Pavan Varma: EC Hasn't Given Credible Answer on Gujarat; BJP Wrong to Use Religion to Polarise

In an exclusive interview to The Wire, the Janata Dal (United) spokesman-turned-dissident takes on the Election Commission, Amit Shah, Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath.

Janata Dal (United) leader Pavan Varma has broken ranks with his party to publicly question Narendra Modi’s handling of the economy, Yogi Adityanath’s politics of religious polarisation and the Election Commission’s decision to delay the announcement of Gujarat’s elections.

In an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, the former JD(U) spokesman insists he reflects the real ideology of the party but says his political fate lies in the hands of his leader, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Excerpts.

Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to this special interview with politician-author Pavan Varma for The Wire. In recent days, Pavan Varma has tweeted, written articles and commented, raising some worrying and serious questions on the handling of the economy by the Modi government as well as policies followed in Uttar Pradesh by Yogi Adityanath. He has also talked about what he called “the damaging and deteriorating social mood of the country”. These questions have raised two very critical questions in return – Is he about to reestablish his political credentials, perhaps change their complexion? More importantly, is he about to break his relationship with his party, the JD(U), and his mentor Nitish Kumar? With me to talk about these questions as well as his statement and his future is Pavan Varma himself.

Pavan Varma, in recent days, as I have already mentioned, you have publicly questioned Narendra Modi’s handling of the economy and you have publicly questioned the policies followed by Yogi Adityanath in UP; more importantly, you have spoken about the deteriorating and dangerous social mood of the country. And then in a very interesting article published in the Times of India you have talked about, and I am quoting you “the cumulative impact of demonetisation”, the consequences of the less than adequately planned and implemented GST, the youth are looking for jobs they cant find and farmers have been living under unrelenting agrarian distress. There are a lot of areas of disagreement you have with the BJP and the government – and yet they are your allies, your party is part of the NDA. So what’s the message you are sending out?

Pavan Varma: Let me clarify two things to you, Karan. First, today I am speaking to you in my personal capacity as a member of the JD(U). I am doing this because, for two of my tweets, the party disassociated itself and said it is my personal opinion, and I am explaining that to you. Let me explain to you that the JD(U) as a party has an ideology. That ideology has been chiseled and developed over a period of time and its best personification is Nitish Kumar himself. For the last several years, I have articulated that ideology and put it across. On every issue that you have mentioned, I have voiced what I believe must be the JD(U)’s point of view. Whether it is the current situation in the economy, where corrective measures can be taken because there is obvious and verifiable economic distress being felt. Whether on the social milieu, where there is, especially after Kalburgi, Dabholkar, Pansare, Gauri Lankesh murders, a sense that if you disagree you are under threat. These are issues that are important for the nation and are above party politics and need to be articulated irrespective of which coalition your party is a member of, and this has always been a concern of the JD(U).

Comments ‘reflect Nitish Kumar’s ideology’

Thapar: Now as you said, you have been the party spokesman for four years and for four years you have actually spoken for Nitish, so when you talk about critical issues such as the economy or the mood of the country, or the reluctance or failure or refusal of the Election Commission to announce election dates for Gujarat, are you expressing concerns that Nitish Kumar shares? Have you discussed these with him, or did they take him by surprise?

Varma: I know Nitish Kumar’s thinking. In Delhi, for instance, on a public platform, at the launch of the book by P. Chidambaram, he said on the stage, that the implementation of demonetisation was a monumental management failure, he himself said it. So I am saying, the consequences of it, whatever may have been the intent behind the move, are being felt in a way that it is deleterious to the economy.

Thapar: Absolutely, and Nitish Kumar has spoken about the consequences, but he hasn’t as yet spoken out about the Election Commission’s refusal to set a date for the Gujarat elections, which you spoke about. He hasn’t spoken about the mood in the country which you call deteriorating and dangerous. On those two issues, did you discuss your opinion with him?

