By Pratap Bhanu Mehta
There may be growing discontent with the Narendra Modi government. The Opposition is still far from fully capitalising on it. It will have to do several things: Project unity, craft an alternative programme and get the organisational act in order. But one thing that the Congress party needs to do is to liberate itself from important elements of its own recent past. A good place to start would be by asking a simple question: Is the party that battled for India’s freedom ready to bat for maximum protections for individual freedom that a liberal democracy should afford?
Will the Congress, to differentiate itself from the BJP in legal and institutional terms, sign on to a new Charter of Freedom that provides more safeguards to individuals than the Congress has historically provided. Just think of the range of laws that exist on our books that are a scandal for a liberal democracy: Sedition laws, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, anti conversion laws, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, laws restricting freedom of expression including criminal defamation, cow protection laws that give invasive powers to the state. This list could go on. These laws require to be repealed, or at any rate, need massively more safeguards than they currently provide.
One can also pick laws from several other areas. These laws are also undergirded by institutions like the police whose functioning needs radical reform. Whenever these laws are used by the state, parties protest on a case by case basis, reminding us what is wrong with these laws in the first place; they give the state too much right to withhold our liberty or grant it to us as an act of noblesse oblige.
There are other significant differences between the Congress and the BJP. But it bears repeating that the most chilling fact is that the BJP has not really needed to invent any new laws to facilitate state control, when it wants. If anything, irony of ironies, in places like the Northeast, it has positioned itself by tempering laws like AFSPA. At this juncture in India’s history, it is bad faith to say, we will comment on a case by case basis when it suits us, but will leave the legal structure of state interdiction intact.
This, for example, is exactly what is happening in the recent use of UAPA against lawyers and activists. Why is it important for the Congress to propose a new Charter of Freedom, and articulate it in institutional terms? First, it will be a decisive signal that the Congress has learnt from its mistakes, and is willing to shed the burden of the past. Perhaps it was the exigencies of Partition, but the fact is that the Congress became unconscionably statist when it came to civil liberties. It started with the debate over the First Amendment where Jawaharlal Nehru was on the wrong side of history. The Congress needs to come clean if it is to be a more effective critic of authoritarianism. This does not just apply to civil liberties. It also applies to a whole range of other institutional spaces. Anyone minimally acquainted with the history of higher education, for example, still cannot, with a straight face, accept the Congress’ protestations over university autonomy.
Second, the Congress and Rahul Gandhi are misdiagnosing why they are struggling. The problem is not that they were perceived to be anti-Hindu. The problem was two-fold. They could not consistently apply an individual rights standard across communities and ended up making rights a competition between communities. But the deeper problem was the real lack of courage when it comes to defending civil liberties. Rahul Gandhi’s main challenge in projecting leadership is not personal niceness or generosity. He also does not have a record of governance, as a minister or chief minister. He needs recourse to positions that can show that he has courage, the ability to lead from the front rather than to follow.
But even with newly acquired energy, that element of leading from the front still remains an open question. Has the inner working of the party really been reformed? If the party showed courage and categorically came out in favour of a new Charter of Freedom, it would show a courage of conviction. It would speak to young people, powerfully. The Punjab “blasphemy” law episode is disconcerting precisely for this reason: Not only is the Congress not batting for freedom and creating a dangerous precedent, it also casts doubt on Rahul Gandhi’s ability to bend the party towards the arc of liberty, if liberty is understood in institutional terms.
It is one thing to shed an anti-Hindu image; it is quite another to cave in to those who want to coddle religion, and that line is still not bright enough in the Congress party. Third, one of the worries about what a second term for Narendra Modi might mean is articulated in terms on what it might mean for institutions. So, part of a counter has to be that the Opposition is ready for a new institutional narrative. It will not let a politics of fear legitimise statism that puts personal liberty at risk.
It is ready to say: Minimum government, maximum governance, as currently used, is a hollow slogan. If minimum government means anything, it means the most in areas of personal and civil liberty. The Supreme Court has struck a resounding blow on behalf of freedom in Navtej Johar, and it is to the Congress’ credit that it has welcomed the judgement, and not hidden behind the evasions and silences of the ruling party. But the broader defence of personal liberty, the freedom to speak, the freedom to choose one’s religion, what one eats, the freedom to protest, protection against detention without being charged for up to six months, all require more robust legal protections.
They also require, if they are to be credible, better police and courts, whose due processes can make a mockery of the best laws. It is also a mistake to think that a strong legal system and better policing are only elite issues. Quite the contrary, the poor face the greatest brunt of their dysfunction. More than shibboleths on Nehru and Gandhi, the India of tomorrow requires a new Charter of Freedom. Will any party serve the cause of justice by trying to occupy that space?
