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Where Are Right-Wing Intellectuals in BJP’s ‘Ram Rajya’, Asks Guha

Ramachandra Guha’s latest book, ‘Democrats and Dissenters’ makes for a compelling read, writes Nikhil Inamdar.

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Ramachandra Guha’s latest collection of essays, Democrats And Dissenters, begins with an obituary and ends with a lament.

“It is very unlikely, if not impossible, that the Congress can ever become the dominant pole of Indian politics again,” asserts Guha in The Long Life and Lingering Death of the Indian National Congress, the first of sixteen chapters that populate this book, a fourth in the series by the author that have explored the “creation and subsequent career of the Republic of India”.

But future historians shall record that while it lived and before it died, the Indian National Congress helped make India a less divided, less violent, less hierarchical, less patriarchal, less intolerant, less unequal and less unfree society than it might have otherwise been.
Ramachandra Guha in Democrats and Dissenters

This generous assessment by the historian, whose writings have over time evidenced that his affiliations lie avowedly to liberalism and not to political parties, is by no means an endorsement. Guha piercingly tears into the terminal and continuing decline of the Congress in the first 22 pages, documenting both the erosion in the quality of its top leadership, and the gradual electoral emaciation over time from a hegemonic first 20 years to ceding such vast ground as a result of the moral degradation, that it has had to sit at the opposition benches as India approaches 70.

Yet, in an age where it has become fashionable to hate the secular credentials of the party and some of its towering leaders, there are important reminders in Guha's first chapter of why the Congress deserves more credit than it has got thus far for laying the foundations of a new democratic republic, in what were possibly the most trying of circumstances.

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  Ramachandra Guha’s latest book, ‘Democrats and Dissenters’ makes for a compelling read, writes Nikhil Inamdar.
(Infographic: Rhythum Seth/ The Quint)
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Range of Topics

Broken into two parts – ‘Politics and Society’ and ‘Ideologies and Intellectuals’ – Democrats And Dissenters might at the onset feel like variegated observations forcibly strung together into a book.

The chapters are wide in range, swinging in their concern from 'The Long Life and Lingering Death of the Indian National Congress' and 'Eight Threats to Freedom of Expression in India' to 'Tribal Tragedies in Independent India' and 'The Brilliance and Dogmatism of Eric Hobsbawm'.

But it is Guha's comparative lens and a constant preoccupation with liberalism (that illuminate the fascinating exchanges on democracy between Jayaprakash Narayan and Pt Jawaharlal Nehru in chapter 3) that thread these seemingly disparate topics cohesively.

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Part Travelogue, Part Analysis

In the second chapter, for instance, he gently exposes the hypocrisy of both the Left and the Right who profess to hate Macaulay for different reasons, but enthusiastically appropriate the penal code that he drafted to curb the freedom of expression.

In the three chapters on China, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, he juxtaposes the ideas of nationalism, dynasty and violence in the South Asian neighbourhood with the Indian experience on the above themes.

For instance, Guha compares the dynastic sycophancy that's marked the regime of the Gandhis with that of the Bhuttos. He draws parallels between Kashmir and LTTE to compare and contrast the major fault lines that have threatened the democratic 'hardware' of both the countries.

And in the chapter on China, the authoritarian political system of the country is pitted against the free democracy of India to discover surprising paradoxes on gender equality and nationalism. These essays are part travelogue, part analysis, but on no account a deep dive into the comparative politics of these societies. Which is a pity.

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  Ramachandra Guha’s latest book, ‘Democrats and Dissenters’ makes for a compelling read, writes Nikhil Inamdar.
(Infographic: Rhythum Seth/ The Quint)
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Tribals in Need of a Messiah

Guha, however resuscitates himself with an excellent chapter on the tribals who he studies from the prism of both an absolute and comparative invisibility in the political process.

When weighed up against the Dalits and the Muslims, the two other marginalised minorities in India who have been able to “channelise their grievances through constitutional means”, the concentration of tribals in a few isolated districts have left them with no means to have a decisive impact electorally.

"The Dalits have also been helped by the posthumous presence of Dr B.R. Ambedkar... the tribals on the other hand have never had a leader who could inspire admiration or even affectation across the boundaries of state and language," he writes, while pointedly blaming state policy for both failing to rescue, and working to impoverish them further.

The essay makes for poignant reading on the horrific costs imposed by India's developmental hunger on some of its oldest inhabitants.

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  Ramachandra Guha’s latest book, ‘Democrats and Dissenters’ makes for a compelling read, writes Nikhil Inamdar.
(Infographic: Rhythum Seth/ The Quint)
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Insight into the Work of Stalwarts

In the second part of the book, 'Ideologies and intellectuals', the attention shifts, a bit abruptly some might argue, from India to a sparkling array of the globe's most brilliant practitioners of humanities.

From the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and the polyglot Benedict Anderson, to the reticent but intrepid scholar of Buddhism Dharmanand Kosambi and India's leading sociologist Andre Beteille, the list also includes chapters on UR Ananthamurthy (perhaps the weakest of the lot), the feisty Dharma Kumar, as well as the reproduction of a rebuttal to Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian, which Guha first published in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Some of these are names that perhaps enjoy great celebrityhood in academic circles, but to a lay person, there is very little insight into the seminal work they’ve produced. It is to the author’s credit that he so vibrantly fleshes them out as characters through anecdotes and personal correspondence, giving the reader varied dimensions to ponder about.

Take for instance the e-mail correspondence he shares with Anderson where the man asks Guha to consider whether it was possible to think of Indian democracy as a by-product of partition.

It is a fascinating idea that's worth exploring further – the polity an undivided India would have inherited with 33 percent Muslims.

“Had there been no partition, would India have survived as a single nation state and/or as a democracy?” asks Guha. “The demographic balance would have been more delicate, and prone to being exploited by sectarians on either side.”

Thank god then, for Pakistan!

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Where Are the Right-Wing Intellectuals?

In an environment of endless binaries and ideological war-mongering after the elections of 2014, perhaps the chapter most relevant in today's context is the last one, ‘Where are the conservative intellectuals in India?’

Guha calls it “a paradox at the heart of Indian public life today: that while the country has a right-wing party in power, right-wing intellectuals run thinly on the ground”.

He persuasively argues that the revivalist tendencies of Hindu conservatism and the triumphalist disposition of its nationalism are “inimical to reflection and self-criticism” which in turn are “two crucial, even indispensable, elements of the intellectual's craft”.

At a time when Dinanath Batra and Y Sudershan Rao provide academic fodder to Indian history, the only social conservative who Guha concedes is also a serious intellectual is Arun Shourie, now estranged from his party.

It is imperative he says, that Indian conservatives detach themselves from the ideas of the RSS, because that is the only way a credible conservative intellectual tradition, practiced by the likes of C Rajagopalachari, will emerge in India.

Inconstant in its stylistic elements, the quality of language as well as the depth and rigour employed in some chapters, Democrats And Dissenters is nonetheless well worth a read. It offers a splendid overview of India's great democratic experiments.

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(Nikhil Inamdar is a freelance journalist, television anchor with NDTV and author of Rokda: How Baniyas Do Business : (Random House India). He can be reached @Nik_Inamdar. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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