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A HABIT OF UNPOPULARITY

- Sycophants saffron and white
politics and play

They say a writer is known by the enemies he makes. Earlier this week, I was alerted to an attack on me posted on the website of the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. “Ramachandra Guha’s impotent anger,” claimed Modi’s website, “is typical of a snobbish but vacuous intellectual who simply cannot tolerate a person from humble background attaining greatness by the dint of his own hard work, learning and persistence. But Ramachandra Guha, after more than 40 years of Dynasty history writing remains where he is while Narendra Modi has continues [sic]to scale up. Which is why Modi can speak about and implement well-considered policies on topics as diverse as governance, economy, environment, industry, infrastructure, solar energy, IT, and tourism while Guha is simply unable to look beyond the walls of 10 Janpath.” (http://www.narendramodi.in/the-will-of-the-people-always-triumphs/ accessed July 9, 2012.)

This paragraph contains a series of innuendos, half-truths, and outright falsehoods. To begin with the most elementary error, my CV as it appears on Modi’s website exaggerates my professional longevity. I have been a historian for a mere 25 years, and a political historian for only the last 10 of those years.

More importantly, Modi’s website names as my friends people I have not been in the same room with, and who, if they were to read my writings, would very likely consider me their enemy. I have never entered 10, Janpath, nor met any of its occupants. On the other hand, in books and essays written over the years, I have often criticized the public role of the Congress’s First Family. I have deplored the conversion by Indira Gandhi of a countrywide party with vigorous state and district units into an extension of herself. I have written of how the first Mrs Gandhi destroyed public institutions by encouraging politicians to appoint officials on the basis of personal loyalty rather than competence or integrity. I have turned a critical lens on Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership as well, showing how his pandering to Muslim and Hindu chauvinists helped catalyze two decades of civil conflict.

More recently, I have written of how the second Mrs Gandhi has extended the culture of sycophancy in party and government, and of how she has encouraged large sums of public money to be spent (or wasted) on advertisements and memorials to Rajiv and Indira Gandhi.

I have, in the past decade, written many newspaper columns detailing the damaging effects on politics and public life of the culture of sycophancy and dynastic rule introduced by Indira Gandhi and carried on by her successors. In the same period, I have also written several articles on Narendra Modi’s handling (or mishandling) of the 2002 riots and their aftermath, as well as one column on an architectural monstrosity that Modi has commissioned in Mahatma Gandhi’s name.

Modi’s website managers may claim not to know of my correct attitude to the Congress’s First Family. On the other hand, the First Family’s courtiers know it well, and have duly conveyed it to their masters. In 2008 and 2009, I was involved in a campaign to restore the character of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a superb, professionally run repository of manuscripts and old records, at that time in the control of a cabal that disregarded both institutional norms and intellectual work. To protect itself, the cabal that then ran the NMML promoted the glorification of the First Family, plastering photographs and sayings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi all over the campus and turning over the Library’s seminar room to Rahul Gandhi and his Youth Congress.

The campaign I was part of — and in which India’s finest historians, sociologists, and political scientists participated — sought to free the NMML from self-serving sycophants and return it to the control of professional and independent-minded historians. Seeking to undermine the campaign, the cabal that then ran the NMML sent the prime minister and his party president an account of how, in my book, India after Gandhi, I had documented the striking parallels between the pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and that against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. I had written of how the mobs in both cases were directed by ruling party politicians, and how the person in charge of the administration (Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi respectively) had each issued graceless statements justifying the violence. Then I added: “The final similarity is the most telling, as well as perhaps the most depressing. Both parties, and leaders, reaped electoral rewards from the violence they had legitimized and overseen.”

Calling attention to these remarks, the Congress sycophants wrote to Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi: “Rajiv Gandhi is thus accused [by Guha] of having not only legitimized the violence [by his graceless statement] but ‘overseen’ it, meaning ‘supervising’ it. Even the worst critics of Rajiv Gandhi have never made this accusation ….”

Those who wrote the letter knew that if there is one politician Sonia Gandhi dislikes, it is Narendra Modi. As a historian I would stand by every word I wrote, but from the point of view of the Family’s courtiers, to compare their beloved and adored Rajivji with Modi was to place oneself beyond the pale altogether.

Truth be told, readers of this column are probably weary of my regular criticisms of the First Family of the Congress. Why then would Modi’s website managers so grossly misrepresent my views and affiliations in this regard? Here are three possible reasons:

First, innuendo and falsehood are rife on the Web, where there are no self-regulating mechanisms to check for factual errors whether wilful or accidental.

Second, extremist ideologues cannot think in other than black-and-white. They believe that critics of their ideology or political practice must necessarily be accomplices or mouthpieces of their political adversaries. Since I have consistently stood against Hindutva and religious sectarianism, and on occasion found fault with Modi’s policies as well, acolytes of the Gujarat chief minister assume that I am a camp follower of the Congress and of its current leadership.

Third, although I have reservations about the political styles of Indira, Rajiv, and Sonia Gandhi, I am, on the whole, an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru. Historians must rigorously separate Nehru’s legacy from that of his descendants — not least because Nehru himself had no hope or desire that his daughter would succeed him as prime minister. What we call the ‘Dynasty’ is entirely Indira Gandhi’s doing. This distinction is glossed over by the Hindutvawadis, who assume that a writer who has sometimes written in praise of Nehru must be a habitual visitor to 10, Janpath.

In my view, the greatest Indians of the 20th century were Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, followed, at a short distance, by a quintet whose members were Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. These visionaries laid the foundations of a multi-party political system, promoted linguistic and religious pluralism, fought caste and gender hierarchies, and in other ways helped make India’s transition to nationhood and democracy somewhat less painful and bloody than it would otherwise have been.

The distance between Jawaharlal Nehru and Sonia Gandhi is colossal. So is the distance between Mahatma Gandhi and Narendra Modi. By making these points in print I have made myself unpopular with the courtiers of the Congress president and, it now appears, with the courtiers of the Gujarat chief minister as well.