A liberal’s nama

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CHAT As his latest book of essays, “Patriots & Partisans” hits the market, noted author Ramachandra Guha says that the liberal voice in India is not loud enough

Of right and wrongRamachandra GuhaPhoto: V.V. Krishnan
Of right and wrongRamachandra GuhaPhoto: V.V. Krishnan

He has a lot to say, from sports to politics to environment to history and some more. At times teasingly, most times robustly. Noted historian and commentator Ramachandra Guha calls himself a moderate who expresses himself “sometimes in extreme fashion”.

In a country, at a time when very often one’s politics is seen as either Right or Left, the word ‘extreme’ can be near dangerous. But Guha is fervent in fighting his corner here, “Take any public debate, on social or political issues, say on a policy decision, on the television, etc. What you get are two people from two extreme ends. Either one’s response would be kneejerk or gung-ho about the topic discussed. It is not that we have few liberals in the country but their voices are often not heard loudly enough.” He scores well in favour of his argument when he importantly notes, “The nuances get lost in the process.”

Somehow, the liberals seem “hesitant, understated” in expressing their views on various issues. “India is a land of greys and shades. India provides the space to explore these shades,” he states. About himself, he comments, “Both the Left and the Right-wingers don’t know how to deal with me. They know I am neither Left nor Right and yet can take them on.” His inbox though is regularly filled with hate mails, some politely worded, some not quite.

In the context, Guha points at some lines in an essay, “Hindutva Hate Mail”, published in his just-released book, Patriots & Partisans (Penguin India), and says, “I had made a comment, a funny one, on cow’s milk in a newspaper article. What I got are mails which are hurt, complaining, angry or downright abusive. People don’t see the humour. I like to tease, provoke readers, but it is often looked at sternly.” For instance, in another essay “A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri”, he writes that if Lal Bahadur Shastri would have been alive for some years, “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. Sonia Gandhi would “still be a devoted and loving housewife, and Rahul Gandhi perhaps a middle-level manager in a private sector company.”

It is likely that not too many in Congress will find humour in it but he is relentless in the piece. And also talks of “a band of Congress chamchas who had gathered outside 10 Janpath, to greet Rahul Gandhi on his 36th birthday” with a 50 kg cake from “early in the morning until dusk”. Rahul, despite messages sent by them through the guards, didn’t grace them a meeting. With humour as his vehicle, he highlights here though the level of sycophancy in India’s’s oldest political party, noting that “until about 1969, the Congress was more or less a democratic party” filled with leaders like Tilak, Gokhale, Bose, Gandhi and Nehru “who had followers and admirers, but these were not publicly slavish in their sycophancy.” Throughout the book, the acclaimed author of India after Gandhi talks of “reclaiming patriotism from both the Left and the Right.”

At the social level, he is equally scathing. “Hinduism, as a majority religion, perfected the art of abusing the lower castes in the most diabolic manner. And both Hinduism and Islam as two major religions of the country have suppressed the rights of women.”

According to Guha, India is seeing five revolutions simultaneously. “In the U.S., there was a national revolution in the 18th Century, Industrial Revolution in the 19th C and a social and democratic revolution in the 20th C. But in India, the national, democratic, urban, industrial and social revolutions are going on at the same time. So there is obviously a lot of commotion and uncertainty.” As a historian, he looks at the past to illuminate the present. “I am not a magician, I don’t have solutions. The challenges are many; our founders didn’t anticipate things like large-scale corruption in public offices and also the environmental challenges. My job is to look at the nature of this process of changes taking place in the country.”

Creative and bold thinking is what is required, he says, “to redeem the republic.” By staying within the System, such action is possible. “Take Minister for Agriculture Jairam Ramesh. He has set a benchmark. Whoever takes over from him can’t be as brazen as a T.R. Baalu.” Here he talks about the importance of resources like energy and adds, “Look at the Non-Conventional Energy Ministry, the Government has not been able to appoint a minister who is right for the job, knows about the subject.” Though some things are going right, yet the Government seems to not highlight them adequately. “For instance, our success in making the country polio-free.”

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

(Padma Bhushan Ramachandra Guha is working on a biography of Mahatma Gandhi, the first volume of which will be published by Penguin towards end 2013.)




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