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Articles on this Page
- 06/22/17--06:58: _All the President’s...
- 06/22/17--08:00: _Ram Nath Kovind: Fi...
- 07/12/17--10:08: _The Original Mrs G
- 07/13/17--07:28: _Can the Right Be Li...
- 07/19/17--09:15: _Ramachandra Guha: ‘...
- 07/20/17--04:46: _Open Diary
- 07/20/17--09:02: _Ram Nath Kovind: Th...
- 07/20/17--09:12: _M Venkaiah Naidu: A...
- 07/27/17--05:44: _Nitish Kumar: In Go...
- 08/03/17--08:32: _Ahmed Patel: Man on...
- 09/14/17--08:11: _Excerpts from a spe...
- 09/14/17--08:18: _Modi’s Mandal: The ...
- 06/22/17--06:58: All the President’s Mien
- 06/22/17--08:00: Ram Nath Kovind: First Person Singular
- 07/12/17--10:08: The Original Mrs G
- 07/13/17--07:28: Can the Right Be Liberal?
- 07/20/17--04:46: Open Diary
- 07/20/17--09:02: Ram Nath Kovind: The First Citizen as a Forceful Unifier
- 07/20/17--09:12: M Venkaiah Naidu: A Friend and Loyalist
- 07/27/17--05:44: Nitish Kumar: In Good Company
- 08/03/17--08:32: Ahmed Patel: Man on the Brink
- 09/14/17--08:11: Excerpts from a speech Rahul Gandhi has not delivered yet
- 09/14/17--08:18: Modi’s Mandal: The Day of the Most Backward
VISITING DELHI FROM Singapore where I lived then some 20 years ago, I asked Dr Karan Singh why he hadn’t stood for President. He said it was time for a Dalit to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. With the NDA nominating an unknown Ram Nath Kovind, the wheel has turned full circle since 1997 when KR Narayanan became the tenth President of India.
Narayanan wasn’t unknown. But despite his achievements, he was perhaps the most human man in the job. I remember Sheila Watumull’s story of Mari, the elephant she and her husband David imported from India and which Indira Gandhi presented to the Honolulu zoo. The Watumulls gave a dinner party by their open air swimming pool to celebrate the event, and, in a fit of American egalitarianism, Sheila (a white American who succeeded David as India’s honorary consul) invited Mari’s mahout to the party. Local Indian celebrities, the Prime Minister’s entourage, and the Honolulu glitterati didn’t know how to handle the situation. But India’s future President was not fazed. Ambassador Narayanan, as he then was, picked up his plate without a word, took it over to where the mahout was sitting by himself, and sat down beside him. They spent the rest of the evening chatting amiably. His predecessor, Shankar Dayal Sharma, could also rise above petty inhibitions. There was great excitement once in social circles when Sharma addressed Mayo College students as “Your Highnesses”. Asked about it, he said that having fought and defeated the princes during his political career in Bhopal, he could afford to show them some respect.
But Presidents belong to a larger context. Had Pranab Mukherjee watched BBC television on June 9th, he would have noted that when Theresa May drove back from Buckingham Palace after obtaining Queen Elizabeth’s permission to form a new government, she went straight to the lectern set up in Downing Street and read out from a pre-written speech already there that the Queen had agreed to her request. He might have noted the dual symbolism. May couldn’t have gone ahead without the Head of State’s formal approval. The Head of State could not have refused the leader of the biggest party in Parliament. Surveying the tranquility of the last five years in the gathering twilight of his term, Mukherjee might also recall his own now almost forgotten role in the protracted guerrilla warfare between the once fervent Nehru-Gandhi loyalist, Giani Zail Singh, and Rajiv Gandhi, the man he had made Prime Minister. It’s probably the most exciting passage in presidential history.
It used to be said in British India that the divine right of kings descended on the Viceroy and trickled down through governors and district collectors even to subdivisional officers. That was in a social sense. Since 1950, the President of India’s position has been in many ways constitutionally analogous to that of the British monarch. When some Constituent Assembly members wanted the President to be explicitly bound to act only on ministerial advice, Jawaharlal Nehru replied that Article 74 of the Constitution made it clear he had to perform ‘all functions whatsoever’ only on the aid and advice of the council of ministers. ‘The moment the President refuses to accept its aid and advice, there’ll be a breakdown in the constitutional machinery,’ Nehru wrote on October 6th, 1950. Any formal restriction would derogate from the dignity of a Head of State who embodies the majesty of the biggest democracy in the world of which he is also supreme commander-in-chief. He would abide by convention as British monarchs do.
There was great excitement once in social circles when Shankar Dayal Sharma addressed Mayo College students as “Your Highnesses”. Asked about it, he said that having fought and defeated the princes during his political career in Bhopal, he could afford to show them some respect
Despite being the butt of so many jokes, the seventh President was astutely aware of the parallel. Asked to justify Rajiv’s appointment in 1984, Zail Singh replied without hesitation he had done no more than the Queen when Anthony Eden resigned without advising her on his successor. She appointed Harold Macmillan on the advice of people she had consulted. Singh had also spoken to various persons and concluded that Rajiv alone could manage India in those perilous times after Indira Gandhi’s murder. We will never know the Queen’s version. We will never know if she asked May for proof that the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs would support her 318 Tories in a hung House of 650 members. Not one word of the hundreds of conversations she has had with 13 prime ministers since ascending the throne in 1952 has ever been disclosed. Britain is not the US where the former FBI director, James Comey, cryptically admitted he had asked a close friend (later identified as a Columbia University law professor) to leak a memo about his dealings with Donald Trump. Britain is even less like India where Jyoti Basu complained after West Bengal’s watershed 1967 elections that Dharma Vira, the ex-ICS governor, wanted United Front legislators paraded in the Raj Bhavan drawing room before swearing in their leader as chief minister.
That was the age of turbulence when the redoubtable Rajmata Vijay Raje Scindia reportedly locked up in a medieval fort fickle legislators likely to succumb to the other side’s blandishments. That’s when Haryana gave birth to the ‘Aya Ram Gaya Ram’ phenomenon. The chief minister, Rao Birendra Singh, immortalised the term when welcoming the errant Gaya Lal, an MLA who made a practice of crossing sides, back to the Congress fold, proclaiming, “Gaya Ram is now Aya Ram!” One doesn’t know what motivated Gaya Lal and whether the governor’s was the hidden hand for few governors are disposed to abide by the Supreme Court warning that their ‘limited powers … should be used in a fair manner, so that democracy survives’. Politicians blamed (or praised) Arunachal Pradesh’s governor when 43 out of 44 ruling Congress Party MLAs defected last year to a Bharatiya Janata Party ally.
As a rule, presidents are spared such difficult decisions. The eighth President, Ramaswamy Venkataraman, may have had some misgivings about both Chandra Sekhar and Vishwanath Pratap Singh. But if hindsight is to be believed, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam had none about Sonia Gandhi. If she ‘had made any claim for herself, I would have had no option but to appoint her,’ the ‘Missile Man’ wrote in his memoirs, Turning Points: A Journey Through Challenges. At the time, however, many felt that the wording of his letter to Sonia Gandhi was not quite the normal invitation to form a Government. It sounded more like an offer to discuss the vacancy. The ambivalence was attributed not to protests and pressures but to considerations of nationality and the comparable rights of naturalised citizens in India and Italy. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed had no compunction about showing how all problems could be wished away. When Indira Gandhi’s messenger woke him up around midnight of June 25th, 1977 to say there was an “imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances”, the fifth President readily signed on the dotted line declaring an Emergency. People sneered that while his oath of office required him to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution’, he had preserved, protected and defended Indira Gandhi.
Most presidents slip into the grandeur of Rashtrapati Bhavan as to the manner born. Some suffer adjustment difficulties afterwards. The board outside R Venkataraman’s retirement bungalow in Delhi read ‘Former President of India’ lest anyone forget the status he had enjoyed
Most presidents slip into the grandeur of the 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan as to the manner born. Some suffer adjustment difficulties afterwards. The board outside Venkataraman’s retirement bungalow in Lutyens Delhi read ‘Former President of India’ lest anyone forget the status he had enjoyed. After five years in the presidential palace, Pratibha Patil could hardly be expected to squeeze into a 2,000-sq-ft ‘living area’ or a 5,498-sq-ft bungalow which is all the rules allow. So the authorities allotted her a 2.61 lakh-sq-ft plot of land in Pune and sanctioned a new, 4,500-sq-ft bungalow to the indignation of the Justice for Jawans NGO which objected that there was an acute shortage of accommodation for soldiers in Pune. It cannot have realised that Patil was not just anybody. She had stayed with the Queen in Windsor Castle. When the fourth President, VV Giri, became the first Indian head of state to visit Singapore, he and his extended entourage were put up at the Hilton Hotel where his two daughters created problems of protocol, precedence and presents by claiming to be ladies in waiting. They did not lack foreign exchange for the mounds of saris they bought. Mrs Giri, a strict and fussy vegetarian, rejected the hotel’s offer of a special cook and converted one of the rooms in their suite into a kitchen where she cooked all their meals herself on a sigri.
Nehru’s concept of a titular non-party President to act and behave like the British monarch overlooked the difference in national temperaments and the importance Indians attach to a job. He himself set the ball of discord rolling even before the first President’s appointment by writing to Rajendra Prasad on September 10th, 1949 claiming that he and Vallabhbhai Patel had decided that ‘the safest and best course’ would be to appoint C Rajagopalachari. Nehru’s ‘alternative truth’—Patel knew nothing of the so-called decision—incensed the ambitious Prasad who promptly replied that while he sought no office—a typical piece of Indian humbug—his standing in the party clearly deserved better treatment. Reiterating some of the points he had made in a note to Nehru on March 21st, 1950, Prasad suggested shortly before stepping down that a panel of jurists investigate the President’s rights and powers. Nehru disapproved of Prasad’s patronage of the Somnath Temple renovation project, his insistence on contacting governors and secretaries direct, and his claim he could dispense with ministerial advice in certain situations.
When Indira Gandhi’s messenger woke Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed up around midnight of June 25th, 1977, to say there was an “imminent danger to the security of India being threatened by internal disturbances”, he readily signed on the dotted line declaring an Emergency
That controversy reverberated again during the Giani’s’s muted power struggle with the man he had made Prime Minister. Sitting on the other side of a large radio set in Rashtrapati Bhavan he told me once that Indira Gandhi would sit in the very chair I occupied when she visited almost every week to keep him abreast of events. Rajiv hardly ever called and didn’t bother to tell him anything. Those who had access to Rashtrapati Bhavan heard the President say waggishly with a mischievous gleam in his eye and a toss of the turbaned head that he could sack the Prime Minister. Rajiv begged editors to appreciate the difficulty of explaining in Hindi that the Government could not be sacked at whim because it was said to ‘hold office during the pleasure of the President’. Zail Singh’s unprecedented step of in effect killing the Indian Post Office (Amendment) Bill that would have allowed the Government to read private mail had made him popular with the media. Pranab Mukherjee, then President of the short-lived Rashtriya Samajwadi Congress, plunged into the fray. He and Gundu Rao called at Rashtrapati Bhavan with a memorandum against Rajiv Gandhi urging the Giani not to agree to the Bill. According to the President, Mukherjee also addressed a press conference supporting Zail Singh’s reservations.
In politics, said Nick Clegg, Britain’s former deputy Prime Minister, on being defeated in the June 8th election, “You live by the sword and you die by the sword.” Defeated Indian politicians don’t die. They appeal to the Supreme Court. Every presidential election, barring those of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Pratibha Patil, has been contested. In theory, it’s a conscience vote without party whips. In practice, it’s a ruthless battle determined by money and lobbying. Not that Kovind’s election is in doubt for despite feverish pledges of consensus, the laurels usually go to the candidate whose sponsors command the greatest resources. But loyalty can’t be taken for granted. That is why strong political parties prefer anonymous candidates. Anonymity means obedience.
JUNE 19th WAS like any other day at Raj Bhavan in Patna. Ram Nath Kovind, the then Governor of Bihar, was back from his morning walk and sipped green tea as his assistant read out the day’s plan. He had a few meetings lined up, among them an interaction with a group of school students who would brief him on the preparations for International Yoga Day. Everything was going as per schedule, until a phone call came. It was BJP President Amit Shah. Shah briefed him on developments in the Capital and asked him to pack his bags. Kovind summoned his staff. All the engagements of the day were cancelled. One of his close aides asked: “Is there any special news, sir?” Kovind smiled. “Wait for some time. It will be on TV.” At 2 pm, Shah announced Ram Nath Kovind’s presidential candidacy. The NDA had decided to field the 71-year- old for the post, he declared at the party headquarters on Ashoka Road.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar—who, it is worthwhile to recall, had publicly opposed Kovind’s appointment as Governor— was the first to pay him a visit. “He has done exemplary work as Governor of Bihar. He worked with impartiality and maintained an ideal relationship with the state government,” Kumar said after the announcement. Greetings and congratulatory messages are still pouring in. Kovind is expected to win comfortably; he has the numbers on his side. The opposition has also nominated a Dalit—former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar—as their choice for President.
Born in rural Kanpur, Kovind has crossed many political milestones without much ado and is now set to become the highest custodian of the Indian Constitution. The moment his name was announced by the NDA, he started trending in Google searches. “In politics you never know what is in store for you. I believe in executing the duties assigned to me in every role,” he told a journalist who asked him if he saw this coming. “I thank the party leadership for choosing me. More than an honour, it is a responsibility to deliver.” Barring any surprises, Kovind will be the 14th President of India and the second Dalit President after KR Narayanan. “There is a difference between Kovind and Narayanan,” says Rakesh Sinha, an RSS ideologue who is a close friend of Kovind’s. “Narayanan was part of the Indian bureaucracy, while Kovind is a product of social and political movements.”
