The New York Times has referred to him as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers’; Time Magazine has called him ‘Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler’. Meet Ramachandra Guha, one of the few intellectuals in India, who is a liberal in the classic sense of the term.
He has pioneered three distinct fields of historical inquiry: environmental history (as in The Unquiet Woods, 1989), the social history of sport (A Corner of a Foreign Field, 2002), and contemporary history (India after Gandhi, 2007). He is currently working on a multi-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi.
His latest book Patriots and Partisans (Penguin/Allen Lane Rs 699) is a collection of 15 essays based mostly on all that has gone wrong in modern India.
“Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre… He has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession,” he says in this interview to Vivek Kaul.
You write that “Indian constitution had always been impalatable to the Marxist-Lenninists since it did not privilege a particular party(their own), and Hindu radicals since it did not privilege a particular faith (their own).” Can you discuss that in a little detail?
Marxist-Leninists the world over believe in a state run for and by a single party, their own. Hence the problems encountered by the Communist Party of China, which is paranoid that a call for freedom and democratic rights will lead to the dismantling of their monopoly. Indian Marxist-Leninists are no exception. The Naxalites fantasize about planting the Red Flag on the Red Fort. Even the CPI(M) still somewhere believes that one day it will be the sole party in control in India.
And what about Hindu radicals?
A core belief of the RSS(Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh) is in a Hindu Rashtra, a state run and for Hindus. Muslims and Christians in this scenario have always to prove their loyalty, in fact, they have to acknowledge their distant or proximate, real or fictitious, origins in a Hindu family and in Hindu culture. When the NDA came to power, under the influence of the RSS they constituted a Constitutional Review Commission. Knowing that the former Chief Justice, M. N. Venkatachaliah, was a practising Hindu with a profound knowledge of the scriptures, they asked him to head the Commission, hoping he would advocate amendments in the direction they desired. To their dismay, Justice Venkatachaliah said the secular Constitution of India was completely sound.
Which is a bigger threat to India, naxalism or Hindu bigotry?
In the 1990s, Hindu bigotry; now, Naxalism. Things may yet again change, or an altogether new threat may emerge. Historians cannot predict!
In one of your essays you talk about the senior Congress leader Gulzari Lal Nanda, who was twice the acting Prime Minister of India, dying in a small flat in Allahabad. You also talk about Lal Bahadur Shastri to highlight how upright Indian politicians used to be. What has made them so corrupt over the years?
Ironically, leaders of the CPI and CPI(M), despite their strange and archaic ideology, are perhaps the least corrupt of Indian politicians. They do not have Swiss bank accounts and do not sup with corporates. The compulsions of election funding, the state’s control over natural resources (including land), and sheer venality and greed have encouraged leaders of all other parties to become grossly wealthy by abusing their office.
There remain exceptions. Manmohan Singh is completely honest in a personal sense (though complicit in the corruption of his party and government). And there still remain some outstandingly upright judges, IAS officers, and Generals. The day his term ended, Justice Venkatachaliah moved out of his Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi and returned to his modest home in Bangalore. Others would have at least stayed on for the six months allowed for by the law, using that period to lobby for another sarkari post with perquisites.
You also suggest that if Lal Bahadur Shastri would have been around for sometime more India would have been different country than what it is today. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Shastri has been greatly under-rated both as politician and Prime Minister. It was he who laid the foundations of the Green Revolution (although Indira Gandhi took the credit). He was a far more focused leader in defence and military matters than his mentor, Nehru. He had initiated moves to open out the economy and encourage entrepreneurship. And he was scrupulously honest and completely non-sectarian. Had he lived another five or ten years India may today be a less discontented democracy and a less corrupt society.
Normally when people want to refer to dynasty politics in India they talk about the Nehru Gandhi family. You say it should be just the Gandhi family. Why do you say that?
I show in my book, with concrete evidence, that the dynasty originated with Indira Gandhi, not Nehru. I think this dynasty is now on its last legs. Its charisma is fading with every generation. And Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre. Rajiv at least had a vision–of making India a technologically sophisticated society. Sonia has enormous stamina and determination. Rahul has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession.
Has chamchagiri increased in the Congress party over the years? Are the chamchas of Sonia Gandhi bigger chamchas than the chamchas of Rajiv, Sanjay and Indira Gandhi?
Quite possibly. As there is less to go around, there is more active chamchagiri to get what remains. The cult around 10 Janpath in Congress circles is sickening.
Are the Internet Hindus the new kar sevaks?
