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The MP who gave the best speech on the JNU row

By Anjali Puri
March 05, 2016 10:42 IST
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'It is extremely important to take back the domain of both religion from the religious bigots and nationalism from the chauvinists, who are spreading hatred.'

Sugata Bose, the Harvard historian-turned-MP, who is Netaji's great-nephew, tells Anjali Puri why it is imperative to speak up for India's students.

Harvard Professor Sugata Bose, who is also a Trinamool Congress MPSugata Bose surprises me by emerging, on time, from behind the wheel of a bright blue Honda sedan.

As we enter Tres, a bistro in a sleepy street on the fringes of Lutyens Delhi, the Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha member from West Bengal, also a history professor on leave from Harvard University, explains that he likes to try and drive himself.

When he refuses wine, and I ask if he is being a circumspect Indian politician, he looks astonished and says, "Not at all, I enjoy good wine but I usually have it in the evenings rather than in the middle of the day."

Such atypical political behaviour would have made me feel well-disposed towards my guest, even if he had not delivered that especially luminous speech during the debate in the Lok Sabha last week on Rohith Vemula's suicide and the police action on students of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Bose's articulation of a nationalism that respects freedom and his powerful critique of the ruling party's 'narrow, selfish and arrogant' nationalism was scholarly and elegant, as you might expect. But his speech was also passionate and lyrical, radiating empathy for students painted as anti-nationals.

It quickly made the rounds on social media, wryly described by some as 'the thinking person's alternative' to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani's soap-operatic defence of the government's position, and as the speech the Congress forgot to make.

It won Bose admiration even among those who wonder what the good professor is doing in a party often accused of harbouring roughnecks with a taste for extortion, hooliganism and attacks on academia. Several national newspapers played it up.

Allowing himself to look a little dazzled by his blossoming Internet life, Bose narrates "a wonderful vignette" from his Harvard history department colleague Emma Rothschild (Amartya Sen's spouse). "She went out into the cold rain in Harvard Square to get a taxi, and got into the first one in the rank, and what was the driver, from our part of the world, doing," he asks, laughing softly. "He was listening to my speech on YouTube."

Bose's previous speeches, beginning with his maiden one, have been noticed, too. Why does he think he makes an impact, gets to speak with few interruptions and garners bipartisan praise? "I don't know..." he says, "but let me speculate a little. I speak with conviction, I don't take a line I don't believe in, I typically speak without rancour. I don't pull my punches but I don't personalise. I don't raise my voice even though I speak forcefully."

One politician clearly unimpressed, though, by the Bose way is Irani, who has bristled more than once at his dissection, in his refined Bengali bhadralok accent, of her ministry's performance.

This, even though, says the Cambridge-educated professor looking wounded, "I have never commented on her educational qualifications." In her reply to the JNU debate, Irani even singled out a controversial book on Bangladesh by the MP's sister, Sarmila Bose. "I think it was very sad," Bose says shortly, "especially for a woman minister, to drag in my sister to attack me."

Bose cooks. In fact, he sometimes spends hours in the kitchen, trying his hand at Bengali, north Indian and South East Asian dishes. I think I might have picked the wrong restaurant when he praises SodaBottleOpenerWala, a lively Parsi food place in Khan Market. Scanning Tres' menu, Bose orders a beetroot salad. Asserting, as he puts it, his Bengali identity, he follows it up with crispy fish with mustard sauce.

I summarise what I've read, that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wanted him to contest the general election from Jadavpur, his mother's former constituency, and he agreed because he wanted to be part of the battle 'for the soul of India.' "I kept saying no," he adds, "and then got arm-twisted by her in March 2014."

"For all the rhetoric about development and the economy, I feared the forces of religious majoritarianism would do exactly what they are now doing."

When I allude to some less-than-pessimistic commentaries on Narendra Modi before the elections, he takes a well-mannered swipe at them with a faint smile: "Many of our liberal intellectuals made the mistake of not recognising the threat that would be posed by this formation being in power."

I ask him what he thinks about a recent piece by fellow historian Ramachandra Guha warning against misleading analogies with late 1930s Germany or the Emergency, and arguing, among other things, that unlike Hitler or Indira Gandhi, 'Modi is a very weak leader indeed.'

Bose has read the piece and while he agrees there are "no exact analogies," he does not believe Modi is weak. "He may have some differences with the RSS (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) -- for instance, on the running of the economy -- but the leader and the formation are basically one. He is well ensconced in the organisational and ideological framework."

Even after having had his say in Parliament, Bose has much to add, and in a discernibly troubled way, about the "denial of equal citizenship" to students from marginalised backgrounds. "There was neglect before," he says, "but today there is a direct onslaught by State forces, which is worse than neglect."

Several major scholars have written to him in recent days, he reveals, and a "huge number of unknown students, just to say thank you for speaking for us."

A theme Bose turns to often is that the secular intelligentsia "needs to rethink its conception of secularism" and "target religious majoritarianism, rather than religion as such."

He takes some trouble to explain why he chose to declare, in Parliament, that he is a nationalist, something he might not do in a Harvard classroom (even though he does believe in a self-critical nationalism). "It is extremely important," he stresses, "to take back the domain of both religion from the religious bigots and nationalism from the chauvinists, who are spreading hatred."

While our conversation has progressed, our meal has not. Over an hour into it, the fish is yet to arrive. I fear Bose is getting restive. He has already told me that he finds the interminable delays in Parliament frustrating, because he keeps himself on a tight leash. When not in Parliament or his constituency, he is at Harvard, attending to his PhD students.

"I need to be in the Harvard library to get my sanity back," he says. His partner, the Pakistan-born American historian Ayesha Jalal teaches at nearby Tufts University. And oh yes, he mentions, he is writing an economic history of Asia, and is the general editor of The Cambridge History of the Indian Ocean.

As waiters drift in and out, avoiding eye contact, I wish momentarily that Bose would be a typical politician and throw his weight around. However, he merely frowns, and murmurs that he is needed in Parliament.

Will he continue with electoral politics? "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," says the 59-year-old MP, "but continuing to be a historian and teacher is very important to me; it is my primary identity. But I will always be involved in public life in India, even if only as a public intellectual."

Finally, the fish arrives, and since Bose seems to be enjoying it, I pop my last question: What is a nice man like him doing in a party like the Trinamool Congress?

He doesn't pretend not to understand the reference to its unsavoury side, but says that he has known Banerjee for more than three decades, and praises her development work. No political party is free of blemishes, he points out.

"You know," he says finally, "it would be a huge mistake if we didn't recognise that the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, with their ideological rigidity and organisational muscle, pose a threat of a completely different order to our democratic polity."

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