Ramachandra Guha is one of our country’s foremost historians and is considered a proponent of liberal democratic politics. However, his recent presentation at the Kerala Literature Festival in Kozhikode provided a glimpse of his political prejudices than any great insights about the political and democratic crisis in India.
Guha’s assertion that Malayalis have made the “disastrous” choice of electing Rahul Gandhi made headlines in media across the country. The advice proffered by Ramachandra Guha to the people of Kerala was indeed out of place as well as not timely. It sends the wrong signal to many of us who otherwise appreciate Guha’s liberal voice. Unwittingly he seemed to have played into the hands of the right-wing media that tend to be a part of the new entrenched power-clique of crony capitalism and their authoritarian political dispensation. Within the present context of the country, facing larger challenges of looming fascism, his political comments are indeed out of place and out of time.
Apart from his tone and advice, what surprised many was his newfound enthusiasm to discover the ‘self-made’, ‘hard working’ credentials of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the present context, while millions of people in the country tend to think that they made a ‘disastrous choice’ of electing those who undermine the Constitution and the values of diversity and democracy, Guha seemed to be too preoccupied with Rahul Gandhi or for that matter the critique of parties.
Instead of doing a deeper analysis of the political context of caste-class dynamics and the rise of fascism in India, Guha seems to be shifting the blame on certain personalities or the Left political parties. What surprised many was his assertion that the Left political formations in India looked elsewhere for inspiration and their models come from elsewhere. While ideas, including universal adult franchise and electoral democracy, often emerged in one part of the world, they were adopted in almost all over the world.
Anyone who has studied the emergence of Left politics in Kerala also know that its origins are in the social reform movements in the state and within the socialist streams of the Indian National Congress in the 1930s and 1940s. There were many organic intellectuals of great calibre and they evolved a Left democratic politics within the larger subaltern political movements. Despite all other critiques, the fact of the matter is that the Left parties in Kerala are more home-grown social democratic parties rather than any imported political outfits.
Another core issue was that Guha seemed to collapse two completely different political ideologies and systems into the frame of two individual personalities. By shrinking the larger political dynamic into a comparison between two individuals, one tends to ignore the ideologies and systems that created them. Though India is going through one of its greatest challenges to democracy, in the context of the rise of fascist tendencies and crony capitalism, the inclination to reduce larger political dynamics as the dramatis personae of politics or thrusting the blame on the Left parties seems to be too simplistic an analysis of the rather complex political economic context of India.
Politics is most often a reflection of the society in which it operates. Society in India remains largely semi-feudal in terms of its social attitudes. One of the most defining characteristics of Indian society is the caste and class privileges that, to a large extent, determine social and economic mobility. These privileges often express themselves as those accrued through family lineage. Democracy in India continues to serve as a veneer over the underlying hegemony of its class-caste dynamics.
Every political party involved in electoral politics makes use of caste-creed-class-language equations in any given state. Almost all parties, with the exception of a few, use lineage as one of the factors to determine ascension to political power. Hence, it becomes important to locate the politics of lineage and privileges in India, a phenomenon that is not only seen in its legislature, but also prevalent in the judicial and executive branches, and its continued relevance in media and in business. Guha with his Doon School-St Stephens-IIM pedigree and his privileged caste-class location is also part of the very power lineage he questions.
Narendra Modi grew politically due to his entrenched affiliation with the RSS and its electoral arm, the BJP. The organisation, rooted deeply in the Brahmanism that flows from the Manusmriti, is, in many ways, directly responsible for nurturing Modi and facilitating his leadership. It is loyalty to this organisation rather than his own genius or academic brilliance to which he owes his political power. The organisation and an affiliated group of friendly businessmen have successfully manufactured Modi’s pauper to prince image. So the notion that Modi is a ‘hardworking, self-made’ man is a total fallacy.
What matters in the end, however, is the political ideologies that these individuals represent and it is here that Guha, questions the electoral wisdom of the people of Kerala. Narendra Modi represents the ideology of RSS and his politics is rooted in a politics of exclusion derived from its Brahminical Hindutva convictions. Despite all the political baggage of a ruling dispensation and family privileges, the fact of the matter is that Rahul Gandhi espouses the ideology of accommodative politics of the Congress, based on the values of diversity, pluralism and constitutional values. The fact remains that beyond the personalities involved, the educated people of Kerala are most certainly capable of making the distinction between two entirely different kinds of politics. People elected Rahul Gandhi with a thumping majority precisely because of the values and principles he espouses in democratic politics. As a state, Kerala chose to entirely reject the politics of exclusion and communalism, and made this choice crystal clear by electing 20 members committed to core values of the Constitution and social democratic politics.
Given a chance the people of Kerala will again choose the politics of inclusion over that of exclusion. As an empowered citizenry, the people of Kerala are fully aware of the nuances of casting their vote. Political comments based more on appreciation or antipathy towards certain leaders do not do justice to the sociological and political economy context of India, based on caste-class lineages and privileges to a large extent still, entrenched in a society of semi-feudal mindset everywhere.
JS Adoor is a former Senior official of United Nations, focusing on democratic governance. He is also the convenor of Asia Democracy Network