In an interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, historian Ramachandra Guha spelt out in clear detail why he believes the Gandhi family is weakening the Congress and strengthening the Narendra Modi government.
He says the continuation of the three Gandhis – Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka – is enabling not just the consolidation, but also the strengthening of the Narendra Modi regime. On the other hand, their immediate departure will create an opening for a more credible opposition leader, not necessarily from within the Congress but, perhaps, from the wider opposition.
The 35-minute interview is a blunt and outspoken one and offers glimpses of the legacy left by authoritarian regimes with no opposition.
The following is a transcript of the interview, edited slightly for style and clarity.
Is it time for the Gandhis to retire from politics and to permanently part company with the Congress party? That’s the view of one of India’s most respected political commentators, the well known author and historian Ramachandra Guha. Joining me today to discuss his views is Ram Guha himself.
Ram Guha, in an article you wrote last week, you said, “in the interest of the party and of their country that Gandhis should go now. Go not merely from the top leadership of the Congress, but from the party entirely.” That’s a pretty harsh and dramatic demand, isn’t it?
You know Karan, it’s not a demand because I’m not a member of the Congress party. But certainly in the interest of their party electorally, they should go. News is just coming in from Kerala, where the UDF is losing ground, including to the BJP. You know, what happened in Telangana, just a few days ago, when they were totally wiped out in a state which they completely controlled a few years ago.
But I’m very concerned about the country. And I’m concerned about the country, the direction the country is taking under the leadership of Narendra Modi and his government. It’s a government that is authoritarian, sectarian and incompetent. So the three aspects of the Modi government: authoritarian, sectarian and incompetent. And unless there’s a critical, credible opposition, we can’t strive for a more caring a more inclusive and a better run government. And clearly the Congress under the Gandhis is incapable of providing that opposition.
As I said in that article, which you could hold currently, its Modi, Shah and Nadda on one side against Gandhi, Gandhi and Gandhi. You know, there’s an echo chamber around the Gandhis in Delhi, including some journalists, I regret to say – including, you know, The Wire often carries stuff sympathetic to the Gandhis – who are totally clueless about what ordinary people think about a fifth-generation dynast. As long as that is the competition, Modi has an easy ride and our country is going to steadily decline economically, socially, and otherwise. Our reputation in the world too is going to fall.
Let’s then at this point, explore your thinking to try and understand the conclusion that you’ve come to. First of all, you say the Gandhis don’t have a consistent ideology. You write, and I’m quoting you, “Sonia and Rahul claim to be principal secularists one day and promote soft Hindutva the next. They take credit for the free market reforms promoted by past governments on one day, but post scorn on entrepreneurs the next.” Are you suggesting that they don’t really know what they believe in? They keep changing their position?
I think they only believe in family control of the party. That’s because Rahul and Priyanka have not known otherwise, all their adult life – almost all their adult life – either their father or mother has been in control of the Congress party. Family worship is intrinsic to Sonia Gandhi, and hence the naming of everything after Rajiv or Indira or Jawaharlal when they were in power. Certainly, they have no coherent ideology.
We now speak about secularism and the battle against Hindutva. This is the first anniversary of the brutal attack on the students in Jamia, you will remember that, who were peacefully protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Following that brutal attack on the students in Jamia, there were protests all across India in which I was proud to have participated and been detained by the police, a year ago this week. In the detention centre where I was, there were people of all kinds – young people, old people, men, women, students, trade union activists, lawyers, but not a single Congressman. The Congress was invisible in a popular protest.
And the Congress is seen as so lacking in credibility that the current farmers who are protesting have told the Congress leaders, “Don’t come, because you will destroy our case. We have a strong economic and moral case against the Modi government, arbitrary pushing through these farm laws. But if you come with we will be seen as stooges of a discredited party.”