Varma: I have been speaking for Nitish Kumar on the basis of my knowledge of his thinking and ideology and I can say this to you with great humility that there are few people who know his ideological stand on issues better than I do. And therefore when I have spoken on these issues, I am voicing these issues, I believe I am speaking for what I think are his beliefs and his ideology.

Thapar: Very interesting when you say “When I am speaking about these issues I am speaking for his ideology”, then you are also saying that when he differs with you at critical points, he is the one who shifted his position and you are reflecting what was his original true position.

Varma: Let me say to you now the example that you quoted, the Election Commission. My question was actually posed not to a party – it was posed to the Election Commission because we have always believed that institutions like the EC must be seen to be impartial. And therefore, if the dates for the Gujarat elections have not been announced and the model code of conduct has not been imposed, my only question is they must provide credible answers.

Thapar: Except for, in your point, the general secretary of your party, within hours of your tweet, actually issued a formal statement where he said that the party does not ‘approve’. the views expressed by  Pavan Varma, not just ‘disagree’, ‘approve’. Then he added that Varma was not authorised to make such a statement and he expressed views in his personal capacity and this has nothing to do with the party’s official line. He also says that they have full faith in the impartial functioning of the Election Commission.

Varma: That is the party’s view, my understanding of the party’s view is that institutions like the Election Commission need to be impartial. If the party has disassociated itself [from] the query to the Election Commission merely asking for credible answers, the party will, and I will have a dialogue with them – explain to me what is it that I have asked which is wrong or incongruent with the JD(U)’s ideology?

Thapar: Let me take you back to what you said a moment ago, ‘I have a firm faith that I articulate the views and the thinking of Nitish Kumar’. You have done that for four years. Now if in this instance Nitish Kumar doesn’t agree with the questions you posed to the Election Commission, then what is the issue? Suddenly you are his spokesman, he doesn’t agree with how you are articulating his views, in fact, K.C. Tyagi actually expressed very different views to yours. So who represents Nitish’s thinking, or do we just now know?

Varma: I think that, on why, as you put it, the party has disagreed of what I said, I need to have a dialogue with my own party, with the leader, whose opinions on these matters I know for a fact. I used to deal…

Thapar: But you can’t know for a fact because his spokesman in the shape of K.C. Tyagi says that he doesn’t approve, that these are not the party’s official lines.

Varma: It cannot be, and I will have a dialogue with my own party.

Thapar: So K.C. Tyagi..

Varma: And it cannot be that the JD(U) is not concerned about the impartiality in the functioning of the Election Commission, which is the watchdog for elections for the world’s largest democracy.

Thapar: So, in other words, you are saying K.C. Tyagi is making a statement on behalf of the party that Nitish Kumar may not fully agree with.

Varma: I think if the party is disapproving it, then they need to explain on what basis and what ideological grounds they are doing so, but that is a dialogue which is an internal matter. It does not for a moment whittle down my own sense of conviction. That such questions need to be asked as a member of JD(U).

Thapar: Let’s move beyond the issue of Election Commission and lets for a moment look at the fact that you have raised questions on the social mood of the country, which you said is deteriorating and dangerous, and you have raised questions on the handling of the economy, you have also raised issues to do with Yogi Adityanath’s policies. Behind all of this, people get the feeling that maybe Pavan Varma is, note my words, beginning to articulate that the alliance with the BJP which kept the JD(U) in power might have been a mistake. That perhaps the JD(U) shouldn’t have joined the NDA. Have you got thoughts that go down that line?

Varma: I believe Karan, and I will be honest – a decision taken by the party to join the NDA was endorsed by the national executive of which I was a member. But I never interpreted that to mean that the party is subsumed within the BJP, that as a member of that coalition it has no right to articulate its own point of view on matters which are absolutely central to its ideological plank. Let me give you an example – the Shiv Sena is a member of the NDA, and far from even asking questions, it is openly critical of the BJP. Within an alliance, you can have questions being, without fear that your ideology needs to be subsumed by the larger party.

Thapar: You are saying a very important thing. First of all, you are saying that the ideology of the JD(U) has been subsumed by the BJP –

Varma: I would never like for that to happen.

Thapar: But you fear it is happening?

