Ramachandra Guha Unbound: What makes him an intellectual rock star?

By John Cheeran

Reading and listening to Ramachandra Guha, both, are profitable exercises. India’s most read historian comes across as a lively, thought-provoking intellectual who remains independent and free of dogma and keeps away from fractious discourse and retains a huge sense of civility.

Guha has written the second and final volume of Mahatma Gandhi’s biography, which Cambridge University political scientist David Runciman has described as an ‘epic’ effort.

I have only begun reading Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World (Published by Penguin Random House India) and reached till 1935 by which time Gandhi, who had believed in gender equality, (says Guha) had made Sarojini Naidu the first Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress. Despite listening to Talking Politics podcast where Runciman and Guha discussed Gandhi, another opportunity to listen to Guha could not be missed out.

Guha was in Hyderabad on November 1, Thursday, discussing Gandhi in a far from Gandhian setting at Taj Krishna. But these are little things you learn to look past when it comes to looking questioningly at our history as well as the present. Guha was taking part in the Off The Cuff organized by the Print, a digital media venture by Shekhar Gupta, former editor of The Indian Express, and Manthan, a platform for public discourse in Hyderabad.

Guha has repeatedly said in recent times that his biography of Gandhi does not depend on the Collected Works of Gandhi but is a result of a deep dive into a wider, global archive on Gandhi and Gandhiana.

In Hyderabad, Guha said Gandhi was a man evolving a man all the time, “I make no hobgoblin of consistency” as Gandhi himself famously said, and cautioned us against people quoting Gandhi out of context all the time.

You cannot discuss Gandhi in isolation–contemporary as well as past events jostle to grab one’s attention. You cannot discuss Gandhi these days without discussing Narendra Modi and Vallabhbai Patel. In fact, as the Off The Cuff got off, Gandhi even took a back seat for a while.

Guha, who has just returned from a visit to the US, said the fate of Buddha awaits Gandhi—a man forgotten in his own land but venerated by the rest of the world. Anyone can abuse Gandhi, because he has not built any constituency. You cannot criticize Subhash Chandra Bose, Shivaji, or Ambedkar, for that matter.

The first question that Guha fielded from the audience was reflective of our times. A young man wanted to know whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a married man or not. As a historian you should know the truth, said the questioner. This, at a venue to discuss Gandhi!

Guha, a trenchant critic of BJP and Modi, said, in this case, his sympathies are with the PM. He said Modi was married at a very young age and added that we should leave out people’s personal lives out of the political question.

Guha is an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru but at the same time he has pointed out that the other Gandhis have taken the Congress almost to extinction, including Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

Guha reminded everyone that the greatest virtue of Gandhi was that he stood for diversity—in his India every religious community has its place. Gandhi laid a great deal of importance for the Hindu-Muslim amity and upliftment of the untouchables.

Guha said in today’s India, unlike Gandhi’s time where only the immediate years of the Partition had kept Muslims in great distress, the minorities are a besieged lot. And Guha said he finds the RSS’s hatred for Christians far fiercer than what it reserves for Muslims in recent times. It is a huge surprise, said Guha.

The historian then took a dig at the current political leadership, across the spectrum, how leaders have failed to groom the next generation and said Gandhi made leaders out of his followers—and gave examples of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, etc.

And, then, the statue walked in. Gandhi chose Nehru as his successor over Patel because Nehru was the least parochial among the next-in line leaders, said Guha. Another reason was that Nehru was younger to Patel by 15 years, and Patel was ailing. And Nehru was the most popular of the Congress leaders, other than Gandhi. The master raconteur that he is, Guha then recalled an instance of Patel telling others that the crowd had come not to see him but Jawahar.

Guha does not see much merit in the counterfactual question of what if Patel had become India’s first Prime Minister instead of Nehru. In his opinion, Nehru should have stepped down in 1958, something that the PM had pondered after his visit to Kashmir, paving way for another leader.

Guha says if Lal Bahadur Shastri, India’s second prime minister, had lived longer, the course of politics in India would have turned out differently–with Rajiv Gandhi still enjoying his Indian Airlines pension. Guha reminded the audience that it was Shastri who coined the famous slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’, during the 1965 war against Pakistan, a hint into the man’s leadership skills. Yes, everyone has his or her pet theories, so one should allow Guha his.

Guha said there is an atmosphere of fear in the country now: mob lynchings, ghar vapsi, food politics, urban Naxals, and, in general, the majoritarian ascendancy that has forced even Guha himself to turn down a faculty position in Ahmedabad University’s Gandhian Studies department after ABVP threatened to create a ruckus over his appointment. Strangely, Guha did not comment on his decision not to take up the position, especially on a day when he tweeted about it a few hours earlier.

He recalled that Narendra Modi had come to power in 2014 with the enormous goodwill of the middle class and amid a climate of hope. “In 2014, Modi fought the elections on the plank of hope, in 2019, he will campaign stoking fear,” said Guha.

He then recalled how one of the major entrepreneurs in India, based in Bangalore, told him that how Modi has frittered away the enormous goodwill he had enjoyed while coming to power.

Then there was this question from a young man, who appeared to be a student. Didn’t Gandhi professing Ram Rajya lead to the rise of the Hindu right, he asked. Guha said Gandhi’s Ram Rajya did not discriminate and even that simile he used very sparingly. Guha added that Modi can be beaten without Congress and Rahul playing the Hindu card and temple hopping. “Modi can be defeated purely in terms of lack of jobs, economy and development and unfulfilled promises,” said Guha.

Guha said public intellectuals and scientists and all those who want to contribute to society should be far away from Delhi so that they can stay away from meetings, inaugurations and sundry social visits and focus on their key tasks. He is able to do good work since he is far away from Delhi, says Guha, recalling that scientists in Pune had told him that they are doing some good work because they are away from Delhi and their tribe in Bangalore are doing better work because they are far removed from India’s political theatre.

Being a Bangalorean, Guha can easily appreciate the virtues of being a south Indian. In fact, he said the south would save India from the north and keep it united and progressive. He recalled efforts of a Karnataka minister to empower villages when Ramakrishna Hegde was the chief minister. Rural Kannadigas remember minister Abdul Nazeer with gratitude for bringing water to them in an exemplary mode of decentralization of power. People used to call Abdul Nazeer, Abdul Neer saab. He added that except in Kerala nowhere else villages have been empowered as part of decentralization of power.  Guha also recalled how in 1989 Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav wrote to his Kerala counterpart E K Nayanar in Hindi and getting the reply in Malayalam. Such are the virtues of being in south India.

What makes Guha a rock star among historians? It is his ability to communicate, in speech or writing, a rare quality that even the best among our politicians lacks. And he has this endearing talent to admit where he has gone wrong. When a lady among the audience reminded him of his writing that Nitish Kumar should take over the leadership of Congress, Guha chuckled and admitted he made a mistake in pinning hopes on the Bihari leader. “I am no Virat Kohli, I make mistakes,” said Guha while I was afraid that how many of his readers would have recalled his critique of the dictatorial but run-conquering Indian captain.

That apart, Guha is a purveyor of popular culture, especially cricket. Many would not know his works on the environment but there is a huge readership for his cricket writing, starting with that delightful collection of profiles, Wickets In The East. For him going to any place in India or elsewhere in the world, would be going to a favourite cricketer’s hometown. Yes, Hyderabad is dear to him because of M L Jaisimha and Abid Ali. How did he forget VVS Laxman and Mohammad Azharuddin?

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