Ram Nath Kovind’s father Maiku Lal ran a small kirana shop in Paraukh, a village 110 km from Kanpur city. Born into the Kori (a Dalit sub-caste) community on October 1st, 1945, Kovind was the youngest of five brothers and two sisters. A childhood friend, Jaswant Singh, recalls that when Kovind was four or five years old, the family’s hut caught fire. “His mother died in the fire, and his father has been taking care of the family since,” says Singh, a classmate of Kovind’s from the government primary school in Khanpur, Sandalpur block. “The school was about 6 km from our village and we would walk the 12 km to and from school every day,” he adds. A sincere student, Kovind was also spiritually inclined, thanks to his father who read out the Ramayana to him and distributed religious books in the village.
Within a week of Kovind taking office as Bihar’s Governor in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowedged his contributions and commitment to the cause of Dalits and marginalised communities
Kovind went to DAV College Kanpur to study commerce and followed it up with an LLB from DAV Law College. His association with the RSS began during this period. “He was not regular in attending the shakha,” says retired teacher Raj Kishor Singh, Kovind’s childhood friend. “More than attending the shakha, he was inspired by the thoughts and knowledge shared during these meetings.” Kovind later went to Delhi to prepare for the civil services. Successful in his third attempt, he was selected for the Allied Services but did not enlist, instead enrolling as an advocate with the Bar Council of Delhi in 1971. His law practice brought him in touch with the socialist movement and he soon became close to Morarji Desai. On May 30th, 1974, when he married a girl named Savita, Desai attended the wedding. Post-Emergency, when the Janata Party Government was formed in 1977 under Desai, Kovind became his personal assistant. He was also the Centre’s advocate in the Delhi High Court. From 1980 to 1993, he served as a standing counsel for the Central Government.
THE RAM MANDIR movement drew Kovind towards the BJP. He made the acquaintance of Kalyan Singh, then a senior BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh, and formally joined the party in 1991. Rakesh Sinha recalls an interesting story Kovind told him. Sometime in the early 90s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in Lucknow for a meeting. Kovind greeted the senior leader with ‘Jai Sri Ram’, but did not get an answer. When he mustered the courage to ask Vajpayee what was wrong, the leader replied, “I got you in the party to say ‘Jai Bhim’ and you have started chanting ‘Jai Sri Ram’.” They had a good laugh, but in all seriousness, Kovind was being groomed to become the BJP’s Dalit face in UP. Firebrand leaders like Vinay Katiyar and Uma Bharti were the voices of the season, but Kovind worked silently behind the scenes to expand the party base. He contested the Assembly elections twice—from Ghatampur and Bhognipur—and lost both times. But what he lacked in popularity, he made up for with his organisational skills. Kalyan Singh recognised this and decided to send Kovind to the Rajya Sabha.
“Kovind doesn’t represent a section of society, he represents the majority of Indians. He is a lot like Prime Minister Modi in this sense. They both broke conventional political and social barriers” - Ram Madhav, BJP general secretary
In October 1994, Kovind became an MP for the first time. Kovind’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha marked the beginning of his rise in the BJP at the national level. By then, his family had moved to Indira Nagar in Kanpur. When in town, Kovind kept a low profile, but never refused to meet people, especially Dalits, in need. He was quick to offer help and gave away hand pumps—which was in great demand those days— and other necessities, and became popular among Dalits even as local BJP leaders ignored him, says Shiv Prasad Sonekar, a spokesperson for the UP BJP SC cell who has been closely associated with Kovind since 2005. When the BJP came to power at the Centre in 1998, Kovind was made president of the SC wing. In October 2002, he represented India in the United Nations and addressed the UN Assembly. His work as a parliamentarian earned him a second term in the Rajya Sabha. In 2010, he became a national spokesperson for the party. That same year, he played an active role in the return of Uma Bharti to the BJP. Bharti had left the party in 2003 to form her own. Kovind brokered peace between her and LK Advani, ultimately resulting in her return.
But his political career wasn’t without blips. In 2013, ahead of the Lok Sabha election, he was sent back to Uttar Pradesh to serve as general secretary of the state BJP. “It was a demotion—from national spokesperson to state general secretary—but he didn’t take it that way,” says Sonekar. “He was happy with the role assigned to him.”
In December 2013, he took up a house on rent in the Jalaun Lok Sabha constituency and started working in the area. “We spent two to three months working there hoping he would get a ticket,” says Sonekar. Jalaun is a reserved constituency bordering Kanpur rural, and Kovind thought he stood a good chance. But he was denied a party ticket. Party general secretary in-charge of UP, Amit Shah persuaded him not to contest and Kovind obliged, campaigning for the party’s candidate from Jalaun—Bhanu Pratap Singh, who won by a margin of more than 250,000 votes. Post the elections, Kovind was elevated to the post of BJP national general secretary. In August 2015, he became the 36th Governor of Bihar. Kovind’s hard work and equanimity had finally paid off. Within a week of taking office as Governor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at an election rally in Arah, Bihar, acknowledged Kovind’s contributions and commitment in his speech: “Kovind ji has spent his entire life working for Dalits and marginalised communities.” Perhaps it was a hint that Kovind was destined for a greater role.
“Kovindji has done exemplary work as Governor of Bihar. He worked with impartiality and maintained an ideal relationship with the state government” - Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar
THE DALIT IDENTITY is a precious commodity in politics, especially today, but Kovind did not wear it on his sleeve. “He did not play the victim card nor did he hint at hailing from a marginalised section of society,” says Rajnath Singh Surya, former BJP Rajya Sabha MP who worked closely with him. “He is a self-made man who earned his place through knowledge, hard work and discipline,” Surya says, and recalls how during Parliament sessions, Kovind would call him up every morning to discuss the proceedings of the day. “Whenever there was a legal or a Constitutional issue in the Rajya Sabha, two people from the BJP took the lead. One was TN Chaturvedi and the other was Kovind.” On March 3rd, 2006, while speaking on the Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Bill, 2006, moved by the then Law Minister Hansraj Bhardwaj, Kovind was unsparing in his defence of the value of criticism in a democracy. “If any citizen of this country can criticise the President of India for his wrong-doing, I don’t think it could be valid if the judiciary is exempted. If the appointing authority of judges, the President, could be censured, so could the judiciary,” he said.
As Governor, Kovind was known for one thing. Whoever visited him—be it his counterparts, chief ministers, government officials— would be gifted a golden statuette of Buddha. Even on May 29th, when he was in Shimla for his friend and Himachal Pradesh Governor Acharya Dev Vrat’s wedding anniversary, it was the Buddha statuette Kovind presented. A Raj Bhavan official says Kovind made sure a stock of these idols was always kept available.
“There is no ambiguity in his thought and political understanding and he does not hesitate to express his views,” says Sinha. On one occasion in 2010, when Sinha shared the dais with him, Kovind was asked to speak on the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, also known as the Ranganath Misra Commission, which had recommended 10 per cent reservation for Muslims and 5 per cent for other minorities in government jobs. The Commission had also advocated delinking Scheduled Caste status from religion and bringing Muslims, Christians, Jains and Parsis under the SC net. Kovind spoke against it and backed it with this argument: “The educational level of Scheduled Caste children remains much lower than that of convert Dalits and Muslims. The children of converts will grab a major share of reservation in government jobs. They would become eligible to contest elections on seats reserved for Scheduled Castes. This would encourage conversion and fatally destroy the fabric of Indian society.” Another time, when the then UP Chief Minister Mayawati was busy erecting statues of Dalit icons (including herself) in the state, Kovind made a sharp attack on her. “The ruling Bahujan Samaj Party has nothing to do with the ideology of BR Ambedkar who always opposed the idolisation of a person,” he told media persons on April 11th, 2010 ,in Lucknow. “Dr Ambedkar was not in favour of installing statues.”
Kovind’s commitment to Constitutional values is well recognised. His interruption of Tej Pratap Yadav’s oath is unforgettable. During the swearing-in ceremony of ministers in November 2015, Tej Pratap, the elder son of Lalu Prasad, wrongly pronounced the Hindi word ‘apekshit’ (expected) as ‘upekshit’ (deserted). Kovind corrected him and made him take the oath a second time.
In November 2016, when the Bihar Assembly passed the Bihar Lokayukta (Amendment) Bill 2016 and sent it to the Governor for approval, Kovind returned the Bill for reconsideration as there was no time frame mentioned for the selection of the Lokayukta. ‘The process for selecting the Lokayukta and its members cannot be allowed to continue for an indefinite period as it will provide an opening for seepage of distrust and will also give an opportunity to the people at large to raise a shadow of doubt over the efficacy and authority of the constitution of the Lokayukta as an independent body to conduct inquiries related to corruption and misuse of official position by persons sitting in higher positions,’ read his message.
BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav says Kovind’s nomination for the highest office is not about caste. “Kovind doesn’t represent a caste or a section of the society. He represents the majority of Indians,” he says. “He is a lot like Prime Minister Modi in this sense. They both broke conventional political and social barriers, rising to the occasion.”
WITH AN ESTIMATED 150 biographies already surveying Indira Gandhi and her legacy, the first question we must ask of the latest addition to the list is if it inspires any fresh reflection. Or is it merely a readable rehash of dated material to ‘cash in’, perhaps, on a centennial year and a vast crowd of young readers unlikely to pick up denser, heavier volumes? Sagarika Ghose’s new ‘journalistic portrait’, with a brilliant Raghu Rai cover photograph and a significantly less brilliant subtitle, passes the test. And it passes, not so much because it brings to the fore groundbreaking new material (despite her interview with Priyanka Gandhi) as much as because it reveals the makings of a well-meaning but insecure, embattled, and often bitter mind, doing so with empathy while eschewing melodrama.
Ghose certainly is in awe of her subject, but it is a reasonable kind of awe that does not preclude asking questions of Mrs Gandhi’s ‘combative brand of politics’. While the outlines of the tale are well known enough to be tedious— the splendour of the Nehrus, the charisma of Jawaharlal, the ‘bewildered misery’ of Kamala, and the rise and fall of Indira—Ghose is at her strongest when scrutinising how Mrs Gandhi became the person nobody thought she would be. They wanted a son, but got ‘Indu-boy’ instead. Her father, who recommended frocks over saris, sent her to Oxford, where she was a ‘mousy, shy’ failure. Her imperious aunt called her ‘ugly and stupid’ and Indira, in turn, nursed a lifelong grudge. Her only real affection was for the people of India; affection that ironically became a recipe for disaster: a ‘near-conviction that she alone knew what was best for India’.
Ghose does a compelling job of building her narrative and weaves in many charming quotes and anecdotes. There is also sharp analysis, especially in reaching the conclusion that while ‘secular India had been her life’s stated mission’, secular India was also Mrs Gandhi’s ‘greatest failure’. The book, unusually, contains letters written by the author, from her perspective in 2017, to ‘interrogate the ghost’ of her subject. Although the intention of these letters—which are rather flowery at times—is evidently to set the tone for the reader, in actuality they often provoke a temptation to skip some pages altogether. Structurally, otherwise, the book is solid, and has certainly benefited from the work of a clear-headed editor (unlike Bertil Falk’s biography of Feroze Gandhi, which is rich in information and could be read alongside Ghose’s Indira, but meanders a great deal).
Ghose’s storytelling is also appealing. We meet a Mrs Gandhi who insisted Ronald Reagan wore make-up before his TV appearances, and who bluntly called out Gandhian ‘hypocrisies’, not least because immediately after blessing her doomed marriage, the Mahatma proceeded to lecture her on the importance of marital celibacy. The Indira who comes alive in this book is neither a saint, nor the kind of person who had any patience for saints. She is, on the contrary, a conflicted mortal, somewhat uncomfortable in her own skin, constantly seeking purpose in order to obtain validation. On the one hand, she had to work twice over to win the adulation-by-birthright that her father could command, largely due to the accident of sex. But on the other, her own political success came from a ‘subtle synthesis of aristocracy and populism’, which guaranteed for her more mass worship than even her father.
On the whole Ghose has produced an engaging critique of Mrs Gandhi, not just as formidable leader and Machiavellian politician, but also as a woman and an individual. And when you turn the final page, the person you remember is one who wished to do good, but couldn’t fully rise above the ghosts haunting her conscience. For every decision she took and every lapse she permitted, it was an entire people who paid the price. And the price Indira paid, in return, was that of her life—a life convincingly captured in a creditable book.
THE CONCEPT OF liberalism in various mutant forms like ‘left-liberal’ and ‘libtard’ seems to be under attack globally. Originating in America, an idea has taken hold that liberals are effete, elite, hypocritical, unpatriotic, and out of touch with ground-level realities. What is sometimes forgotten in India is that the arguments that led up to independence, the writing of the Constitution and the founding of the modern republic were rooted in liberal political traditions that had by the 1940s become largely indigenous. This is true for many of the intellectual forebears of both the BJP and the Congress, who are claimed (sometimes by both parties) in the pantheon of heroes. The perceived clash between liberals and nationalists, and between liberal values and the history of the Right, is partially illusory. India has had its own forms of liberalism for longer than anyone can remember, and these have the capacity to evolve.
The current world order is being shaken up, and the pieces have not yet fallen into place. We are told we are living in the era of the strongman, and that leaders like Erdo••an in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, Trump in the United States, Modi in India, Putin in Russia and Xi in China have knocked aside old Western pieties about the role of freedom and democracy in the world order. But is India a plausible part of this jigsaw? I would suggest Indian traditions of government and forms of debate are more powerfully inflected by liberal thought than we realise.
