There is no end to the fissures in a complex and argumentative society like India. But some fault lines stand out – North and South, Savarna and Dalit, politicians and institutions. Religion, caste, language and culture are all contested territories that show up in quotidian ways and also lead to conflicts and even violence.
How do we understand and confront these issues and dissect the escalating tensions around them?
Veteran journalist Karan Thapar and one of India’s leading scholars Ramachandra Guha discussed these subjects in the first of The Wire‘s new series of Dialogues.
Why Indians voted for Modi
Karan Thapar: Ram, before we start with the obvious and worrying fault lines that beset our republic, let me, as I said I would, start with the fact that five weeks ago, this government marked four years in office. It came to power in 2014, promising “Acche Din”. To what extent has that target, or that goal, or that ambition been achieved?
Ramachandra Guha: Well, when politicians run for office – not just in this country – and particularly if they are the opposition trying to unseat an established regime, they promise a great deal. So, I think in the spirit of fairness, one should note that every politician running for office, even an outsider, would promise a great deal. Virtually no government in history has achieved what it promised to do. Having said that, clearly there are many things this government has not promised.
In many respects, this prime minister seems to have, if not betrayed – betrayed may be too strong a word – let down many people who voted for him. But I would like, Karan, to remind the audience why so many people voted for Narendra Modi in 2014, I think part of it was to do with his projection of himself, partly accurately, as completely self-made. And, his ability to make that contest presidential, even though we are not a presidential system, to oppose himself to someone who came from a family of entitlement and privilege – that’s reason number one I think people were attracted to him.
The second reason why people were attracted to him, was again, a very clever and important positioning that he did. Now, there are people in this room who have covered the 2002 riots in Gujarat. I have known Gujarat all my life, I go there often, I went there shortly after the riots. I went to their Sabarmati Ashram after the 2002 riots. And someone there, a veteran Gandhian, described those riots to me as the second assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Now, anyone who lived close to that period knows how awful and horrible those riots were. And, Narendra Modi as chief minister was certainly culpable for not doing enough to stem them.
However, he and his supporters and his spin doctors were able to remind the voters that 18 years before 2002, 1984 happened in the city, and under the Congress regime presided over by Rajiv Gandhi, which did nothing to stop those riots. And, to all those who said that it’s been 12 years since justice was promised to the victims of the Gujarat riots, he was able to remind people that it was 30 years since justice was promised to the victims of 1984. So, I can tell reasons why he was attractive. Forget what he promised, because everyone promises.
KT: But you will come to what he promised, because the question was to what extent has he delivered ‘Acche Din’?
RG: Of course, I will. But I think I’d like to remind people, because it’s very important in an audience like this, which is partly in itself a self-selective audience. Now, I don’t want to subject you to a hold-up-your-hands test. But I suspect 90% of you are like me – who have never voted for the BJP. Now, it’s important for us to understand why many other Indians, including non-communal Indians, vote for the BJP. That’s why I am giving you this background. It is a very important aspect for young people to recognise this.
So, I think that he came on a wave of, if not goodwill, the fact that the other side had even more ill will than even he did. Now, I think that was his very successful presentation of his personal desire and ambition to be prime minister. The promises are secondary, they come later. But, it’s very important to remind people, because you know I find, that among many sensible people, there is a lack of awareness, of the revulsion for the old established Congress regime that was there. Especially in its second term between 2009 and 2014.
Among many people, there is also a lack of understanding that ordinary Indians have against a fifth generation dynast leading the party of the freedom struggle. So, I think we have to understand all of this. It’s very important. You know, the poet Keats talked about negative capability. How do you understand what somebody else is thinking? There are some great anthropologists in this room. They know what it takes to understand a completely alien culture. And you have to enter that world to understand, why a) Narendra Modi won in 2014, and b) why among large sections of the population, despite the awful performance of his government, despite the violence promoted by many of the cadres of the Sangh parivar, Narendra Modi still remains popular. So, that’s why I am spending some time on this. We must have this understanding as to why a person rightly criticised often, and sometimes rightly reviled, still enjoys popularity among large sections of the population outside this room.
The promise of ‘Acche Din’
KT: But my question, if I can come back to it, was answered partly or hinted at partly by one sentence. You said, “the awful performance of the government”. So are you also, in that sentence, encapsulating the thought that ‘Acche Din’ have not been delivered at all?
KT: At all?
KT: In no shape and form?
RG: Well, certainly, I am not a specialist in economics, but even a non-specialist like me in economics can say that demonetisation was an absolute disaster. Even a non-specialist in economics can say that GST, while perhaps, well conceived, had been badly executed. And if you leave aside economics, clearly in terms of polarising and dividing the society, in terms of undermining public institutions, in terms of being silent when his own senior cabinet members are attacked by members of his own political family, this has been an awful government. Absolutely.
But, I wanted to just give the context about 2014. What this government has done, and as prime minister, a prime minister who is certainly the most powerful prime minister since Indira Gandhi. A story for young people here about Indira Gandhi, I’ll come back to Narendra Modi in a minute, a story for young people here about Indira Gandhi. She went to America for the first time in the late 1960’s, and President Johnson didn’t know how to address her because he had never dealt with a female prime minister. Should it be Indira? or Mrs Gandhi? He asked the Indian ambassador – the Indian ambassador was actually a relative of Indira Gandhi at the time – asked her what should he say and she said, well my cabinet ministers call me “Sir”. Now, the point of telling this story, Karan, is to say that he is the most authoritative, not to say authoritarian, prime minister since Indira Gandhi. Unlike say Manmohan Singh, or Vajpayee, or Narsimha Rao, or even Rajiv Gandhi, where independent cabinet ministers had authority, autonomy, responsibility. So, we could say, so and so goofed up, when there was a communal riot, the home minister goofed up. Here, the buck actually stops with him.
