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Exclusivism will not work in India

Senior Congress leader Karan Singh says an exclusivist cultural construct is alien to India and not valid even within Hinduism, in an exclusive chat with M.R.Venkatesh. This is the full text of the interview published in the print edition of The Hindu on January 2, 2014.

The country seems headed for another long period of political instability as 2014 Lok Sabha elections approach. Will the quality of coalitions at the Centre get worse or do you see a ray of hope?

First of all, I think that coalition politics has now become firmly entrenched. So to look upon it as some kind of a curse or some kind of a problem, I think we must get over that. It is now part of our political life. So to lament the fact that it will be coalition is meaningless. That is the point number one I would like to make; because I do not think a situation will arise, as far as I can see, in this century that one party will get 300 seats or 280 seats. Therefore, coalitions are inevitable. Now the question is what sort of coalition comes into power? After all, for ten years, we [Congress-led United Progressive Alliance –UPA] have run a coalition. The UPA Government has been a coalition. It’s not a Congress government. At one stage, we may have had more partners, at another stage less partners; but it was a coalition. We ran it for ten years. Now let us see what happens next year. If a proper coalition comes into power with a common minimum programme and if that is properly implemented, then that should be alright. I am not one of those who predicts the doomsday ahead because of coalition. I not only see a ray of hope, I am full of hope for India and its future.

What explains the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) victory in Delhi Assembly polls?

You see, actually it’s too soon to say whether this will become a national phenomenon or not. The thing is that, what is the meaning? Obviously, the AAP was able to tap into the frustration/anger of the people, rightly or wrongly, and therefore they got a lot of support. And their whole way of politics you know – a new kind of politics going around from house to house that appealed to the people; they did not get a majority mind you! But they are forming a government. Now, we have to wait and see two things: first of all how they perform in Delhi, because Delhi is not just any ordinary State; it is the heart of India and therefore it is a very critical and crucial State. So their performance will be watched; whether their performance is satisfactory or it isn’t how it goes, we have to wait and see. Because it is a very new experiment and we should give it a fair chance.

Now the second part of your question is whether it is going to become a nation-wide phenomenon? We don’t know. But they have given an indication that they want to expand. Now whether the same experiment can work (elsewhere)? You see, Delhi is a city-state. The others are not city-states. They are with a lot of huge rural areas. If you take Maharashtra or Karnataka, there is a city-Mumbai or Bengaluru; but there are lots of other areas too. But in Delhi it is only the city. So, there is a difference between Delhi and the other States. Let us see.

But can parties like the AAP with a small core agenda and an NGO approach be viable?

They (AAP) say they have 18 points; actually, if you look at their 18-point agenda, mainly against poverty, maladministration and corruption, or rather they are for proper administration. I think that their ideology at the local level, at the micro-level, is effective. Whether it becomes effective at the macro-level or not, will depend on how they perform and how their thinking evolves.

Post-poll, if the UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) both fall short of the working numbers in the new Parliament, will Congress be more flexible in supporting a secular formation of regional parties from the outside, a Pachmarhi-plus kind of approach?

Pachmarhi [the Congress’ famous brainstorming session there in Madhya Pradesh in September 1998 flagged a new approach to coalitions] of course was the Congress standpoint at that time. I think it is difficult to speak for the Congress, for these are matters which ultimately will be decided after the elections. But on principle, I think we can say that the Congress would be prepared to get the support of parties outside. I don’t think there will be enough parties to be supported from the outside; without that the numbers will not come. So, my view is, or rather my expectation is that there will be either an UPA-III or an NDA-II. And these are the major parties. This idea, that without the Congress and without the BJP you will be able to make a government of 280 people, I do not think that is so. It is true there are a number of leaders in the country who may get 25 to 30 seats each, which is a lot of seats. But they are all different leaders. I think they will need one of the major parties to form a government.

If a Third Front of regional parties stakes a claim?

Regional parties by themselves, I don’t think they will be able to. They may work as a ‘Third Front’. They may get some support as a ‘Third Front’. But that they will be able to form a government seems unlikely.

Do you, specifically, see a scenario where Congress would support a secular combination from the outside as they did for Inder Kumar Gujral for instance?