Certainly the world is in flux and nationalism is more fashionable than a generation ago, but this may be less a clash between liberals and nationalists than an inevitable international rebalancing, exemplified by the comparative decline of America and the rise (or return) of Asia, which is accompanied by an assertion of ancestral identity. The mistake of the globalisers and flat-worlders exemplified by Thomas L Friedman was to imagine that older forms of belonging were going to be supplanted by post-identity politics, and that globalisation would lead inexorably to a spread of democracy and internationalism. The hypothesis that the fall of the Berlin Wall would lead to an end to communist rule in China, for instance, was a common mistaken assumption. Ironically, the process of worldwide adjustment now seems to be hitting the United States as hard as any country, and is provoking a profound ideological anxiety.
Donald J Trump has a great talent for articulating unconscious fears; indeed, it may be the key to his electoral success. When he spoke of American carnage and said people were laughing at the land of the free, when he said that assorted Asian powers (first it was Japan, then it was China) were out to destroy the wealth of the United States, when he said Mexican rapists needed to be kept away by a beautiful wall he was going to build, and when he said he would make the bleak, de-industrialised suburbs of middle America hum once more with economic life, he was speaking to the gut. Something had gone wrong, and he had the snake oil salesman’s patter and the outsized populist promise to put it right.
In the US, like many Western countries, the optimism about the future that most people have in India, Vietnam or Cambodia is absent. Remarkably, nearly seven out of ten Republicans say they prefer America as it was in the 1950s, a statement loaded with social and racial freight. In his speech in Warsaw last week, President Trump said: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” But what did Trump mean by ‘the West’, and does anyone doubt it has the will to survive? After the London Bridge attacks in June, when three petty criminals attacked passersby with knives and were shot dead within minutes by police, London continued on its way. The UK had faced terrorism before, and would endure, just as other countries have the resilience to endure such attacks.
THE IDEA OF ‘the West’—meaning a concert of powers that included Russia— was invented in 1815 in the wake of Napoleon and 20 years of devastating revolutionary wars in Europe and beyond. The idea had links to liberalism and nationalist aspiration, and its growth was partly an attempt to make Europe’s political institutions more accountable in order to stave off possible insurrection. Its proponents challenged the arbitrary exercise of state power as damaging to mutual trust between individuals. Programmes of partial representative government spread through Europe in the 19th Century, and to some parts of India at the civic level. Even in autocratic Russia, serfdom was abolished in 1861.
America was the oddity, seeing itself as a colonial extension of Europe, while maintaining a cruder racial politics and the institution of chattel slavery until 1865. Visiting writers were at times disconcerted by the Trumpian folk they encountered across the pond. To quote the imperial historian John Darwin: ‘Europeans were also puzzled and alarmed by American populism— the very wide suffrage (for white men) and the universal tendency towards elective office, even for legal or judicial officials. The English radical Edward Gibbon Wakefield condemned the rootless mobility of American society, its lack of any sense of place, tradition or history.’
Savarkar read Spencer and Mill, and was influenced by Mazzini, an Italian national liberationist who rejected classic Enlightenment principles. Golwalkar, a devotee of Bharat Mata who mistrusted foreign influences, was an admirer of Tilak, who supported political freedom and legislative responsibility alongside immediate self-rule
Long before the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, liberal ideas were current in countries that were themselves under European rule in various forms. Nearly 200 years ago, the young romantic poet Henry Derozio could lament that India was ‘chained’, and radical journals in India wrote of ‘separation’ and the ‘drain of wealth’ by the colonial power. Such thinking was circulating globally, aided by the rise of printing, and it was hard in many cases to say where ideas had originated, and to distinguish between those that were of ‘the West’ and those that had emerged from an indigenous political source. India had ancient liberal traditions. As I have written previously in Open, Hinduism has no set of regulations from which a person can apostasise, no clerical hierarchy that can impose sanctions and no historical tradition of killing heretics out of religious duty. What liberals termed ‘toleration’ was an embedded social practice.
When John Stuart Mill wrote, ‘the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind,’ he was approaching Hindu and Buddhist forms of philosophical enquiry. No surprise, then, that Mill was read down the century by Indian thinkers and politicians of all stripes, from Nehru to Savarkar. Reform movements of varying degrees of utopianism were contagious. Everyone was talking. As the late Cambridge historian CA Bayly wrote of the great Bengali reformer: ‘Rammohan Roy himself hosted several celebrations in Calcutta Town Hall for the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American revolutions between 1820 and 1823.’
Liberalism has always been compromised, in the sense that it began as an exclusive project, but that should not blind us to its malleability as an idea. Women, slaves, non- Christians and non-Europeans have all at times been betrayed by its proponents. John Locke, one of its foundational philosophers, was happy for Catholics to face discrimination since they had ‘blind obedience to an infallible pope, who hath the keys of their consciences tied to his girdle’. Adam Smith put an emphasis on economic freedom that was by no means applicable to all. Lord Macaulay promoted progress and liberal freedoms, even while grossly insulting Indian culture.
In the mid 19th century, Mill depended on civilisational exclusions to justify despotism as a reasonable form of government in India, and famously wrote that, ‘Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.’ Yet the principle remained radical, in terms of individual freedom, as a possible mechanism for ordering society. As Mill wrote in On Liberty, ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’
The political scientist Uday Singh Mehta has observed that it was only after the British Empire gained major territorial control of India that liberalism ‘assumes a paternal posture—an odd mix of maturity, familial concern, and an underlying awareness of the capacity to direct, and if need be, coerce’. Chroniclers now spoke of ‘our Indian subjects’ and ‘our Indian empire’, as if they were on some benign social mission. ‘The possessive pronoun simultaneously conveys familiarity and distance, warmth and sternness, responsibility and raw power.’ Claiming a new ethical basis for imperial rule, writers in this tradition distanced themselves from the earlier military excesses of the East India Company and proposed new systems of cooperation and collaboration.
What is remarkable from this distance of time, in this age of binary politics and virtual insults, is how deeply Indian politicians on nearly all sides engaged in these debates.
Rather than feeling awkward that its heroes were tangential to the freedom movement in the 1940s, and for example opposed Quit India, the BJP might seek to understand the political choices of its claimed intellectual ancestors, and acknowledge the right can also be liberal. The past is what it is: we cannot gainsay the moves other moral actors made at a different time and place
To take a few examples, Gandhi absorbed ideas from far and wide, and met with his intellectual opponents whenever he had the chance. Asked about Western civilisation, he famously said it would be “a good idea”. Like many of his associates, his attitude to the values it claimed to represent was ambiguous. Ambedkar was in certain respects both a constitutional liberal and a socialist. Savarkar read Spencer and Mill, and was influenced by Mazzini, an Italian national liberationist who rejected classic Enlightenment principles. Golwalkar, a devotee of Bharat Mata who mistrusted foreign influences, was an admirer of Tilak, who supported political freedom and legislative responsibility alongside immediate self-rule. He was aided by Joseph Baptista, a barrister and liberal who defended Savarkar in court. When Tilak found himself charged with sedition in 1908, he was defended by the rising Bombay lawyer Mohammad Ali Jinnah. People did not feel they had to agree on everything in order to work together. Liberalism was for a long time the only political show in town, which does not mean to say Tilak did not taunt its proponents: “I have seen Liberals in England come out to India to get into conservative ways,” he once said. At great personal cost, these interactive politicians of the early 20th century gained repeated concessions from the guardians of the British Empire.
Crucially, Nehru was a liberal leader of a romantic nationalist bent who preferred Fabian socialism to Soviet communism. He accepted dominion status as a route to a republic, and along with most of his colleagues in the Constituent Assembly in the late 1940s, supported popular democracy and universal adult suffrage at a time when countries such as Switzerland, Greece and the United States did not allow all women to vote. The Constitution itself is, by any historical standard, a liberal constitution. Nehru’s foreign policy was accommodative, and an at times credulous antidote to great power politics. His interest in rural uplift and panchayats was that of a communitarian liberal in the tradition of GK Gokhale. He believed in women’s rights and in human rights, telling India’s chief ministers in a letter in 1948 that they should be careful not to permit detention without trial since, ‘even in the short run, this is bad for the country, for the people, and for the Congress, which is held responsible’. Even a figure like Patel, though more socially conservative than Nehru, remained a champion of individual rights and of liberty, seeing them as essential for national development. One of his strongest objections to the princely rulers was their arbitrary exercise of power.
Many of those who critiqued Nehru’s Government after 1947 were themselves from a similar social or educational background. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Jana Sangh, was the son of a knight and judge of the Calcutta High Court. The Swatantra Party, which proposed liberal economics as an antidote to socialism or statism, was founded by Nehru’s old friend and colleague C Rajagopalachari.
None of these influences and alliances show that a liberal political settlement was inevitable at independence. A different set of leaders or a different set of events could have derailed the creation of a participatory liberal democracy long before it had a chance to become a fundamental part of Indian identity. Another foundational prime minister might have sought to rule by decree. The attraction of pre-War RSS leaders to fascism and to Mussolini’s organisational skills could have been extended rather than sidelined. Marxism—so intellectually powerful in India from the 1960s to the 1980s—could in other circumstances have become a dominant force rather than fading to the margins.
But that is not what happened: instead, liberals of all parties and of none continue to make the political weather in India, consciously or otherwise. The legacy of the republic’s early leaders offers a coherent grounding for a practical political ideology. When Narendra Modi said in 2015: “Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,” he was making a statement that would be illegal in illiberal countries where religion controls state power. The alternative to statements such as this being actively enforced is to tacitly cede power to the crowd, and allow them to determine facts on the ground. Vigilantism in India benefits nobody, and leads only to a breakdown of social trust and an unspecified atmosphere of fear. The BJP could reclaim the contribution of liberalism to its founding pantheon, and place their historic allegiances into a comprehensible modern context. Rather than feeling awkward that its heroes like Hedgewar were tangential to the freedom movement in the 1940s, and for example opposed Quit India, the party might seek to understand the political choices of its claimed intellectual ancestors such as Rajaji and Tilak, and acknowledge that the right can also be liberal. The past is what it is: we cannot gainsay the moves that other moral actors made at a different time and place.
FROM THE START of the 1990s to the financial crisis of 2008, proponents of the international order and neoliberal economics (another spinoff from the original word) thought the shape of the world was certain. Rather, the future is clouded. In many countries, the failure of modernity to deliver all that was promised has led to a turning backwards. To return to the subject of Trump, what did he mean by ‘the West’? It is possible he himself does not know, and it was a civilisational impulse rather than a thought. “We write symphonies,” he said in Warsaw. “We pursue innovation.” His allegiance may be to a conceptual White Christian tribe with shared values of inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness, which extended at one time from Europe to countries that are not geographically part of the West, such as Australia.
Trump either does not know or does not admire many of the liberal ideas that democratically elected leaders often promote, such as accountability, diversity, gender equality, an independent system of criminal justice (he has fired the head of the FBI) and a free press (he wants to pummel the logo to death). Indeed, much of what he says and tweets opposes what are commonly perceived as liberal values. In his Warsaw speech, he used the word ‘strong’ 15 times, the word ‘blood’ in various forms five times, and the word democracy not once, although he managed a reference to “a strong and democratic Europe”. Instead, he asked if the West had the will to survive, placing himself at the centre of a Nietzschean struggle, even if it had to be in splendid isolation. His promise was to go back to the future and ‘Make America Great Again’. In this, he is not unusual. In country after country, the ancestral past appears increasingly attractive.
Political philosophies have always evolved according to circumstance. It would be a mistake for those on the left or the right to dismiss the legacy of liberalism as irrelevant, and hark back to forms of conduct that have little to offer new generations
Many Americans, and particularly those in the coastal media, are suffering from Post-Trump Stress Disorder, shocked that a man who cares so little for their mores, the conventions of democracy and indeed truth itself should be president. But the US is not the first country to have an embarrassing leader. Libyans, Ugandans and North Koreans have had to endure much worse; Belarus has President Lukashenko, who likes to take his pre-teen son to work with him; Bavaria had King Ludwig, whose only interest was in building fairytale castles; and Britain had George III, who according to rumour shook hands with a tree under the impression it was the King of Prussia. India has been fortunate in the regard: no Prime Minister since independence has been demonstrably incompetent.
The real problem Trump faces is his inexperience. At the recent meeting of the G20 in Germany, he was outmanoeuvred by Russia and China and the US was left isolated. Most of his rivals have been in the multi-player game of international politics for decades, and he could not match them. During an earlier meeting with Modi, he jumped at the suggestion that his daughter Ivanka might lead a US delegation to a global entrepreneurship summit in India. As a politician with plenty of experience of dealing with business families, Modi knew which button to press.
All sorts of assumptions about the centrality of America in the international liberal order no longer hold true. It may be that Trump’s successor as US president reverts to the norm, but the change in external conceptions of American soft and hard power will not be reversed. Almost every aspirational country is now seeking bilateral diplomatic arrangements that leave them less dependent on the old concert of powers.
As societies become more varied, and economic and political power shifts away from the West, many people are taking an increasing pride in a real or imagined past. In the 21st century, we are seeing the reappearance of what appeared to be the outmoded or even forgotten rhetoric of self-assertion and exploded theories of historical self-justification. The dead hand of the past has become a live hand. History—or at least revolutionary perceptions of the past—has become an ideological force. Movements built on identity have taken the place of an earlier, largely postcolonial or nationalist impetus. Allegiances optimistically assumed to have been laid to rest by post-World War II modernity, and later by globalisation, have returned with a violence and success that has shaken the political establishment.