Varma: I am not saying I fear it, I am saying it should not happen and in that context alone the JD(U) must continue even as a member of that coalition to ask the right questions which it believes are relevant to its ideological position – which has been chiseled and crafted over a period of decades by Nitish Kumar himself.

Thapar: And the second thing that you have pointed is that the relationship between the Shiv Sena and BJP is the more appropriate one for the JD(U) to have as an identity and –

Varma: I don’t believe in being openly critical within an alliance is necessary. But I believe every constituent of every coalition has the right to ask the question that it believes to be relevant. Today, either in the context of economics, politics or social milieu, it is a fundamental right. When you become a member of the coalition –  you have seen the UPA, NDA – parties retain their identity and ideology and ask the right questions.

Thapar: Your fear, at the moment I can interpret is the nature of the relationship with the BJP is such that the JD(U) could be in danger of losing its identity. That that identity might get subsumed under the BJP, and that worries and concerns you.

Varma: My hope is that with a leader like Nitish Kumar, even if he has become a member of the NDA, the JD(U) will continue to assert what it believes is right in terms of issues and rights that are a matter of national concern.

Thapar: Regardless of the fact that this sometimes might not be music to the ears of BJP, that is irrelevant?

Varma: I think it is because there is a framework of dialogue even within coalition partners.

Thapar: And different voices must be heard and must not be silenced.

Varma: I don’t believe the BJP has attempted to silence it. My own party has disassociated itself from two of my tweets which is a matter that I need to discuss with my party. But for me, I voice that ideology which I understand to be that of the JD(U) and of Nitish Kumar and I have said nothing which is contrary, for instance on the economy –

Thapar: Once again you are reemphasising that you are voicing the ideology that is true to both JD(U) and Nitish Kumar. You are once again saying that your questions, your doubts, your concerns are really those of Nitish Kumar and that K.C.Tyagi is – you are suggesting – speaking out of turn.

Varma: K.C.Tyagi, a colleague of mine, has spoken on whatever instructions he has received, but let me give you one example. When I said that the global hunger index and India’s position at 100 out of 120 – the bottom, literally – is a matter of concern, I was reflecting the JD(U)’s ideology of growth with justice. In other words, the fruits of economic development must reach the poorest of the poor.

Thapar: I will accept your position that you are reflecting the ideology of the JD(U) and by extension Nitish Kumar. Obviously, I’ll point out to the audience that K.C. Tyagi disagrees. When do you propose to sort out this matter directly with Nitish Kumar? That your views are his. When will Nitish Kumar make that clear?

Varma: That is the dialogue that I will have with my own leader

Thapar: When?

Varma: As soon as possible.

Thapar: How soon is as soon as possible?

Varma: I think the moment he has the time, and we have already agreed that e should meet.

Thapar: So you have already spoken to him in his time?

Varma: Of course, in fact, he asked me to come to Patna.

Thapar: So you will be going to Patna to sort this out?

Varma: With great pleasure, I will. He is my leader, why wouldn’t I talk to him?

Thapar: One other thing, you have placed a lot of stress on the need for people to be free to voice their differences and opinions in a democracy. In that context, do you think its right and fitting for Sharad Yadav, former president of the JD(U), former parliamentary leader of the JD(U), because he now has differences because of the alliance with the BJP, should he be removed from the Rajya Sabha altogether?

Varma: I think Sharad Yadav was given time to discuss these matters within the forum of the party.

Thapar: And didn’t take it up?

Varma: And didn’t take it up, and therefore he crossed a line where he was acting in a manner which the party interpreted to be an act of indiscipline and, therefore, within the constitution of the party, they have decided to take action within the rules of parliament.

Thapar: But there you have a difference of opinion with Sharad Yadav.

Varma: Certainly the party has decided on a line with Sharad Yadav when given a chance to express at the right forum and invited to do so did not come and instead held a parallel rally

Thapar: So he crossed a Rubicon and he will pay the price for doing so?

Varma: If it is so decided by parliament.

