Jan 22 • 55M

🎧 Ramachandra Guha on the Crisis in the World’s Largest Democracy

Ramachandra Guha and Yascha Mounk discuss Modi’s India

Yascha Mounk
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Ramachandra Guha is an Indian historian, writer, and one of the foremost authorities on modern India. The author of India After Gandhi and Gandhi Before India, he is also a leading critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Guha is a member of the Persuasion Board of Advisors

In this week’s conversation, Ramachandra Guha and Yascha Mounk discuss the history of Indian pluralism, the rise of Hindu nationalism, and the prospects for preserving liberal democracy in India.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: I'd love to get a sense of what the state of Indian politics is today. Narendra Modi, at this point, has been in office for one and a half terms. To what extent is India, the great democratic success story of the post-war era—perhaps the most surprising democratic success story of the post-war era—in danger today?

Ramachandra Guha: It's in crisis. I won't use the word danger, because that is perhaps slightly hyperbolic. India will celebrate its 75th anniversary of independence this year. In those seven and a half decades, it's gone through several crises: the crisis of partition with China and Pakistan in the 1960s; The Emergency of the 1970s, when we lost our democratic rights for two years. This is probably the fourth serious crisis the republic has faced. And it's quite similar to what happened in the 1970s with Indira Gandhi in that you have a cult of personality—you have a fusion of the leader, the party, and the government. In this case there is an additional twist, which is religious majoritarianism, which was not there in the 1970s with Indira Gandhi: the attempt to convert India into some kind of de facto Hindu majoritarian state mirroring Pakistan, which is an Islamic majoritarian state. So that's one difference between now and the 1970s, the last time we had a kind of a creeping authoritarianism.

Mounk: Could you step back for a moment for the international audience, and explain what happened in the 1970s with The Emergency and Indira Gandhi?

Guha: In the 1970s Indira Gandhi, like Narendra Modi, was prime minister with a majority in parliament, and she faced a popular movement on the streets against misrule and corruption. There was a Supreme Court judgment which mandated that she vacate her prime ministership temporarily because of some election malpractices. She refused to do that, and she abrogated democratic rights. She changed the constitution. She postponed the elections by a year and a half. And for about 18 months, all the opposition leaders were in jail. There was no freedom of the press. There were no civil liberties. But quite miraculously, and surprisingly, Indira Gandhi, on her own, revoked the emergency, called elections, which she lost. 

Today, we don't have an emergency. Some people speak of an “undeclared emergency'' because there is a visible authoritarianism—there is a capitulation of independent institutions like the press and even the judiciary to the power of Narendra Modi and his party. However, I just add one caveat: many parts of India, some important states, such as those in the south and in Bengal, are not under the control of the [Modi’s] BJP. So there are still spaces of opposition activity there. But the media has completely collapsed, and large sections of the judiciary as well, and that's really the problem.

Mounk: Tell us a little bit more about the nature of this undeclared emergency. What concrete changes have taken place in India over the last seven or eight years?

Guha: The major television houses and the major newspapers in India, unlike in America, are owned by business houses that have other interests. They may run chemical factories, steel mills, pharmaceutical companies, and also have a newspaper. So the government will start a tax rate on your chemical industry to bring you to your knees. Also, your newspapers are dependent on public advertisements, which don't come. So I think the major newspapers and television channels, with a few exceptions, and most of the free media in the digital space essentially carry the party line. They praise the Prime Minister morning to night. They often promote nasty vicious propaganda against religious minorities and so on. The judiciary acts somewhat differently. It takes up cases very slowly. So the special status of Kashmir, which was granted by the Indian Constitution, was abrogated more than two years ago—a challenge to that has still not been heard by the Supreme Court. They don't really pass judgments in favor of the government (though they do that, too), [rather] they don't take up difficult cases. Instead of acting as a countermajoritarian court, they essentially, largely, do the government's bidding.

