'Narendra Modi could be too old to change his personality. On the other hand, his attachment to the RSS could be mostly sentimental. So one must hope that if he becomes prime minister, he is able to detach himself from the RSS view of the world as completely as Narasimha Rao detached himself from the Congress's First Family.'
'India cannot be governed by the autocratic methods by which he has governed Gujarat. If he becomes prime minister he will have to learn to speak in a more civil language about his political opponents,' historian Ramachandra Guha tells Arthur J Pais/Rediff.com
Ramachandra Guha, historian, political commentator and author, visited several cities across America last month to promote the first of two books on Mahatma Gandhi. The first volume, a magisterial study, Gandhi Before India was published recently by Knopf in America.
In this interview with Arthur J Pais/Rediff.com, conducted in person, over the phone and through e-mail, Guha, right, below, speaks about contemporary India and its political culture.
What was one of the most distinctive features of Mahatma Gandhi's politics which is lacking today?
Gandhi never personalised political debates. Today there is a lot of name calling and verbal abuse on both sides, from the Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the Congress party and its allies.
Gandhi had strong differences within the Congress party and with Mohammad Ali Jinnah. He had a famous and long-running debate with B R Ambedkar. And he was regularly subjected to vilification by Marxists and Hindutvawadis.
Yet however venomous and abusive his opponents were, whatever libellous language they used to describe him, he always answered back with courtesy.
He was interested in individual and social reform, not character assassination.
In fact, the major political leaders of the past mostly avoided trivial and personalised name calling.
Jawaharlal Nehru had once written (in July 1939) that, 'In public life we must presume the bona fides of each other... I trust that all our criticisms will be based on policy and not on personalities.' He himself always argued on the basis of policies, not personalities. And his rivals did likewise.
Nehru's political opponents, such as J B Kripalani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, made telling and effective criticisms of the policies of the ruling Congress, and of Nehru himself, but without resorting to personal abuse or innuendo.
Narendra Modi refers to Rahul Gandhi as Shehzada. And Mani Shankar Aiyar, a leader of the Congress, called Modi a 'chaiwallah, a remark in shockingly poor taste. Rahul and Sonia Gandhi have also made unnecessarily personal remarks about Modi.
The language used by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amit Shah, by Mayawati and Digvijay Singh, by Azam Khan and Giriraj Singh is depressingly representative. And it bodes ill.
No democracy can survive without a basic minimum of trust and civility.
On the subject of labels and name calling, many people on the left and some activists such as Arundhati Roy have called the BJP a fascist party.
A fascist party does not contest elections and then give up power when losing a majority in the Parliament, like the BJP has done. In Europe, the fascists and the Nazis came to power through elections, but seized power and had to give it up only after being defeated in wars or insurrections.
Therefore, to call the BJP or its leaders 'fascist' is historically untenable.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from which the BJP grew was inspired to some extent by European fascism. The Bajrang Dal, another right-wing group, employs hooligans to intimidate and terrorise its opponents. One can certainly call the Bajrang Dal 'fascist'. But not the BJP.
There is totalitarianism on the Left too. The Naxalites do not care for electoral politics and practice a savage politics of revenge and retribution. They should be condemned by all Indian democrats.
On the other hand, the Communist Party of India-Marxist, while it professes a reverence for the Russian dictators Lenin and Stalin, participates in parliamentary and state elections, assuming power if they win and giving up power if they lose.
Like the BJP, the CPI-M has accepted (in fact, if not in theory) the fundamental democratic principle of a multi-party political order.
Liberals should oppose both the Naxalites and the Bajrang Dal. Both groups are antithetical to Indian democracy. But we should be careful about using labels such as 'fascist', 'genocide', etc, which originated in historical contexts and epochs very different from contemporary India.
What could become of India under Narendra Modi?
It will be a very big challenge for him to govern a huge country and it will be interesting to see how a life-long member of the RSS will act as a leader of a nation with such political and social diversity.
One part of his legacy in Gujarat is sustained industrial growth and the limitation of bureaucratic corruption. That is what his supporters consistently speak of. But there is another part of his legacy, which should also be remembered.
This is of authoritarianism, of extinguishing all opposition even within his own party. He is also megalomaniacal, taking credit for everything successful in the state, even things started decades ago.
For example, he often speaks of Gujarat's splendid record in milk production, but never mentions the pioneering contributions in this regard of Verghese Kurian and Tribhuvandas Patel.
A big worry is what he could do to higher education and intellectual freedom. Under his chief ministership, the standard and independence of educational institutions, particularly the much respected M S University in Baroda, have come down considerably. Modi has also banned books, and his followers have attacked artists.
What makes American universities famous and reputed? Having taught at Yale and Stanford and having seen my son's experience as a student at Harvard, I know how the universities here are autonomous and they operate totally independent of government interference. This independence is the source of their creativity and productivity.
The prime minister of India ought to understand the importance of autonomous educational institutions.
Another worry is that there is no active political debate in Gujarat. As long as Modi has been chief minister, the state assembly meets for just a few short sessions in a year. There has not been much of a debate or dialogue on policy issues in the state.
Modi supporters point out to the economic success of the state. But we ought to remember India is much more than economic growth. India is about pluralism, inclusiveness, and genuine democratic aspirations.
But people can be surprising when they are in power. (P V) Narasimha Rao was a loyal servant of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, but once he became the prime minister, he charted his own course and set out to make his own legacy.
Now Narendra Modi could be too old to change his personality. On the other hand, his attachment to the RSS could be mostly sentimental. So one must hope that if he becomes prime minister, he is able to detach himself from the RSS view of the world as completely as Narasimha Rao detached himself from the Congress's First Family.
A lot will depend on his advisers, and on his own willingness to listen and learn. India cannot be governed by the autocratic methods by which he has governed Gujarat.
In particular, if he becomes prime minister he will have to learn to speak in a more civil language about his political opponents.
Manmohan Singh was in many ways an ineffective prime minister, but his language was always impeccable. So too was Vajpayee's.
This election has so poisoned the atmosphere through the hateful language used by all sides (not least by Modi himself). After it is over, restoring civility and trust must be a paramount objective.
We have been hearing the slogan, Modi is India and India is Modi.
I would like to draw the reader's attention to what Ambedkar had warned against. He believed bhakti in politics is fatal. In his remarkable last speech to the Constituent Assembly (which all Indians, and all democrats, should read) he said that while bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul, in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship. Ambedkar was prophetic.
During Indira Gandhi's regime, Congress President D K Barooah coined the phrase 'Indira is India'. The sycophancy around Indira encouraged her to centralise power in herself and in the end promulgate the Emergency.
The bhakti around Mahatma Gandhi was wrong too. For one thing, an excessively worshipful attitude prevents us seeing him as a great leader who was also flawed and may deter us from learning from his flaws.
In India we have a tendency to deify our leaders (dead or alive) and it has continued in this election, too. To many Maharashtrians, it is bhakti for Shivaji and later Bal Thackeray and in Tamil Nadu, first it was for M G Ramachandran, and now for J Jayalalithaa.
For the Dalits, too ironically, there is too much of bhakti for Ambedkar, and in some groups of Dalits, for Mayawati as well.
And, of course, there is this exaggerated worship of Modi by his supporters, who celebrate him as a great messiah. A senior editor speaks of a 'mindless Modi monotheism' abroad. It can also be vicious, as I know from experience, being regularly abused by Modi bhakts for not sharing their blind adoration.
In religion, you might need a personal saviour, but in politics hero worship can be foolish and even dangerous, as Ambedkar warned long ago.
Image: Narendra Modi, left, with Sushma Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari, left.