Immediate post-independence leaders like Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumah and Atatürk believed in social progress, self-reliance and reform of laws and civil codes. ‘The spectacle of what is called religion,’ Nehru wrote in his Autobiography, ‘seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.’ The practice of keeping women secluded, said Hansa Mehta in the Constituent Assembly when debating how India would become a republic, was “an inhuman custom” which should be abolished. “As far as the Hindu religion is concerned,” she said, “it does not enjoin purdah. Islam does. But, I feel that Islam will be better rid of this evil.” Even Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic scourge of imperialists, could say in a public speech that he had tried to reach a deal with the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. “The first thing he asked for,” Nasser told the audience, “was to make wearing a hijab mandatory in Egypt, and demand that every woman walking in the street wear a headscarf.” The audience laughed, and the president played the laughter. “Let him wear a headscarf,” shouts a voice, referring to the head of the Muslim Brotherhood. The audience claps. That was half a century ago, and today, no leader would make that speech.
Islamist extremism offers the most threatening version of a revival of an antiquated past, as it seeks to animate the pristine practices of the first three generations of Islam, known as the ‘as-salaf as-saliheen’ or ‘pious ancestors’. Groups like ISIS depend on a recoverable ideal of collective purity before colonialism: with its apocalyptic military ideology, it seeks to eradicate nation states in the name of religious transnationalism. After a military success in 2014, it released a video called ‘The End of Sykes- Picot’, showing a bulldozer mashing up the border between Syria and Iraq. Its magazine Dabiq said it intended to ‘eliminate any remaining traces of the kufri, nationalistic borders from the hearts of the Muslims’.
Abul A’la Maududi, who was born in Aurangabad in 1903, helped to initiate this thinking. Despite knowing little Qur’anic Arabic, and being happiest reading in Urdu, he reinterpreted Islam to fit his notion of a total, revolutionary ideology that could give birth to a new polity. Maududi was reacting to thinkers ranging from Marx to Adam Smith, and was even guided by books like the Guide to Modern Wickedness, written by the English shock jock CEM Joad. Although he was more tolerant of Sufis and Shias than his successors in Al Qaeda and ISIS, he associated popular customs like visiting the graves of Muslim saints with shirk or polytheism, and claimed that nearly everything that had happened since the collapse of Uthman’s caliphate, 25 years after the death of the Prophet, was a disaster. When the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan shot the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012, they quoted Maududi’s thinking in justification, and wrote her a letter: ‘Muslim India was rich in farming, silk, and jute and from textile industry to ship building. No poverty, no crises and no clashes of civilization or religion.’ The writer told her [channelling Macaulay] that the United Nations wanted to ‘produce more and more Asians in blood but English in taste’.
ISLAMISM’S WISH TO recover the values of distant ancestors is not unique; but it is much more violent. In China—assumed by many progressives in the 1970s to have been denuded permanently of all religion—there is a revival of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Qigong and Falun Gong, and the recovery and rebuilding of ancestral and village temples and temple networks. In Turkey, President Erdogan has revived symbols of the Ottoman Empire, and members of his Justice and Development Party like to appear in Ottoman outfits on posters. The reclaiming of the Ottoman past can be seen as a reaction against the modernising legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Turkish TV host Pelin Batu said in 2009 that the glorification of the Ottomans was a response to secularism: “Ottomania is a form of Islamic empowerment for a new Muslim religious bourgeoisie who are reacting against Atatürk’s attempt to relegate religion and Islam to the sidelines.”
In India, members of organisations that congregate around the BJP have expressed a need to learn from neglected ancestral traditions, including alternative science like the supposed use of nuclear devices by the philosopher-sage Kanada in the 2nd century BCE. Computer technology and textual analysis has been used to apparently date events in the Mahabharata, in the style of the Archbishop of Armagh, who deduced that Creation began on October 23rd, 4004 BCE. The national manifesto of the BJP for the General Election of 2009 noted that in ancient times, rice yields in India stood at 20 tonnes per hectare, twice what farmers can produce today using intensive agriculture in the lushest conditions. For some, the desire to recover the past extends to the ‘reconversion’ of those Indians who are not Hindu. In the words of Dr Manmohan Vaidya of the RSS: “Ghar waapsi is a natural urge to connect to our roots.”
In Russia, the former KGB agent President Putin has since the 1990s worn an Orthodox baptismal cross, and been filmed kissing icons, lighting candles and interacting with Russian Orthodox priests. His adviser Alexander Dugin describes “all modernism—the idea of progress, development, the so-called scientific view of the world, democracy and liberalism” as “a Satanic idea that spells a death sentence for humanity.” In a speech last year, Putin stated: “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.” This doctrine shows close parallels with Trump’s speeches on the decline of the West, and the thinking of his senior adviser Steve Bannon.
Political philosophies have always evolved according to circumstance. It would be a mistake for those on the left or the right to dismiss the legacy of liberalism as irrelevant, and hark back to forms of conduct that have little to offer new generations. Any society can gain from understanding its ancient traditions of knowledge, religion, custom and culture, and in India these have a connection to everyday life that is probably stronger than anywhere else on earth. In the early days of the freedom movement, political opponents actively connected, communicated and debated. The public conversation did not take place in binaries. Whoever makes a new ideology that takes the best elements of liberalism may find it has deep roots in Indian soil.
RAMACHANDRA GUHA, historian, scholar and public intellectual, has just come out with a revised edition of his 2007 seminal work, India after Gandhi. The book, as Guha says in its preface, happened after Picador’s Peter Straus met him in Delhi sometime in the late 90s and suggested that he abandon the project he was working on and write a history of Independent India instead. The new edition brings the narrative up to the present. Excerpts from a conversation with Guha:
The first edition of India after Gandhi came out in 2007. In the last 10 years, what is the most significant moment in India that you have felt most compelled to write about?
It is a pairing—the decline of the Congress and the rise of Narendra Modi. It’s the story of the decline of a political party and the rise of an individual who belongs to a particular party and exudes an air of authority and charisma not seen since Indira Gandhi. Good or bad, we can discuss that. But after Indira Gandhi, he is the first political leader with a footprint across almost all of India… not all of India.
So these have gone in parallel—the steady decline of the Congress which is going on but unnoticed… and whether the elections of 2009 gave a false sense of complacency to the Congress… But otherwise, one of the things I wanted to write about is the colossal impact of environmental degradation across India which is the flip side of the economic liberalisation. In the first edition, I felt I had not paid much attention to the environment.
There is a perception that there is an atmosphere of insecurity in India, especially among its minorities. Vigilantism, lynching… Do the current developments worry you?
The thing about India is that it operates at many levels in very diverse ways in different parts of the country. It is progressive in some spheres of life, and in some, there is a fear of life. There are attacks on writers and artists, but at the same time, there is greater freedom elsewhere. I argue in the new edition that there are two areas where there is greater freedom in India today. One is that delinking has happened—the delinking [or] semi-delinking of caste- based occupation where the young do not have to follow the profession of their father. Also, there is delinking of family from marriage, particularly in the case of women. Maybe not so much in Haryana, but the fact that the khap panchayats are there and are banning cellphones tells us that women are asserting themselves.
The Left has ceded the space of patriotism to the Right
I was writing the first edition when people were saying India was becoming a superpower. And I was researching the 50s and the 60s when all kinds of knowledgeable observers were saying that India is going down the tube. So India watchers often oscillate between triumphalism and despair. I think I wanted to avoid that even this time. Take Kashmir. There is a very serious crisis in Kashmir. But there is relative peace in Nagaland. Now if you look at our history from 1947, these have been two extremities—one part is more trouble, the other part is less trouble. The Maoists are on the decline, but on the other hand, there are things that worry you because there is this cow goondagiri on the rise. So it is a complex and nuanced thing, which is why I believe that the 50-50 democracy formulation still works, and I think that captures India.
Do you think the Left has failed as an idea and has contributed to the rise of the Right in India?
Absolutely, and one of the failures of the Left is [that it] has ceded the space of patriotism to the Right. If you want to go to the Indian Left space of the 30s till late 60s, there were broadly two kinds of Leftists: communists and socialists. So the communists were in the CPI; then it broke into CPI and CPM. The socialists were different from the communists in that they were patriots; they were identified with the freedom struggle. Whereas for the communists, their primary allegiance was to some other power. Their fatherland was the Soviet Union or China; then later on, it became Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela. So the JNU leftists, for them Hugo Chavez is God, not Mahatma Gandhi. The socialists were not like this. They were invested in both gender and caste equality and social emancipation and human dignity. And they were committed to this country. The decline of the socialists after the 60s… now one part turned from samajwaad to pariwarwaad, that is the Yadavs [in Uttar Pradesh], and people like JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] went into social work… and that is the real tragedy because that ceded the space of patriotism to the Right. The communists regained political importance in West Bengal and Kerala. And they retained intellectual importance in the universities. And they promoted social justice without love of India. I think this is really a problem. Socialists like JP or Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, even [Ram Manohar] Lohia, their primary allegiance was to this country. They wanted to make it a happier, less unequal more contented place. They knew India was flawed.
There is a double tragedy for liberals in India. The first is that Hindu liberals, once influential in their community, have ceded space to the bigots. Second, there has never been a robust movement of liberalism in the Muslim community
You recently took part in the ‘Not in my name’ protest. What made you do that?
It was an ordinary act of citizenship—of civility, decency, humanity. I very rarely protest. I believe that this whole beef and cow slaughter business is very dangerous. It goes back to the Ram Janmabhoomi in the 90s, the only dispute in a north Indian town to which the entire country became hostage. And now this beef business—to me, it is worrying. And I am glad that the protest happened under no political party.
But many believe that Left liberals are selective in their fight against injustice. For example, the organisers of the ‘Not in my name’ protest did not mention the Kashmiri police officer, Ayub Pandith, lynched by a Muslim mob.
I feel some of this tu tu main main must stop. I have often argued that there is a double tragedy for liberals in India. The first is that Hindu liberals, who were once influential in their community, from Rammohan Roy to Nehru, [and] defined the agenda [have] now ceded space to the bigots, the reactionaries. The second tragedy is that there has never been a robust movement of liberalism within the Muslim community. That remains an issue. Liberals must be consistent. But having said that, I must emphasise that outside of Kashmir… In Kashmir, Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to civility, humanity, democracy, but outside Kashmir, in the rest of India, Hindu fundamentalism is more dangerous. It is inevitable, if you are a liberal in Pakistan, you will speak much more about Muslim fundamentalism. Or in Bangladesh. In India, because it is reversed, it is inevitable. I wish this whataboutery would stop.
I think the greatest favour Rahul Gandhi could do himself and to Indian democracy is to retire
A cogent opposition should have been able to take on this government on so many issues—from demonetisation to cow vigilantism to China. But it seems it is not even able to stand on its feet.
That is because it has got a weak, pusillanimous and incompetent leadership. I have said Nitish Kumar is the only [opposition] leader, but he doesn’t have a party. So if he takes over the Congress— if a party without a leader is taken over by a leader without a party—then some thing could be done. The socialist parties are totally gone; the [communist] Left has its own problems. I think we are in a long period of BJP dominance. But like in the 50s and 60s, when the Congress was dominant, you will have pockets of opposition; they won’t have it all their way. Some opposition by regional parties and some by civil society will keep on. One thing I have noticed which heartens me since Narendra Modi came to power [is that for the past] one year, social media is no longer dominated by right-wing forces. Reasonable voices are speaking out. So that will continue.
But I think the greatest favour Rahul Gandhi could do himself and to Indian democracy is to retire. It’s unbelievable. After Mandsaur, he went [there and then] to Europe for one month. He showed his face and got his photograph clicked and went away. I am mystified how the Congress can put up with it.
I think we are in a long period of BJP dominance. But like in the 50s and 60s, when the Congress was dominant, you will have pockets of opposition; they won't have it all their way
What is your assessment of the situation in Kashmir?
I think nobody’s hands are clean in Kashmir. There are four parties to Kashmir: there is Pakistan; there are militants, homegrown or foreign—that is the violent upsurge; there are citizens of Kashmir; and citizens of India outside Kashmir. Pakistan has only mala fide and malevolent intentions. So we should not be dealing with them. I disagree with the line that you should be talking to Pakistan on Kashmir. We can talk to them on other issues. Pakistan has no locus standi in the Valley, as far as I am concerned. Then there is a real issue with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The old Sufism is gone. Also, there is the failure of even the most moderate among the separatists to honestly acknowledge the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits. But having said all this, they are our citizens and if we think that Kashmir should be a part of India, the rest of India has to find a way of giving them assurance, faith, dignity.
I am not responsible for the Pakistani government. I am not responsible for what Kashmiri militants do. But as a citizen and public intellectual, I feel that in the current crisis, Prime Minister Modi has made some serious errors. The first was not meeting Mehbooba Mufti when she came immediately after the killing of Burhan Wani. Even if Mamata Banerjee comes today and says there is a problem in Gorkhaland and I want to speak to you, he should be speaking to her. The other error was when Yashwant Sinha went and was able to talk even to the Hurriyat, and he wanted to give a report to Modi, and Modi did not meet him. Symbols are important.
I also see that most of the mistakes were made by the Congress party in the past, but still we have to find a way. It is good what happened after the Amarnath attack that all Kashmiri voices came together. It would help that the denial of the exodus of the Pandits stopped. It would help if people like the Mirwaiz said that ‘it was our fault, we persecuted them’. But the Mirwaiz is not answerable to me, Modi is.
How has the current government treated public institutions? Are they the same, diminished or more robust?
They are diminished, but again, the Congress started the rot. The Congress [appointed] its friends; the current Government, those who are ideologically Right. I have had disagreements with my friends in JNU about it because they feel I have blamed the Left. But the Left started it. And the Congress. Particularly when it came to universities or institutes like the Teen Murti—when it came to choosing a head, they didn’t choose the No 1, No 2, No 3, but No 10, because he was loyal to them. Now these guys [appointed by the NDA] are going to be No 100 or No 200 because they have no one. But the procedure was tainted by the Congress and the Left.
