Senior Congress leader Karan Singh says an exclusivist cultural construct is alien to India and not valid even within Hinduism

The prospect of a Congress-led UPA-III after the 2014 Lok Sabha election is not to be written off, asserts an optimistic Karan Singh. Excerpts from an interview given to M.R. Venkatesh on December 27 after the inauguration of the 88th session of the Indian Philosophical Congress at Madurai:

The country seems headed for another long period of political instability as the Lok Sabha election approaches. Will the quality of coalitions at the Centre get worse or do you see a ray of hope?

First of all, I think that coalition politics has now become firmly entrenched. So, to look upon it as some kind of a curse or some kind of a problem — I think we must get over that. After all, for ten years, we have run a coalition.

The UPA government has been a coalition. It’s not a Congress government. Now, if a proper coalition comes to power (in 2014) with a common minimum programme and if that is properly implemented, then that should be all right… I not only see a ray of hope, I am full of hope for India and its future.

What explains the Aam Aadmi Party’s victory in Delhi Assembly polls?

Actually, it’s too soon to say whether this will become a national phenomenon or not. Obviously, the AAP was able to tap into the frustration/anger of the people, rightly or wrongly, and therefore they got a lot of support.

And their whole way of politics — you know — a new kind of politics, going from house to house, that appealed to the people; they did not get a majority, mind you! Now, we have to wait and see two things: first of all, how they perform in Delhi, because Delhi is not just any ordinary State; it is the heart of India… So their performance will be watched; because it is a very new experiment, we should give it a fair chance.

Now, whether it is going to become a nationwide phenomenon? We don’t know. They have indicated that they want to expand. There is a difference between Delhi and the other States. Let us see.

But can parties like the AAP with a small core agenda and an NGO approach be viable?

Their 18 points (agenda) is mainly against poverty, maladministration and corruption. I think that their ideology at the local level is effective. Whether it becomes effective at the macro-level or not will depend on how they perform and how their thinking evolves.

Post-poll, if the UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) both fall short of the numbers, will the Congress be more flexible in supporting a secular formation of regional parties from the outside — a Pachmarhi-plus kind of approach?

Pachmarhi (the Congress’ famous brainstorming session there in Madhya Pradesh in September 1998 adopted a new approach to coalitions), of course, was the Congress standpoint at that time. I think it is difficult to speak for the Congress, for these are matters which ultimately will be decided after the elections. But on principle, I think we can say that the Congress would be prepared to get the support of parties outside.

I don’t think there will be enough parties to be supported from the outside… So, my view — or rather, my expectation — is that there will be either a UPA-III or an NDA-II. And these are the major parties. This idea, that without the Congress and without the BJP you will be able to make a government of 280 people, I do not think that is so. It is true there are a number of leaders in the country who may get 25 to 30 seats each, which is a lot of seats. But they are all different leaders. I think they will need one of the major parties to form a government.

If a Third Front of regional parties stakes a claim?

Regional parties, by themselves, I don’t think they will be able to. They may work as a ‘Third Front’. They may get some support as a ‘Third Front’. But that they will be able to form a government seems unlikely.

Do you, specifically, see a scenario where Congress would support a secular combination from the outside as they did for Inder Kumar Gujral, for instance?

I don’t think so. That was a very peculiar situation. And as you know, all those outside-support governments did not last long; there was V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda and there was I.K. Gujral... That was a period of total instability.

Then the BJP came and there was some stability with the NDA-I, and then UPA-I and UPA-II came. So, now, my view is we are in for UPA-III, not to be written off, or NDA-II.

Do you feel the regional parties themselves would come around to support either the Congress or the BJP?

That is what I feel, ultimately. The regional parties are very important. There are lot of regional parties in the non-Hindi speaking areas and regional parties are strong even in the Hindi-speaking areas like U.P. and Bihar.

Do you expect a role for regional parties from Tamil Nadu?

Yes, of course! (laughs). Without Tamil Nadu, we cannot have Indian politics… Tamil parties will certainly play a major role; which side they will go and how things will happen is a different matter.

The Tagore-Gandhi-Nehruvian vision of Indian nationalism has been lot more inclusive than the ‘Hindutva’ or ‘cultural nationalism’ of the BJP-led right-wing forces today. How do we meet these challenges to secularism, social cohesion and inter-religious harmony?

You see, first of all, it is not really Tagore-Gandhi-Nehru [continuity in that sense]; Tagore had his own views on many issues as did Gandhiji. But you could say the Nehruvian tradition was basically ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’, which is equal respect to all religions. I feel this is a better term than ‘secularism’ for the latter is a term taken from Europe when there was a clash between the Church and the State… We never had a Church of that type — one overwhelming organisation.

So, ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’, which I call secularism, is very important.… With its ‘Vedantic’ approach, Hinduism is universal. In fact, the way to combat that [Hindutva] is to explain what Hinduism is and thereby cut the ground from under the feet of people who are trying to make it more exclusive.

But these right-wing forces have been on the rise in the last 20-30 years, wanting to construct an exclusivist cultural position?

Yes. Well, I don’t think exclusivism will work in India. From the beginning of our tradition, we have accepted many different paths to the divine. I don’t think that the idea of emphasising only one path is valid even within Hinduism.

Have some Congress policies been responsible for the rise of ‘Hindu-right-wing forces’ in recent years?

What policies? Don’t forget one point. There has been a rise of Muslim extremism, largely fuelled from across the border, but also some of it from within the country itself. So, one of the reasons that explains the rise, among other things, is the growth of ‘Islamist terrorism’, not ‘Islamic terrorism’, all around the world, as you can see, and that particularly has hit us in India… So, I don’t think it is the Congress policies that are responsible.

Kashmir has been alternating between periods of peace and unrest with no resolution of the problem yet. What do you see as the future of Kashmir?

First of all, I must correct you. There is no such State as Kashmir. The State is Jammu and Kashmir which was founded by my ancestors — a composite State. So, it is a Jammu and Kashmir problem.

Number Two: some steps need to be taken on the lines of the various committees and reports that have come up; they have all made some positive suggestions, for example, to set up Regional Councils. We should have done that by now and, sort of, devolved powers to the Regional Councils. It might help to bring stability in J&K.

(The writer is Chief Political Coordinator at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy)

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