KT: I want to strike a bargain with you. We’ll make greater progress, if you restrict your answer to the question I ask. Otherwise, every answer is covering the next six questions that are lined up!
RG: (laughs) OK.
KT: This is going to sound a bit like a redundant question, but maybe I can tempt Ram to say something that he hasn’t said. Because I was going to say, that the second key issue that I was going to raise, is of Narendra Modi himself. What is your assessment of his performance as India’s chief executive?
RG: The only one thing that can be said in his favour is that he works incredibly hard.
KT: But ineffectively?
RG: He is always alive and alert. Well, sometimes, ineffectively, sometimes malignantly. But he’s always working.
KT: I get the feeling that Mr Modi’s not your idea of the ideal prime minister.
RG: (laughs) You can say that again.
Modi’s self perception
KT: Now, they say comparisons are odious, but they’re not just inevitable, Indians find them irresistible. How would you compare this BJP prime minister to the only other BJP predecessor he’s had: Atal Bihari Vajpayee? How would you compare him to Indira Gandhi – a woman, or a prime minister, I should say, that the RSS and the BJP both loved to hate; but also hated to admire.
RG: So, first with Vajpayee. I think other people who are more knowledgeable than me, and who understand the minutiae of the administration, say that Vajpayee ran a more collegial cabinet. He consulted with people. He had to do it partly because he was in a coalition. I think the real difference between Narendra Modi, and any other prime minister we have had, ever, is that for successes, real or imagined, he is not willing to share the credit with anyone else. Not even with Lord Rama. I say this because, Karan, many of the viewers have not got this. But six months ago, I was driving from Bangalore, which is in the south of my state, to beyond Dharwad, which is in the north of my state. And that’s a drive that I did many times in the 90’s and the early 2000’s, when I was doing field work in northern Karnataka. I was going after 10-12 years, and the roads were really good. And I thought to myself, these roads are partly good, because it’s the highway to Bombay and it was part of Vajpayee’s ‘Golden Quadrangle’, why doesn’t Modi talk about it in the Karnataka election? Because he cannot come to Karnataka and say “Vajpayee ney yeh accha kaam kiya aur main isko aage lena chahta hu (Vajpayee did this good work and I want to take it forward),” because he cannot even share credit with Vajpayee. So that’s the first thing. And the second thing, of course, which everyone knows, that if something goes wrong, he won’t accept blame for that either.
KT: Can I venture an interruption there? You’ve given the credit to Vajpayee who stopped being prime minister in 2006, overlooking the fact that for the last six years, there was a Congress government. Is it possible that praise is stuck in Mr Modi’s gullet because it would be Siddaramaiah he would be praising?
RG: No, I don’t think so,]. I think in that sense, he is a study in self-love. I think it would take the combined skills of Ashis Nandy, Sudhir Kakar, and some young psychoanalysts in this room to provide a deep (understanding into it). That is part of it. Indira Gandhi also loved herself. Any person in power loves themselves. Virat Kohli loves himself. Mukesh Ambani loves himself. To get to the top of any profession, you have to have some belief, strong self-belief. But this is extraordinary; I mean, look at what other people have noticed. He’s referring to himself in the third person. The suit which had his full name – Narendra Damodardas Modi. So I think, it’s all of this that makes him, you know, as I said, there was Lord Rama and then Narendra Modi.
So as you know, I am a biographer too – I write about individuals. I have some rudimentary understanding, not as much as a psychoanalyst would, about how people perceive themselves. And, a young person, if I may just say one last thing before you ask your next question; a young person whom I shall not name, who is, as young people often are, more perceptive than people like you and me. A young person who follows Indian politics told me when I was explaining this pop psychoanalysis to him. He said, sir, Narendra Modi thinks he is like Chatrapati Shivaji, and with this difference – Chatrapati Shivaji, though he was called emperor, actually controlled only a small part of western India. Whereas Narendra Modi is the first Hindu samrat to control all of India – that’s his self-perception. That is why he cannot even share credit, forget with the good ministers in his cabinet, but even with the great Hindu leaders of the past.
KT: You know, your statement that Mr. Modi loves himself reminds me of Oscar Wilde who once said, “Falling in love with yourself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” The only problem is this was a line in Oscar Wilde’s play The Ideal Husband. I doubt if that title would apply to Mr Modi.
Now, you’ve made reference to the fact Mr Modi is an authoritarian prime minister; and that is certainly the perception of the opposition, of the press, and perhaps, of a large number of people in this room. But let me put the opposite to you – in history; strong, decisive leaders are always thought to be authoritarian. Is that, in fact, a pitfall that Mr Modi could not have avoided? Or do you genuinely believe that he is not just strong and decisive, but additionally authoritarian as well?