Thapar: And you don’t believe that you need to intercede with Nitish Kumar to say please rethink the appeal made to Venkaiah Naidu to remove him from the Rajya Sabha?

Varma: I will not interfere in these matters.

‘Nitish Kumar will decide my fate’

Thapar: One other thing people have said is that the relationship between Nitish Kumar and Pavan Varma is a very close one and you both are friends and this ‘rishta‘ goes beyond any political friendship. In that context, people say it is difficult for Pavan to resign when they are so close and the difference in views, opinions and policies grow large. It may be easier for Pavan to provoke Nitish through tweets and interviews to expel him –

Varma: I am not provoking anyone Karan, and let me speak to you as honestly, I have great admiration and respect for Nitish, but I believe that Nitish Kumar has an ideology, a  position, a vichardhaara as its said in Hindi, which has evolved over a period of time and in order to voice it, it is important for the JD(U) itself.

Thapar: But tell me this, when you meet Nitish Kumar in Patna and you discover your understanding of his views is different and you are mistaken and somehow K.C.Tyagi is more accurately representing the views of the party, will you then leave the party or will you allow yourself to be subsumed out of a sense of loyalty or affection?

Varma: I think I can’t answer a hypothetical question.

Thapar: It may not be a hypothetical question very soon.

Varma: No, it will depend on whether Nitish Kumar and I are in agreement on matters that pertain to the very essence of what the  JD(U) stands for.

Thapar: Those have clearly to do with matters such as the social mood of the country, such as the fairness of elections in Gujarat, such as the handling of the economy and the impact on the poor, just to name those three. And on those issues, if Nitish’s views are different to yours, will you stay or will you leave the JD(U)?

Varma: As I said, I cannot preempt the answer until I first have a discussion with Nitish Kumar. My own view is that as a person who has really stood by ideology and his own thought processes,  the discussion may well be where he really understands where I come from.

Thapar: And therefore you will accept the need to part ways or accept to change views?

Varma: Karan, let me reiterate to you, right now I am a member of the JD(U) and I work for Nitish Kumar, but within that framework, in the democratic milieu of any political party, there can be, on occasion, there can be differences of interpretation and opinion. I am free to voice them but I am subject to his final decision. And that dialogue needs to take place, right now it hasn’t but we hope that it will soon.

Thapar: But that still leaves open the question that when you disagree on critical issues with Nitish Kumar and Nitish is closer to K.C. Tyagi, then what happens?

Varma: I think Nitish Kumar has the freedom to decide if he wishes to retain me in the party in the position that I hold or not.

Thapar: You will leave it to him?

Varma: He is the president of the party. But I will continue to believe till my last day, that all I have said on the issues of the economy etc reflect the JD(U)’s ideology.

Thapar: Let me talk to you about certain other issues in detail. Let me wrap up this session by saying you are giving me the impression that you will leave it to Nitish to decide that your views, if they differ from his, can still allow you to stay in the party, or if Nitish feels that your views are different, he will ask you to resign or expel you. This is the decision that you will leave to him – you are not in charge of the decision. You are not going to initiate it.

Varma: He is the national president, he must take the initiative.

‘Election Commission needs to explain’

Thapar: Alright, some of the key issues that are a matter of concern –  and I will begin with your concern that the Election Commission needs to give credible reasons for not announcing the date of the Gujarat elections. But they have, they have gone public to say the reason they did not announce the dates is that the government needs more time for flood relief and management. Why is that not a credible explanation?

Varma: If they have provided a credible explanation, that’s all I asked for,  but they have gone public with it after my tweet, I saw it today. But several chief election commissioners have said that even after the model code of conduct kicks in, flood relief and such like measures are allowed within that code.

Thapar: So this is not an adequate explanation?

Varma: This is not an adequate explanation. Give me one instance, Karan, where elections to assemblies that are happening in different states within six months, when was the last time when two different dates –

KT: In Gujarat 2002, but in Gujarat 2002, the chief minister called early elections, that is why the Himachal and Gujarat dates were announced separately. But let me ask you a second question because people say the Modi government has put pressure on the Election Commission not to announce the dates of the Gujarat election so that Modi’s visits to the state can take place without the restraints of the model code of conduct. Do you share that suspicion or fear?