Mounk: You've explained the mechanism for how the media has come under control. What about the judiciary? How is it that the Supreme Court has come to be controlled by the government?

Guha: I won’t say it’s in the control of the government, but it's been timid. Also, the government has in its powers the awarding of post-retirement sinecures to judges. Unlike in the United States—where Supreme Court judges are there for life—here, Supreme Court judges retire at 65. But you could be appointed governor of a province; you could become chair of a commission with cabinet rank, retaining your perquisites or your bungalows in Delhi; or you could become a member of the upper house, which has happened recently to a Chief Justice. So there are various ways, inducements, which are held out. In the recent past, the last three Chief Justices preceding the present incumbent have been extremely timid and, by and large, pro-government. Of course, I don't want to speculate why that is. But they aren't independent, they aren't forthright and, above all, they delay important cases. So it'll be years and years before cases are heard. 

There's also new legislation, professedly anti-terrorist legislation, where bail is never granted, and people can be picked up and incarcerated, for years on end, on extremely flimsy evidence. The court should have really heard the act and probably declared it unconstitutional, so that such mass incarceration of activists and dissenters is not allowed.

Mounk: What about the nature of religious majoritarianism, which, as you were saying, was one of the real differences to the 1970s? To what extent do you think Modi is succeeding in his ambition of turning India into a Hindu nation?

Guha: Well, I don't know whether he is succeeding, but he and his party are certainly trying. One axis is legislative. You have the abrogation of the special status of Kashmir because it was the only Muslim-majority province in India. So, as a spiteful act against the only Muslim-majority province, you downgrade it. Rather [than being] a full state, it becomes like Puerto Rico, a kind of territory administered by the center. A second way would be other laws. For example, a citizenship amendment act, which provides Indian citizenship to any refugee so long they are not a Muslim. So Rohingyas who are persecuted can’t become Indians, but Hindus who might be persecuted in Pakistan can become Indians—clearly recognizing Muslims as somehow not Indian enough, which is not just unconstitutional, but totally antithetical to the whole heritage of our freedom struggle. Finally, popular discourse: there is at the moment a state election being conducted in Uttar Pradesh, which is our largest state. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, who is from the BJP, and Amit Shah, who is Narendra Modi's Home Minister and second-in-command, have used explicitly majoritarian language, stigmatizing Muslims in their speech, in their advertisements, and in their propaganda. Modi has done it less so. Modi allows everyone else to be visibly majoritarian and communal and visceral in the hatred of Muslims. He occasionally slips into that, but he'll pretend to be above the fray, whereas he actually isn't. And street violence: there has been a series of lynchings of Muslims over the last seven years. In the last few months—I don't know whether you have noticed this, or the Western press has noticed this—there have also been attacks against Christians. In my home state, Karnataka, in south India, where I live, there is an anti-conversion law explicitly aimed at Christians. In the lead-up to Christmas, several churches were attacked. There is no word from the Prime Minister or his ministers about this. There is no caution; there is no chastisement. In fact, there’s tacit encouragement.

Mounk: I think to get the significance of this religious majoritarianism, it's important to go back and understand the nature of India's founding, which you've written movingly about. 

Why don't we go back, not just 70 to 80 years, but a little bit further and explain to the audience what India looked like before independence, what India looked like before [Mohandas] Gandhi, and then to understand the nature of the founding and the way in which Modi is now trying to undermine that.

Guha: Before I answer that, just a caution: I think it's not just Modi. It's Modi and his party, the BJP; his allies like Amit Shah; and of course, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a so-called cultural organization which really directs the ideology of the BJP. Of course, there's a personality cult around Modi, and he personalizes it. But it'd be a mistake to attribute all the shifts and changes simply to him. He is the vehicle, the manifestation, the leader of a massive project to reshape India. 

