotten his way in Goa at the 2002 party session, and Modi had to leave office as chief minister (CM), 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 an immense, irrational hate-spewing that young people indulge in. In an interview with Barkha Dutt, last year on the launch of “Democrats and Dissenters“, you stated that the one positive is that the younger sections of Indian society are changing and 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 (patriots)? Recently, the BJP has even given this a fillip, 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 very prickly about the reputation of your country. A civilization as old as India should be more confident, and should be able to look at 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 minimal advice from Amit Shah, because he has a very ruthless approach to politics.
Narendra Modi is a conflicted person – one part of him wants to leave a positive legacy, because he’s a phenomenally intelligent man. He knows that 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 provide skills to Indian citizens, he will leave behind a positive legacy. One part of Modi wants to do this. For this, he needs the electoral mandate. So he needs Amit Shah, who’s a masterful organiser, but whose whole approach to politics is instrumental and vindictive.
One saw this during the UP elections. During the elections, people focussed primarily on Modi’s remarks about ‘shamshan ghat‘ and ‘kabristan‘. But actually, a far more dangerous remark was Amit Shah’s ‘Kasab remark‘, where he tried to be clever and say that 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 and he’s learnt enormously ‘on the ground’. You may not agree with his vision, but he knows that there are many different dimensions to India’s development – be it through the lens of energy policy, or through the lens of economic policy. On the other hand, someone like Amit Shah is only interested in winning at any cost, by any means. And since he’s in charge of the party, 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 arm’s length, while in power. This could largely have been possible 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 that in the Vajpayee era?
Ramachandra Guha: In Gujarat, Modi had pushed the Sangh Parivar to the side. He started as a RSS pracharak, grew up in the ranks, and then became CM. And after he became CM, he steadily grew in confidence and made the chief minister’s office (CMO) pre-eminent, and marginalized the RSS and VHP.
But then, he needed the RSS’s support to fight and win the 2014 general elections. The RSS was initially not pleased, because they saw him as a bit of a betrayer. However, they also realised that, in terms of charisma, there was no one to match him. Therefore, they backed him by putting forth their cadres, and helping him win the election.
On assuming office, Modi may have thought that he would strike a deal with them, wherein they would have a say in matters of education and culture, while keeping economy and foreign policy matters for himself. But education and culture soon took over the national headlines, given all the absurd appointments to educational institutions such as those of Sudershan Rao and Gajendra Chauhan by Smriti Irani.
But now, it seems he’s increasingly capitulating to Hindutva hard-liners, both intellectually and ideologically. Adityanath’s appointment is recent – but if you look at the kind of appointments that were made from 2014 (especially people appointed as university Vice Chancellors or the above examples) you’ll see a clear trend. However, foreign policy is one area where Modi has held his own.
India Ink: Don’t such appointments signify that the government is catering to its voter base, and validating its argument that a large number of individuals will support these appointments?
Ramachandra Guha: Leadership is largely about taming the beast within you and bringing out the best. People do identify with their caste, religion and linguistic groups. 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 a Bangladesh or a 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 doubtful.
For example, he should have spoken out on the beating of the Africans in Noida, even if he didn’t speak on the Alwar incident! 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 written against it.
On the other hand, you are talking of a person (Modi) who will go to Twitter to wish Sachin Tendulkar ‘happy birthday’ – but won’t tweet on this issue (the attack on Africans), even though it will cost him zero political capital. It’s at moments like these that you transition from being a successful politician to being a successful leader, or not!
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 and who understand the complexity of India – Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar are both ‘thinking politicians’ in that respect. They’re different from a Trump or a Rahul Gandhi, or even someone like Mamata Banerjee, whose mottos are ‘oppose, oppose, oppose’! Modi and Nitish have a larger conception of India’s place in the world. They are both incredibly smart – both recognise each other’s intelligence and it is no wonder that 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, there is the separatist movement which is becoming increasingly jihadist. There used to be a secular element to it, but that has waned. Besides, Geelani is like a medieval theocrat. And then, there’s the Indian government.
I acknowledge the facts that Pakistan has only malign intentions towards us and that the separatist movement is becoming increasingly Islamist and hasn’t really acknowledged the horrific persecution of the pandits. However, I am also of the view that we Indians and the Indian government have our faults and our problems.
If we actually believe that Kashmir is a part of India, then we have to reach out to Kasmiris and make them feel that they are indeed a part of India.
When I was in Kashmir in 2015, there was great hope about Modi. A flood had just happened in 2014 and it was greatly hoped that the central government would provide sufficient relief. However, that was also stalled because the BJP in Jammu did not want people in the valley to get proper flood-relief.
When the troubles first started brewing last summer (2016), and CM Mehbooba Mufti went to Delhi, Modi did not even meet her 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, it is us who will have to build bridges and inspire trust and confidence .
Today, ordinary Kashmiris ask legitimate questions. They ask questions like why they are showered with pellets, when they protest – but the Jats in Haryana aren’t, when they do the same. How do you answer that?
I’m not someone who believes in India-Pakistan bhai bhai (brotherhood). Through Kashmir, Pakistan wants to bleed us. The Kashmiri freedom struggle has been really weakened by the fact that they have never atoned for their horrific treatment of the pandits.
Having said that, the government of India has a duty towards the people of Kashmir to come to their aid in times of their distress. I think even our media needs to introspect this. When the army went and provided aid during the floods, the media coverage was jingoistic, and demanded that Kashmiris should be abjectly grateful for their rights as citizens of India. The likes of Arnab Goswami should be chastised for this – theirs is a far greater disservice than a negative editorial by the New York Times (NYT).
What does the 6% voting in Kashmir mean? It means that the people there want to show how little faith they have in India and what its institutions offer to them. 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 your concern.