RG: You know, I mean, what you say is undeniably true, so even in democratic regimes, forget in quasi-authoritarian regimes of today, like the Putins and the Erdoğans. But even in democratic regimes, if you think of a country you know much better than I do – United Kingdom. Margaret Thatcher was strong and decisive. This lady is not for turning, as it was famously said. So you have had such cases in .. De Gaulle, even more so – who thought the country was an extension of himself. But I think Margaret Thatcher and De Gaulle, I think they had two things – one, they had some people they trusted; secondly, they listened. So they knew even if they were slightly contemptuous of their cabinet colleagues, they tried to understand, they had what was called a feedback loop. They knew what are people saying of their policies, their performances, rising or declining popularity. I wonder if Mr Modi has any feedback loop except for the BJP president. And I’d rather not have a feedback loop than have that one.
Fault lines – Hindutva and the demonisation of minorities
KT: (laughs) Alright, let’s come at this point to the fault lines that beset our republic, and let’s start with the minorities and the way they are treated. If you go back to 2014, we’ve been through ghar wapsi, love jihad, Bharat Mata ki jai, beef bans, gau rakshaks, attacks on Dalits and perhaps more recently, the Namaz controversy. Do you get the feeling that India is becoming a majoritarian and intolerant state where the dictates of nationalism trump the liberal principles of our constitution and as a result, Muslims and Dalits are marginalised?
RG: Yeah, so, let’s talk about Muslims first. Absolutely, with this qualification, Karan, in large parts of India – I would say Hindutva majoritarianism; I must not call it Hindu majoritarianism, because I know it would be an insult to many people in this room, you and me included – Hindutva majoritarianism is on the rise in many parts of India. It has been emboldened by the coming to power of the BJP. It has been further emboldened by the silence of the prime minister when the first horrific hate crimes occurred. But it is less visible, for example, where I live.
Across Karnataka, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala – it is less visible. It is most visible in the Hindi heartland. So with that caveat, that it’s not uniform, it’s probably rising, sadly to say even in some parts of south India, but more incrementally in some portions around the Karnataka coast, or in northern Kerala around Kannur. So with that caveat again; this is directly attributable to the prime minister, as many commentators have said before me. That if the first wave of the hate crimes that have occurred, including the first one just outside Delhi – the murder of Akhlaq is what I’m referring to – if something had been said, but it wasn’t. And that emboldens the next person, and the next person. And then, Adityanath was made chief minister of UP. And the signal was given. By the way, this is a statistic that is frightening, for those of you who know our jobs problem. After Adityanath became chief minister of UP, at one stage according to one report I read, several thousand young men every month were applying to join the Hindu Vahini.
KT: The Hindu Yuva Vahini.
RG: Hindu Yuva Vahini, right. Now, what does this mean? That is an open license. Making Adityanath chief minister is open license for macho vigilantes of the Hindutva Right.
KT: Are you sure it wasn’t a clever way of creating jobs?
RG: (laughs) Well, there was no other way, apparently, of creating jobs. He was incapable of creating any other kind of jobs. So I would say with this caveat, Karan, I would say that this caveat is important, because let’s not homogenise all of India. Some states are less imperfectly run than other states. In large parts of northern and western India, suppressed hatreds and animosities against minorities have become stronger.
Just one other caveat I’d like to add, again, some people may not be aware of this. Among some hardcore Hindutva ideologues, it may be bizarre to think this, but it’s true. Among some hardcore Hindutva ideologues, including some active on social media, the hatred of Christians is even more than the hatred of Muslims. There’ve been some attacks on Christians too, and there had been in the Vajpayee regime as well. But it just shows the kind of absolute bigotry where Muslims are relatively numerous. In some districts they are large. We are surrounded by two countries where Islamic fundamentalism is rising – Bangladesh and Pakistan. You can never excuse Hindutva bigotry but at some analytical level, you can understand why some of it is rising, there is terrorism. But the hatred of Christians! I mean it is astonishing among some sections of the Hindu Right how much they hate Christians. They still send their children to convent schools, and if they need a kidney operation they still go to a Mission Hospital. That’s a different thing. But that to me in some ways is the most frightening part of this bigotry; that even a tiny minority with no history of support from other countries, no association with global terrorism, is also so demonised. It tells you something very worrisome.
BJP’s silence on attacks against minorities
KT: I come to Mr Modi’s silence, which I’m sure it concerns a lot of people at the moment’s time, because I think this is something we should talk about in particular. But first of all, you know, the BJP has a sort of characteristic response when Muslims, or Dalits, or for that matter Christians, as you mentioned, are targeted. Whether we’re talking about what happened to Muslims in Kasganj or Alwar or on suburban trains between Delhi and Faridabad; or whether we talk about Dalits not being allowed to ride horses, grow moustaches or attend Dandiya festivals.
Or whether you talk about what used to happen very frequently a year or two ago – Christian churches, Christian statues being stoned and broken and Christian churches being vandalised; the BJP said this is ordinary crime. This mustn’t be exaggerated and presented as villainy, or as sectarian communal violence. How do you respond to that? Because, there was even an attempt made, if I recall correctly, by Arun Jaitley, to represent all the attacks on churches as ordinary crimes that have been booked by the police, and that the press and that the opposition were mistaken in giving it communal overtones. How do you respond to that defence they put out?
RG: So, I can’t say because I have not studied first hand the attacks on churches in Delhi. But when it comes to attacks on Muslims, the record is very clear. It’s been documented by the splendid website IndiaSpend; which is dare I say so in this room, as much a credit to Indian journalism as The Wire is. So give them a little money too. They do different kinds of work, they do data analysis and documentation. But if you look at their work on hate crimes, and lynchings, and cow-related lynchings, and who is being victimised, any statistical analyst will tell you that this is statistically significant.