It's a long story, and I don't know where to start. But one way to start would be the 19th century, and British colonization. Among the intellectuals of the majority Hindu community, the British colonization provoked two kinds of responses. One was self-reflective: “Why have we been colonized? Because we haven't adopted modern technology. We've been ossified, conservative, set in our ways. We have treated our women badly. We have a caste hierarchy in which we have a section of our community who are treated as ‘untouchables.’” So you have Hindus who are social reformers, trying to make Hindu society, in particular, and Indian society, in general, come to terms with the modern world, and the economic and political and moral challenges in the modern world. A second reaction would be “No, we have been colonized because we weren't organized enough, we weren't cohesive enough, and we must become united. And we must also reclaim all those who are becoming Christians and Muslims, preparatory to creating a Hindu rashtra, or Hindu state.” 

Both these—the Hindu reformist reaction, and the Hindu revivalist reaction—started in the 19th century. And at the same time, among the Muslims who, before partition, formed more than 30% of India, there were similar tensions between reform and revivalism. And a very important, and, in retrospect, very damaging move by the British authorities was to introduce separate electorates for Muslims, so that Muslims only vote for Muslims. That created a sense of separatism among the Muslim intelligentsia, which eventually led to Pakistan. On the one hand, you had Gandhi who said, even if partition takes place, the Muslims and Christians who stay behind will have equal rights because we don't believe in a denominational state, in a theocratic state. But you also had Hindus who felt angry that Pakistan had been created on religious grounds and wanted to mimic it, to rival it, to create a kind of Hindu Pakistan in India. That debate continues. And at the moment, the votaries of a Hindu Pakistan seem to be winning. I mean, they're not comfortably ahead, but they seem to be winning.

Mounk: When you look at the debate between the reformers and the revivalists, what role does each of them play in the independence movement that starts to really gain strength in the first half of the 20th century?

Guha: From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they are in a kind of tension; both wings are present in the Indian freedom movement. Gandhi believes that, for Indians to be fit for freedom, they must abolish ‘untouchability,’ they must promote Hindu-Muslim harmony, and they must cultivate an ethic of manual labor and economic self-reliance. But he uses a religious idiom, so he is a Hindu reformer. At the same time in the Congress Party, you have people associated with Gandhi, who are conservatives, who are not forthright in their condemnation of ‘untouchability,’ for example. And you also have some people who are to the left of Gandhi, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, who is a secularist, who believes religion is something that is only a private matter for individuals. 

But Gandhi's greatness, moral greatness—and I think this was true all through his life, but particularly in his last months—was that he, although he was a practicing Hindu, did not believe there was only one path to God. He had close Christian and Muslim, Parsi and Jewish friends. And above all, he was clear that India would be a land in which everyone would have equal citizenship, regardless of religious affiliation. He and Nehru were on the same page in that regard, Nehru being the first prime minister of India. And that’s the kind of pluralist, inclusive, religious legacy that the present regime wants to overturn. They want to overturn many other things, but that's one of the important things they want to overturn.

Mounk: Gandhi was able to impose that vision on India to convince many early on, but it started to be undermined, I suppose, in two different ways: One is the choice by key Muslim leaders that they did not want to be part of that multiconfessional India but that they wanted a state of their own, and later, the resistance within parts of Hindu society who said, “No, actually we want to follow suit.” But tell us first about partition.

Guha: Again, a caution about the dangers of excessively personalizing anything: just as what's happening in India today is by no means the handiwork of Modi alone, the Freedom Movement and the constitutional patriotism that was encoded in the Indian republic was by no means the handiwork of Gandhi alone. There were many great leaders. B.R. Ambedkar—the chief drafter of the Indian constitution, a visionary lawyer, a scholar from an ‘untouchable’ background—who was not part of the Congress Party, but was brought into the cabinet, is one such figure. Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet, who was a precocious early critic of jingoistic nationalism—his lectures on nationalism, delivered during the First World War in the United States and Japan, I think should be mandatory reading for schoolchildren everywhere. Female leaders, Muslim leaders—it was a whole constellation of visionaries and reformers, of whom Gandhi happened to be the most influential and important.