Varma: If there is even remotely such a suspicion it is incumbent upon the Election Commission to set these apprehensions aside and make the position clear. We live in a democracy, the Election Commission is the arbiter of this democracy and the perception is that there are not adequately convincing reasons why it has taken a stand in the case of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, the EC must explain. I will tell you one thing Karan, democracy is not about the ritual of voting only. It is about the strength of institutions. If there are any external strenuous operations operating in any matter that violates democracy, it is in the interest of all political parties including the JD(U) to assert the fact that the EC must fulfill completely its constitutional mandate.

Thapar: In fact, in your tweet you said, and I am quoting you, that the EC “must not only be impartial but seen to be so”. In this case, this is not so. And worse still, damaging questions are being asked not just by individuals like you and me but by former election commissioners like Qureshi and Krishnamurty. So has this episode damaged the credibility and integrity of the Election Commission?

Varma: I hope not, but if no adequate answers are coming, the questions would continually be asked and it will damage. Because, I will tell you, what was the reaction from Rupani, the chief minister of Gujarat. He said that in 2012, the Election Commission was helpful to Congress.

Thapar: That is casting the allegations as further as possible.

Varma: Even if that may be true, if one wrong is done then do you justify that since it happened in the past this kind of a dialogue casts a very poor impression on the Election Commission.

Thapar: And this kind of argument is why you firmly believe that Nitish will share your doubts and concerns and K.C. Tyagi in claiming that you are speaking for yourself, you don’t have the authority, this is not the party’s line – is actually wrong.

Varma: I am actually completely mystified why the party has disassociated itself with the sentiment which only asks the Election Commission to provide credible answers for a decision it has taken.

On Modi’s economic policies

Thapar: Let’s come again to a second issue you raised which again matters deeply to the Indian people and has to do with the conduct of the economy by Mr. Jaitley as the Finance Minister, and Mr. Modi as PM because everything happens only with his concurrence and permission… In your Times of India article, you talked about the cumulative impact of demonetisation, the consequences of a less than adequately planned and implemented GST, youth looking for jobs they cannot find and farmers reeling under an unrelenting agrarian crisis. These are all concerns the government doesn’t talk about at all. But more importantly in a tweet referring to the Global Hunger Index, India’s position has slipped, and you asked who the fastest growing economy is working for. Again, it’s a question the government never asks. I get the impression that on the economy you have serious, if not fundamental, issues of concern, even differences with the government.

Varma: I believe that when I raise these issues, they are not only about differences but the actual pain and what citizens are going through. Government statistics reveal that there has been a drop in GDP growth because of demonetisation. The fact of agrarian distress has been verified and recorded. The fact that jobs are not being created in adequate numbers is a matter that can be ascertained…

Thapar: Except, there Amit Shah not so long ago, 2-3 months ago said, famously, that 7-8 crore jobs have been created in the unorganised sector. You don’t accept that?

Varma: I don’t believe so because I think that the Mudra scheme which gave loans to people to set up businesses – an evaluation needs to be done about its efficacy and to see the kind of jobs it has created, otherwise you can go out and see, go out of the studio and talk to the young. In fact, people are losing jobs.

Thapar: So you are saying the economy is in deep distress and the government, a bit like the proverbial ostrich, is hiding its head in the sand?

Varma: I think everything is not black and white. There are some plusses that the economy has achieved. But there are some downsides which the government must take cognisance of and take corrective measures.

Thapar: You say the government must take cognisance of and must take corrective measures – but not so long ago, Amit Shah said that a small slip in the GDP is “technical” – his exact words. And shortly thereafter, in one of his speeches, Narendra Modi said that he was supremely confident that before the end of the financial year, growth would jump to 7.7%, which by the way, is a whole 2% more than the present known figure of 5.7%. Do you share the confidence of those two gentlemen, or do you say that this is unwarranted?

