Eminent historian and one of India’s most respected public intellectuals, Dr. Ramachandra Guha is the deeply knowledgeable biographer of Mahatma Gandhi on whom he has written two heavily researched and eminently readable biographies — Gandhi Before India (2013), and its sequel Gandhi: Years that Changed the World 1914-48 (2018). Prior to that, he wrote the most authoritative and readable history of post-independence India titled India after Gandhi (2007). Excerpts from an interview with Dilip Thakore.
After independence, Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings and vision of a free, independent India were quickly forgotten…
First of all, I want to say that Gandhi fascinates me as a historian and a biographer. I am not a Gandhian or an unqualified admirer of Gandhi. I believe Gandhi is significant for the movements he led, for the debates he initiated and for his moral courage. But he was not always right. For example, on the question of caste, Ambedkar was more perceptive than him. On the question of gender equality, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was arguably more forward than him. On the question of nationalism and internationalism, Tagore had better insights than Gandhi.
As to your question — what of Gandhi remains today, I would like to invoke an image used by Gandhi in 1922, around the time of the non-cooperation movement. He said, when swaraj comes, it should be a sturdy bed with four robust pillars — non-violence, Hindu-Muslim harmony, abolition of untouchability and the promotion of khadi. By these, he meant that in free India, Indians must settle their debates non-violently. Next, Hindu-Muslim harmony was crucial to Gandhi’s vision of India. The third pillar: abolition of untouchability including gender discrimination because Gandhi was also committed to emancipation of women. And with the promotion of khadi, he had generation of employment, elimination of poverty, dignity of labour in mind.
These four ideals are still important, and we must honour them. Of the four, I would say, the one that is most under threat today is Hindu-Muslim harmony. Majoritarianism has endangered Gandhi’s vision of India. But there are other challenges such as environmental degradation, abusive language on social media that Gandhi would have deplored.
You are also an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister. But in recent years there’s been a reassessment of Nehru. In the critical 1946 AICC election for presidency of the Congress which would determine the first prime minister of independent India, Nehru didn’t get a single vote which went overwhelmingly in favour of Sardar Patel. Yet Nehru persuaded Gandhiji to request Patel to withdraw his nomination. Moreover, after independence Nehru imposed the inorganic Soviet-inspired socialist economic development model on the nation which has led India to socio-economic ruin. What’s your comment?
These are extreme statements. Both of them. In fact, the first has no basis. It was not an AICC meeting, but a meeting of the Congress Working Committee. This is a very important issue that Whatsapp University has distorted. Let me explain why Nehru was chosen free India’s first prime minister.
From the 1930s, Nehru was regarded as next to Gandhi in popularity. When the 1937 elections were held under the Government of India Act, 1935 and when Congress was swept to power in seven out of nine states, it was largely because of Nehru’s campaigning. He was the Bradman of the Congress. Patel was a backroom, brilliant organiser and strategist but with no charisma or appeal. Moreover, Gandhi chose Nehru as the successor because he was the least parochial of the younger generation of Congressmen. Patel was seen as a Gujarati Hindu. Rajagopalachari a Tamil Brahmin. Nehru was trusted by Muslims, admired in south India and totally committed to gender equality, a north Indian who could reach people in the South. So Gandhi said he should be the leader of the first independent government of India.
In 1946, when the question of the presidency came up, the CWC voted for Patel. If the votes of the AICC had been taken, of 1,200 people, at least 800 would have voted for Nehru. If the vote of the entire Congress membership had been taken, Nehru would have won 90 percent. The CWC vote was not democratic at all. That was a vote of secretaries loyal to Patel. It is Patel’s greatness that he recognised this. Patel knew that Nehru was more popular, and he loyally served under him for 3.5 years.
Now coming to Nehru himself, he had enormous achievements and enormous failures. Contrary to those who think that the Soviet model of economics was his greatest failure, I believe his greatest failure — and this is relevant to your magazine — was to ignore primary education. He didn’t recognise that in a true democracy the first priority should be to remove illiteracy.
Nehru’s second failure was that as long as Patel was with him, he was an excellent prime minister. But when Patel died in 1950, and C. Rajagopalachari left the Union cabinet to become the chief minister of Madras, Nehru didn’t have equals with him in government and he became somewhat distant and arrogant and began to see himself as indispensable. Moreover, he stayed on too long in office. After ten years as prime minister, he should have retired. That’s a question that will face Narendra Modi in a few years’ time.