For a variety of complex reasons, partition could not be avoided. And it happened. In my view, the concession of separate electorates by the British sowed the seeds of partition, decisively moving the curve of history towards the partition of India. It could have been done differently over a longer period, less people could have died. Lord Mountbatten, who was viceroy, bears a major share of the blame for the violence that took place because he did not deploy the army properly. He did not put administrative systems in place, and so on. But partition is 75 years old. I think the greatness of the Indian leaders at the time of partition was rather than take the path of retribution and revenge and visit on India's Muslim minority what the Pakistanis were doing to their Hindu and Sikh minority, they decided to nurture and build an inclusive, pluralistic, reformist, egalitarian kind of nation. They only partially succeeded. Caste and gender inequalities are still pervasive in many parts of India—as indeed, gender and race inequalities would be in many parts of the United States, the Civil Rights Movement notwithstanding—but it was a morally compelling vision. 

For example, I mentioned Ambedkar. If you read Ambedkar’s speeches to the constitutional assembly, while drafting the Constitution—his talk of constitutional morality; his warnings against the cult of personality; his remarks [...] that there was still enormous discrimination and differentiation in opportunities—[those] debates that took place leading to the Constitution, I think, bear close study, and could probably animate debates in many different parts of the world, including Europe and North America.

Mounk: [You argue] one of the roots of the success of the BJP and of Modi is the delegitimation of the Congress Party as it turns into a kind of family firm. The other, I suppose, goes back all the way to what you would call Hindu revivalism—a rejection by a part of Indian society, since the founding, of the idea that they will not be able to build a Hindu nation, that the religious majority should not also define the nature of a country. 

That's sort of out of the picture in the 1950s and 1960s, but presumably, is organizing itself. How does that turn into the mass movement of the RSS by the end of the 20th century?

Guha: It is out of the picture, but it's slowly growing in northern India. The RSS, which was founded in 1925, had built a country-wide cadre of devoted workers or pracharaks, actually very much modeled on the old-style Communist Party, partly modeled on Italian fascism, but also greatly impressed by the order and discipline of communist parties. They start making electoral presence in the 1960s. They're involved in the opposition to The Emergency, but their real growth comes in the 1980s with a campaign to demolish a mosque and build a temple in the town of Ayodhya, on a site which many believed to be the place where the mythical god-king Rama—the hero of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana—was born. Around this movement they really grew and grew and finally became the force they did. 

Now, apart from these developments internal to India, there's something going on in the region as a whole. South Asia is dominated by majoritarian states. Myanmar and Sri Lanka are Buddhist majoritarian states, in which Muslims (in one case, in Myanmar) and Tamil Hindus (in Sri Lanka) have been persecuted. Pakistan and to a lesser extent Bangladesh are Islamic majoritarian states, and fundamentalism is rivalrous and competitive; fundamentalisms feed on one another. And what has happened to India is that at one stage—because of Congress, the constitution, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar—it was an aberration in South Asia. It did not approximate to this kind of majoritarianism. But now it has joined the South Asian club, and in many ways, the RSS has an envy of the Muslim clergy, what I call a “mullah envy.” You know, the mullahs can tell Muslim women, “you can't dress like this, you must only wear this.” They can say, “this play offends the Prophet, so it must be banned.” 

The RSS has the same kind of [tactics]: ”This is anti Hindu.” So now there's a whole wave of attacks on comedians, satirists, and plays, which allegedly portray Hindu gods in an unfamiliar light. There is “love jihad”, which means women can’t choose whom they marry. You can’t choose what you eat, you can’t choose how you dress. [...] Traditionally, gay love was valorized in many parts of ancient India. But attacks on homosexuals [and] all kinds of things have come in as a result of this desperate desire by Hindu figures to imitate, I would say, the worst of Islam and the worst of medieval Christianity.