Varma: Governments justify economic policy. PM Narendra Modi’s confidence that these are transitional, teething problems and that the economy will ultimately do much better is something that I can understand as the PM is explaining to his people. At the same time, when I raise the question about the Global Hunger Index, asking for whom is the economy working? If India, with a economy that is growing at this rate, has the largest number of people in the world going to bed hungry, 194 million by the Global Hunger Index, then obviously the dividends of economic growth have to reach people who need them most.

Thapar: You are probably absolutely correct, I am not presuming to judge or comment on the statement you have made but I want to point something else out to you – that what you are saying is that the economy is not working in the interest of the poor. This undermines Mr. Modi’s claim that this government has done more for the poor than any other government. You are actually saying that if 194 million are going to bed hungry, and by the way just 24 hours ago it was reported by NDTV that a child in Jharkhand had died of starvation because the family couldn’t get their ration because their ration card hasn’t been linked to Aadhar and so it was rejected –  you are saying far from Modi’s claim being true that the government is working with the poor in mind, that the poor are the ones who are suffering.

Varma: Let me give you an answer, a very short one. For a long time, the government kept saying that GST is working well. Then there was criticism of the fact that it was not working in a manner it was planned. The government came up with corrective measures, at least some of them which provided relief. In other words, if people don’t raise issues which are a matter of concern for the common people, are we living in  a scenario where what the government says is the gospel truth and no one has the right to ask a question?

Thapar: And you are saying something else as well, although you may be saying it in a tongue-in-cheek manner, that you are actually doing the government a favour by raising these issues, by drawing their attention to the lapses and concerns of the poor who maybe ignored because that is the only way correction would happen. This voicing of concerns is in favour of the government and should not be seen as dissent or opposition.

Varma: In fact, any helpful or constructive coalition partner should be doing this.

‘It is wrong to use religion to polarise the people for political gain’

Thapar: Let’s come then to Yogi Adityanath’s grand plan which he has spoken of with considerable pride – building an enormous Ram statue on the banks of the Saryu in Ayodhya. In your article in the Times of India, you said that in times of economic dislocation, religious mobilisation will not meet the real needs of the people. In other words, the real needs of the people are material and their material wants needs to be satisfied, and this (Ram statue) is secondary.

Varma: I have studied Hinduism very closely. In fact, I have a book coming out on Adi Shankracharya shortly and you are familiar with the book I wrote on the Indian middle class. I believe in the Hindu worldview – Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. Artha, the pursuit of material well being, has got philosophical validity and acceptance.

Thapar: In your article in the Times of India, you say it is more important than the others.

Varma: When Kautilya, one of the greatest minds that India has produced, was asked the same question he said that. The Ramayana says it. Thiruvalluvar has said it. I can quote chapter and verse where people have said it…and secondly, this is very important…

Thapar: Before you get to the second point, I am just teasing out the point you are making. In fact, you are saying that even through your interpretation of Hindu philosophy, which is second to none, that actually the Yogi government’s priorities are wrong. Material welfare and concerns of the people should take priority over building a glorious Ram statue.

Varma: I say build a glorious Ram statue, Ram is maryada purushottam, a beloved deity. Build the statue. But I believe that using religion as a means to polarise people for short term electoral gain, if that is the purpose, is wrong. In other words, both the mandir and the statue need to be built if the Supreme Court says it or there is mutual agreement.

Thapar: But don’t use them for political purposes or to polarise…

Varma: No. This has been the JD(U)’s position constantly.

Thapar: Except that most people believe that the BJP’s position, probably more so now than under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is to use the Ram mandir and the statue as a way of polarising. Possibly because the economic benefits they promised have not happened and therefore the only way now they can guarantee themselves people’s support is to whip up Hindu emotions. That means separating and polarising Hindus from non-Hindus, primarily Muslims. What you say should never be done, many believe could be the core of what the BJP is actually trying to do even if they don’t admit it.