‘Stunk in my nostrils’.
By Hindol Sengupta
Gandhi and Nehru both advised Bose not to contest again [for Congress presidentship in 1939]. Patel and Gandhi tried hard to convince [AbulKalam] Azad to take on the role but he refused. Gandhi then proposed the name of a relatively minor Congress leader, PattabhiSitaramayya, and top leaders of the Congress Working Committee, including Patel and Prasad, supported Sitaramayya. If only Patel had contested with Gandhi’s blessings, there was a fair chance that Bose would have withdrawn but now he faced a man who was no match for him, but one who had Gandhi’s blessings and the support of the top Congress leaders. By choosing to contest, Bose was also shattering recent Congress protocol of having presidents elected unopposed to show unanimous choice and avoid intra-party disputes, at least overtly, on presidentship. He wrote to the Congress leader:
“If the Right-wing really want national unity and solidarity, they would be well advised to accept a Leftist as president. They have created considerable misapprehension by their insistence on a Rightist candidate at any cost and by the unseemly manner with which they have set up such a candidate who was retiring and who had been surprised that this name had been suggested for presidentship.”
Countered the Sardar: “For me, as for those with whom I have been able to discuss the question, the matter is not one of persons and principles, nor of Leftists and Rightists. The sole consideration is what is in the best interest of the country.”
Netaji’s charisma was enough to beat the charmless Sitaramayya. Congress delegates spurned Gandhi and Patel’s appeals and voted for Bose. The Bengali leader won the second time by 205 votes.
Gandhi had been defeated, as had the all-powerful party boss Patel. Gandhi, of course, would not take his defeat lying down, and he did the only thing that could have turned the tide against Bose. He made the defeat about him, and not about Sitaramayya. “The defeat is more mine than his,” Gandhi declared in a letter, and left it to Bose to “choose a homogenous cabinet and enforce his programme without let or hindrance…after all SubhasBabu is not an enemy of his country.”
The subtext was immediately clear. It was a threat. Gandhi was telling the Congress to choose again – this time between him and Bose. By telling them that Bose was not the enemy of the country, Gandhi was ascertaining that the Congress leaders understood that Bose was an enemy, but of the Congress as envisaged by Gandhi.
Even though the party had ignored Gandhi’s advice, the Congress was not ready to break away from Gandhi. And any middle ground between Gandhi–Patel and Bose had long since disappeared. The young Bengali leader was too aggressive – in fact, too reflective of the mood of the country.
At the Tripuri session of the Congress, where Bose’s older brother Sarat represented him because Netaji was ill, a majority of the Congress Working Committee resigned.
GovindBallabh Pant proposed a new resolution demanding a different Working Committee that was approved and guided by Mahatma Gandhi. “The die was cast. All the subsequent attempts made at compromise were a cry in the wilderness.”
To weaken Bose’s position, Gandhi even issued a public statement advocating “unconditional cooperation with Britain in the prosecution of the war”. Bose, as president, demanded a mass civil disobedience, instead, against the British Raj.
After Tripuri, a furious Sarat Bose wrote to Gandhi:
“What I saw and heard at Tripuri during the seven days I was there, was an eye opener to me. The exhibition of truth and non-violence that I saw in persons whom the public look upon as your disciples [targeting Nehru, Patel, Azad and company] and representatives has to use your own words, ‘stunk in my nostrils’. The election of Subhas was not a defeat for yourself, but of the high command of which Sardar Patel is the shining light.”
Sarat Bose uses the harshest words for Subhas’ opponents in this and the choicest abuses are directed towards Patel.
‘The propaganda that was carried on by them against the Rashtrapati [president, i.e. Subhas] and those who happen to share his political views was thoroughly mean, malicious and indicative and utterly devoid of even the semblance of truth and non-violence.’
Sarat Bose accused Gandhi’s closest acolytes of having shown none of the Gandhian sense of fairness.
At Tripuri, those who swear by you in public offered nothing but obstruction and for gaining their end, took the fullest and meanest advantage of Subhas’s illness. Some ex members of the Working Committee went to the length of carrying on an insidious and incessant propaganda that the Rashtrapati’s illness was a ‘fake’, and was only a political illness.
An anguished Patel responded:
“It pains me to find that he could use such language and attribute such personal motive and charges against his colleagues with whom he happened to differ in politics and thereby bring down the entire Congress politics to the lowest possible level where difference of principles or policy have no place whatever. It would be easy to answer the letter in the same strain but it would be of no advantage to anybody to imitate the tone and temper of the letter which is evidently written more in anger than in reason. After all what answer one can give to such a passionate and abusive denunciation?”