Mounk: So you get the growth of the RSS into a mass movement. When does it first really take political power in the form of the BJP? And perhaps here we get back to the figure of Modi, who, as I understand it, grew up within the RSS.

Guha: In the 1980s, [the BJP, reborn from the earlier Hindu-first party Jan Sangh] launched the movement to reclaim this mosque for a Hindu temple, and Modi was an important organizer of that movement. The leader of that movement was a hardliner called Lal Krishna Advani, and Modi organized his route through densely populated Hindu-Muslim areas, making provocative speeches and polarizing opinion and so on in 1990. Modi was an organizer from the RSS, deputized to the BJP, and he was recognized for being a good organizer. And, in 2001, he was appointed chief minister of his home state, Gujarat. In 2002, there was a pogrom against the Muslims of Gujarat, which Narendra Modi certainly bears moral culpability for—perhaps not criminal culpability. He was an incompetent, inexperienced administrator. He didn't do enough to stop it. And of course, there was a great revulsion against him—his U.S. visa was revoked—and then he slowly, slyly sought to remake himself as a man of development. And it's on that platform, as a self-made man of development, that he fought the 2014 general elections. He is a very hardworking man, a very intelligent man, a very able man, and a very good orator, particularly in Hindi, a language understood by a plurality of Indians. And of course, he is self-made, unlike his opponent, Rahul Gandhi [grandson of former prime minister Indira Gandhi; no relation to independence leader Mohandas Gandhi].

So he becomes prime minister, ostensibly having remade himself. Many liberal intellectuals, not me, but some of my colleagues, actually endorsed him at that stage. I happen to know Gujarat very well, so I was never taken in by his protestations of having overcome his sectarian past. But once in power, he did two things. One is he built this enormous cult of personality. Indians are obsessed with cricket and the biggest cricket stadium in the world is in Narendra Modi's hometown, Ahmedabad, and it's named Narendra Modi Stadium. Now, this is the kind of stuff that has only happened with Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein and Stalin and Mussolini, and so on. It only happens in authoritarian regimes. So there’s a cult of personality; he's incredibly narcissistic. I've given you all his strong points: hardworking, self-made, intelligent, great orator. On the flipside would be: narcissistic, sectarian, contempt for expertise. If you look at his economic decisions, the Indian economy was doing badly well before the pandemic, partly because he won't consult India's best economists. We produced several Nobel laureates, among others—but he will never consult them. 

So after 2014, the combination of narcissism, sectarianism and contempt for expertise has been displayed in many different ways, to the detriment of the economy, the social fabric, the institutional robustness, and of course, the future of Indian democracy. And he is likely—I won't say certain—but he's likely to get a third term, particularly if the Congress does not change its leadership, because though Modi and his party the BJP face strong opposition in some important states, when it comes to a general election, the fragmented, diverse regional parties can’t throw up a leader to match Modi. The Congress—which has a pretense of being the only national party apart from the BJP—has only this incompetent, lazy dynast Rahul Gandhi to lead them. So the short-term future for Indian democracy, pluralism, and social harmony is bleak. But in the long term, possibly, things could change.

Mounk: What would it look like for the opposition to somehow cobble together a viable challenge?

Guha: I am not very good at prescription. I made a couple of suggestions in the past that have rebounded on me as to how the opposition can get its act together. In the long term, the BJP is vulnerable, because of the conversion of a grassroots party into a personality cult. Modi is everywhere. In my home state, Karnataka, a few months ago, the incumbent chief minister, who's an old BJP hand, was abruptly removed because Modi and Shah did not like him. He was extremely popular in the state. There are corruption cases against him, but he's relatively non-sectarian. But Modi and Shah did not like him. So they removed him, even though he was the most popular party leader in the state and appointed a toady of their own. Now, they are unhappy with that toady and want to replace him, too. They do this state by state, which means in the long term, the state organizations will atrophy. And once this great overarching figure of Narendra Modi goes, the BJP will become weak. So I think personality cults are always damaging—for the country, of course, but they're also damaging for the party that promotes them. So, in that sense, in the long term, because they’ve become so dependent on Modi, I think the BJP are vulnerable.