Varma: In fact, as a helpful coalition partner, that was my advice to the BJP and Mr. Yogi Adityanath. Please bear in mind the fact that in moments of relative economic distress, playing upon the religious card which has been played in the past, if that is indeed your purpose, is likely to have diminishing results because within the Hindu worldview, you go to maryada purushottam  Ram as the epitome of rectitude for worshipping an ideal God and not for electoral gain.

Thapar: I am going to bring back Nitish Kumar at this point once again because he, more than anyone else as a socialist as a Lohiaite would say you should never use religion for political purpose and you should never seek to polarise people for electoral gain. And now that it is apparent to many, although it is not admitted by the BJP, that this has precisely been what they are trying to do whether with the Ram Mandir or with the Ram statue. Surely Nitish Kumar would side with you and your advice in the Times of India article rather than disagree with you as you are voicing his thoughts and beliefs just like what we all thought were his beliefs.

Varma: I do not have the slightest doubt that Mr. Nitish Kumar agrees with this

Thapar: But he has been worryingly silent. Even if he does agree, he won’t say so.

Varma: That is his choice. I am absolutely certain that Mr. Nitish Kumar will not approve of religion being used as a divisive card for electoral gain.

Thapar: We have a interesting situation where his spokesman, who was his spokesman, is courageously stating his view even at the cost of upsetting the BJP but Nitish Kumar himself is so concerned to keep the BJP at his side and to not annoy Mr. Modi, has preferred silence to the extent that people now question if Nitish has changed his position and if they misunderstood the original Nitish.

Varma: Let me tell you, I don’t believe that is the case. In the national council meeting that took place in Patna, Mr. Nitish Kumar himself said in front of the party members that nobody needs to teach him a lesson on secularism. Secularism is the pillar of the JD(U).

‘The milieu is such that those who disagree with BJP must be silenced, marginalised’

Thapar: People will say ‘let’s hope Nitish stands by that and Pavan is correct in saying I still interpret him accurately and not that K.C. Tyagi is becoming a true reflection of Nitish. But let me come to the last concern that you’ve spoken out about. It was in Kasauli at a literary festival where you spoke about the dangerous and deteriorating social mood of the country and then you added a very important and interesting sentence. You said that Khushwant would have been shot at his doorstep merely for writing what he did.

Varma: Could have, I believe that the foundations of Indian civilisation are dialogue, debate and the freedom to dissent. I told you I am writing a book on Shankaracharya, the whole dialogue is carried out through shastrartha and not by violence, not by hatred.

Thapar: But today, people believe that this government doesn’t like the right to dissent. A BJP MP publicly says that if he questions Mr. Modi at parliamentary party meetings, he is shut up and doesn’t get an answer although admittedly he did recant that later. Journalists are convinced that ministers don’t come to interviews because they don’t like being questioned. Quite often spokespersons don’t even turn up in channels for discussions because they don’t like being questioned. Dissent doesn’t seem to be acceptable or even permitted. So you are actually taking a position that your ally fundamentally disagrees with.

Varma: I cannot say that the BJP is against dialogue or dissent but if the milieu in the country is whipped to create a situation where anyone who does not agree with the dominant view of the ruling party must be either ignored, marginalised, silenced or set aside. It’s wrong, it’s against every tenet of Indian civilisation.

Thapar: I presume when you raise concerns about the social mood of the country you have things in mind like the beef ban, the behaviour of gau rakshaks, the ‘love jihad’ campaigns that are happening in south India and happened earlier in north India as well as the fact that today many people believe that if you refuse to say “Bharat mata ki jai”, you are not patriotic or nationalist. That this is a symbol or a litmus test of patriotism. On all these issues, the prime minister has deliberately and consciously kept silent. Some people say he doesn;t have to speak on every issue, he doesn;t have to do so. Others say his silence is either permitting, worse still encouraging these moves. Where do you, and now I will deliberately say where does Nitish stand on this, as you claim to be the true reflection of his views. Where do the two of you stand on this?

Varma: I think the prime minister should intervene far more actively, as he has done in the past in some statements, of trying to reign in, curbing the lumpen elements who believe that they have the right to take the law into their own hands. He has said earlier that gau rakshaks are criminals who are masquerading as protectors of Hinduism.