So you know, popular movements don’t want [the Congress to be present]. Either the party stays away, which was the case in anti-CAA protest, or the organisers of the protest keep them out. It tells you the sorry state to which the Congress has fallen. One last thing. One last thing. In my article I quote, as you’ll note, allies of the Congress Party… Shivanand Tiwari of the RJD, saying that the Gandhi family is helping Modi and Shah. Sharad Pawar saying Rahul Gandhi lacks “consistency”, which is a extremely euphemistic way of saying he’s incompetent and doesn’t know what he’s doing. So I think, you know, it’s not out of any issue with a Gandhis per se. It’s our concern for the country
I am not a member of the Congress party. But I’m a historian of the Congress and biographer for Mahatma Gandhi, and Modi and Shah and their regime will destroy everything that the early Congress and Mahatma Gandhi stood for. So that’s where I’m coming from. I want to make that clear. It’s not a personal animosity. It’s not individual hostility. It’s deep concern about where the republic is going under Modi and Shah, and soon it will be too late to rescue even the rubble of our constitutional republic from the dark and dangerous forces in power.
Now, Ram Guha you make a second criticism of the Gandhis. You don’t believe that they put in hard work. And the example you cite in your article is Rahul Gandhi, who in the middle of the Bihar campaign, disappeared to Himachal for a holiday. In your eyes, does Rahul lack dedication and commitment. Does he lack persistence?
Certainly. I also say that I think there was a period in which Sonia Gandhi was capable of hard work. She’s now an old lady, and it’s not fair to expect her to lead from the front. But you know, I talked about the Bihar campaign. But let’s go back to the terrible and brutal lockdown imposed by Narendra Modi with four hours’ notice earlier in the year. On your show, Prashant Kishor, you will recall telling you on your show, that was the moment for an opposition leader to show solidarity with a migrant workers and walk with them for a part of their journey. Rahul Gandhi had one photo op for a few minutes and disappeared. And then of course, he is active on Twitter, which is his sole and often preferred sphere of political activity. Politicians work hard.
After the NDA narrowly won the Bihar election, the president of the NDA said, “I want to spend 100 days strengthening the BJP where it is weak.” So he’s not resting on his laurels after having won a election. You know, I don’t want to go on beating up on the Gandhis. But let’s talk about the larger context. What will happen if Modi and Shah win a third term? Look at the stigmatisation of Muslims and look at the mismanagement of the economy. Look at the enormous loss of credibility in the world. Ten years ago, India was seen as a place which was open, which has a pluralistic society where institutions function. Now we are seen as a being run by a coercive regime, which intimidates the press, which subjugates the judiciary, which bullies its neighbours and stigmatises and harasses its own people. So that’s what I’m worried about. In that sense, in our conversation today, there’s nothing more one can say about the Gandhis. They’ve have lost a series of elections, they must go and they must go so that we can rescue what remains of this country from these authoritarian, sectarian, incompetent bigots who rule us.
Now, there’s one more point to make in that article that I keep referring to and its a very telling comparison between the Congress under the Gandhis and the BJP. You hinted at it a moment ago in an earlier answer, but let me put the point to make more fully and get you to talk about it. You say that the three most important people in the BJP are Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda. They are not related to each other, they are self made, and they have got to the top because of their hard work.
In comparison and contrast, the three most important people in Congress are Sonia Gandhi and her two children. Not only are they related to each other, but they’ve only got into the party and risen to the top because family members were there to smoothen the way. And far from being self made, they are the very epitome of entitlement and privilege. So are you saying by that comparison, that a Congress party under the Gandhis can never match up to and challenge the BJP under Modi and Shah?
Not at all. And so long as the Gandhis are there, they’re impeding other leaders within the party and also the emergence of a country-wide opposition. You know, the allies had some respect – the members of the UPA – had some respect for Sonia Gandhi, because she had worked hard and she overcame her personal tragedies, to come out of seclusion and enter politics. They have scorn and contempt for Sonia Gandhi’s children. It’s a mystery as to why they are still in politics. I mean, they know they are incompetent. Is it that they control the money? is that they have no future outside the party? Are they worried about legal cases if they don’t have political positions to protect them?