APART FROM 1969 when Indira Gandhi made it into a proxy battle, elections for India’s President have been remarkably sedate affairs. True, there have been contests, but they have been largely symbolic. Most people would be hard put to recall the names of unsuccessful presidential candidates. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who lost to Pratibha Patil in 2007, may be an exception because he was a former Vice President and many times Chief Minister of Rajasthan.
Presidential contests are mock battles that occasionally, but very occasionally, test the political clout of the ruling formation at the Centre. In the main, however, the political class doesn’t attach too much significance to the contest. Once elected, the President becomes a symbol and is elevated to a completely ceremonial role. The individual’s past political background is subsumed by the imperatives of Constitutional propriety. Simply put, the President is supposed to act on the advice of the Union Cabinet.
The only discretionary power available to the President is in the event of a fractured election verdict. Should he give the first throw of the dice to the leader of the largest party, as Shankar Dayal Sharma did in 1996 when he swore in Atal Bihari Vajpayee for what was to be a 13-day government? Alternatively, should he first satisfy himself that the claimant enjoys a majority before he is sworn-in, as KR Narayanan did in 1998 and 1999?
None of these questions centred on the discretionary powers of the President has—understandably— been raised during the Ram Nath Kovind versus Meira Kumar contest. These questions don’t belong to the election. At the same time, it is intriguing that Meira Kumar, a former Speaker who knows the Constitution well, has chosen to present her contest as a battle of ideologies.
This assertion is intriguing. Whatever be the personal beliefs of the President, he has to act on the advice of the Council of Ministers. The question of ideologies is academic, as Pranab Mukherjee so vividly demonstrated during his tenure. By speaking of ideology as an issue, the former Speaker is suggesting something dangerous: that her election will lead to the elected Government being supplied a road map by Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The suggestion is absurd. I am baffled that our pundits haven’t dealt with this subversive doctrine at all in their public interventions.
LAST WEEK I WAS in Kolkata to speak at a function marking the birth anniversary of Syama Prasad Mookerjee. What was interesting about this event was that it was held in Jadavpur, once a suburb but now in the heart of South Kolkata.
Jadavpur is, of course, well known for its university. However, what many outsiders are unaware of is that once upon a time the area to the south of the university campus was known as a refugee ghetto. This was where a large chunk of migrants from East Pakistan, as it was known then, settled after Partition. The refugees were mostly members of the Hindu lower-middle class, the economically impoverished Bhadralok that had been the mainstay of the nationalist movement in East Bengal.
In northern India, the dispossessed refugees from Pakistan met personal hardship with sturdy determination, entrepreneurship and some generous assistance from the Government. Yesterday’s refugee colonies in Delhi, for example, are now prime real estate and most of those who fled Pakistan have prospered in Independent India.
In West Bengal, alas, it was a very different story. The refugees languished in colonies that lacked amenities. Government help was nominal because the Centre kept up the pretence, at least till the 1960s, that the refugees would perhaps return. Then there was the indifference of the West Bengal Congress leadership that saw the refugees as trouble-makers and a vote bank of the Communists. There was a complete lack of empathy with their plight. Which is why the refugee problem in West Bengal has never really disappeared.
Syama Prasad was the only leader of consequence who spoke forcefully about the plight of refugees from East Pakistan. He even resigned from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet on this issue. In 1952, he won a Lok Sabha seat from South Calcutta campaigning on this issue. Unfortunately, he died the very next year while incarcerated in Kashmir. He was just 52 and at the peak of his career.
Syama Prasad has secured recognition nationally as the founder of the movement that successfully broke the Congress’ monopoly over political power. But, ironically, he has become a largely forgotten figure in West Bengal, not least because Bengalis have chosen to live in denial over Partition.
ON JUNE 23RD, 2017, when the 71-year-old Ram Nath Kovind filed his nomination for the presidential poll, it was perhaps one of the many unexpected turns in his 40-year- old career as a lawyer, politician and, lately, state governor. In the days that followed, two themes dominated stories and commentaries on the man, both in India and abroad. The foreign press displayed an overt interest in his Dalit background and how Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP had shrewdly used him as a symbol for securing a political advantage. Domestically, the emphasis was on his RSS background, with bits and pieces about his being an ‘unknown’ person and some sundry stuff rounding it all off. These polarities illustrated the man and his persona.
In contrast to what has been written about him, the pictures of Kovind canvassing legislators in different state capitals and in the company of NDA leaders in Parliament are more revealing. The impression one gets is of a person who is slightly hesitant and gentle at the same time. Perhaps these qualities build into each other. People who have known him during different phases of his career testify to his gentleness.
The basic facts of his life are well known: birth in a humble family in the United Provinces (as Uttar Pradesh was then known), school and university in Kanpur district, and the beginning of a legal career at 32 in New Delhi. In between came attempts at becoming a civil servant, and marriage. At first sight, his career as a lawyer—the 16 years spent in legal practice at Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court—made it look like that he would follow the usual path: lawyer, senior lawyer, legal service for government and perhaps, finally, a judicial career. Instead, this period was interspersed with failed attempts to become a legislator in Uttar Pradesh. The possibility of a judicial career probably ended in 1994 when he became a member of the Rajya Sabha, representing UP in the Upper House. Here, he served for two terms before trying once again to become an MLA from his home state. That did not click either.
Beyond his ‘dalitness’, it is perhaps his ability to do quiet work and build bridges across deepening political divides that has worked in his favour
The next turn came after a hiatus of almost eight years, in 2015 when he was appointed the Governor of Bihar. In all these years, as a struggling lawyer and when he became an MP, the one quality that everyone remembers Kovind for is his kind demeanour. This was in addition to hard work as a lawyer when he championed the cause of Dalits and other downtrodden communities. These days, it is common for conspiracy theorists and commentators to talk about how the BJP is trying to ‘subvert’ the Dalit cause. No one remembers the days of the then relatively unknown Dalit Morcha of BJP and the first Dalits who joined the party when the Bahujan Samaj Party was considered the ‘future’ for all politically ambitious members of this community.
These personal qualities that endeared him to many, no doubt, endowed Kovind and his party, the BJP, with a political advantage in the phase of his career as a governor. By then, he was a seasoned politician who knew what it takes to run things. It is almost a norm to witness spats between a governor and a chief minister in most Indian states. This conflict is part political and part constitutional: usually considered ‘creatures of the Centre’, governors are viewed with suspicion in opposition-run state capitals.
When Kovind was appointed to the Raj Bhavan in Patna in August 2015, memories of the bitter separation between Nitish Kumar and the NDA were fresh. The preceding months had seen sparks fly in Raj Bhavans from Mumbai to Aizawl as the Union Government went about the task of shuffling governors and appointing new ones. In this charged atmosphere, Kovind’s appointment went largely unnoticed.
But in roughly two intervening years, this ‘silence’ had much political salience for later events. One close observer of Bihar’s politics in Patna, who does not wish to be named, says that Kovind being sent to Patna was more than a mere political accident in the game of governors played by every new Government in New Delhi. “Look at the other governors in some states. The relationship between the Chief Minister and the Governor is fraught at the best of times and for most it is antagonistic. Nothing of that sort has been seen in Bihar between Kovind and Nitish Kumar. Perhaps the powers that be did not want relations between the Governor and Kumar to go bad. Kovind fit that bill very well,” the source said.
There are others in the province who served with Kovind in the Rajya Sabha and remember him as a thorough gentleman. A former MP, who is now a legislator from a rival party in Bihar, is all praise for him: “I served with [Kovind] on a Rajya Sabha committee. He was very courteous and never let party divisions come in the way of relations with colleagues in Parliament. This ensured that work did not suffer from partisan bickering.”
Beyond his ‘Dalitness’, it is perhaps his ability to do quiet work and build bridges across deepening political divides that has worked in his favour—from a very humble beginning to being the First Citizen of India. Ordinarily, the position of the President is ceremonial. But there is now a sufficient number of instances where the President has had to intervene at key moments in India’s political history. Some have reinforced the hope that constitutional propriety shall be upheld, while others are best forgotten. At crucial moments, holders of that office have displayed a wide range of behaviour—ambition, petulance and calm. The last attribute is perhaps the one that this high office most needs, at all times. It won’t surprise many if Kovind spends his time in the Rashtrapati Bhavan quietly, watching for the most part, and acting only when necessary. His life’s record points in that direction.
ON THE EVENING OF July 18th, Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu received a call from Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, who was in Kashmir at the time. It had been an emotional day for the 68-year-old parliamentarian. He had wept before his colleagues after formally stepping down from all political positions, including his primary membership of the BJP. For someone who had lost his biological mother at the age of 18 months in an attack by a buffalo, Naidu had been associated with the RSS for the past 49 years and had often said that it was the Sangh that had mothered him since childhood and groomed him into a full-fledged politician. The snapping of the umbilical cord was only a formality expected of a man who would be the Vice-President of the country, but Naidu, he of the large heart, fought back tears earlier in the day at the parliamentary party meeting of the BJP and appeared inconsolable as his peers gently urged him to cheer up.
Bhagwat congratulated him on the new role that awaits him after an election the result of which is a foregone conclusion: as the next Rajya Sabha chairman. “I always feel elated after speaking with Bhagwatji,” Naidu said after he hung up and sat back in his living room with a smile. Outside, a large number of people had thronged his 30 Abdul Kalam Road home to offer their greetings to the Nellore-born leader from Andhra Pradesh who had vowed to take up sanyas after seeing to it that Prime Minister Narendra Modi got re-elected in 2019. “I wanted to work for a few more years assisting Modiji and then take up public service,” says Naidu, who, until July 17th, had held the twin Cabinet portfolios of Urban Development and Information and Broadcasting. As Parliamentary Affairs Minister until last July, he had made great efforts to bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences with the opposition. He was the one who persuaded a reluctant Mallikarjun Kharge of the Congress to break the ice with Prime Minister Modi amid much uproar in November of 2015 when both the Houses saw slugfests among members, disruptions and a resultant logjam.
Naidu’s appeal among opposition leaders cuts both ways. While one senior Congress leader calls him a “good candidate who can be expected to be fair and reasonable”, Mani Sankar Aiyar isn’t exactly enamoured of him. “I see him as someone in the RSS mould and not in the Vajpayee genre,” he states. A few other opposition leaders Open spoke to contend that notwithstanding Naidu’s endearing and simple ways, they would vote for their candidate, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
Without doubt, Naidu has friends across the political spectrum despite being a committed RSS man. Both the ruling parties of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana—Telugu Desam Party and Telangana Rashtra Samiti—have announced their support for him, much more vigorously than they did for NDA’s choice for President of India, Ram Nath Kovind. “It is true that people of these two states feel proud of anyone from here occupying a crucial post in the national scheme of things, no matter which party he or she belongs to. This is true of all leaders, including PV Narasimnha Rao and Neelam Sanjiva Reddy,” says a Congress leader based in Delhi. A CPM leader from Andhra Pradesh recalls Naidu as “a charming, energetic young man” who never held a personal grudge against Marxists, though “fist fights between the ABVP and Marxists were a common occurrence” in many parts of the state back then, especially in Vijayawada, one of Naidu’s early political turfs. The dhoti- clad Naidu himself recalls such “incidents” with a childlike guffaw.
In a state where firebrand young leaders often joined the ranks of the Marxists or the Congress, Naidu was a political oddball to start with. He loved playing kabaddi and attending RSS shakhas twice a day where he received physical training. An avowed non- vegetarian, he had no difficulty in melding into an organisation typically known for vegetarianism. He would argue with whoever questioned the RSS’s alleged dietary stance, saying the organisation only promoted vegetarian food as it was too cash-strapped to run two kitchens for its pracharaks, one vegetarian and another non-vegetarian. “This was what I was told by my seniors. I was told to stay non-vegetarian if I could afford it,” says Naidu.
EVEN AFTER HE became a regular in Delhi in the early 1990s, he often stayed with friends while other BJP office-bearers stayed and dined at the party’s Ashoka Road office. Until he became president of the BJP at the Goa conclave in 2002, he made it a point to travel widely while stationed in Delhi. The decision to name Naidu to the top post of the party was taken aboard a flight in early April 2002 that carried among others then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee and LK Advani to Goa for the national executive meet. Incidentally, it was at this conclave that the party decided not to accept Narendra Modi’s offer of resignation as Chief Minister over that year’s Gujarat riots. Venkaiah was re-elected BJP President in 2004 but resigned following the reversal at the hustings the same year.
Naidu is known for his lavish parties for which fish used to be flown down from Visakhapatnam. Many journalists and politicians fondly remember such evenings from the time he was Rural Affairs Minister in the Vajpayee Government from 2000 to 2002. At one such party, he credited his wife for all the preparations that went behind it. Lately, he has been on a diet, but derives pleasure from having others fed well. “My daughter told me some years ago that I have eaten enough for a lifetime and that I should restrict my intake. I comply completely with her orders,” he says.
Naidu has also made a mark as a leader with a good sense of humour. He has earned a name for himself with his alliterations and seemingly impromptu wisecracks and loaded acronyms (such as ‘Modifier of Developing India’ for Modi). The young BJP stalwart who went to jail during the Emergency later became an MLA twice in Andhra Pradesh and Rajya Sabha member multiple times. For a man who joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, at a time when there was hardly any flicker of hope for such forces south of the Vindhyas, Naidu stood to gain whenever the party embarked on a mission to expand to southern India and rid itself of its cow-belt party image. With the BJP solidifying its efforts to firm up its position in the south, he has, yet again, become a symbol. Still young at heart and an avid badminton player, he is ready to play the part, he affirms. And if one looks at the pattern of vice-presidents who went on to become presidents, Naidu may not be able to take sanyas anytime soon.