Thapar: But the gau rakshak violence continues despite what he said, and he has done nothing to stop it.

Varma: That should worry the prime minister, that should worry the BJP and its coalition partners.

Thapar: So he should go beyond rhetoric to actions to make sure it stops?

Varma: Absolutely, I think that action needs to be taken. Without a doubt. As I have sad to you again and again, India is a civilisation which is based on the freedom to dissent and dialogue and debate. Shastrartha, not violence and hatred is our foundation.

Thapar: On the gau rakshak point, that action needs to be taken by the PM as you said, does Nitish agree with you?

Varma: I am sure, Mr. Nitish Kumar has condemned people who take the law into their own hands. I tell you what, they are derailing Hinduism by doing so, by resorting to violence.By beating up people without enough evidence.

Thapar: And therefore you are also saying, by implication, that the prime minister’s silence when he should be speaking out, is also devaluing Hinduism.

Varma: I think the prime minister has spoken but probably needs to speak much more because so much is at stake.

Thapar: One last question

Varma: And I think I have a right as a coalition partner, in my personal capacity as a member of the JD(U) to suggest that to him.

‘It is wrong for the MEA to say one party is the only alternative’

Thapar: One last question in this context of mood changing and deteriorating and becoming dangerous. Last month in September, this website thewire.in, revealed to the world that in fact loaded on the MEA website was a book called ‘Integral Humanism’ which claims to be an account of the life of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya who the BJP reveres. It goes on to say that, and this is very important, that the BJP is the only political alternative in the country and secondly it says Hindu thought is Bhartiya thought, in fact it says Hindus are the only ones capable of spiritual thought. Do you think the MEA should get involved in this sort of thing?

Varma: First of all, bureaucracy must be apolitical. Fundamentally, it’s in our constitution.

Thapar: Are they today or not?

Varma: I haven’t seen the book, I don’t know whether they are quoting Deen Dayal Upadhyaya or whether they are saying it as an official statement from the ministry itself. If its the latter, it’s wrong.

Thapar: Should they even be promoting a book by Deen Dayal Upadhyaya?

Varma: Yes, I believe there is nothing wrong in having a book on Deen Dayal Upadhayaya because, among other thinkers, his philosophy of integral humanism, as he articulated it, was one of the strands that went on to the making of modern India.

Thapar: So your position as a former diplomat, now I’m reminding the audience that you were a diplomat for most of your life before you became a politician, your position is that there is nothing wrong in the MEA promoting a book on Deen Dayal Upadhyaya provided they similarly promote views on other people as well, but endorsing those views would be wrong?

Varma: Yes, I completely believe that. Because the bureaucracy has to be apolitical, especially if they say that one political party is the only party that can rule India, I believe its unprecedented. It’s also wrong.

Thapar: Very interesting that you say the belief that only one party can rule india is not just unprecedented but wrong. Because one of the firmest convictions of the prime minister is what he calls Congress mukt Bharat. In a democracy, is it fitting for the prime minister to try and eliminate the largest opposition party?

Varma: No, I don’t believe it should be seen in terms of elimination. In a competitive democracy, you say that a particular party you are trying to oppose, its presence should be wiped out. ‘Presence is wiped out’ must be seen metaphorically in electoral terms. I think that is how it should be understood. Mr. Nitish Kumar had earlier said that we want a sangh mukt Bharat. That was a statement made in the political framework.

Thapar: I am extremely grateful to you for the candour with which you have spoken out. You have ofcourse repeatedly said that you believe you are representing the true beliefs and ideology of Nitish Kumar, that K.C.Tyagi’s intervention doesn’t represent Nitish Kumar’s real thinking. That, of course, we still have to find out. The key question that remains unanswered is, and it is perhaps for Nitish Kumar to answer, does Pavan Varma –  who has been his spokesman for four years – still reflect his thinking or has Nitish moved away from what Pavan insists is Nitish’s original true position? That is a question that only Nitish can answer, But I am deeply grateful to you for this interview.