I don’t think (so). That was a very peculiar situation. And that as you know, all those outside-support governments did not last long; there was V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda and there was Inder Gujral. [V.P. Singh government was supported by the BJP and the Left from the outside]. That was a period of total instability, if you remember. Then the BJP came and there was some stability with the NDA-I, and then UPA-I and UPA-II came. So, now my view is we are in for UPA-III, not to be written off, or NDA-II.

Will that be the next evolutionary step in coalition politics and broadly what do you think would be the constituents of that coalition?

I think so. That is my view. On the constituents, I would rather not answer that because the situation is still very fluid. Leaders and parties are taking their positions. But broadly, the positions are known. Except for the AAP, which is a new comer, all the other parties we pretty well know what they stand for. But there can be alliances. We have had alliances also (in the past).

Do you feel the regional parties themselves would come around to support either the Congress or the BJP?

That is what I feel ultimately. The regional parties are very important and no doubt about it. There are lot of regional parties in the non-Hindi speaking areas and regional parties are strong even in the Hindi-speaking areas, like in U.P. for example- the Mulayam Singh-led Samajwadi Party and the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) led by Mayawati-Nitish Kumar’s (Janata Dal-United) is another such in the Hindi-speaking area. So, these regional parties are very important because they are close to the people. Look at the way Naveen Patnaik (leader of Biju Janata Dal) has performed in Odisha. He came from nowhere. First time, he won on his father’s name, but after that he won three times. So, that means, a good regional party dealing with the problems of the people and who are honest will get support.

Do you expect a role for regional parties from Tamil Nadu?

Yes, of course! (laughs). Without Tamil Nadu, we cannot have Indian politics. At one time, the joke was that the Tamils felt that Delhi was running Tamil politics. Now the reverse is true. The Tamils are running Delhi politics. So, the Tamils are a very important component of our national life. Whichever party is dominant here, even in the last 10 years and more, Tamil parties have been part of Central coalitions; so the Tamil parties will certainly play a major role. Which side they will go and how things will happen, that is a different matter.

The Tagore-Gandhi-Nehruvian vision of Indian nationalism has been lot more inclusive than the ‘Hindutva’ or ‘cultural Nationalism’ of the BJP-led right wing forces today. How to we meet these challenges to secularism, social cohesion and inter-religious harmony?

You see, first of all it is not really Tagore-Gandhi-Nehru (continuity in that sense); Tagore had his own views on many issues as did Gandhiji. But you could say the Nehruvian tradition, was basically ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’, which is equal respect to all religions. I feel this is a better term than ‘secularism’ for the latter is a term taken from Europe when there was a clash between the Church and the State.

You remember Henry the VIII wanted to marry for the sixth time and did not get a divorce and that whole episode. Therefore, they broke away and said we are ‘secular’ and the Church is different. But that doesn’t apply to India. We never had a Church of that type. We never had one overwhelming organization. So, ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’, which I call secularism, is very important. No doubt about it. And Hinduism doesn’t have to be necessarily reactionary. You heard my speech today at the Indian Philosophical Congress. I don’t think there was anything in that speech which you could call in any way objectionable. I think it was a very positive articulation of the ‘Vedantic’ view-point. That is Hinduism. With its ‘Vedantic’ approach, Hinduism is universal. You can’t shun Hinduism because you feel there are some people taking unacceptable views. In fact, the way to combat that is to explain what Hinduism is and thereby cut the ground from the under the feet of people who are trying to make it more exclusive.

But these right-wing forces are on the rise in the last 20-30 years, wanting to construct an exclusivist cultural position?

Yes. Well, I don’t think exclusivism will work in India. As I said, “Ekam Sat, Vipra Bahuda Vadanthi” (the Truth is one, the wise call it by many names). From the beginning of our tradition, we have accepted many different paths to the divine. I don’t think that the idea of emphasizing only one path is valid even within Hinduism. There is ‘Advaita’, ‘Vishistadvaita’, ‘Dwaita’; there are the ‘Shaivas’, ‘Vaishnavas’, the ‘Shaktas’. There are so many different ways. It is not a monolithic religion that says only this way can you achieve salvation. And that’s why I don’t think an attempt to make it monolithic is going to work.

But does not the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Mr. Narendra Modi’s recent remark that had Sardar Patel been the first Prime Minister, India’s destiny would have been different, imply a majoritarian appropriation of national unity?