But again, I don’t want this to be seen as an individual vendetta of the Gandhi family. That piece was written out of a deep, and, you know, growing concern with the direction that the republic is going. If I may just say one more thing, in another piece I wrote, comparing Modi, on the one hand with [US President Donald] Trump and [UK Prime Minister Boris] Johnson on the other several months ago, I said, Trump is as dangerous as Modi. But he has a credible opposition in Joe Biden. You can see how the Supreme Court is behaving, you can see the vigour of the American press: because there was someone people could trust in to see through the lies and the malevolent behaviour of Donald Trump.
In Modi’s case, even people who are not sold on Hindutva will give him the benefit of the doubt against the current Congress leadership in congress. And he’s [Rahul Gandhi] failed twice. I mean, you know British politics. well, Karan. In 2015, Ed Miliband resigned as soon as the Labour Party lost, although the Labour Party did almost as well as in the previous election. You know, Rahul Gandhi stayed on. And five years later, he did equally miserably. So I urge you to, you know, let me move this discussion beyond just bashing the Gandhis to the state of the country because I, I’ve done it, and I’m happy to have done it because people on the Left, and liberals are too nervous because they think anyone opposing Modi is enough. But that’s really where I’m coming from.
But there’s one more point that I want to make and I’m picking up again, from your article. I think it’s important that people who are hearing you should understand the full case that you have against the Gandhis. It’s when they understand that full case that they realise it’s not prejudice, it’s not animosity, it’s deep concern for Congress and it’s deep concern about the way the Gandhis seem to be almost legitimising Modi.
Now you make one further point, which I think it’s important to say, and I’m quoting you, “the association of the Congress with this crop of Gandhis works to the advantage of the BJP. So long as descendants of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi need Congress, the ruling regime can deflect criticisms of its policies in the present by pointing to mistakes of Congress governments in the past.” In other words, the Gandhis provide the Modi government with a credible cover-up or excuse for its failures.
In many, many respects. For example, the intimidation of the press that’s going on. The use of UAPA to jail activists. If you criticise the Modi government, Indira Gandhi has been there before and done worse. And Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have still not apologised for the Emergency. Anything Indira Gandhi does is okay by them.
If you look at what’s happening in Ladakh and the Chinese intrusions and our inability to push them back, you know, again, Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership in 1962 will come up if you raise those questions. Kashmir, we have made a complete mess of Kashmir. The abrogation of Article 370 has made peaceful resolution of the Kashmir dispute even more difficult. The Kashmiri people are enormously disadvantaged, they don’t have access to the internet. But again, you will be told that the problem started because of Nehru and we are trying to undo it give us time. And if, let’s say the leader of the opposition was called Gupta or Ahmed, or Patel, or Gokhale or Naidu, these questions couldn’t arise. Because the only claim of Rahul Gandhi to head the Congress party is that he is Rajiv’s son, Indira’s grandson and Jawaharlal Nehru’s great grandson and nothing else. So they are facilitators of Modi and Shah and their authoritarian regime.
Let me put one more point to you, this time not as one of the country’s most respected political commentators, but as a historian and perhaps the most highly regarded historian of modern India. In the 50s and 60s, India was enamoured of the Nehru family and even Indira Gandhi when she first came to power. Today, most people will believe the Gandhis symbolise and epitomise everything we resent: entitlement, privilege and the trappings of upper-class birth. Is there a sense in which the Gandhis began to represent that part of our history? We’ve turned our back upon?
They’ve fallen into the wrong place at the wrong time?
Absolutely. We’ve become a more democratic society. Entitlement and family background is less important than what you’ve done. If you look at, you know, the sphere of entrepreneurship, if you look at the most admired entrepreneurs in my city like Kiran Shaw or Nandan Nilekani and others, they don’t come from.. they haven’t inherited their businesses from others. They made it on their own.
If you look at the sphere of sports. Look at someone like Kohli and Dhoni. They are self-made. Unlike the Gavaskars and the Dravids, they don’t come from upper class families. So, I think there’s a churning going on at the bottom of Indian society. And you know, the argument often used by the apologists of the Gandhi family, is that other parties are also dynastic. That’s not true of the BJP at the top. If you look at the BJP from the 1990s, every two or three years, the top leadership changes.