If you look at the insecurities that the Muslims face, they withdraw into themselves; which, of course, has other tragic consequences which is giving encouragement to radical elements in their own community. So, clearly, if you look at the silence, you see Akhlaq, Junaid Khan and many others. If you look at what the police has been doing in states like Rajasthan where someone with a Muslim name is killed and the cases are filed against his family members, and not against the accused. So the question of attacks on Muslims, or the question of the behaviour of the police and the state administration in these cases, or the absolute silence of ministers, chief ministers, cabinet ministers and the prime minister – I think there can be no dispute, this is a hateful and majoritarian government.
KT: You know, there was a time when the BJP was proud of presenting itself, and I’m going back to the 80’s and the 90’s, as a party with a difference – by which they meant they were morally superior. There was a time when they used to attack other parties as being pseudo-secular, by which they meant you appease people, you aren’t actually genuinely secular. You are just treating them as vote banks. But I’m going to quote to you a series of statements made virtually every month this year by BJP MPs and MLAs about Muslims, and ask you at the end, what do you make of this aspect of the BJP?
In January, a BJP MLA in Rajasthan, his name was Banwari Lal Singhal, said, “The way the Muslim population is increasing, the existence of Hindus is in danger.” In February, a BJP MP in UP, his name was Vinay Katiyar, said, “Muslims got India divided. What is the need for them to live in India? They should either go to Pakistan or Bangladesh. What business have they in my country?” In April, a BJP MLA in Karnataka, his name was Sanjay Patil, said, “This is a Hindu Rashtra and we want to build the Ram Temple.” Finally, in May, a Rajya Sabha MP called Kanta Kardam said, “Muslims have been harassing Hindus, and one should be very, very cautious about them.”
Absolutely no one in the BJP – minister, prime minister, or anyone else, criticised their colleagues for these statements. And you can find similar statements every single month, virtually since they took over in 2014. What does this tell you about the BJP? What does this tell you about the sort of things that they are prepared to, not just tolerate, but presumably find acceptable?
RG: Well, before I answer your question, one can quickly off the cuff, even a person who is grey and balding and losing his memory, can remember other statements. Giriraj Singh saying if you criticise Narendra Modi, go to Pakistan, the other minister saying ‘Haramzada and Ramzada’. And they are still in the cabinet. You know, what this tells you is that this is not Vajpayee’s BJP, Balraj Madhok’s BJP, Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s BJP, anybody else’s BJP. This is Modi and Shah’s BJP. It’s a ruthlessly majoritarian BJP. One of the tragedies of living as long as I have and Karan has, is that it induces certain nostalgia.
Rahul Gandhi, makes me nostalgic for Indira Gandhi. Narendra Modi, believe it or not, makes me nostalgic for Lal Krishna Advani. I mean, it’s not even that. There is this amoral ruthlessness in the duopoly that runs the BJP. It may unravel, it’s already been unraveling in the by-elections. There’s this amoral ruthlessness that polarises everyone against the non-Hindus, and we will win every election. I mean, look at the fact that there was no MLA candidate from a minority community. Be it in UP, in Karnataka, or in Gujarat, you can go on and on. You can look at the appointments across the board, and sometimes aimed at Christians, by the way. People who may not have been elevated, perhaps, it’s not accidental what last name they have. This is an amoral ruthless BJP. It is not remotely even like the BJP I despised of Advani.
On Modi’s lack of moral leadership
KT: Let’s come to the prime minister’s silence. You spoke about it a moment ago. I’ve noticed, and I’m sure practically everyone in this room would have noticed, that every time there is an atrocity committed on Dalits or Muslims, every time there is a hateful rape, and god forbid we’ve had our fair share, more than our fair share of both of those in this country. Every time a BJP MLA or MP says something hateful about Muslims or Christians, Mr Modi is either silent or if he does speak out, it feels as if it has been dragged out of him.
I can recall when Gauri Lankesh was murdered, Mr Modi, it was discovered, was following on Twitter people who were applauding her murderers, and on one instance, forgive my language, he was following a gentleman who called Gauri Lankesh a ‘kuttiya’. And when people protested in question, why is the prime minister following such people? Why doesn’t he dissociate himself from them? Amit Malviya publicly said that the prime minister had the right in a democracy, in the interest of free speech, to follow whoever he wants. My question is a very simple question – do you believe Mr Modi lacks moral leadership? Or is he simply reluctant to exercise it?
RG: I suppose it is one of the manifestations of self-love is that you’ve never made a mistake.
KT: In my school days, self-love was something very different.
RG: (laughs) Right, well said. So I think part of it is, he cannot say, “Mere sey galti ho gayi (I made a mistake).” Mahatma Gandhi said, “I committed a Himalayan blunder.” But Mr Modi has never made a mistake. But you know, as important, or interesting, or worrying as the things Mr Modi does not comment on, is the things he comments on. So, when Gauri Lankesh or Shujaat Bukhari are murdered, there is no comment. But his heart bleeds for a forest fire in Portugal. He never fails to wish Amitabh Bachchan, Sachin Tendulkar, ABCD, on their birthdays. So it is something rather peculiar, as I said. You will have for your next Wire Dialogue, put Sunil Kakar and Ashis Nandy, and maybe a younger psychoanalyst – three of them. You ask them this question, because it befuddles me. It is astonishing what he says, what he does not say, his repeated references to himself in the third person, his desire to hug leaders who do not want to be hugged by him. I mean, an ordinary historian like me cannot give you a definitive answer to explain these various strange behaviours.