THE DENOUEMENT of Bihar’s Grand Alliance coming apart was dramatic, but the political players shaping events clearly had their acts well coordinated. On the evening of July 26th, by the time Nitish Kumar tendered his resignation as Chief Minister, the state’s Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi—also Governor of West Bengal—was ready at the Raj Bhavan in Patna to handle the situation. What had just occurred could put in the shade many of the power shifts that an ancient city with a long history of palace intrigues had ever seen. The latest shake-up is not just a split between JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar and the RJD’s Lalu Prasad, it represents the end of an opposition dream called the Mahagathbandhan, which was conceived over two years ago as a model alliance for a national effort to stymie the BJP’s otherwise relentless rise.
The beneficiary is India’s ruling party. As a JD(U) leader close to the matter discloses, though Governor Tripathi usually spends most of his time in Kolkata, he was stationed in Patna for the JD(U)’s return to the NDA fold, with every move ‘choreographed’ at the ‘very top levels’ in New Delhi, all of it in preparation for the General Election of 2019. “The plot was cleverly managed and went off without a hitch,” says a BJP leader, pointing out that nothing was left to chance. Nitish announced his decision to quit within a day of Lalu Prasad’s ruling out his son Tejashwi’s exit as Deputy Chief Minister from the state government over corruption charges. On cue, the BJP’s Parliamentary Board met soon after and offered the party’s support to the JD(U), which had been a BJP partner for 17 years until Nitish Kumar snapped ties in 2013 over the issue of Modi being made the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 General Election. “I can tell you that the Bihar BJP just had to wait for instructions from Delhi. Everything was remote-controlled from the top,” says the BJP leader. The party’s top leadership had wanted Nitish Kumar’s switchover to be done with swift precision. By the midnight of July 26th, the JD(U) leader had already met Tripathi and staked his claim to form a new BJP-backed government, armed with a fresh letter of support, names of key ministers ready to be sworn in the next day, and a date by which he could win a trial of strength in the Assembly.
All of it happened in a span of less than six hours. With Nitish Kumar staying on as Chief Minister, the BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi has been named Deputy Chief Minister, with various cabinet ministers to be sworn in over the next few days.
The BJP is back in control of a state that accounts for 40 members of the Lok Sabha. The big loser in the turn of events is Lalu Prasad, a man who had once presided over the state and was looked up to as a messiah of the marginalised. Deposed from all authority, he was accused of harming the Grand Alliance government by his attempts to shield his sons and daughter from serious graft charges. When the Chief Minister announced his decision of July 26th, Lalu was on his way to Ranchi in Jharkhand by road to attend to a court hearing the next day of the many corruption cases against him. He cut a sorry figure, standing in court—on the judge’s insistence—all through the proceedings, with no clout left in his home state and faced with a hostile regime at the Centre. “Looks like he is facing the sunset of his chequered career. This could be the beginning of the disintegration of his style of politics,” says an RJD leader based in Delhi.
While some pundits have heaped scorn on Nitish for ‘betraying’ secular forces to align with the BJP, Lalu’s fall was of his own making—he had ridden roughshod over an ally who insisted on clean governance. Reportedly, he had even approached a few BJP leaders in Delhi with a brazen proposal of a deal, promising to ‘finish off’ Nitish Kumar in return for corruption cases against his kin being dropped (See: ‘Breaking Free’ Open , July 17th, 2017). The Chief Minister’s reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, however, has held him in good stead. Some political analysts of a liberal persuasion have also acknowledged his sway over the electorate. Historian Ramachandra Guha, for example, recently suggested that Nitish Kumar be projected as the leader of a united opposition by the Congress-led UPA. Bihar’s Chief Minister had also earned praise from the likes of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and his followers for his style of governance and development model in the state.
That Nitish Kumar has left the opposition to fend for itself on the issue of corruption speaks volumes about the inability of anti-BJP parties to pose as an alternative to the NDA, come 2019. In particular, it points to a worsening crisis within the country’s main opposition party, which looks weaker and weaker by the day.
That Nitish Kumar has left the opposition to fend for itself on the issue of corruption speaks volumes about the inability of anti-BJP parties to pose as an alternative to the NDA, come 2019. In particular, it points to a worsening crisis within the country’s main opposition party
Pranab Mukherjee, ‘Pranab da’ to most in the ailing Congress party, had once taught Political Science at Vidyanagar College in South 24 Parganas district of Bengal, his home state, and his grasp of the intricacies of pragmatic politics helped bail the Congress out of a crisis many times before he became the 13th President of India in 2012. It’s a telling sign of the desperation among Congressmen that many among its old guard are now publicly pleading for political ‘guidance’ from Mukherjee. Writing an op-ed piece for a news daily, Mani Shankar Aiyar, once an outspoken aide of Rajiv Gandhi later left in the cold by Rahul Gandhi’s scheme of things, has expressed concern over the party’s future and asked for exactly that: ‘...freed of his Constitutional constraints, a retired Pranab da could well become the Congress party’s principal counsellor and help guide it back from its present nadir closer to the zenith.’
The leadership void in the Congress, especially in the last three years during which the gap between Modi’s stature and Rahul Gandhi’s has widened, requires no specific mention. His failure to put together a saleable narrative of opposition politics in the country is obvious in the despair within his party. At a time that it should be gearing up to go to the electorate with a clear vision and cogent promise, the Congress finds itself at yet another low. There is thus irony in Aiyar’s words as he welcomes the change at Rashtrapati Bhavan. ‘It is probably the Indian National Congress that is the biggest gainer from this presidential election... the party would do well to listen to his advice (were he to give it) because his has been the wisest voice in the party for decades. We were deprived of it at a time when we were sorely in need of it because the minute he became president his sense of duty detached him from any hint of partisan politics.’ This would be a ‘morale booster’, Aiyar says, that his party urgently needs.
That’s an understatement, even if it is significant that it comes only weeks before Rahul Gandhi will likely be elevated to the post of Congress president on the basis of an inner-party electoral process outlined to the Election Commission. Just recently, Gandhi, unwilling to learn lessons from elections in states like Goa—where the party won the most seats but still snatched defeat from the jaws of victory—virtually forced Shankersinh Vaghela out of the Congress in poll-bound Gujarat, despite the latter being its best bet to get back into the electoral reckoning after decades of BJP dominance.
Rahul Gandhi’s inept leadership also allowed the BJP under Modi to make crucial gains in the Uttar Pradesh polls earlier this year. Not only did the Congress’ confused attack on demonetisation fail to find its mark among voters, the party’s electoral team proved itself clueless about strategy. Prashant Kishor, a strategist hastily taken aboard from the BJP, was dumped early on in the UP campaign, but Gandhi’s own extensive tours of the state speaking about farm distress achieved nothing. His Khaat Pe Charcha, an idea taken from Modi’s Chai Pe Charcha meetings with common people, proved to be a political self-goal. In terms of optics, it turned into an embarrassment at one location where villagers walked away with the cots even before the leader’s public address was over. Soon after, the Congress unceremoniously dumped Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate for the state, jettisoned its plans to go it alone, did a swift U-turn on its ‘UP behaal’ slogan, and then tied up with the very party it was aimed at, the then-ruling Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav. It was a script that had no hope at the hustings. And so it turned out, with the BJP sweeping the polls.
The UP verdict was only one among many results that point to a dismal future for India’s oldest party. Internal anxieties have risen sharply ever since Sonia Gandhi signalled her decision to reduce her role in active politics so that Rahul Gandhi could assume greater responsibility. The new ‘Team Rahul’ of young men and women he has enlisted to replace the party’s old hands (and troubleshooters), however, has made many of its members even more nervous and distrustful of him. Says a party leader from Rajasthan on condition of anonymity: “This core group that formed Team Rahul was never named, [but was defined in party perception] by the access it controlled to the Congress vice-president and the regulation of issues to be raised before him. Sachin Pilot, son of the late Rajesh Pilot, has remained a close confidant as far as I know. The complete lack of transparency and open access made it that much more difficult to demand accountability for bad decisions, or no decisions.”
Among the old guard who have been sidelined are Ahmed Patel, a key aide of Rajiv Gandhi and then Sonia Gandhi, and Ashok Gehlot, who is said to be on bad terms with Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and has been placed in charge of Gujarat. Digvijaya Singh was forced to quit his post as Goa’s general secretary in-charge after the post-poll debacle there. Former Home and Finance Minister P Chidambaram has had an electoral reversal in his home state of Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is trying to make an electoral debut (perhaps in alliance with a regional party). The Congress is now more or less history in the state while Chidambaram and his son Karti are under an investigative scanner in the INX Media case.
In Parliament and outside it, Rahul Gandhi was chastised for his lackadaisical attitude by NCP chief Sharad Pawar recently, after Sonia Gandhi approached him to take the initiative of getting opposition parties together to decide on a consensus presidential candidate. Then there is also the issue of Rahul Gandhi’s untimely holidays, which have meant that his party has swung from confidence to diffidence to depression on some issue or the other, depending on whether he is around or not. The decision to plump for Meira Kumar as the combined opposition presidential nominee— taken only after much humming and hawing on the part of the Congress while Rahul Gandhi was on vacation in Italy—was so late that much damage had already been wreaked. The idea of joint force to take on the BJP in 2019 was the biggest casualty. The indecision meant that Nitish Kumar had broken ranks with the other 17 parties to back the NDA’s Ram Nath Kovind.
Rahul Gandhi returned to India only in time for Meira Kumar to file her nomination papers, something that led a party leader to scoff, “The Congress is a film without protagonists, an unwieldy script and abysmal box-office performance. The worst is, we are being led by an item number, and now, with Nitish Kumar jumping the fence, all exits from doom seem to be sealed.”
It was Aiyar who morosely acknowledged in an interview a while ago that there was no one in the Congress who could lead the opposition against Modi in 2019. What he left hanging, Guha has voiced more openly by rooting for Nitish Kumar. With Bihar’s Chief Minister switching sides, the blow to the anti Modi line-up has been especially grievous. The Congress’ leadership, already embroiled in cases such as that of The National Herald and perhaps a possible reopening of the Bofors probe, will also have to worry about the prospects of its allies: Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress is troubled by the Sharada scam, for example, while Mayawati of the BSP has much wealth held in her party’s name to explain. The list of Congress friends with sullied reputations is longer still. The loss of a leader known for his probity in Bihar is a setback worse than the Congress is making it out to be.
He has been the Sir Galahad of political logistics, an aide of Congress President Sonia Gandhi for well over a decade. Described often as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as the cliché goes, Ahmed Patel is a man who has for years cultivated an ordinariness to inform his public profile, as if he were determined to obscure his importance to the party and its chief. But this mask of a pedestrian persona, most Congress leaders acknowledged in hushed whispers, was a cover for the bloodless political coups he was entrusted with—and excelled at—to ‘strengthen the party’.
Patel’s number was the one-stop button that Sonia Gandhi pushed in all emergencies. He was named once in the cash-for- votes scam during the parliamentary confidence vote after the Indo-US nuclear deal, but a probe came up with nothing against him. Remember that Whirlpool advertisement that sported the tagline ‘Look ma, no fingerprints!’? That could have been about Patel. He’s so self-effacing, on the face of it, that despite all these years in politics, he hasn’t been in the eye of any major controversy. Nor can any friction or aggression be traced to him. His dossier has no stains. He was good at ‘fixing’ problems, and got what needed to be done, done—quietly and unerringly. He was the Congress party’s key strategic asset.
Yet, shunning the public glare, which he did obsessively, was an occupational hazard for Patel. As he grew more and more powerful within the Congress—till the point he was its second-most important member—it may have been this very aspect of his authority that placed him in the crosshairs of anyone who wanted to take Sonia Gandhi and her party down. Since Ahmed Bhai held the access key to her political clout, crippling him would deal a body blow to the party’s top leadership. Today, as he battles to keep the Gujarat Congress legislative flock together and win a Rajya Sabha berth from his home state—literally begging for the support of those who had been in genuflection before him till recently—Patel’s plight is symbolic of the party’s woes.
The aura around Ahmed Bhai’s power has begun to flicker, and some see it being snuffed out soon in the new political ecosystem. Rahul Gandhi, set to become party president later this year and take formal charge of the party’s vestiges, may have had to rely on Patel to obtain the support of the NCP, BSP and SP for its presidential candidate Meira Kumar, but the successor’s GenX dispensation seems to be pushing Sonia’s top aide out of the party’s power loop. In short, Patel’s authority is being overrun by both time (Rahul Gandhi’s ascent in the party) and tide (the saffron domination of today’s politics). BJP President Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are certain that the trail of the plot to implicate them in the Ishrat Jehan and Sohrabuddin encounter cases leads directly to 28 Tughlak Crescent, the residence of Congress leader V Narayanasamy in Lutyens’ Delhi; and the Congress grandee who BJP leaders believe was pulling the strings from behind the scene was none other than the low-profile politician from their home state. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that on August 2nd, Central tax officials raided Karnataka minister DK Shivakumar’s properties and later apprehended him for interrogation at a resort in Bengaluru where the Congress has housed 43 MLAs flown in from Gujarat to ensure they don’t defect ahead of the Rajya Sabha poll. Alarmed Congress leaders disrupted proceedings in both Houses of Parliament in protest against the raids, calling them a ‘witch-hunt’. Meanwhile, Income Tax officials have disclosed that Rs 11 crore in cash was seized in the raids at about 60 locations in Karnataka and Delhi.
