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BJP dominance will mirror early Congress hegemony

In a new collection of essays, Democrats and Dissenters (Allen Lane), historian Ramachandra Guha talks about the enfeeblement of the Opposition and the Congress party, as well as the ‘worrisome’ dominance of the BJP for the next two decades.

By RAMACHANDRA GUHA
New Delhi, Excerpts from a September 2016 interview with Charmy Harikrishnan of Economic Times

While the Congress waits for the cows to come home, BJP continues to grow as a hegemonistic force and its views - on cows or sedition - are in the mainstream now

While the Congress waits for the cows to come home, BJP continues to grow as a hegemonistic force and its views - on cows or sedition - are in the mainstream now.

You write about the long life and lingering death of the Congress. What is the impact of the Congress's decline? 

There are still very many people — too many, I would say — who think that the Congress can revive as a national political force. But my sense is that what we are probably seeing is the BJP emerging as the only national party in the foreseeable future. The BJP, in terms of its role in Indian politics not in terms of its ideology, will be like the Congress in the 1960s and 1970s. There will be some challengers — the Communists in Kerala, the Trinamool in Bengal and the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu — but the BJP will be overall dominant. That was exactly how the Congress was — the Communists came to power in 1957, the DMK in 1967, the Akalis became quite strong in Punjab — but overall there was no national alternative. 

The Swatantra Party, founded by C Rajagopalachari, tried and failed. Now the Aam Aadmi Party may try and it will be interesting to see how far it will go. But for the next 15 or 20 years, I think, the BJP will be the hegemonic, determining force in Indian politics. 

Is a reinvention possible for the Congress? You have been critical of Rahul Gandhi, whom you have called incompetent. 

For a long time, I nostalgically thought the Congress could revive, but I am now increasingly sceptical. Outside the Congress echo chamber, there is a sense that the Gandhi family is useless. Rahul Gandhi is an object of ridicule and contempt by people who would otherwise be attracted to a liberal Congress point of view. There are intelligent, sensible people in the Congress but they are so dependent on the Gandhis. I have been struggling to understand this dependence.

Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha


Across the Indo-Gangetic plain, the Congress has become invisible. It is a lingering death, a terminal illness. Rahul Gandhi should retire from politics, get married and start a family. That will be good for him. That will be good for India also

Is it a kind of infant-mother syndrome? Is it because they think only the family can help revive the party? Is it financial dependence — do they control the purse strings? It is mystifying. It is possible that in the next general election, due to anti-incumbency, the Congress may go from 44 to 70 or 80 or even 100. 

But they can't become a major force again. Look at the states, there is no party organisation. In Maharashtra, it is declining. Kerala may be one of the few states where there is still a party organisation. Across the Indo-Gangetic plain, the Congress has become invisible. It is a lingering death, a terminal illness. Rahul Gandhi should retire from politics, get married and start a family. That will be good for him. That will be good for India also. 

Does that mean one majoritarian narrative will get prominence? 

Yes — and it is worrisome. But there will be resistance. Go back to when the Congress was like the BJP today. The Congress narrative was resisted — by the communists, socialists and free-thinking figures like Ram Manohar Lohia, JB Kripalani and C Rajagopalachari. You can see a pushback to the BJP because we are still a democracy. It will be resisted by local regional parties. There will be cultural and artistic resistance as well. The BJP's dominance, however, will have uglier effects than the Congress's dominance. The Congress also manipulated institutions and installed its people as judges and vice chancellors but it did not have this malign intent. The RSS is a bigoted reactionary political force. The fact that this cow protection business is now official policy — that in Maharashtra and Haryana, you are giving ID cards and making vigilantes represent the state, effectively — is deeply troubling. All this will have a deeply corroding effect on the cultural, social and moral fabric. It will be resisted — but the Congress will not resist it; other Indians will resist it. 

Instead of one opposition party, there are many dissenting voices, like the AAP or the Dalit uprising in Gujarat. 

Those are significant. The BJP cannot think that it will be uncontested. Even those who have voted for Narendra Modi are increasingly commenting on his tall talk, empty promises, his extraordinary vanity and love for the media. So satire and critique are already emerging. But there is no one leader to converge around. Earlier people thought Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal could become an alternative pole, but they have been disappointing. Still, the BJP is mistaken if it thinks it will have an easy ride.

The RSS is a bigoted reactionary political force. The fact that this cow protection business is now official policy — that in Maharashtra and Haryana, you are giving ID cards and making vigilantes represent the state, effectively — is deeply troubling

You have mentioned several threats to the freedom of expression. Changing the laws would remove most of them. Will this government do that? 

It, unfortunately, doesn't have the political will to do that. So this will continue. In the late 1950s, when India was secure and safe, Jawaharlal Nehru should have rolled back the First Amendment (restricting free speech), which he didn't do. Subsequent political regimes did not have the legitimacy or the courage or the conviction to do that. I don't think this government sets great store by creative or artistic or intellectual work. 

That is not its priority. So why should it move in that direction? Atal Bihari Vajpayee may not have had the courage to undo the First Amendment but at least he said ‘kitab ki jawab kitab se hona chahiye.’ I don't think Prime Minister Narenda Modi will do this. Even as CM of Gujarat, Modi banned books and had films informally barred. The sense that artistic and intellectual creation is important is missing in the present regime. 

Section 124 A of the IPC, or the sedition law, you interestingly point out, was called “a rape of the word ‘law’ ” by Mahatma Gandhi. Should that go? 