KT: Let me quote to you the opinion of two of the world’s most highly-regarded newspapers. On the 16th of April this year, this is what New York Times wrote in an editorial on Mr Modi, “He has exhibited a pattern of silence and deflection that is deeply worrying to anybody who cares about the health of the world’s largest democracy”. Exactly a week later, on the 23rd of April, the London Times said, and I’m quoting again, “He has been complicit in a culture that minimises the very existence of these crimes.” The crimes being the Unnao and Kathua rapes. How should we, as Indians, respond to the fact that two of the world’s most highly-regarded newspapers, in very critical personal terms, have these opinions of our prime minister? Should it be a matter of concern to us? Or should we just say, as I’m sure the BJP does, ‘This is just traditional Western prejudice and dislike of India?’
RG: Well, some sections of BJP would say that, and the PM and the BJP president simply don’t care. They don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about us. I think early in his term, Modi might have. Early in his term – I mean if I may evoke Ashis Nandy one last time, he wrote a wonderful book called The Intimate Enemy, and Jawaharlal Nehru is Narendra Modi’s intimate enemy, inside him. At somewhere early in his term he thought I will be the first Indian prime minister after Nehru to have an international reputation, and he went around and said some soothing things. But now he doesn’t care, the party president cares even less. They are only interested in winning the next election by whatever means it takes. You know there are politicians, every politician is ambitious, every politician at one level is ruthless, but there are some politicians who are absolutely ruthless and amoral. Everything is instrumental about them.
At least over the last 18 months, Narendra Modi has stopped caring about what international press, and of course even independent sections of domestic press, say about him.
KT: Two or three times you use the adjective ‘amoral’ to describe Modi, why not ‘immoral’?
RG: Look … that’s an interesting question. You know, amoral is without a shred of morality – that is, you do not care for the consequences of your actions, and amoral goes well with other adjective I used – instrumental. I think for example, if you think of Indira Gandhi, since you mentioned Indira Gandhi little while ago. Indira Gandhi had again, to use a term from psychoanalysis, a divided self. One part of her wanted to do good for the country by her own lights, one part of her was a patriot, another part of her wanted to be in power forever. And after she left, she went on to install one son and then the next son and so on, but she was a divided self. But Narendra Modi I think is in that sense, not a divided self – it is all about himself, his glory, his fame, his power and hence amoral. These are quibbles, but I think amoral suits him better than immoral.
Treatment of critical constitutional institutions
KT: Let’s come to the second fault line, that in a sense besets our Republic – the manner in which this government has treated critical constitutional institutions. The opposition accuses the government of cavalierly dismissing governments in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, of stifling its voice in the parliament, particularly in the Rajya Sabha. The collegium of judges are upset because of the way critical transfers and promotions have been held up by the government and the impasse between them over the memorandum that will determine the functioning of the collegium. And then of course there’s the press, which accuses this government of politicising the election commission and politicising a whole range of investigative agencies. How much of that do you agree with, and how much do you think is just exaggerated?
RG: None of it is exaggerated, and you have left out some institutions. The Universities, the Foreign Service- as I have discovered to my cost. Not to my cost, I don’t care about it. But it would, this is just a personal anecdote, other people in this room may also have experienced it. The Foreign Service has been explicitly instructed, and I have heard this from two different ambassadors, not to have anything to do with the guy sitting opposite you. Well, I travel, I got an award in Japan some years ago, and you know what I think of Rahul Gandhi, and we may come to that in a minute.
KT: I promise you we will.
RG: OK. But, in no previous regime have critics of the existing government – if they were, let’s say, you know, intellectuals, writers, musicians – been issued with an informal boycott. But even the Foreign Service has been told, don’t hang around with ABCD, don’t be seen with them. You know, don’t have dinner in IIC with XYZ or anywhere else. Universities, and in the universities which of course, I deeply care about as a scholar – in the universities, it’s partly to do with the fact that there are no intellectuals in the BJP, or remotely connected with the BJP. But it’s also partly to do with the hatred of the scholars and thinkers who are in universities. And what is deeply worrisome, if you think of JNU, there may be people here from JNU, or Hyderabad University, which the wonderful poet referenced in her opening poem. You know the attacks on JNU and Hyderabad University were led by the ABVP. It’s again, storm troopers. Young, radical storm troopers directing how our universities are run. So the judges, you know, I was there in the audience, so were some of the others when you did that wonderful interview with Justice Chelameswar. So we know what’s happening to the Supreme Court, we know what’s happening in the independent agencies, we know what’s happening to the Civil Service, but it goes well beyond that. We know what’s happening to the press, but the universities, the diplomatic corps – everyone is afraid. Everyone has to line up. If you look at, for example, again, I am slightly more active on social media than you are.
KT: I am inactive.
RG: Oh, you are inactive. But less active than people in this room. But if you see government officials; public officials, you know. Your father was a public servant; my father was a public servant. They would never do this kind of thing. If you see senior public officials, and the craven sycophantic tweets they utter about the prime minister and his policies – it tells you something deeply worrying about institutions. If senior public officials have to do this kind of thing, the army, certainly, the chief has said things which no previous chief would have said, should have said. I don’t think, fortunately at the moment, it’s not widely shared within the army. You see, there are people in the army who are deeply dissatisfied by the direction in which this government wants to take the army, right. But, I think, this is the poison they have left behind which will outlive them – the poison of degrading and corrupting impartial public institutions that sustain this country. Whatever happens in 2019, that poison will take a long time to disappear.