Karan, why have some excellent leaders of the Congress Party left for the BJP? Because the path to political advancement is blocked by Rahul Gandhi. So, that’s it. This is a manifestation of changes in India. I mean, veneration for royalty, for feudalism, for inherited status is declining. And that’s a sign of the deepening of Indian democracy, which the Gandhis and their followers don’t recognise.
You know, I want to ask you one question about Rahul, picking up on the point you just made. You explained that one reason why excellent leaders in the Congress have drifted away, is because their path to political advancement is blocked by Rahul Gandhi. And as you said that, I said to myself, we’re at a moment in time where speculation seems to suggest that Rahul Gandhi could be returning as Congress president. Many people in the party believe he is the right person to take them forward. And as a political commentator, I want to but you this: Do you believe Rahul has the qualities to be a good president, to revive Congress, win an election and one day, bring it back to power?
Karan, it shows how trapped you are in old thinking, in Delhi, even asking this question. Does it require an answer after 15 years? You know, here is a man who could not even retain his seat in Amethi, his family burrow. But again, go back to the case of what the Congress should do – and it won’t do – and I said this in an earlier article, is to bring back the fragments that broke away. Jagan Reddy is a Congressman. Mamata Banerjee is a Congressman. Sharad Pawar is a Congressman. Right. These are the kind of questions only someone unaware of what is going on around will ask. “Do you think he is a good leader?” For God’s sake!
Look at what happened in Telangana. Wiped out. They used to control the whole of that state – wiped out. Look at what’s happening in Kerala today, where the BJP is gaining ground on them. So it’s their business if they want to run it as a family firm, if they had some vested interest to protect, which means they can’t leave those positions of power. If they’re deluded, if they have fantasies, if Sonia Gandhi thinks that they are like the Mughals, who have a divine right to rule, and Narendra Modi is some kind of Sher Shah Suri, an interloper who will go away and they’ll come back and occupy the throne of Delhi, good luck to them! But as a citizen of India, the future of this republic is extremely dark so long as the BJP and the RSS exercise, hegemonic control over our country by being in power.
I say in my article, which you refer to, I dislike the present Congress but I detest the BJP even more. Because they’re going to repudiate all that this country has stood for. My life’s work has been studying the freedom struggle and Gandhi. It’s been showing how against extraordinary odds in a divided, poor, hierarchical society, we built a pluralistic democracy. How we conquered illiteracy and mass poverty, to grow our economy. How we were regarded as a beacon in the world of pluralism, democracy and economic growth, an alternative to China in all these respects. And we throw that all the way, under the leadership of Modi and Shah, facilitated and enabled by the current era.
You know Ram I’ve heard your views in the interview view when you express them in great detail. I read them first in the article, but you express them somewhat more briefly. And it occurs to me that actually you had a very consistent line on Rahul Gandhi that goes back many, many years. People may not follow you as closely as I do.
When I interviewed you seven and a half years ago, in April, 2013.
Rahul Gandhi and his party was in power. He was Vice President at the party. At that time, the extreme disillusionment with him had not set in, he had not brought to the party to its first defeat, leave aside the second in 2019. And in 2013, this is what you said of Rahul Gandhi. You said “he’s a well intentioned dilettante”. You said, “he’s completely mediocre, with no original ideas.” And finally, your conclusion was, “he should find another profession.”
Seven and a half years later, how much worse is your assessment of that man who by the way won’t go? people still believe he could be the saviour of Congress? Maybe he believes it himself. So how much worse today is the assessment you made nearly seven years ago.?
So the assessment is the same. He’s a well intentioned dilettante, incapable of hard work or focused and rigorous thinking. Seven and a half years ago, when the Congress was in power, I gave that interview to you at a time when Narendra Modi had not yet made it clear that he wanted to be India’s next prime minister.
