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'India will remain one only if national
leadership of substance emerges'

Cho Ramaswamy Cho Ramaswamy, actor, commentator, journalist, and now television personality, discusses the state of India 50 years after it won freedom.

A candid conversation on India's leaders, its people, its future, and, of course, corruption and liberalisation, with Shobha Warrier.

How old were you when India won freedom? What do you remember about the day?

Thirteen years. It was then that I had been given a box camera by my father. I took some photographs of the function held in my school. I remember the scene very well. Apart from that, I don't remember anything. In those days, nobody took photographs in school. So, my photographs became very popular and I became quite important (chuckles). Independence made me important!

Mahatma Gandhi Do you feel the Mahatma was forgotten soon after Independence? Now he is remembered only a couple of times a year, reduced to a paragraph or a photograph.

What else can a country do to persons of great eminence? What is Abraham Lincoln to America now? What is Mao Zedong to China now? Can a country follow the ideals of the Mahatma all the time? I doubt whether the Mahatma himself followed his ideals all the time, in all matters. He had to deviate now and then. In practical politics and administration, the Mahatma's ideals can be treated as a text, as a philosophy, not as law.

A philosophy which is to be followed or.....

A philosophy which is to be kept in mind and followed whenever possible (laughs). Like the dictates of dharma!

As a political analyst and not as a patriot, how do you assess Gandhi's contributions to the country?

If it was not for Gandhi, there could not have been a democratic India. He was a man who did not speak the languages of the people of many of the states but commanded total and unquestioning faith of all of them. He demanded struggle and sacrifice from them, while promising nothing, and they obeyed. This is unimaginable. I have great admiration for him.

What would have happened if he had lived a little longer?

His advice would have embarrassed the government. It would have succeeded in doing only that. Gandhi could not expect everyone to be a Gandhi, but he did expect. In the administration of the country, it is just not possible to adopt Gandhian ideals in everything. You can as well ask a butcher to practice ahimsa in his profession.

Instead of Nehru, had Patel been made prime minister, how would it have been different for India?

There would have been greater discipline. After Independence, we lost sight of our duties and started remembering only our rights. With the Sardar at the helm of affairs, we would have been constantly reminded of our duties and it would have given character to the nation.

The Mahatma felt the Congress should have been disbanded after Independence. Do you agree?

I disagree with what Gandhi said. Had the Congress been disbanded after Independence, there would have been at least three parties, one led by Nehru, one led by Patel and another led by Kripalani. Lohia and others. What is happening today might have started then itself. It would have been a difficult situation to manage soon after Independence. The nation would not have been able to put up with chaotic politics so soon after becoming free. Now it is different. We have been made immune to chaos in politics, because we have been administered with it, in small doses, through the years.

Rajiv Gandhi Do you think dynastic rule did a lot more damage to the country than anything else, especially the reign of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi?

As far as Mrs Gandhi was concerned, she did a lot of damage, definitely to the polity of the country. In fact, it was she who weakened the Congress. She could get votes with sheer charisma. But she was not prepared to tolerate leaders of stature in any state.

That is why she saw to it that Kamaraj in Tamil Nadu, Nijalingappa in Karnataka, Sanjeeva Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, S K Patil in Maharashtra, every one of them was relegated, and the Congress lost many stalwarts because of that. And every state unit became totally subservient to the Centre.

The Congress leader of every state was seen as a peon of the Centre, whereas the leader of the local regional party was seen as a master. He shone brilliantly as against the Congress leader. That is why regional parties started flourishing in this country. That was a disservice done by Mrs Gandhi.

She allowed free rein to the corrupt. But she was able to provide a determined leadership to the country. In Punjab, it is my belief that she encouraged Bhindranwale in the initial stages to embarrass the Janata Party. That is another disservice to the nation. As far as the Sri Lankan problem is concerned, even today we have remnants of the problem created by Mrs Gandhi. She started funding and training the Tigers.

Due to her charisma, she was acceptable to all sections of society, all parts of the country. Unfortunately, her style was followed by her successors who did not have charisma and mass appeal, and that led to the decline of the Congress.

Indira Gandhi During his reign, Rajiv was not very brilliant. When he was out of power, he was a changed man. If he had not been killed and had come back to power, I think he would have had a good stint as prime minister. It would have been good if he had become prime minister instead of Narasimha Rao. But the Tigers thought otherwise.

Do you agree with the view that at least one good thing Rao did was that he put an end to dynastic rule? Indians had started believing that only someone from the Nehru family could rule them.

What is the big deal in that? Rao's government became totally corrupt.

Congressmen once again are going back to the Nehru family. They are after Sonia Gandhi now that Rao is out. Do you think they feel that only she can lead the Congress?

They think the Congress can become united again only under Mrs Gandhi. I don't think they have the confidence that she would get a mandate from the people. But it is their conviction that she would get a mandate from Congressmen. I think they would like to have Sonia Gandhi to lead the Congress, and allow somebody else to become the prime minister.

Will anything of that sort happen?

She seems to be very hesitant about entering direct politics.

Do you think Indians will listen to and worship only someone from the Nehru family?

P V Narasimha Rao Indians have been worshipping a Laloo Prasad Yadav, a Karunanidhi, an N T Rama Rao, an MGR, a Charan Singh, a Jayalalitha and a Devi Lal. Indira Gandhi was never worshipped like that. Why do you say that they always worship a Nehru or a Gandhi? An Andhra Pradesh was able to vote against Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. A West Bengal has been consistently voting against them. A Kerala has been doing it now and then. So, how do you say that Indians worship only that family?

The fact is that because of the Nehru legacy, because of the fact that we have not had a taller leader after him who could outshine him in his appeal to the people, there is a certain attachment to the family. But I don't say that Indians would not accept a leader who is not from the Nehru family. I don't accept the theory.

Do you agree with the view that a country called India was born only because of the British, and if were not for them we would have remained as small princely states?

Yes, it would have been true administratively and politically. But culturally we were one nation even before the British came here. The Mahabharata speaks of the participation of the Chola and the Pandya kings, and there is a Chera king who is reputed to have fed both the armies (Pandava and Kaurava armies). So, I don't think it was an act of kindness on the part of the British to have brought us together. We were one nation, but not administratively.

We talk in different languages.

Yes, we speak different languages, but we celebrate the same festivals. We speak different languages, but we utter the same prayers. We speak different languages, but have the same values.

We have problems in many parts of India -- the North-East, Punjab, Kashmir. People are agitating for a separate Gorkhaland, Uttarakhand, Vidarbha, etc. In spite of all this, do you think India will remain together?

India will remain one only if national leadership of substance emerges. That is what is wanting. We don't have a real national leadership. There must be individuals in every party who would appeal to all parts of the country. We now have only regional leaders.

A Karunanidhi will appeal to the Tamilians. A Chandrababu Naidu or Lakshmi Sivaparvati may appeal to the Telugus. A Bangarappa, to the Karnataka people. A Deve Gowda still is interested only in Karnataka. Laloo Prasad's territory is limited to Bihar. There is no national leadership. A Kamaraj, though he couldn't speak Hindi or was not fluent in English, could vibe well with people of all states. A Rajaji could do it from Tamil Nadu.

Cho Ramaswamy's photographs: Jewella C Miranda