In the end, it became impossible for Bose to lead a Congress that was full of leaders who were determined to frustrate his programme. No matter how much support he could garner from ordinary, especially younger, followers and members of the party, the machinery of the Congress was against him. Even though he had won the election fair and square, he could not find a path of compromise with Gandhi. Bose resigned.
Fear: Trump in the White House
By Rachel Carnell
Bob Woodward’s new book, seems to contain scant new information.
Like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, it portrays President Donald Trump as an “emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader” whose senior staff struggle to contain his most dangerous impulses.
This same view of Trump was reiterated in a September 5 anonymous op-ed in The New York Times which, as Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse observed, is “just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week”.
But whether Fear tells us something new matters less than the fact that the book is yet another broadside against Trump’s image. It adds more fuel to the suspicions many have about the president’s behind-the-scenes behaviour.
In fact, Woodward’s Fear – together with Wolff’s Fire and Fury, OmarosaManigault’s Unhinged and the anonymous op-ed – is part of a long tradition of political “secret histories”, a genre that recounts salacious and scandalous details about the dealings, relationships and temperaments of those in power. It is a practice that goes back centuries, and it is one that my co-editor and I explore in our book The Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820.
Secret histories tend to take two forms. There is the plain-spoken, just-the-facts approach, similar to Woodward’s Fear. Then there are novelistic accounts with major figures depicted using pseudonyms, as in Primary Colors, a lightly fictionalised dramatisation of the Clinton White House.
But the secrets unveiled in these works usually do not come out of nowhere. Instead, they contain anecdotes that have long been whispered or suspected. The goal of secret histories is to emphasise embarrassing stories about a ruler or government – to propel the drumbeat of negative coverage in order to strengthen the opposition and, in some instances, to even topple governments.
Justinian was the subject of a secret history circulated by the military historian Procopius. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Secret histories date back at least to the sixth century, when the military historian Procopius wrote down sordid anecdotes about the Byzantine emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, in a work that became known as Anekdota, which translates to “unpublishable things”. Ten centuries later, it appeared in Latin as Historia Arcana, or “Secret History”.
As a military historian, Procopius had helped create the myth of Justinian’s greatness in his eight-book treatise The Wars of Justinian. But in his Anekdota, Procopius finally told the ugly backstory of Justinian’s reign: his lust, his seizure of others’ property, his petty vengefulness and his persecution of non-Christians. The work was almost certainly circulated in manuscript scroll among Justinian’s enemies. While it probably damaged his standing, Justinian was nonetheless able to retain his grip on power.
After French and English translations of Procopius’ Anekdota appeared in 1669 and 1674, secret histories in the same style began to appear about King Charles II of England.
These tended to focus on his mistresses, particularly the infamous Duchess of Cleveland, who manipulated Charles for over a decade, persuading him to grant her land and money and bestow titles of nobility on their illegitimate children.
These reports, which read like tabloid-style gossip, were never just about sex.
Readers of one account, titled The Amours of the King of Tamaran, likely realised that if the king could be duped and controlled by his powerful mistress, he was also susceptible to being influenced by England’s adversaries.
Indeed, he was: another secret history, Andrew Marvell’s Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England, described the backstory of the Secret Treaty of Dover, in which Charles II accepted large sums of money from the French king in exchange for promising to return England to Catholicism.
Speculation over King Charles II’s relationship with the Duchess of Cleveland was rampant during his reign. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
These publications did not bring down the politically skilled Charles II, who was glad to take Louis XIV’s money but savvy enough to decide against changing his country’s religion.
They did, however, sow suspicion towards Charles II and his family. After Charles II’s death, his openly Catholic younger brother, James, ascended the throne in 1685, instilling fear that England would return to Catholicism. Seven Englishmen wrote to Prince William of Orange – who was a Protestant – pleading that he invade England. In the Glorious Revolution that ensued, James II fled to France, and Parliament declared William and his wife, Mary, joint monarchs of England.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 helped inspire American colonists to rebel against another British monarch, with the not-so-secret history of George’s III’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
Some might disparage Woodward’s book as “anonymously-sourced gossip”. But gossip has always been important to humankind. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari notes in Sapiens, his best-selling account of early human history:
“It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”
Those who dismiss Woodward’s book underestimate the power that gossip and behind-the-scenes revelations wield over politics – and the way it has shaped the course of human history.