You know, most people in the BJP thought it would have been Sushma or Shivraj Singh Chauhan. So the assessment is unchanged. My mood has become bleaker because of what seven years – six and a half years – of the Modi-Shah regime have done to India. I recognise from the history of authoritarian regimes in inter-war Europe, and from places like Russia and Turkey today which tells you that authoritarianism, fascism, the kind of the “Great Leader” thrives when there is no alternative, when there are duds or weaklings opposing them. And obviously, in terms of Rahul Gandhi, I said it several years ago, and I, I believe, I saw it in that interview to you.
And in an article I wrote in The Telegraph rather earlier than other people, how spectacularly unfitted he was. But at least then I was relatively hopeful about India. Now, I cannot be hopeful about India, partly because of the fact that the Gandhis are not going anywhere, but largely because their not going anywhere enables the consolidation, the strengthening and the perpetuation of a regime which will destroy all that this republic was supposed to stand for.
In other words, the longer the Gandhis stay the stronger Modi becomes, the more the damage he does to our republic in our democracy. And the more the India we cherish will completely disappear. A moment ago who said we are reduced to rubble, even that rubble will disappear.
Whatever little is left of the republic, we can’t say.
If you look at the damage that the Modi-Shah regime has done, it’s across different dimensions. It’s the economy, it’s to our social fabric, it’s to our institutions, it’s to the environment, it’s to our relations with neighbours and it’s to our standing in the world. So this is a six fold deterioration of India in its own eyes and the eyes of the world.
As I said earlier, the three aspects to the Modi shah regime: authoritarian, sectarian and incompetence. I mean, look at what’s happening today. Yesterday, there’s a protest on the borders of Delhi. Modi won’t meet the farmers there, but he pushes off to Gujarat where he’ll have an audience with the 100 odd Sikh farmers in Kutch.
I mean, because he can’t confront them…essentially incompetent in solving problems. Look at what we did to our relations with Bangladesh over the CAA. So if an argument could be made, that he is a kind of Indian Deng Xiaoping or an Indian Lee Kuan Yew, who’s authoritarian but competent, knows how to manage the economy, generates growth, provides employment, assures social stability, does not stigmatise minorities, gives women rights…
You know in the past to justify authoritarians in the past, that they were competent, that they provide like a Park Chung Hui of Korea, another example of an authoritarian country and economic power. But these guys are also spectacularly incompetent. That’s why that’s where the worry comes.
I’m going to come back towards the end of this interview, not to the Gandhis but to Congress, because connected with the Gandhis is Congress. And as you said, the reason why you want the Gandhi’s to go to go now and to completely separate themselves from Congress is because otherwise you believe Congress cannot become a viable opposition.
And it cannot then check the growth and consolidation of this regime, the Modi regime. So it’s the Congress I want to question you about. Up till now Ram, our conversation has assumed that the Gandhis are the albatross around the Congress Party. Remove the albatross, and Congress will actually start to soar. But is that really the case of Congress?
Could it be that Congress has become like the British Liberal Party, a party with a great history, a party with a glorious past, but now reduced to a rump and with no future? No doubt Congress, like the liberals in Britain will win a handful of seats in every election. But the possibility and prospect of the party coming back to power and ruling the country again, simply doesn’t exist. Is that the predicament of Congress as it becomes India’s ‘Liberal Party’?
You’re quite right. I mean, removing the Gandhis will not lead to a revival of the Congress automatically. It’s not as if, if you remove the Gandhis today, in the next general election, they will go from 54 to 154. But what removal of the Gandhis will do is to leave a vacuum for a more credible opposition leader – not necessarily from the Congress, not even necessarily from party politics – to emerge as a challenger to Modi.