Yes and no. They have the same bigoted worldview and fanatical fervour of the kar sevaks, but express this through the safe medium of the Web. The kar sevaks had more raw energy, travelling to Ayodhya, provoking riots on the way there and on the way back. The Internet Hindus are as narrow-minded and sectarian as the kar sevaks, but, since their abuse is verbal and not physical, far less dangerous.
Gurucharan Das talks about the need for a new party which understands the Indian middle class in his new book India Grows At Night. You also make a slight mention in one of the essays. Do you see that happening? Does the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) look like filling in that gap?
The anti-corruption protests of 2011 were an important wake-up call to large sections of Indian society, not just the politicians. However, for the energy and passion to have a substantial and enduring impact, the movement must stay focused, and be patient. Too much media attention is inimical to solid grassroots work. The leaders of AAP should, for the moment, stay away from TV studios and build state-level units and forge alliances with civil society groups across India. To fight the next General Elections would be foolish and premature. They should aim rather to make an impact in the General Elections of 2019.
Over the years have we become less liberal as a society than we were before?
It may not be accurate to say that we have become less liberal as a society. On the whole, Indians are more aware of the rights of Dalits and women than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Sectarian religious sentiments on the ground are markedly less intense and polarizing than they were 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, the media only gives space to extreme positions. And the state capitulates to bigots when it should stand up to them. This capitulation is sadly true of all parties.
Why did the UPA encourage India’s greatest artist to flee into exile? Could it not protect his life and dignity in his own homeland? Why did the Left Front not provide protection to Taslima Nasreen? The tragedy is that the so-called secular parties cave in most easily to the sectarians and the bigots—the Congress to the Hindu right, the Congress and the Left to the Muslim right, the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra to the Shiv Sainiks.
Could you elaborate on that?
About four years ago, I wrote a piece in a Delhi newspaper known to be read by senior Congress leaders and Ministers. I said there than when the next Republic Day awards were announced, the Government should give MF Hussain the Bharat Ratna and Salman Rushdie the Padma Vibhushan. This would be just reward, no less than their artistic and literary genius deserved. It would strike a blow for artistic and literary freedom. And it would simultaneously insult Hindutvawadis and the mullahs. The rest of India (namely, the majority of Indians) would praise the Government, and the bigots would be speechless, the Hindutvawadis not knowing whether to praise the Government for honouring Rushdie or abuse it for honouring Hussain, and the mullahs confused in the other direction.
But that moment has now passed…
Sadly, Hussain is now dead, the moment has passed, and one does not see the Government—any government—stand up boldly for liberal and democratic values. This is the tragic paradox—that while society as a whole may be becoming slightly more liberal, the further progress of liberalism is halted by the encouragement to illiberal forces by the state and political parties.
The interview originally appeared in www.firstpost.com on December 17,2012
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
“Sixkku appuram seven da, Sivajikku appuram yevenda,” says Superstar Rajinikanth in the tremendously entertaining Sivaji – The Boss. The line basically means that “after six there is seven, after Sivaji there is no one.”
Like there is no one after Sivaji (or should we say the one and only Rajinikanth) similarly there is no one in the Congress party beyond the Gandhi family. And the party can go to any extent to keep the family going and at the centre of it all.
Take the recent decision of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to implement the direct cash transfers scheme in a hurry. On the face of it one cannot really question the good logic behind the scheme. The idea is to make cash transfers directly into the accounts of the citizens of this country instead of offering them subsidies, as has been the case until now. This transfer will happen through Aadhar unique ID card enabled banks accounts.
As The Hindu reports quoting the finance minister P Chidambaram “Initially, 29 welfare programmes — largely related to scholarships and pensions for the old, disabled — operated by different ministries will be transferred through Aadhaar-enabled bank accounts in 51 districts spread over 16 States from January 1, and by the end of the next year it should cover the entire country, Mr. Chidambaram said. He added that only at a later stage would the government consider the feasibility of cash instead of food (under the Public Distribution System) and fertilizers, since it was more complicated.”
So far so good.
But the question is why is the government in such a hurry to implement the scheme? The scheme is to be implemented in 51 districts January 1, 2013 and eighteen states by April 1, 2013, the start of the next financial year. The government hopes to implement the scheme in the entire country by the end of 2013 or early 2014.
A scheme of such high ambition first needs to be properly tested and only then fully implemented. As has been explained in this earlier piece on this website there have been issues with the government’s other cash transfer programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).
There have also been issues with pilot projects that have been carried on the cash transfers scheme till now. In one particular case people who got the subsidy had to spend a greater amount of money than the subsidy they received, in getting to the bank and collecting their subsidy.