The sedition law is a British law. It is repealed in Britain where you can call the queen anything you want. Here, you have a case against (former Congress MP and Kannada actor) Ramya for saying Pakistan is hospitable. Even when the laws are there, lower courts could entertain frivolous cases. Even when the courts are progressive, like in the Perumal Murugan case, the system is so inimical that he can't go back to his hometown. 

Secularism, you quote sociologist Imtiaz Ahmed, is a radical departure from the past for India. Is that creating friction? 

It is always a challenge — how to create a secular state in a very religious society. But on the broad principle, religion and politics should be divorced. India is not a Hindu Pakistan — and we should stay that way. Basing either politics or governance on religious principles is a great mistake. It was fundamentally wrong that a Jain monk addressed the Haryana assembly. This is a modern democratic republic. This is not Shivaji's or Akbar's or Tipu Sultan's India. Excessive religiosity in politics should be avoided. 

You have said the Indian right wing doesn't have enough intellectuals. 

It is an interesting puzzle. Once upon a time we did. RC Majumdar was a serious scholar. You could argue with him because he did proper research. But how can you debate with Y Sudershan Rao, who is the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR)? He has not done any serious research or published any major books or essays. It is rare in a democracy where you have a major right wing political party with no intellectuals. 

In the UK, Margaret Thatcher had scholars around her who were formulating her policies. In the US, Ronald Reagan himself might not have been a great intellectual but the Reagan Revolution was powered by the ideas of Milton Friedman and Irving Kristol who wanted to re-emphasise conservative values. In India, this absence is something to deplore. If the BJP is in power for the next 20 years or so and if there is no serious, rigorous thinking informing its policy — and where they have kept Arun Shourie, their only intellectual, outside their portals — it is worrying. 

It is rare in a democracy where you have a major right wing political party with no intellectuals. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher had scholars around her. In the US, Ronald Reagan might not have been a great intellectual but the Reagan Revolution was powered by the ideas of Milton Friedman and Irving Kristol 

Rajagopalachari, who could have been a leader for the conservatives, has not been championed as such. Why was Rajaji not appropriated by the right wing with the same fervour as Gandhi and Patel have been? 

Maybe because he was never a mass leader. Vallabhbhai Patel was a mass leader. So was Gandhi. So was Subhas Chandra Bose. 

There is a group that revived Rajaji's magazine Swarajya but they have turned out to be just hardcore Modi worshippers. Rajaji is ripe for an intellectual revival but maybe he is too subtle and sophisticated for the current right-wing regime to appreciate. A credible right-wing intellectual tradition can only emerge outside the RSS ecosystem. 

The RSS's views are not conducive to the 21st century. If you are burdened with the baggage of MS Golwalkar, then you have a problem. 

Is that possible — an alternative right wing? 

In the short term, no. But let younger people emerge, people who are not with the BJP but are conservative. 

How do you see social media where people are heavily trolled but there is little informed dissent? 

Younger Indians have a hunger for ideas. Social media is good, constricting as well as enabling. It widens the sphere of debate but it also leads to unnecessary personalisation and abuse. 

Some of the biggest voices of dissent are coming from Kashmir. 

Currently the situation is very bleak, and it is made more bleak by the terror attack in Uri; that will polarise things further. A long-term solution has to be based on greater autonomy, restoring Article 370 completely and giving it more teeth. We cannot redraw the international boundary. The situation does not exist to give the Kashmir Valley independence. At the same time, when opportunities had arisen in the past to moderate the conflict, we missed them. The prime minister must distance himself from the RSS position on Article 370. He should say that it is non-negotiable. He should say Kashmiris will be given more autonomy. 

The excesses of the Hindu right wing have had a terrible blowback in Kashmir. When Mohammad Akhlaq was killed and when violent attacks happened in Mewat, the videos are shown in Kashmir. And the jihadis tell the ordinary Kashmiris that Muslims are not safe in India. Even if Pakistan stops exporting terror, we will still have problems in Kashmir. A lot of the problem in Kashmir is homegrown. Pakistan is exploiting the situation. Discontent is deep and pervasive. There is excessive army presence in the civilian areas of Kashmir. 

Jayaprakash Narayan, whom this government always talks about, recognised this decades ago. He wrote how Kashmir will be seething with discontent even if Pakistan didn't exist because the Indian state has been arrogant and apathetic to the ordinary Kashmiri. Give every state autonomy. Local pride and regional pride are not inconsistent with national loyalty.


Ramachandra Guha is a historian and biographer based in Bangalore. He has taught at Yale and Stanford, held the Arné Naess Chair at the University of Oslo, and been the Indo-American Community Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His books include The Unquiet Woods, and an award-winning social history of cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field (Picador, 2002). India after Gandhi (Macmillan/Ecco Press, 2007) was chosen as a book of the year by the Economist, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and a host of international publications. Guha’s books and essays have been translated into more than 20 languages and 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’. In 2009, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the Republic of India’s third highest civilian honour.

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Stephanie Sinclair (4 October, 2016) – United Kingdom
Ram Guha's razor observations - with a historian's perspective - cut through the tangle of Indian politics to get to the core of things.
Hariharan (4 October, 2016) – India
BJP for another 20 years? That would be a disaster for a 'united' India. Yet it seems there are few alternatives
S Abbas (4 October, 2016) – Singapore
I laughed aloud when reading the comment about Rahul Gandhi getting married and starting a family (in order to save India). Unfortunately, it may simply create a splinter Congress party (again led by a Gandhi scion) with the usual coterie of hangers-on. Not a pretty sight. Well said Mr Guha.

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