KT: Let me play devil’s advocate with you at this point. How different, leave aside, how much was, just answer the question ‘how different’ is this government’s treatment of critical constitutional institutions compared to Indira Gandhi’s – because when it’s a question of superseding judges or dismissing government, she did it far more brutally, and far more frequently. When it’s a question of disregarding the opposition or MPs, she didn’t just disregard them, she jailed them. So when that is the comparison, and I know that ‘whataboutery’ is not an effective academic way of responding to Mr Modi’s lapses. But the truth is that Indira Gandhi and Congress have inflicted much worse on our institutions.
RG: I completely agree. Indira Gandhi started it; she showed the way. From 1969 till 1977, she showed the way. That has given a license to these people to take it further. So there I absolutely agree. Perhaps it’s not the place to talk about it. But I also believe that we should not talk about what we are experiencing today as an undeclared emergency. I have lived through the Emergency and it was much worse. I mean, there are nasty things going on here, but don’t use false and phony and misleading parallels. But having said this, you know, Indira Gandhi put people; well, it’s a question of choosing. Indira Gandhi put people whom she thought would promote her policies, her so-called socialist policies which were mistaken and misguided. But here, it is something more deeper and more insidious. And other institutions too, you know.
One of the things Indira Gandhi had, by the way, was a great respect for science. Indira Gandhi would never have allowed her education ministers to say Darwin was wrong. Never. And not once, twice, but three times, four times. Indira Gandhi would never have said, as Narendra Modi himself said, that we invented plastic surgery. So, in some ways, they have gone even further. Of course, Indira Gandhi showed the way. Indira Gandhi and her cabal showed the way. So in that sense, you can use ‘whataboutery’. And of course, you are right, we are not living through an undeclared emergency. We are living through a period in which the ruling government is using public institutions to divide. But if it was an Emergency, you and I could not be speaking in Delhi. So let’s not go into hyperbolic, you know, comparisons. But the poison they’ve left behind, Indira Gandhi has been gone 40 years – she was killed in 1984. Between 1984 and 2014, over 30 years, some of the credibility, some of the autonomy, some of the respectability to our public institutions was restored. So now we are going back to those days that she began.
KT: Let me take another example with you – let’s take the example of Karnataka, the Modi government got a lot of flak – in terms of the press, in terms of public opinion, about the way the outcome of election was handled, in terms of forming the government. But let me put a paradox to you – the Modi government was criticised for insisting that the Venkatraman principle, which President A.P. Sharma also followed – that the single largest party should be given the first chance – was the principle that they were standing behind. And instead, the opposition were demanding that a combination of smaller parties, if they have together a majority, should be called instead. But that’s exactly what the opposition, in fact, stood against in Goa, in Manipur and in Meghalaya. So you have a very confusing actual situation, where the two parties have switched sides and switched positions. How much of a mess was this, and how much was this just the inevitable consequence of a difficult outcome, a problematic outcome, and therefore not really a reflection of institutions being badly treated by Modi? And I am deliberately putting this to you as a devil’s advocate defence of his position.
RG: I think you are right. I think what happened in my state was not calling Yeddyurappa to form the government. It was an exercise of judgment, you know. It was, you could disagree with it, but there have been precedents in the past. It’s also the case that the institution of governor, the governor being made a political appointee, starts with Indira Gandhi. So, on that issue, I agree with you. I mean, it’s not something that one could hold the Union government directly responsible.
KT: While we are talking about Indira Gandhi, what do you make of Arun Jaitley’s recent comparison between Indira Gandhi and Adolf Hitler? And would you accept the starting point, at any rate, that both of them used, in fact, a legitimate, democratic, republican constitution to acquire absolute power?
RG: Yes yes yes. But I think what was more interesting than that comparison, which was probably meant to pre-empt other people comparing Adolf Hitler with other people; were the remarks in that blog about, “Do not believe your own propaganda,” for example, right. There were some other remarks in that: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely!”, “No individual is more important than the institution”. If you look at the other, I mean, if they were inadvertent, then he needs to see a psychoanalyst too.
KT: How are you so sure they were inadvertent? They may have been deliberately pointed, disguised as if they are referring to Congress, but perhaps pointing in another direction closer to home?
RG: Perhaps. There were three things, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely, no individual is greater than the country,” I think it was. And, “Do not believe your propaganda.” Now, I think those are, but the question is, was Mr Jaitley’s boss listening?
The North-South divide
KT: Very interesting. Let’s come to the third fault line that besets our republic. It’s one that you and I discussed when we were, in fact, devising how we should handle today. And it’s what you called, the North-South divide. For most people, this most recently crystallised around the debate and the controversy concerning the terms and conditions for setting up the new Finance Commission. And I want to begin by asking you a simple question: Do you believe a North-South divide exists; and if it does, how serious is it?
RG: So, I think one has to go deep into history to explain it, but it’s clearly the case that the southern states, and some of the western states – Maharashtra and Gujarat – are doing much better economically, than the northern and the eastern states, on the aggregate. It’s clearly the case, that in the south at least, attacks on minorities are less, though there are exceptions there on the coast and so on. It’s also clearly the case that women are less oppressed in large parts of southern India. There are more entrepreneurs; there is more migration into south India. For example, Kerala now has people coming from Orissa and Bihar. Bangalore has people, migrants from all over. So, it’s a hub of innovation, enterprise, economic growth. It’s a place in which the fault lines of gender, and caste, and religion are less extreme than in northern and eastern India. It should worry anyone. If one part of India is doing much better, [if] it’s more peaceable, the economic growth is faster, innovation is more rampant, attacks on women are less, the other parts of India should think. Of course, there is a deep historical reason. It has got nothing to do with the fact that Karan Thapar lives in north India, and I live in south India. The deep historical reasons – we are coastal, so we have always been open to influences, we didn’t see the horrors of Partition, we were insulated from the wars that you experienced. In Bangalore, where I live, has not known a war for more than 200 years.