The other big issue that might come up here is the opening of bank accounts. While the Aadhar Card does identify every person uniquely, India remains a terribly under-banked country. And that is something that needs to be set right in a very short period of time, if the direct cash transfers system needs to get anywhere.
The big selling point of the direct cash transfers scheme is that leakages which happen from the current system of subsidies will be eliminated. For example, currently a lot of kerosene sold through the subsidised route does not reach the end user and is sold in the open market where it is also used to adulterate petrol and diesel, among other things. Some of this kerosene also gets smuggled into the neighbouring countries where kerosene is not as cheap as it is in India and hence there is money to be made by buying kerosene cheaply in India and selling it at a higher price there.
Now people will buy kerosene at its market price and the subsidy will come directly into their bank accounts. So the subsidy will reach the people it is supposed to reach and will not enrich those people who run the current system.
While this sounds very good on paper, the reality might turn out to be completely different as an earlier piece on this website explains and the so called leakages might continue to take place.
Hence, its very important to run pilot tests in various parts of the country, solicit feedback, implement the necessary changes and then gradually go for a full fledged launch. A system of such gigantic proportion cannot be built overnight as the government is trying to.
So that brings us back to the question why is the government in such a hurry to implement direct cash transfers scheme? And in a way screw up what is inherently a good idea.
The answer probably lies in what Jairam Ramesh, the Union Rural Development Minister told The Hindu ““The Congress is a political party, not an NGO. We had promised cash transfer of benefits and subsidies in our election manifesto of 2009,” Mr. Ramesh said, asking “Where is the talk of elections?””
But as the great line from the great political satire Yes Minister produced by the BBC goes “The first rule of politics: never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.” So this hurry to get the scheme going is nothing but the Congress party getting ready for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
As an article in the India Today magazine points out “The government’s calculation is that just as the National Rural Guarantee Act and the farmer loan waiver had sealed its victory the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the direct cash transfer of subsidies would do the same in the 2014.”
Or as Ramesh put it more aptly by getting into the poll mode “aapka paisa, aapke haath“. And this is being done to ensure that the Congress party does well in the next Lok Sabha elections and Rahul Gandhi becomes the prime minister of India.
There are several interesting points that arise here. The first point is that the launch of the cash transfers system will give the Congress politicians battling a string of corruption charges something new to talk about. And that is important.
Indira Gandhi established by winning the 1971 Lok Sabha with her Garibi Hatao slogan that it is important to talk about the right things in the run up to the elections irrespective of the fact whether anything concrete about it is done or not, in the days to come.
There is no one more cunning as a political strategist this country has had than Mrs Gandhi. And every Congressman worth his salt knows that. It is more important to make the right noises than come up with results.
The second point that comes out here is that the government is making all the right noises about this scheme being fiscally neutral. This means that the expenditure on
subsidies won’t go up. Only the current subsidies on offer will now be distributed through this route. This is something that I am unwilling to buy.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the right to food act is set in place in the days to come before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The excuse will be that now that we have a direct cash transfer set up in place we are well placed to launch the right to food act as there will be no leakages.
While the idea behind subsidies is a noble one, the government of India is not in a position to foot the mounting bills. The fiscal deficit for the year 2012-2013 has been targeted at Rs 5,13,590 crore or 5.1% of the gross domestic product. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what the government earns and what it spends.
As the Kelkar committee on fiscal consolidation recently pointed out “A careful analysis of the trends in the current year, 2012-13, suggests a likely fiscal deficit of around 6.1 percent which is far higher than the budget estimate of 5.1 percent of GDP, if immediate mid-year corrective actions are not taken.” The committee estimated if the government continued to function as it currently is it will end up with a fiscal deficit of Rs 6,15,717 crore. And I believe that the Kelkar committee’s estimates are fairly conservative. So we might very end up with a higher fiscal deficit if the direct cash transfers system is used to launch more subsidy programmes as I guess would be the case.
And that brings me to my third point. As the India Today magazine points out “The cash transfer of subsidies estimated to be worth Rs 3,20,000 crore will not be an easy task. Procedurally, one of the major obstacles would be the fact that many of the beneficiaries might not even have bank accounts. But more significantly, the scheme does nothing to address the main problem – bring down the subsidies to ease the pressure on the exchequer.”
High subsidies basically imply greater borrowing by the government. This in turn means lesser amount of money being available for others to borrow and hence higher interest rates. Higher subsidy also means more money in the hands of Indian citizens. This more money will chase the same number of goods and services and hence lead to higher inflation. Also be prepared for a higher food inflation in the years to come.