In sum, Nehru’s two great failures were the lack of emphasis on primary education, and his fantasy that he was indispensable to the nation. But against these two failures are some absolutely remarkable achievements. He was in many ways the person who united India after the wounds of partition and for that, we must be grateful
Immediately after independence, India’s several brilliant businessmen including G.D. Birla, J.R.D. Tata, Walchand Hirachand who had funded the freedom movement and established heavyweight conglomerates in the teeth of British opposition, were poised to conquer Asian and perhaps European markets. But they were suppressed by Nehruvian licence-permit-quota raj which favoured the promotion of huge public sector enterprises. These perpetually loss-making PSEs siphoned away national savings. To what extent, if any, do you agree?
The Bombay Plan of 1946, presented to the government by industry leaders, clearly endorsed a mixed economy. The received economic wisdom of the time, also accepted in Japan and Germany, not just the Soviet Union, was that infant industry needed state support. Later, Taiwan and South Korea adopted this model. In the 1940s, when the first Planning Commission was set up, 24 top economists of the country were consulted about Central planning for the first five years. All of them except B.R. Shenoy approved. By the late 1950s when Rajaji left the Congress and founded the Swatantra Party and coined the phrase licence-permit-quota raj, we should have begun liberalising and deregulating the economy.
But in the failure to do so, the greatest sinner was Indira Gandhi who went the other way and nationalised banks, coal and other industries in the early 1970s. At the time, eminent economists including Jagdish Bhagawati and Padma Desai had argued for outward-looking economic policies with industry and trade liberalisation and shedding export pessimism. In Nehru’s early years, the consensus was in favour of a mixed economy and Rajaji and B.R. Shenoy were visionaries who went against the grain.
Parachuted into the leadership of the Congress party himself, Nehru repeated the precedent by engineering the appointment of his daughter Indira Gandhi as president of the party in 1957. Thus he planted the seeds of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which persisted with neta-babu socialism that corrupted and destroyed the country’s institutions of governance. What’s your comment?
This is totally false. True, Indira Gandhi was appointed president of the Congress. But soon after, she retreated into private life and Nehru had no desire or hope that she would ever become prime minister. In 1964, a few months before Nehru died, Indira Gandhi wanted to move to London because both her children were studying there. There’s a lot of fake news, misinformation about Nehru and Patel and about Nehru and Indira. The story of Nehru is a reversal of the biblical injunction which says the sins of fathers are visited on their children. In Nehru’s case, the sins of seven successive generations of children have been retrospectively visited on him.
All the sins of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and the incompetence of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and now Priyanka Gandhi, are happily attributed to Nehru. Only when all these Nehru-Gandhis retire that we will be able to objectively assess the contributions Nehru made to India. I believe that Nehru would have been appalled that Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are running the Congress today. He loved his daughter Indira but he was very clear he wanted Shastri to succeed him. Tragically, Shastri died 18 months later. If he had lived a few more years, India would have been a very different country. As in the case of Gandhi, I recognise Nehru’s colossal achievements, but his substantial failures as well.
To what extent do you agree that quality education for all is the magic bullet for the country’s problems?
Education cannot be the responsibility of the State alone. Society has to agree to encourage education for all. It shouldn’t tolerate citizens who don’t want women or young girls to go to school and don’t like women in the workforce. So education or lack of it, is as much a social problem as a policy issue. For example, Hindus confronted untouchability because Gandhi told them it is immoral. He told the public that it has to condemn untouchability and allow Dalits into temples. Gandhi and Ambedkar didn’t say the government would fight for Dalits’ rights. We have to acknowledge there’s something deeply flawed in our society that we don’t whole-heartedly support universal primary education and social reform. I believe we are regressing as a society and we have ourselves to blame as much or more than politicians.
What should be the Central government’s Top 5 priorities to double the annual GDP growth rate and transform 21st century India into a middle class country?
One is to totally abandon majoritarianism. Second, give up the cult of personality built around Modi. Running a government requires collective teamwork. Prime minister Modi would do well to learn from Gandhi, how he built a great team — Azad, Patel, Kamaladevi, Nehru. Three, respect federalism and refrain from always trying to destabilise state governments ruled by opposition parties. It’s not advisable to govern a large and complex country with this type of adversarial attitude towards state governments ruled by other parties. The fourth priority is that the Central government should exhibit greater understanding of neighbouring countries, one of the greatest failures of the Modi government. We have antagonised Bangladesh, Nepal, we have even lost Bhutan, the countries that had close ties with us. We have lost them to China because of our arrogant, overbearing attitude, towards smaller neighbours.
I believe that socially, politically and economically the BJP/NDA government has made a series of major blunders they cannot walk back. Because of prime minister Modi’s arrogance and pride and refusal to ever admit his mistakes, I believe we are in for bad times.
This is an abridged version of a 50-minute interview with Dr. Guha. For full video interview visit https://www.educationworld.in/educationworld-interview-with-dr-ramachandra-guha/