Mounk: What lasting damage do you think he will have done to India’s self-understanding as a pluralistic nation, even if a democratic form of government can be preserved beyond Modi?

Guha: Modi, Shah, the RSS, and the BJP will have been in power 10 years in 2024. They are likely—not certain, but likely—to get a third term. In these 15 years, they certainly would have weakened the social fabric, and made Muslims and Christians more insecure. This is all well known.

What is not as well known goes back to what I talked about before: the contempt for expertise. India had a robust—relatively robust for a third world country—scientific infrastructure. Now, all kinds of crazy ideas from the ancient Hindu past are being promoted as modern science. Our well-known institutes of science have had their morale destroyed. They are not doing independent research. The civil service and the judiciary are not just not efficient, but also not independent. Economic growth is another casualty. Modi and the BJP have done nothing about generating jobs. Labor force participation in India is lower than that in Pakistan. Women have been withdrawn from the labor force—Muslim and Hindu women. Female labor force participation in India is much lower than in Bangladesh. 

So these are some of the consequences of the last 10-15 years that go beyond merely making Muslims insecure—which is awful enough, particularly for someone like me who's an Indian democrat and a biographer of Gandhi, and so on. But I think of institutional decline, the contempt for expertise, the growing flight of talent to the West (which was always there, but it's now going to accelerate), crony capitalism. [...] All this will add up. India was never going to be a superpower. And I always thought our superpower aspirations were futile and fantastic. But India could have been what some people call a rising power, a stable democracy with a growing economy, which could showcase its diversity and pluralism to the world. I think that moment has passed. And whether we can recover it, whether we can rebuild our institutions, whether we can rebuild our social fabric—that’s really an open question, and maybe young Indians will do all of that.

Mounk: Let's hope so. I'm always reluctant to draw any parallels between India and other countries because India is so complex and, in many ways, sui generis. But you don't have to be reluctant in the same way. 

What lessons do you think observers from outside of India, who may be living in countries that have democratic crises of their own at the moment, can draw from the current situation in India and how the country has transformed in the last decades?

Guha: I know that my American friends are very worried about the direction America is going in. You know, I'm more hopeful about America. I think American institutions are more robust. Apart from America, the country I know well is Great Britain. I detest Boris Johnson, but the British institutions and the British media will see off Boris Johnson. So the long term damage in countries like the US and the UK done by sectarianism and a personality cult will be managed. The long term damage done by authoritarianism and a personality cult in countries like Russia and Turkey is probably irreparable. Putin and Erdoğan have, respectively, destroyed what Russia and Turkey could contribute to the world. I think that history will—I mean, Orbán is still open—but Erdoğan and Putin will go down in history as people who grievously damaged their country, in the way in which Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin did. 

Now, India is somewhere between. You can't be as hopeful as you are of Great Britain, the United [States], or of France, for example, where again, there's also right-wing resurgence. I would be more hopeful about India than I am about Russia and Turkey—again, two great countries with great civilizations and so much to offer the world—because we have had a longer tradition of democratic elections, because there are still some open spaces in which people express their views, and because nothing is permanent in politics. Modi and Shah and the BJP are not permanent. But I think a lot has been squandered by the second term of the Congress under Manmohan Singh, and the two terms of Modi—economically, particularly. I think we are in a bad way economically. I don't talk much about economics, because I really understand society and politics much better than I understand economics, but my economist friends are very worried.

One other casualty of the Modi regime has been the telling of lies, including statistical lies. We once had one of the best statistical systems of reporting in the world: employment, consumer expenditure, family health, and now much of this data is doctored to show Modi in a good light. That is very worrisome, when official statistics are lies, and are meant to flatter the leader and his party, rather than tell the truth and allow you to look in the mirror. 


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