The New York Times has referred to him as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers’; Time magazine has called him ‘Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler’.
Meet Ramachandra Guha, one of the few intellectuals in India, who is a liberal in the classic sense of the term.
He has pioneered three distinct fields of historical inquiry: environmental history (as in The Unquiet Woods, 1989), the social history of sport (A Corner of a Foreign Field, 2002), and contemporary history (India after Gandhi, 2007). He is currently working on a multi-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi.
His latest book Patriots and Partisans (Penguin/Allen Lane Rs 699) is a collection of 15 essays based mostly on all that has gone wrong in modern India.
“Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre… He has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession,” he says in this interview to Vivek Kaul. Here are some excerpts:
You write that “Indian constitution had always been impalatable to the Marxist-Lenninists since it did not privilege a particular party (their own), and Hindu radicals since it did not privilege a particular faith (their own).” Can you discuss that in a little detail?
Marxist-Leninists the world over believe in a state run for and by a single party, their own. Hence the problems encountered by the Communist Party of China, which is paranoid that a call for freedom and democratic rights will lead to the dismantling of their monopoly. Indian Marxist-Leninists are no exception. The Naxalites fantasize about planting the Red Flag on the Red Fort. Even the CPI(M) still somewhere believes that one day it will be the sole party in control in India.
And what about the Hindu radicals?
A core belief of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh) is in a Hindu Rashtra, a state run by and for Hindus. Muslims and Christians in this scenario have always to prove their loyalty, in fact, they have to acknowledge their distant or proximate, real or fictitious, origins in a Hindu family and in Hindu culture. When the NDA came to power, under the influence of the RSS they constituted a Constitutional Review Commission. Knowing that the former Chief Justice, MN Venkatachaliah, was a practising Hindu with a profound knowledge of the scriptures, they asked him to head the Commission, hoping he would advocate amendments in the direction they desired. To their dismay, Justice Venkatachaliah said the secular Constitution of India was completely sound.
Which is a bigger threat to India, naxalism or Hindu bigotry?
In the 1990s, Hindu bigotry; now, Naxalism. Things may yet again change, or an altogether new threat may emerge. Historians cannot predict!
In one of your essays you talk about the senior Congress leader Gulzari Lal Nanda, who was twice the acting Prime Minister of India, dying in a small flat in Allahabad. You also talk about Lal Bahadur Shastri to highlight how upright Indian politicians used to be. What has made them so corrupt over the years?
Ironically, leaders of the CPI and CPI(M), despite their strange and archaic ideology, are perhaps the least corrupt of Indian politicians. They do not have Swiss bank accounts and do not sup with corporates. The compulsions of election funding, the state’s control over natural resources (including land), and sheer venality and greed have encouraged leaders of all other parties to become grossly wealthy by abusing their office.
There remain exceptions. Manmohan Singh is completely honest in a personal sense (though complicit in the corruption of his party and government). And there still remain some outstandingly upright judges, IAS officers, and Generals. The day his term ended, Justice Venkatachaliah moved out of his Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi and returned to his modest home in Bangalore. Others would have at least stayed on for the six months allowed for by the law, using that period to lobby for another sarkari post with perquisites.
You also suggest that if Lal Bahadur Shastri would have been around for sometime more India would have been different country than what it is today. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Shastri has been greatly under-rated both as politician and Prime Minister. It was he who laid the foundations of the Green Revolution (although Indira Gandhi took the credit). He was a far more focused leader in defence and military matters than his mentor, Nehru. He had initiated moves to open out the economy and encourage entrepreneurship. And he was scrupulously honest and completely non-sectarian. Had he lived another five or ten years India may today be a less discontented democracy and a less corrupt society.
Normally when people want to refer to dynasty politics in India they talk about the Nehru Gandhi family. You say it should be just the Gandhi family. Why do you say that?
I show in my book, with concrete evidence, that the dynasty originated with Indira Gandhi, not Nehru. I think this dynasty is now on its last legs. Its charisma is fading with every generation. And Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre. Rajiv at least had a vision–of making India a technologically sophisticated society. Sonia has enormous stamina and determination. Rahul has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession.
Has chamchagiri increased in the Congress party over the years? Are the chamchas of Sonia Gandhi bigger chamchas than the chamchas of Rajiv, Sanjay and Indira Gandhi?
Quite possibly. As there is less to go around, there is more active chamchagiri to get what remains. The cult around 10 Janpath in Congress circles is sickening.
Are the Internet Hindus the new kar sevaks?
Yes and no. They have the same bigoted worldview and fanatical fervour of the kar sevaks, but express this through the safe medium of the Web. The kar sevaks had more raw energy, travelling to Ayodhya, provoking riots on the way there and on the way back. The Internet Hindus are as narrow-minded and sectarian as the kar sevaks, but, since their abuse is verbal and not physical, far less dangerous.
Gurucharan Das talks about the need for a new party which understands the Indian middle class in his new book India Grows At Night. You also make a slight mention in one of the essays. Do you see that happening? Does the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) look like filling in that gap?
The anti-corruption protests of 2011 were an important wake-up call to large sections of Indian society, not just the politicians. However, for the energy and passion to have a substantial and enduring impact, the movement must stay focused, and be patient. Too much media attention is inimical to solid grassroots work. The leaders of AAP should, for the moment, stay away from TV studios and build state-level units and forge alliances with civil society groups across India. To fight the next General Elections would be foolish and premature. They should aim rather to make an impact in the General Elections of 2019.
Over the years have we become less liberal as a society than we were before?
It may not be accurate to say that we have become less liberal as a society. On the whole, Indians are more aware of the rights of Dalits and women than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Sectarian religious sentiments on the ground are markedly less intense and polarizing than they were 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, the media only gives space to extreme positions. And the state capitulates to bigots when it should stand up to them. This capitulation is sadly true of all parties.
Why did the UPA encourage India’s greatest artist to flee into exile? Could it not protect his life and dignity in his own homeland? Why did the Left Front not provide protection to Taslima Nasreen? The tragedy is that the so-called secular parties cave in most easily to the sectarians and the bigots—the Congress to the Hindu right, the Congress and the Left to the Muslim right, the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra to the Shiv Sainiks.
Could you elaborate on that?
About four years ago, I wrote a piece in a Delhi newspaper known to be read by senior Congress leaders and Ministers. I said there that when the next Republic Day awards were announced, the Government should give MF Hussain the Bharat Ratna and Salman Rushdie the Padma Vibhushan. This would be just reward, no less than their artistic and literary genius deserved. It would strike a blow for artistic and literary freedom. And it would simultaneously insult Hindutvawadis and the mullahs. The rest of India (namely, the majority of Indians) would praise the Government, and the bigots would be speechless, the Hindutvawadis not knowing whether to praise the Government for honouring Rushdie or abuse it for honouring Hussain, and the mullahs confused in the other direction.
But that moment has now passed…
Sadly, Hussain is now dead, the moment has passed, and one does not see the Government—any government—stand up boldly for liberal and democratic values. This is the tragic paradox—that while society as a whole may be becoming slightly more liberal, the further progress of liberalism is halted by the encouragement to illiberal forces by the state and political parties.
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org