WHEN SONIA GANDHI finally took over the Congress party following years of dithering in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s death, Ahmed Bhai was her go-to person, a political secretary who ensured a smooth ascent to the top and then stayed by her side. She reportedly chose the understated, hard-working and non-controversial Gujarati over the relatively high-profile Ambika Soni, wife of an IFS officer, for the post. She picked Patel not least because her late husband had grown close to the modest politician from Bharuch—his father Feroze Gandhi’s hometown— who’d begun as a grassroots worker and worked his way up. After Patel turned down a cabinet berth, Rajiv Gandhi had appointed him parliamentary secretary along with Arun Singh.
When Sonia Gandhi finally took over as Congress chief, Ahmed Patel was her go-to person. She reportedly chose the understated, hard-working and non-controversial Gujarati over the relatively high-profile Ambika Soni
Patel’s first breakthrough was in 1977, after the Emergency when the party supremo of the time, Sonia’s mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, was being shunned by the electorate and her own leaders were wary of associating with her. Patel and his colleague Sanat Mehta reportedly invited Indira Gandhi to their constituency for a public rally, and this was acknowledged as the platform from which she may have re-launched herself into the public consciousness. There was no holding Patel back thereafter. He contested a Lok Sabha seat in 1977 and won. He won again in 1980. Indira Gandhi is believed to have offered him a berth at the Centre which he turned down, preferring to play a powerful role away from the spotlight. He won in 1984, too, and it was only in 1989, when Gujarat’s landscape turned saffron over the Ram Janambhoomi movement, that he lost his seat.
Sonia Gandhi’s earliest interactions with Patel were at the Jawahar Bhawan Trust with which he was associated and in whose work she took an interest. A similar equation was established later at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. While Sonia kept Soni close, it was Patel who turned into her chief political advisor. Soon, her political secretary was the party’s key operations man.
“A secretary shouldn’t live inside your head,” a Congress leader irked by Patel’s influence on the party president was once quoted as saying. The man himself was careful never to flaunt his authority or any sign of wealth. He had a Maruti Esteem. His kurta-pyjama get- up was part of the art of invisibility he’d mastered in a field where visibility was the norm.
He also had a room reserved for him at 10 Janpath and ensured that funds were always available for family plans, but for complex party fund management, he preferred to operate discreetly from behind the walls of the Lutyens’ bungalow allotted to him at 23, Mother Teresa Crescent. Insiders say there was a method to his madness of being a tireless workaholic who slept only a few hours and often met visitors—politicians, businessmen and journalists included—until 3 am in the morning. A practising Muslim, Patel was ever the gracious host. Under UPA rule, when he walked into Parliament—typically he would be there at 5 pm sharp—journalists and politicians would crowd around him and enjoy the warmth of his company over the ‘bread toast’ and tea he often ordered for them.
Patel’s network had bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians of all hues. There was no major operation in the party that didn’t bear the stamp of the Wizard of Bharuch
IN SUCCESSIVE YEARS, the Grand Old Party’s dependence on Patel as its Mr Fix-It only grew; he was the one who could gum a puncture, nail down that loose board that threatened to trip plans up, and close doors as firmly as pry them open when required. During the PV Narasimha Rao years in the 90s, Arjun Singh and ND Tiwari were among the party seniors who projected themselves as the top Nehru-Gandhi loyalists, the Praetorian Guard of the dynasty. But even then, it was AP, as he was also known within the party, who Sonia Gandhi relied on and trusted most.
Pranab Mukherjee, that master strategist of the Congress who many are now hoping will advise the leadership on how to revive its electoral fortunes, was someone who Patel shared a close bond with. As Mr Strategy and Mr Operations, they would often work successfully to a plan together. P Chidambaram, another bigwig of the Congress, had his problems with Ahmed Bhai, but apparently never tried to block any of his decisions, construing them as having Sonia Gandhi’s approval.
Motilal Vora, party treasurer, got along exceedingly well with Patel, and this smoothened the path for funds to be routed to people and places at short notice to get work done for the party. Whenever an industrialist approached Vora, the party treasurer would direct him to Patel; by the time he’d return from Patel’s Mother Teresa Crescent bungalow, instructions would usually have reached Vora on how it could be resolved. Ahmed Bhai had a reputation as a favourite among industry honchos, including Gautam Adani, who is known to enjoy a close rapport with senior BJP leaders.
Patel’s network had bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians of all hues. Little wonder that there was no major operation in the party that didn’t bear the stamp of the Wizard of Bharuch.
Consider this incident from the UPA period. The opposition BJP’s top leaders, including LK Advani, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu and Yashwant Sinha used to meet every day when Parliament was in session to discuss their party’s strategy in the Lok Sabha. In one instance, Jaitley raised the issue of a large land bank that Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra had managed to acquire in Haryana and insisted that it be raised in the House. To Jaitley’s consternation, however, most of his audience was hesitant. One even said that the children of politicians should not be targeted.
After the meeting held in Advani’s room was over and Jaitley was walking towards the House, he was accosted by Ahmed Bhai. The Congressman knew exactly what had transpired and made no bones about it. He then requested Jaitley not to raise the issue in the House. The incident illustrated just how deep Patel’s connections ran even within the BJP.
IT IS A sorry pass that Patel has now come to. At the height of his power, he could literally crook a finger to have ministers and chief ministers sacked—at the Congress president’s behest. Among those he is alleged to have pushed out was Sanjaya Baru, media adviser to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Not only was he used as the sole direct conduit for political messages from Sonia to Singh, Baru later disclosed in his book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh that even major decisions on, say, a cabinet reshuffle, were forced upon the UPA Government this way. Once, says Baru, he’d rushed to 7 Race Course Road less than an hour before a list of new cabinet ministers was to be handed over to the President, who was notified and waiting. Patel brought with him a new list. There was no time for a fresh printout, so Patel just had the old names white-inked and typed over, and this was done with barely minutes to go for the President’s assent.
In the Rahul Gandhi era, Patel’s power over party affairs is fast slipping away, which has left him exposed to attacks from his political adversaries in Gujarat and at the Centre. Since 1985, Patel has held one party position or another. In nearly two decades under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, there has been only one occasion when his influence was seriously challenged. This was in the late 90s, when Vincent George entrenched himself at 10 Janpath. George also enjoyed the confidence of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Following differences with George, Patel had quit his post as party treasurer, but returned to favour after George came under scrutiny for graft charges.
Now, though, with Sonia’s health failing and her gradual withdrawal from party work to pass on the mantle to her son, Patel’s special place in the Congress and its president’s scheme of things is in jeopardy. As he stares at defeat in the upcoming Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat, circumstances seem to have conspired against him. Ahmed Bhai is suddenly that very ordinary person he’s been disguising himself as for decades. Both time and tide, for now, are with his opponents.
SO HERE I AM, ladies and gentlemen, a lone liberal from a lost country, a country with a great tradition and a horrifying present. And to tell you a story—and I love telling stories, and at times I see myself as an abandoned story in search of a narrator—I’m a survivor, a liberal survivor, maybe the only survivor, from the land of a great illusionist. He made his entry into our lives with such Biblical grandeur and, as if he was the Hindu Moses chosen by the only God, also a Hindu God I should tell you, he parted the ocean, let’s say a metaphorical ocean, and like in the other story I told recently at Berkeley, the fools, the gullible multitudes, who followed him went under the water when the spell was broken. Victims of an illusion. I was elsewhere on the shore, seeing what others couldn’t, as always, realising, as I always do, my own exceptionalism in my country whose drab sameness of fate continues to frighten me. Still frightens me. In the story about the tsunami I told at Berkeley the other day, it was raw wisdom that saved the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In the tragedy unfolding in India as a whole today, only one wise man, the last storyteller, is left with a conscience. And an anecdote, which is me. Call me Rahul.
Who am I? That’s a question I keep asking. I don’t want an answer. No. Answers are finality. Finite. The perceiving mind seeks meanings by asking, and asking, the question. The search never ends. Like the stories. All my stories, they say, my anecdotes, have always been about this unanswered question in the political life of India. What do they know? They know nothing. They see everything, and every Gandhi, in the big karmic cycle of power. They see every struggle, the thing that provides dramatic tension to the story, as a traveller’s quest for power. But I’m not a traveller, not a seeker. I’m, mostly, a story badly told by others. I’m, really, a story told intermittently by someone trapped within myself. I’m going all over the place, I’m losing the thread, but no, I’m not, and in truth, it’s the pauses and absences, the surge and the calm, that make my story a surprise to myself. I’m shocked, at times. Who am I? The guy within me doesn’t answer, thank God for that. I would not have been here otherwise, as a receptacle to my inner narrator. Ladies and gentlemen, I think you’re more patient than myself with him.
In my Berkeley address I said, “The common conception in the West is that people have ideas. You all say, I have an idea. But there is an alternative way of looking at the world. The counter-intuitive notion that instead of people having ideas, ideas have people. So instead of ‘I have an idea’, an idea has me. This notion is the basis of ahimsa or non-violence as taught by Gandhi.” It is the wisdom of the East, which carries a whiff of the mystical in its knowledge. So follow me, me as an idea as labyrinthine as it could ever be. I’m not a statement tailor-made for your average pundit, sorry. I’m not a slogan compatible with the desperate party man at the gate. I’m not your one-dimensional morning headline. I’m the child of an idea, too fluid to be grasped by the lazy legion out there, and I’m evolving, hear me right, evolving, not disintegrating. This idea has not passed its time.
They may say the idea has already been outlived by India. They may say it’s the whimpering conclusion of an idea that has seen glorious yesterdays. How presumptuous. How simplistic. Why is it that my countrymen, currently in thrall of the illusionist,can’t comprehend complexities? Why is it that, please tell me, they like only linear narratives? They can’t go on reducing me to an idea retrieved from a genetic memory. I’m not a genealogical afterthought. Let’s spell it out: I’m not the weakest impulse of a dynasty. As I said elsewhere, dynasties are, in our part of the world, maybe in other places too, a way of political, cultural and business life. It’s no big deal. It’s not a bad thing either, keeping stuff within the family. It brings stability. It’s a system based on trust. Go read Fukuyama, he’s written a book bigger than the one he has written on the end of history. The point is: what’s the point of being Rahul Gandhi? Again, we are back to the question.
Answer it and it’s the end of the story, the redundancy of the storyteller. What I can say is that in the age of certainties, I’m a liberating uncertainty. I’m here to remind you all that power is not the conclusion of the idea that has me in its grip, that I’m not a character added without my consent to the dynastic script. I’m a bit more complex. Allow me to get startled by my own questions, my stories, my freedom to be what I’m not. I know you don’t get it. Nor does me.
Be kind. Thank you.
INSIDE UTTAR PRADESH’S Jaunpur town, not far from its landmark 16th century Shahi Bridge on the river Gomti, RK Maurya runs a teashop that sells hot samosas and excessively sweetened tea. He does brisk business, assisted by two young adults, and saves enough money to send his son to an English-medium school with the hope that the young Maurya, now 12, gets a “secure” government job. He had financed his brother’s education earlier with a similar hope, but after failing to clear public service commission examinations for three straight years, his unmarried brother, who is in his late twenties, has gone off to Mumbai to work as a security guard. “Many of our people are not able to get onto the OBC list in lower bureaucratic jobs because our children are not as smart as those from rich families who are also OBC,” Maurya says ruefully before he is distracted by fresh orders for his snacks and beverages.
The term ‘OBC’, popularised by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, stands for ‘Other Backward Classes’, describing groups other than Scheduled Castes and Tribals who were also marginalised by the Brahminical order of the past. OBCs formed a vast heterogenous population even at the time of the country’s independence. Some caste groups within this large category were just as socially, economically and educationally well off as the so-called upper castes, while some others were worse off than Dalits and other groups of former untouchables. The trend seems to persist in parts, unfortunately. Professor DL Sheth, a political sociologist and Honorary Senior Fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says that the debate over ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ OBCs is very old, and that it is true that the more prosperous among the OBCs walked away with reservation benefits that in public-sector jobs and government educational institutions now stand at 27 per cent. “A large chunk of such quotas was filled up by the upper OBCs because the lower OBCs can’t compete with others in the grouping. So it is only natural that sub-categorisations are made to target the most needy. I think it is a correct step to take,” says Professor Sheth, emphasising that the recommendation for this had been made by the Judiciary and even the National Commission for Backward Classes as early as 2011.
In what would be music to the ears of the likes of tea-seller Maurya, whose community had voted in large numbers for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha and Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, the Central Government is busy setting up a commission to examine the sub-categorisation of backward communities on the central list of jobs to ensure that the benefits extended to OBCs reach all the castes that fall in the bloc. “There is a marked difference in the way the upper OBCs and lower OBCs have voted in the past several elections. Across India, upper OBCs have been more reluctant to vote for the BJP compared with lower OBCs, who have lately become strong backers of the BJP. The party has made deeper inroads among lower OBCs than the upper ones,” observes Professor Sanjay Kumar, director of CSDS, adding that “creating sub-categories would also be an effort to form solid vote banks of lower OBCs for the party in power”. The proposed panel is expected to submit its report in 12 weeks from the day it is constituted. While the Government has not taken any such major step so far, as many as 11 states have recognised such sub-categories in state government jobs meant for OBCs. The new commission will examine the extent to which the distribution of quota benefits has been inequitable among castes and communities, including the broad categories of OBCs included on the central list.