KT: You mean, not since Tipu Sultan?
RG: Not since Tipu Sultan. Delhi, when you were growing up in Delhi, you would have had to blacken your windows, you knew what was going on. So all these reasons explain, to a large extent, why the south is doing better. But the south is upset. It’s upset at having to subsidise to northern states and eastern states. It’s upset at the whole country being painted in a black brush because of things that are happening in certain states in the north. One of the nicest things that happened to me – that I felt personally – was when the BJP announced that Adityanath would march through Kerala to promote his party’s chances. And on his first or second day he said, “I will bring you my health system,” and on the third day he went back. Right, now that tells you something, right, about how the south is run, and how the north is run. But this should be worrying to a republic, wherein, for example, southern chief ministers start thinking of a conclave, excluding everyone else, starts feeling aggrieved that they are subsidising the poorer parts of India. When southern intellectuals such as myself want to say, you know, that please don’t blame us for the nasty things happening in the north and the east. So I think, these are things that are perhaps not as visible to the national media. I will give you one last example, which is relevant here, to what’s happening in Delhi today. You know 17,000 trees are being cut in Delhi, many of you are rightly upset, fortunately, the courts intervened. But do you know that in the Western Ghats, which is close to where I live, there are several projects being planned by the state and Central government, that may lead to the destruction of 7,50,000 trees – with all the impact to the river of the Western Ghats. Now, does anyone cover this? The Wire had a few stories on this by the way. But, you know, I think, whether it’s for good, or for ill, the south should mean much more to the republic than it currently does.
KT: Do you also feel that the BJP’s policies; the BJP itself, with its Hindutva attitude, its stress on Hindi, is it exacerbating the North-South divide? Or is it ameliorating it? Because by coming to power, possibly one day, again, sometime in the near future, in Karnataka, they might actually bridge it?
RG: Well, I think the promotion of Hindi is absolutely counterproductive. And this government is more promoted to promoting Hindi than Vajpayee’s government was. Because its understanding of nationalism is a paranoid understanding of nationalism – in which the country is united on the basis of a single religion and a single language. But I think it predates this government. I mean, the fact is, it’s interesting for younger historians to speculate: that why is it, that UP produced most of our prime ministers and it’s still doing so badly? It produced most of our prime ministers because it has the most seats. And at the moment there may be a fresh… there are calls in 2021 for a fresh delimitation of constituencies. So the more populous, more backward states of the north will be rewarded with even more MPs. So, the southern states will be further marginalised for performing well on things like women’s health, women’s reproductive rights and so on. So, this is something, that is a long-term thing. We can’t blame a single government. But I think all concerned citizens should worry about it.
On Rahul Gandhi as an opponent and the TINA factor
KT: Now I promised to you, Ram, I would come to Rahul Gandhi. This is that moment. There is a view, that Narendra Modi is, in a sense, saved by the fact that his leading political opponent is Rahul Gandhi because many people, many who may be in this room, by the way, look upon Mr Gandhi and say he hasn’t got the qualities fitting of a prime minister. Look upon Mr Gandhi and say he hasn’t got the talent, he hasn’t got the speaking ability a prime minister needs. Because he is perceived in that way, many people say Mr Modi has the benefit of a huge TINA (there is no alternative) factor. Would you agree? Or would you say that it’s less so than it was 3-4 years ago?
RG: Broadly, I would agree. I would agree; and this is not only because of the fact that Rahul Gandhi may be diffident, may not be a good orator, may not be entirely on the job 24*7 – but it’s more for sociological reasons. India has changed. The electorate is younger and younger and younger. No one remembers Jawaharlal Nehru. Few people remember Indira Gandhi, and not that many would remember Rajiv Gandhi. So you can’t invoke lineage – partly because the electorate is younger. You can’t invoke lineage because India has become a much more democratic and egalitarian society. I believe that, for example, among the reasons MS Dhoni is such a youth icon, is that he is not from Bombay, or Delhi, or Bangalore, where all the old cricketers came from. You know, like some of our entrepreneurs, who are venerated, who come from all kinds of backgrounds. They’re not Tatas and Birlas and Ambanis. Young Indians want to know what you have done – not what your father, your grandfather, or your great-grandfather did. And I think, there are these structural, sociological reasons, which make people unwilling to be enthusiastic about Rahul Gandhi, even more than his personal characteristics.
KT: You are suggesting, without saying it in so many terms, that the fact that he is a fifth-generation Gandhi, the fact that he is a dynast; would always be held against him. It will always be the initial way, the initial prism through which Rahul Gandhi is seen. But there are many, again, I’m sure, many in this room who would say to you, that over the last one year, either Rahul Gandhi himself, or the public perception of Rahul Gandhi, has changed. People say he has found a voice, he has found a sense of humour, he is able to be satirical in his Twitter feeds or whatever they are called. And in addition, perhaps he has outgrown his ‘Pappu’ image. Would you buy any of that?