Because what’s been happening in India is that parliamentary elections are becoming presidential. Modi has this, you know, omnipresent air about him. He is the face of the BJP and you need a credible face to challenge him just as you need to Jay Prakash Narayan not to put forward against Indira Gandhi. Just before the Emergency happened and in the elections after the emergency, it was a motley of parties against the Congress. You know a similar thing could happen now. The Congress, the TMC, the NCP, the Aam Aadmi Party could all come together under some platform, but there has to be a unified leader, which is what JP Narayan was, which is what in any parliamentary democracy – which has become presidential in nature – you will require So, absolutely the removal of the Gandhis is not a one stop solution for the revival of the Congress party. It’s a prelude to begin to save the republic from from the ravages of the Modi Shah regime.
My last question, I take your point, that the removal of the Gandhi’s may not be sufficient. But it is a necessary, essential first step to create that vacuum which can be filled by a credible opposition leader, as you said, not just from Congress, but from any of the parties who can then challenge Modi but let me ask…
Or even though civil society like Jay Prakash Narayan was…
Absolutely. In that context, let me ask the last question. Modi today’s straddles the democratic state of India like a colossus and he seems to be growing, despite the problems he’s creating. His popularity is not diminishing. So do you see any opposition leader, not just Congress, but anywhere on the spectrum, who can match his popularity and challenge his hold over the Indian voter?
Obviously, not at the moment. And I can’t pick and choose. But I can tell from the experience of authoritarians everywhere. They think they are permanent. Modi is building himself a grand new house in Delhi. But you will recall that the British started the building of Lutyens Delhi in 1911. They ended in 1929. In another 18 years they were out of India. So I know authorities think they’re permanent. Hitler thought he would have 1,000 years, right? But they go, but they go because they are incapable of managing the economy. They create disaffection. And Modi is all of that. Indira Gandhi was also regarded as absolutely, you know, invincible in ’72-’73. And within a year or two, she lost the plot. Every month, the damage to our social fabric increases.
The prospects of our revival in economy become more murky. Our status in the world declines. We are really becoming a Hindu Pakistan. The RSS agenda is stigmatisation of Muslims. And that’s Modi’s agenda too. I mean, in the first term, it was even under wraps in the second term, with CAA, with all the tamashas on the temple…
Are you saying that all of this will create the leader who can challenge him? Are you saying that? A bit like the lotus that grows in dirty water? Is that what you’re suggesting?
I can’t say, Karan. I mean, I’m a historian, I can use the lessons of the past to try and illuminate the present. I can’t predict the future. But clearly, it’s very obvious that if in 2013, I said this about Rahul Gandhi. I think everything subsequently has gone thereout. Whatsoever has happened is completely in the interest of Modi and Shah. They would love it if Rahul Gandhi comes back as president of Congress.
My last question in that case, and I’m comparing this time Modi and his dominance to Margaret Thatcher, she too was invincible. She won three straight elections. Her hold on the party and the country was enormous, even though the devastation her economic policies put on Britain was also huge. At the end of the day, it was her hubris that defeated her. Could that be the way Modi goes?
His hubris will bring him down here. The problem is, we don’t know when it will happen. But you need to prepare enough position to be ready to take over at that time that Gandhi is heading Congress means it will never be ready. That’s why the Gandhis must go so that the opposition is ready, whenever Modi actually falls by his own fault.
You’re absolutely right that his hubris will be his undoing. There’s one difference with the Margaret Thatcher situation. The revolt against Margaret Thatcher came from within her own party. But the Modi-Shah control of their own party is so complete, they’ve so terrorised all their own party members into submission, that the revolt cannot come. I mean, it’s not going to come from Gadkari or Rajnath Singh or whatever hopes others exercise. It’s going to come from the accumulated evidence of their destruction of the economy and the social fabric, the growing discontent among people with the leadership of Modi.
And at the same time, another alternative figure on whom those disaffected with Modi can place that trust in and support.
All right, Ram, that is very, very clear. Thank you very much for this interview. Thank you very much for explaining in such detail, why you believe the time has come for the Gandhis to retire from politics and to go not just from the political arena, but to part company with Congress itself.
Many will be shaken by that dramatic assertion. But you’ve explained in considerable detail why you believe it’s absolutely essential for our country. Thank you for making time for me. Take care, stay safe.
Thanks, Karan. Bye.