Professor Kumar of CSDS insists that there is certainly a political gameplan to this move, “besides ensuring the welfare of those who actually require OBC quota benefits more than others”. BJP leaders that Open spoke to do not contest this claim. “Our aim has been the upliftment of those who were sidelined by the so-called champions of OBC politics. Of course, there is a larger political strategy to wean away what you call lower OBCs or still-deprived OBCs away from the vice-like grip of these self- appointed messiahs of the OBCs,” says a senior BJP leader. Thanks to this proposed measure, they expect to gain a clear edge over leaders who had for decades taken advantage of their OBC status and yet favoured their own castes over others. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah—and also leaders such as Nitish Kumar of the JD-U who is now back in the NDA fold after briefly joining hands with the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad—have zealously courted lower OBCs for years now. They had successfully tapped the rancour and frustration of non-Yadav OBCs in the cow belt and that of others elsewhere who had felt left out in the post-Mandal politics that saw upper OBCs acquire much political clout in the name of all OBCs. Sudhir Panwar, a professor at Lucknow University who contested the last Assembly elections as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party, which is steered by Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh, says that “thanks to this plan, the likes of Lalu and Mulayam will become leaders of the Yadavs alone and not of the whole of OBCs that they were before”. Professor Panwar is of the view that the decision to create a commission to re-categorise OBCs is a purely political decision. “There is no welfare in their minds,” he avers, questioning the rationale of hiking the income limit for those who can avail of OBC benefits. One possible piece of logic behind this step—of raising the annual income of parents of potential beneficiaries of reservations to Rs 8 lakh per annum from Rs 6 lakh earlier—is that OBC quotas, especially in the higher bureaucracy and academic institutions, remain under-utilised. For instance, the response to an RTI application in 2015 showed that of the 27 per cent they are entitled to in public sector jobs and higher education, less than half the reserved positions and seats—12 per cent in all—actually had OBCs. “Raising the income limit was to ensure higher representation for OBCs in government jobs. And when you hike incomes, it is the upper OBCs that will naturally enter these positions,” says Professor Panwar, who argues that creating separate categories for OBCs will worsen the under-fulfilment problem, with even more reserved slots likely to lie vacant. However, others contend that the extraneous factors that have contributed to this phenomenon may vary— from technical knowhow to a general lack of interest in such jobs.
The size of the BJP’s victory in UP and elsewhere was thanks to an astute recognition by Modi and Amit Shah of caste appeals with a focus on non-Yadav OBCs
AS THE MODI-LED Government prepares to create quotas within the broad 27 per cent quota—it is not yet clear how many categories would be formed and how the allotments would be distributed and who all will come under each group—it is expected to be an exhaustive exercise, considering the number of OBC castes recognised as such, not to mention those that may newly be included. OBCs account for up to 41 per cent of the country’s population after several inclusions and exclusions from the list. The Modi Government’s priorities to reward the most backward among OBCs as well as lower Dalits who had also thrown their weight behind the BJP coalition in the past few elections are along expected lines. In the run-up to the General Election of 2014 as well as to various recent state polls (especially the one held in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh this year), the BJP had crafted meticulous strategies to pull in the lower OBC vote. The campaigns were also designed to work on the ancient heritage of these groups to instill a sense of pride in their caste identities. The medieval king Suheldev’s name was invoked to woo Rajbhars, for example. Caste names were given a makeover by the high-octane campaign of the ruling coalition at the Centre, which began to address Kohars as Prajapatis and Nonias as Chauhans. Besides Kurmis and Kushwahas, the party also ferociously vied for the favour of several other non-Yadav OBCs, including Lodhs who had acquired some political influence thanks to one of their own, former UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh. “The idea was to ensure that the disproportionate influence of Yadavs should end. Again, a lot of Yadavs, too, are shifting their loyalties to the BJP,”Ashish Baghel, a key member of the BJP’s election war room based in Varanasi, had told Open. The BJP had fielded 150 non-Yadav OBC candidates in the UP elections of its total 383 seats; 11 were allotted to the Apna Dal, which is largely a party of Kurmis, and nine to Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, which also represented non-Yadav OBCs, especially groups that have sought inclusion in the Scheduled Caste category. “Certainly, our plan is to create a vote bank to rein in all existing purveyors of OBC politics and to empower those who had missed out on the OBC political blitz of the 1990s in which only the upper classes among them benefitted,” said Baghel.
When the demand for OBC quotas was first discussed decades ago, its opponents had argued that the privileged—or the ‘creamy layer’—among them will corner most of the benefits. Noted author and scholar Christophe Jaffrelot has pointed out that upper- caste rulers of the country were more amenable to offering quotas to Scheduled Castes than OBCs because the former offered no direct threat to their supremacy; also, that policy helped the elite defuse the ‘Ambedkarite mobilisation’ by co-opting Dalits to key positions. Even the Constituent Assembly didn’t debate the issue of non-Dalit, non-tribal backward classes (Nehru was even reluctant to use the expression ‘caste’ and preferred ‘classes’ instead), and only included a provision under Article 340 for identifying socially and educationally backward classes in the future. The first Backward Classes Commission, set up in 1953, submitted a report to the Government highlighting multiple criteria for backwardness and recommending suitable measures for the upliftment of castes that met these parameters: degraded status, lack of education, under-representation in the civil service and secondary and tertiary sectors. The report was rejected, but it stirred intense debate especially after courts rejected legislative measures undertaken by states in the south such as Kerala and Mysore (now Karnataka), which had pioneered the policy of awarding backward classes reservations during the British Raj. Authors like Jaffrelot and others have done indepth analyses of the subject to track the rise of political movements against Brahminism.
Nehruvian politics overshadowed efforts to secure OBC rights and it took Ram Manohar Lohia to assert that caste in India was the equivalent of class in the West
While Nehruvian politics overshadowed any efforts to secure rights for OBCs, it took the intellectual and forceful presence of Ram Manohar Lohia to resurrect the argument in the 1950s and 1960s and assert that caste in India was the equivalent of class in the West. Socialist leaders like him and various others took every opportunity to highlight the plight of the backward castes and women that suffered the most inhuman stigmas in society. Notably, speaking on an occasion in Parliament on November 23rd, 1965, to pay a tribute to the late lawmaker from the joint Lok Sabha seat of Bhagalpur and Purnea, Kirai Mushar, a socialist leader from Bihar belonging to a most backward caste, Lohia called upon the House to take drastic steps to end caste atrocities. He also said, in response to a vapid announcement by the Speaker of the House, he was glad that just like Mushar, many others from similar underprivileged backgrounds, too, have over time acquired confidence thanks to political empowerment. An apocryphal story is that Kirai Mushar, a member of the first Lok Sabha (1952-1957), was forced to share his official accommodation with an upper-caste secretary of his. Mushar was so unaware of his rights that he slept on the floor of the train while travelling to Delhi to attend the first Parliament session. On one occasion, he was found crying in the Central Hall after he was beaten up by his secretary. However, he learnt to stand up for his rights later. While the social status of most OBCs was much better, several of the very backward OBCs and Dalits led piteous lives and were yet ignored by our politicians who were too scared to take on upper-caste hegemony. Nonetheless, an incessant debate, thanks to socialists and various others who focused on caste atrocities in and outside legislative bodies, would soon help lower castes outstrip their former masters in Indian politics.
The big shift was effected by the Mandal Commission appointed by the Janata Party Government in 1978. As Jaffrelot notes, its report ‘identified 3,743 castes that it found to form India’s other backward classes, representing 52% of the country’s population. Noting that OBC only occupied 12.5% of civil service posts, it recommended a 27% reservation for them’. Drafted in 1980, the report was dusted out from the archives ten years later by VP Singh for implementation in a political move to consolidate his position as a prime minister presiding over a fractious coalition.
Incidentally, BP Mandal, author of the report that bears his name, had warned against a few prominent castes among OBCs cashing in on the opportunities that a reservation policy offered. As he wrote in it: ‘It is no doubt true that the major benefits of reservation and other welfare measures for Other Backward Classes will be cornered by the more advanced sections of the backward communities. But is it not a universal phenomenon? All reformist remedies have to contend with a slow recovery along the hierarchical gradient; there are no quantum jumps in social reform. Moreover, human nature being what it is, a ‘new class’ ultimately does emerge even in classless societies. The chief merit of reservation is not that it will introduce egalitarianism among OBCs when the rest of the Indian society is seized by all sorts of inequalities. But reservation will certainly erode the hold of higher castes on the services and enable OBCs in general to have a sense of participation in running the affairs of their country’.
In 1990, when VP Singh went ahead with his Mandal plan, Chandra Shekhar initially opposed it and Devi Lal organised protests. But the political momentum was clearly on Singh’s side
IN 1990, WHEN Congress rebel leader VP Singh—who had fielded a sizeable chunk of OBC candidates in the 1989 General Election—opened the floodgates of mid-caste politics with his resolve to implement the Mandal Commission Report which had been ignored by the successive Congress governments of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, it created confusion within Singh’s Janata Dal alliance, but the political momentum was clearly on his side (albeit briefly). As pointed out by scholars, the loud opposition of upper castes to Singh’s move resulted in a massive OBC mobilisation that would alter the country’s political climate like never before. OBC politics became the ‘order or the day’, as pundits recount, and changed the rules of Indian politics that had been written by Brahmins and upper castes. Until the Mandal movement catapulted several OBC and lower caste leaders to the national scheme of things, Choudhary Charan Singh and Karpuri Thakur were two notable OBC leaders from the Hindi heartland who had national recognition, but they drew their strength as leaders of farmers, not as OBCs.
Since 1952, when the first General Election was held, Brahmin prime ministers have ruled India for almost half a century. With the exception of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was at the helm for 10 years, no non-Brahmin prime minister has completed his term in office. Remarkably, Lal Bahadur Shastri (Kayastha), Charan Singh (Jat), VP Singh (Rajput), Chandrashekhar (Rajput), Deve Gowda (Vokkaligga) and IK Gujral (Khatri) together ruled the country for only four years.
However, things were changing too and the days of caste blindness would soon be a thing of the past. The watershed moment came in 1991. The General Election of the year also saw the likes of veterans Vasant Sathe, Madhu Dandwate, VN Gadgil, Rama Krishna Hegde and others biting the dust amid a backward class awakening. Until then, the Congress party had been on a winning streak on the back of its political mix of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims. As Jaffrelot observes, ‘The old vertical, clientelistic brand of politics inherited from the Congress system simply broke down.’ A year later, the courts also began to think differently. Unlike in the 1951 case of State of Madras vs Champakam Dorairanjan and the 1963 MR Balaji vs Mysore legal battle, when the courts had disapproved of higher reservations for backward classes, in the 1992 Indira Sawhney vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court upheld the Mandal Commission Report and stated in its verdict that ‘a caste can be and quite often is a social class in India’.
LOOK AT THE figures: from 25 per cent of all MPs in 1952, Brahmins make up less than 10 per cent now. The decline and fall of Brahmin strength in the Lok Sabha has been sharp since 1984, when it was 19.9 per cent; the figure slid to 12.4 per cent by 1998 and 11.3 per cent in 1999. In the Hindi heartland states of UP and Bihar, OBCs, who hold the key to government formation, had been backing regional outfits since the late 1980s, an era that saw the rise of the Janata Dal and later various other non-Congress, non-BJP parties as breakaway entities. With his emphatic win in 2014, Modi, himself an OBC, brought greater acceptability of OBC power (see ‘OBC is the New Brahmin’, Open July 4th, 2014). Interestingly, though the BJP was seen as a Brahmin-Bania party in the 1990s at the height of the anti-Mandal agitation and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, it has over the decades changed tack and accommodated more OBCs than most other parties have. “The BJP and RSS understood that they had to change with the times, and they did, perhaps faster than most other parties. After all, the Bihar polls were enough proof of the rise in consolidation among weaker OBCs, too,” notes a Delhi-based BJP leader.
And now, following Modi’s ascent to power and a series of state poll wins, political trends are changing further thanks to the BJP’s efforts to mobilise OBCs that didn’t gain much from power shifts of the 1990s. Perhaps, the political behaviour of OBC leaders who hitched a ride on the Mandal bandwagon was too reactionary for comfort. Speaking of the OBC upsurge, Oxford University’s Faisal Devji said in an interview: “The OBCs can also be the most ‘reactionary’ caste, especially as far as Dalits and other groups are concerned.” He also noted that it’s interesting what happens to old merchant castes and Brahmins. “Have they abandoned the public sector to exercise a new kind of influence from the private sector instead? This would indicate a new division of power and influence made possible by the new economy. In other words, the competition now is between OBCs and Dalits (and others) in the public sphere, with Brahmins and Banias operating out of the private sector,” he said.
Whatever be the case, pundits expect OBC politics to be transformed by the newfound aggression of lower OBCs who resent their continued marginalisation. “It is a major design of the BJP,” says Professor Panwar of Lucknow University. He argues that it offers the BJP a win-win situation: “If the BJP moves a bill in Parliament to create sub-categories, credit goes to them if it gets made into a law; if it doesn’t becomes a law, the blame falls on the opposition.” According to him, the BJP may also use the ‘whole exercise’ to appease groups that are currently demanding OBC reservations in Haryana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and so on. Meanwhile, he rues that there is no effort to study how proportionate the representation of various castes is, compared with the population. “If such a caste census-based analysis is done, all the hue and cry over higher Yadav representation in legislatures may not hold true.”
Such complaints may or may not be valid, but the politics of the Centre’s exercise is clear. “Efforts to formulate a new vote bank are a foregone conclusion,” says Professor Kumar. It is also worth recalling what Mandal had to tell anti-OBC quota protestors in his 1980 report: ‘In fact, the Hindu society has always operated a very rigorous scheme of reservation, which was internalised through caste system. Eklavya lost his thumb and Shambhuk his neck for their breach of caste rules of reservation. The present furore against reservations for OBCs is not aimed at the principle itself, but against the new class of beneficiaries, as they are now clamouring for a share of the opportunities which were all along monopolised by the higher castes.’
This accurate prognosis of a situation from a different time, when caste was far more deeply entrenched in Indian society, now appears prophetic vis-à-vis the frustration of upper OBCs in the face of ‘the clamouring for a share of the opportunities’ denied so far to the most backward among them. If some of the recent election results are any indication, winds of change have already begun to buffet the country.