Higher interest rates will mean that the lower economic growth will continue in the time to come despite of what the politicians and the bureaucrats would like us to believe. Consumers will take on lesser debt to buy homes, cars and consumer goods. This will be bad for business, and in turn they will go slow on their expansion plans and thus impact economic growth further.
As Ruchir Sharma writes in his bestselling book Breakout Nations. “It was easy enough for India to increase spending in the midst of a global boom, but the spending has continued to rise in the post-crisis period…If the government continues down this path India, may meet the same fate as Brazil in the late 1970s, when excessive government spending set off hyperinflation and crowded out private investment, ending the country’s economic boom.”
And that’s the cost this country will have to take on a for one party’s love for a family. To conclude, let me quote something that Ramchandra Guha writes in the essay Verdicts on Nehru which is a part of his latest book Patriots and Partisans “Mrs (Indira) Gandhi converted the Indian National Congress into a family business. She first brought in her son Sanjay, and after his death, his brother Rajiv. In each case, it was made clear that the son would succeed Mrs Gandhi as head of Congress and head of government.”
The sudden hurry to implement the direct cash transfers system probably tells us that this generation’s Mrs Gandhi has also made it clear to Congressmen that her son is ready to take over the reins of this country.
Hence, the Congress government is now working towards making that possible. In the process India might get into huge trouble. But we will still have Rahul Gandhi as the Prime Minister.
And that is more important for Congressmen right now than anything else.
The article was originally published on www.firstpost.com on November 29,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
The closest English word for the desi word chamchagiri is sycophancy. But sycophancy doesn’t have the same depth as chamchagiri does. Sycophancy doesn’t make my tongue twirl in the same way as chamchagiri.
So let me take this opportunity to explain chamchagiri in some more detail through a song from the late Jaspal Bhatti’s superhit television serial Flop Show. For those who don’t know or don’t remember, each episode of the serial highlighted corruption from a different facet of life.
One particular episode dealt with the travails of a PhD candidate and his attempts to get a PhD. The PhD candidate (played brilliantly by Vivek Shaque who died a few years back in a plastic surgery gone wrong) carriers out various household chores including buying vegetables for his guide (played by Bhatti) in the hope of getting his PhD.
Towards the end of every episode Flop Show had a parody of a hit Hindi film song. This particular episode had a spoof of the song jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat kahenge, tum din ko agar raat kaho raat kahenge.
The lines of the parody were different and went like this:
Jo tumko ho pasand wohi baat kahenge,
beaker ko agar jar kaho to jar kahenge.
(You can listen to the complete parody here)
This is the level of commitment required of a chamcha, something that the word sycophant simply does not convey.
Now before you start to wonder, dear reader, as to why have I gone into so much detail in trying to define or rather differentiate between chamchas and sycophants, allow me to explain.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you if I tell you that most Indian political parties are full of leaders who are essentially chamchas who have risen to the top or full of leaders who have become chamchas after being brought in at the top.
Some of the cadre based parties like the Left Parties and Bhartiya Janta Party (to some extent) are exceptions to this.
But India’s number one party when it comes to chamchas is the Congress. Most recently the chamchagiri was in full show when top leaders of the party like P Chidambaram, Veerapa Moily, Jayanthy Natarajan, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari and Rashid Alvi (all lawyers to boot) spoke out to vociferously defend the shenanigans of Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi, their supreme leader.
But Congress was not always a party of chamchas and chamchagiri. At least not till 1969. Historian and writer Ramachandra Guha explains this in an essay titled A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri which is a part of his recently released book Patriots and Partisans.
“Most Indians are too young to know this, but the truth is that until about 1969 the Congress was more or less a democratic party,” writes Guha.
Sometime before Jawahar Lal Nehru died, Indira Gandhi had been planning to settle in Great Britain. After Nehru died in May 1964, she was invited to join the cabinet as the minister of information and broadcasting by Lal Bahadur Shastri who took over as the next prime minister.
“When Shastri died in January 1966, Mrs Gandhi was, to her own surprise, catapulted into the post of the prime minister. There were other and better candidates for the job, but the Congress bosses (notably K Kamraj) thought that they could more easily control a lady they thought to be a gungi gudiya (dumb doll),” writes Guha.
But instead of being a gungi gudia she turned out to be a control freak who split the party in 1969 and what was a essentially a decentralised and democratic party till that point of time became an extension of the whims, fancies and insecurities of a single individual.