RSS ‘muscle-flexing’ a bid to re-invent itself?
By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
There is really no need imagine or interpret the message of the September 17-19 event of the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh (RSS) at VigyanBhavan, where by and large only functions related to the government or international organisations are held. The RSS sarsanghchalak, or supremo, MohanraoBhagwat, declared it at the very beginning of his first-day sermon delivered on September 17. He said: “Sanghkosamajh ne keliye is kaaryakramkaaayojanhuahaikyonkisanghabekshaktikeroopmein is deshmeinupasthhithhai” (This programme has been organised to enable people to understand the Sangh because the Sangh today is present as a force in the country). He also said that this was in response to the demand of the RSS’ members in New Delhi who felt that such a meeting should be organised in the national capital to explain the nature and working of the RSS to bigwigs from different walks of life. Neither the RSS nor the media have reported in any detail about who were the people who attended the three-day RSS conclave. The BharatiyaJanata Party is in power at the Centre with a bare majority of its own in the LokSabha, and perhaps the RSS brass must have felt that they would not have an opportunity like this ever again, because the outcome of the 2019 LokSabha election is up in the air. So, in the fourth year of the BJP government, the RSS had decided to have its social outing, though strictly speaking it was a political outing. It is a different matter, though, that the saffron event has turned out to be a flop politically as none of the leaders of the major parties other than the BJP had turned up at the event. And on all the three days, it was a pure Bhagwat monologue.
The media was more than a little bowled over by the open event of the secretive organisation which controls the BJP, though the relations between the political party and the ideological organisation remains as murky as ever. BJP leaders declare their allegiance to the RSS as a badge of courage, and the RSS demurs. But it is known to everyone that the president of the party is nominated by the RSS, and it is not a party affair. The RSS protests that it does not micro-manage the BJP, which is an interesting way of putting it because it leaves enough room for the RSS to manage the BJP anyway. A senior leader of the BJP had confessed that the RSS volunteers had campaigned for the BJP in 2014, and the only other time they did was in the 1977 post-Emergency election.
The RSS still claims that it has nothing to do with politics and its ambition, as stated by its founder BaliramHedgewar, is to train “swayamsevaks”, or volunteers in every village of India, who are trustworthy, virtuous, who do not discriminate and hate anybody. And Bhagwat lets slip in the confession that this was for the rejuvenation of “Hindu” society. In the second lecture, he did not say that the Sangh ideology was different from Hinduism but that “ism” is a closed concept and it does not apply to the Hindu faith. Then he resorts to the usual term of “Sanatan Dharma”. And taking “Hindu” as a geographical and civilisation notation, he argues quite unconvincingly and sheepishly that everyone living in India is a Hindu!
The interesting twist in Bhagwat’s monotonous exposition was that he stuck to Hedgewar and passed in silence over M.S. Golwalkar, the man who took over as RSS chief after Hedgewar died. Bhagwat took care to explain that Hedgewar wanted to prepare citizens who were able to take up the responsibilities of an independent India. Hedgewar was certainly a lower middle class Hindu conservative from the Vidarbha region, who perhaps did not preach the clash between Hindus and Muslims in the militant tone that Golwalkar did. Deleting Golwalkar from the RSS discourse should indeed raise eyebrows. The RSS seems to be learning from the experience of the BJP that you cannot survive in politics by catering only to Hindus. The RSS is now updating itself.
But the devil is in the details. For both the RSS and the BJP, diabolical nationalism is the hammer that they want to use to threaten religious minorities and every other dissident group. Bhagwat could not wriggle out of this dilemma because all he could refer to was to Hindu traditions where atheists had their place as well.
It is tempting to speculate whether there is a simmering tension between the RSS and the BJP, and that the RSS too wants its rightful place in the sun. And it is important to ask whether the RSS volunteers will work for the BJP in 2019 in the same way that they did in 2014. The RSS had officially endorsed the Congress victory in the 2009 LokSabha election, so it should not come as a surprise if the RSS were to entertain second thoughts about Prime Minister NarendraModi’s candidacy. Whatever may be their sibling rivalries, it is inevitable that the RSS and the BJP will hang together. And the truth is that the RSS is not the force in the country that Bhagwat claims it to be. Its strength and importance are overstated both by the partisans and unflinching ideological foes of the RSS. The reason for the growing unimportance of the RSS in India is quite simple. The RSS is not liberal enough to be a cultural organisation, nor does it have the intellectual rigour to be a conservative bastion. It has fashioned itse
lf in the mould of the Boy Scouts, so it cannot but linger at the infra-intellectual level.
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