Guha asserts his voice as a liberal who would not stay supine, but would fight his corner vigorously
B. Surendra Rao
sure test and one of the abiding pleasures of democratic living is to be perennially dissatisfied with it. But it needs a clear-headed auditor-chronicler to see how far the experiment has been worth its while, both in terms of appreciating its possibilities or limitations and the sincere energy that has gone into it as investment.
Ramachandra Guha has been one such chronicler, who, in 15 new or refurbished essays, has once again, tried to show the travels and travails of post-Independence India, or, “explore different facets of the Republic of India’s heroic and flawed compact with nationhood and democracy.”
A fine historical sensibility of the author has both harnessed and tamed the experiential aspect of it all; and, told in felicitous prose, Patriots and Partisans makes compelling reading.
But it is not a love-all book. No serious book in search of an Idea of India can be. In fact, it asserts the voice of a liberal, who would not stay supine, but would fight his corner vigorously.
In many of the essays the author has detailed his disagreements with the Congress, the Sangh Parivar, and the parliamentary Left. His admiration for the Mahatma, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar as the makers of the Indian nation is loud and clear, and so is his exasperation with the political culture of ‘chamchagiri’ of the Congress under Indira Gandhi and thereafter.
He has rightly made an attempt, in more than one essay, to retrieve the now forgotten or erased legacy of Nehru in securing the Indian nationhood and democratic values and practices on sure foundations. His poetic sense of history and his ability to relate the lingering mood of freedom struggle with the national and international demands had made him a natural leader. But democratic values have to be studiously cultivated; they are not genetically transmitted.
Ramachandra Guha excoriates the post-Nehru Congress for frittering away a great legacy and installing a new one in which corruption and panegyrists have flourished in a big way.
The rise and swagger of Hindutva is also shown as one of the ugly distortions of India’s nationhood and democratic culture. If the essential merit of protean, federative Hinduism is the freedom allowed to those who seek its membership, the political Hinduism that Hindutva represents has all the fascist ingredients of self-righteousness and readiness to locate and fight the enemies.
The ‘peculiarities and pathologies of Homo Indicus Hindutvawadi ’ as revealed in the Hindutva hate-mails that the author has received should help us situate such values as freedom and tolerance in the kind of Rama Rajya that they promise for the country.
The strategy to recast Hinduism in the mould of its chief adversary, creating, in effect, what Dharma Kumar called ‘an Islamic State-for the Hindus’ and spurts of violence either as communal pogroms or of the self-appointed, Talibanesque moral police, do not, says Guha, redound to the credit of Indian democratic life.
The decline of the Left
The decline and fall, or the retributive defeat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala and, more significantly, in West Bengal, is another subject of inquest in the book. The problem of the Left, according to Guha, is not just hubris but what Alasdair MacIntyre saw as a belief in “creedal uniformity as in religion” that brooked no change and tolerated no heresy, as demonstrated by B.T.
Ranadive’s scurrilous attack on Santiago Carrillo’s Eurocommunism and the State. Its mulish refusal to the demands of change, its anti-industrialism and anti-westernism, its refusal to stop ‘playing, or replaying, the battles of the Cold War” and its refusal to participate in the governance, and hence be accountable, at the Centre, are shown to be the cause or source of its increasing marginalisation. This is particularly regrettable because the Left has on its rolls some rare, non-corrupt, efficient leaders.
Patriots and Partisans deal with the problem of entropy which is increasing in Indian democratic life; but that does not make the author cynical or despondent. To make sure that he does not become one, he frequently goes back to the Mahatma and Nehru. He finds assurances in Gandhiji’s religion and traces the fortunes of Nehru’s reputation as a builder of modern India and in the more treacherous terrain of foreign policy where he sought to pit his moral idealism against the larger and complex forces of realpolitik .
He seeks to bring out the beauty of compromise in politics, highlighting the less-advertised work of Jayaprakash Narayan as a case in point, or of some sad refusals to listen to its call. Moderation and readiness to find compromise is not a spectacular task. It can be a long grind and even boring. But it will be doubly rewarding, for, there will be no losers. But democratic living is not all about snarling politics. It can offer other compensations and sites of introspection.
Guha explores such issues as the rise and fall of bilingual intellectual India, the fortunes of pluralism in Indian universities, his own and a few others’ experience in what was designed and groomed as a premier research institution in Delhi, his admiration for publisher-intellects like Rukun Advani and Ravi Dayal, his fondness for the Premier Bookshop and his owner T.S. Shanbhag and his rewarding association with Krishna Raj of EPW. He rightly acknowledges that if Indian liberalism is frustrated by cynical politics, its richness is sustained by such writers as Mahasweta Devi and Shivarama Karanth.
Patriots and Partisans carries with it many birch-rods, and that is likely to produce many sullen faces. But the performance of free India has not always been worthy of the freedom it had won. If it does not merit the narcissist’s labours, we have reasons to be grateful that the framework of freedom yet survives. If it has shrunk in some places, it has expanded elsewhere. We can be critical, and yet be hopeful. That is the true test and spirit of democratic living.
Ramachandra Guha is one of India's most prolific historians whose interests include sociology, politics, environment and cricket