Thus started an era of chamchas and chamchagiri in the Congress. Dev Kant Baruah who was the President of the Congress Party between 1975 and 1977 went to the extent of saying “Indira is India and India is Indira“. What was loyalty to the party earlier became loyalty to the individual and the family.
Also Indira Gandhi had total control over the system effectively overriding democracy and imposing emergency on June 26, 1975.
A famous cartoon made by Abu showed President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in his bath during the emergency signing ordinances and saying “if there are any more ordinances just ask them to wait.” Other than this, Indira Gandhi also took to firing both chief ministers and governments at will.
While she was building her own career, Mrs Gandhi’s two sons Sanjay and Rajiv were trying out their own careers as well. As Guha writes “The elder boy, Rajiv, after having followed his mother in having failed to complete a degree, took a pilot’s license and joined Indian Airlines. The younger boy, Sanjay, prudently chose not to go to university at all. He apprenticed at Rolls Royce(in Great Britain), where his lack of discipline provoked a flood of anguished correspondence between his mother and the Indian high commission.”
Sanjay Gandhi came back to India with the idea of manufacturing what he called the people’s car. “Despite the gift of cheap land (from a sycophantic chief minister of Haryana) and soft loans from public sector banks, the project failed to deliver on its promises. Another of Sanjay’s chamchas Khushwant Singh, then the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, claimed that his factory would roll out 50,000 cars a year,” writes Guha. But nothing of that sort happened.
Sanjay Gandhi got out of cars and gradually got into politics effectively becoming number two to his mother Indira. Rajiv Gandhi on the other hand wasn’t interested in politics. “His greatest professional ambition was to graduate from flying Avros on the Delhi-Lucknow run to flying Boeings between Calcutta and Bombay. By June 1980 he had been flying for twelve years, but his record did not yet merit the promotion he so ardently desired,” Guha points out.
In June 1980 Sanjay Gandhi died in an plane crash and Rajiv had to enter politics to support his mother. And in politics he was luckier than he was as a pilot. As Guha writes “He was rather luckier in politics. Once he had answered Mummy’s call, and changed his career, the rewards were swift. Within five years of joining the Congress he had become prime minister of India.”
And the Congress party had effectively become a family run concern. As Guha writes in the essay Verdicts on Nehru “Mrs Gandhi converted the Indian National Congress into a family business. She first bought in her son Sanjay, and after his death, his brother Rajiv. In each case, it was made clear that the son would succeed Mrs Gandhi as head of Congress and head of government.”
Once Indira Gandhi had placed her family at the helm of the Congress it was time for other parties across the country to follow suit. “Indira Gandhi’s embrace of the dynastic principle for the Congress served as a ready model for other parties to emulate…The DMK was once the proud party of Dravidian nationalism and social reform; it is now the private property of M Karunanidhi and his children…Likewise, for all his professed commitment to Maharashtrian pride and Hindu nationalism Shiv Sena leader, Bal Thackeray could look no further than his son. The Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janta Dal claimed to stand for ‘social justice’, but the leadership of Mulayam’s party passed onto his son and in Lalu’s party to his wife,” writes Guha.
There are other examples as well. Sharad Pawar is grooming his daughter to take over the reins of his party. Dr Farooq Abdullah passed on the leadership of his family party the National Conference to his son Omar. And this is deeply inimical to the practise of democracy in India, feels Guha.
He gives the example of once travelling through Tamil Nadu a few years back. “I was met at every turn by ever-larger cut-outs of the chief minister’s son and heir apparent – cut-outs of MK Stalin smiling, Stalin writing, Staling speaking into a cell phone. The only other place where I have felt so stifled by a single face was in Syria of Bashar Assad.”
And all this has happened because Lal Bahadur Shashtri died rather suddenly and Indira Gandhi was catapulted into a position of immense power. So the question is what would have happened if the Shastri had lived for another five years?
“Had Shastri lived, Indira Gandhi may or may not have migrated to London. But even had she stayed in India, it is highly unlikely that she would have become prime minister. And it is certain that her son would have never have occupied or aspired to that office…Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi would almost certainly still be alive, and in private life. The former would be a (failed) entrepreneur, the latter a recently retired airline pilot with a passion for photography. Finally, had Shastri lived longer, Sonia Gandhi would still be a devoted and loving housewife, and Rahul Gandhi perhaps a middle-level manager in a private sector company,” writes Guha.
In short, the world that we live in would have been a very different and probably a better place. But as the great Mirza Ghalib, who had a couplet for almost every situation in life, once said “hui muddat ke ghalib mar gaya par yaad aata hai wo har ek baat par kehna ke yun hota to kya hota?”
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on November 27,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])