RG: No, you know, Karan – if someone has been 14 years in politics, you would expect them to improve. You know, I have had, and there are people in this room who have had, PhD students who have been going for eight, ten, 12, 14 years. And they may sleep for six years, (and in the) seventh and eighth years they get some confidence and produce a few chapters. So that’s fine. He has been there a very long time. He may have improved a bit. But if at all his image is improving, it’s not because of him, but it’s because of the comparison. Because Narendra Modi has not delivered, because Narendra Modi promised the moon and gave nothing, because Narendra Modi has revealed himself to be unfeeling and amoral.
You know, as someone, I’ll give you two judgements of two people who are extremely close to me, personally, without identifying them. One said, when I was criticising Rahul Gandhi: “At least he is not vile.” So you know, who was being called vile. At least he is not vile. Unlike the ruling duopoly, he is not vile, alright. That was one remark. The other remark, of someone also I should not name, but someone whom I deeply respect, who is in fact an outstanding public servant, now retired, who has, you know, spent his entire working life trying to make this country a better place from within the government, he said, “Rahul Gandhi will now have my vote, but he will never have my respect.” So, look at the comparison: “At least he is not vile”; “He will not have my respect, but he will have my vote.” Because he is now pitted against someone who is seen by people as vile and unworthy of respect. So it is comparative. So if he has risen, it’s not because of what he has done, or the smart tweets issued on his behalf.
KT: He is a default choice.
RG: Precisely, he is a default choice.
KT: Rahul Gandhi – default, and certainly no Colossus – is not the only political figure on the opposition seat. To name just five others, you have Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Chandrababu Naidu, Sitaram Yechury. The question is: When you translate them onto the national platform, are they big players, or do they have significant roles? Do they matter nationwide, or do they only matter regionally?
RG: No, they only matter regionally. But each of them, I mean, I would leave Yechury out of it, though he is the guy I have most time for personally. But he can’t win you many Lok Sabha seats, just as you and me can’t, right?
KT: Not even from Kerala?
RG: No, I don’t think so. I think there are other people – CPM leaders in Kerala. Personally, I was saddened that his party foolishly did not give him another term in parliament, because we need people like that. But he is not a vote-catcher of any kind. But Mamata, Chandrababu Naidu, Mayawati, Akhilesh – these are people who can, you know, have a say in 30-40 Lok Sabha seats, right. So in that sense they are important. Now, I am not a close student of electoral politics, I am sure journalists and editors in this room who understand that dynamic much better than I do. So, but then, really, the question would be, as we approach 2019 – Narendra Modi will try to make the election campaign presidential. Those opposing him will try and make it constituency-by-constituency, state-by-state. Now, that’s how it will pan out – it’s impossible to predict it. But, because there is, Narendra Modi will clearly try to make it presidential, because he does have an all-India presence, he is recognised all across the country, he is a spectacular orator in a language spoken by a plurality of Indians, not a majority of Indians, but the most popularly spoken Indian language. So, he will try to make it presidential, whereas, of course, those opposing him will try and make it local and regional. Now, no one really can predict how this will pan out, but it’s pretty obvious that the positioning of Modi and the BJP will be presidential, and that of the opposition will not be presidential.
KT: Let’s end this section of tonight by actually forcing you to try and pan that out for me. Many people say that Mr Modi cannot do as well in 2019 as he did in 2014, and the reasons are obvious – because he is going to lose seats in critical states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, UP, possibly Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh. But Amit Shah has gone on record, several times, to say that not only will Mr Modi do better in 2019, but additionally the BJP will get 50% or more of the popular vote. I know this is a tricky, awkward question and not a territory you want to venture into, but end this part of the discussion by giving me some sense of what you think will be the outcome in 2019.
RG: You know, Karan, I am a historian, not an astrologer. Although, to become an astrologer would be a profitable change of profession, right, in this country. So I’d say this, as of now, what you just said seems pretty plausible and accurate. In many states in the north, and the west, the BJP is likely to lose moderately, or substantially. And, in the aggregate, in these five or six states that you mentioned, it could lose, as of today, 80-100 seats. However, what the duopoly has up its sleeve, in terms of jumlas, you know, is beyond your comprehension or mine. What they might do, what they might be thinking of doing. Because they know that the directive is against them. How do they reclaim it? They can’t reclaim it on jobs, economics, social peace, women’s safety, Dalit rights, none of that can they claim it, good relations with neighbours, none of that. But what is the jumla they might have planned, might be up their sleeve, you know, it’s worrisome and one can’t speculate. But the only way, I think, they can stem these losses, is by frightening people into voting for them.
KT: And frighten the country, you’re pretty certain, they will try to do?
RG: I don’t know – they may have other jumlas in mind. You know, there could be ways in which, one or another, you know, a moneybag who has fled the country is brought back, and they say we are against corruption – we brought him back. There could be other ways in which they could try and do this spectacular stuff, you know. An equivalent of MS Dhoni’s World-Cup winning six, without the happiness that ensued. So we can’t say. But surely they are thinking of that, because they know as well as you and me, and everyone else in this room, that in many states of northern and western India, the more populous states, they are likely to lose a substantial numbers of seats.
KT: Ram, we have covered extensive territory in the last 45-46 minutes. Not just the three fault lines, but you have given us a fairly comprehensive idea of how you view the Modi government and how you view Mr Modi himself. But also, you have given us a fairly substantial peep into your understanding of Rahul Gandhi; and the fact that you don’t think any more highly of him than you do of Narendra Modi.