No way Sardar Patel was a majoritarian. He was the architect of free India. I don’t think he should be denigrated in any way. I knew him personally … the fact that I am walking around and well at this age is thanks to Sardar Patel, because he got me sent to America for my treatment. If Nehru was the right-hand man (of Mahatma Gandhi) Patel was the left-hand man. Sardar Patel was the organization man, who dominated the Congress organization. Jawaharlal Nehru was the articulator, the idealistic progenitor of free India. So, to try and bring about a dichotomy between Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, I don’t think that is fair to Patel at all.

And Sardar, as you know, died in December 1950, hardly two to two-and-a-half years after Independence. Jawaharlal Nehru had 17 years as Prime Minister. So, this is a fruitless speculation - what would have happened if so-and-so had become Prime Minister. You can’t say what would have happened. The BJP may be having their own way (of appropriating Patel’s legacy); we have as much regard for the Sardar as the BJP. In fact, he was a Congressman all his life. You know, the Congress also, like Hinduism, has a number of thought processes within it. Some tend to be more conservative; some tend to be more liberal. Congress also is, in some ways, a reflection of India, with all its diversity and pluralism.

Everybody in the Congress, as far as I know, has only admiration for the Sardar. I have not heard of any Congressmen saying anything derogatory. Jawaharlal Nehru stayed for 17 years. Then his daughter, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, became Prime Minister for 15 years. Then Rajiv Gandhi led (the Congress) for nearly ten years including a full term as Prime Minister. Then Sonia Gandhi dominated the government for ten years. So, from 1947 to now, for nearly 52 years this family has been there. Naturally, it is talked about more, and Nehru talked about (it) more than Patel. So that is understandable. But that does not mean the Sardar is forgotten in any way. For example, the integration of the Indian States was the great handiwork of the Sardar. Without that the united India that you see today, may not have been possible.

Have some of Congress policies been responsible for the rise of ‘Hindu-right-wing forces’ in recent years?

What policies? Don’t forget one point. There has been a rise of Muslim extremism, largely fuelled from across the border, but also some of it from within the country itself. All these terrorists’ acts that take place, every time that happens the opposite forces get an opportunity. So, one of the reasons that explains the rise, among other things, is the growth of ‘Islamist terrorism’, not ‘Islamic terrorism’, all around the world as you can see and that particularly has hit us in India. The terrible events in Mumbai - all these terrorists acts that took place - they create a sort of atmosphere in which these views begin to gain ground. So I don’t think it is the Congress policies that are responsible. Frankly, our policies have never been in any way, sort of anti-Hindu. Some people may feel we tend towards the Minorities, because that is part of the Congress culture from the beginning. The Minorities have to be protected. But I think that Minoritism also is not a good idea. It has to be a balance.

Kashmir has been alternating between periods of peace and unrest with no resolution of the problem yet. What do you see as the future of Kashmir?

First of all, I must correct you. There is no such State as Kashmir. The State is Jammu and Kashmir, which was founded by my forefathers. Half the problems we face are because you (media) use Kashmir as a short-hand for Jammu and Kashmir (J and K). Please remember this is a composite State. It was built up by Maharaja Gulab Singh. Ladakh has Tibetan culture, Gilgit, Baluchistan has Central Asian culture, the Punjabi-Muslim belt which is now POK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) has more of Punjabi culture, Jammu has the Dogra culture and the Kashmir valley has its own special own features. So, it is not a Kashmir problem. It is a Jammu and Kashmir problem. That is the first point. Please clarify that to your readers. For many people even today use the word ‘Kashmir’.

Number Two, I am not going to go into the details of that (the problem) because I have lived through the whole thing. We have been through ups and downs; I have seen the whole gamut and I have been involved in the whole thing. I would only say this: that some steps need to be taken on the lines of the various committees and reports that have come up; you know there were the Round Tables. There was earlier the Gajendragadkar Committee, the Sikri Committee and then, more recently, the interlocutors role. They have all made some positive suggestions, for example, set up Regional Councils. There is no reason why we shouldn’t do that. We should have done that by now and sort of devolve powers to the Regional Councils. So, there are lots of things which we can do, but which for some reasons we have not been able to do, which might help to bring stability.

Further, there are three aspects of the Jammu and Kashmir matter, which I will just state without going into details. First is the International aspect with Pakistan. Half the State is no longer with us. My father’s (Maharaja Hari Singh) State was 84,000 Sq. miles. Now only 42,000 Sq. miles are with us, the other parts either dominated by Pakistan or under Chinese control. So, ultimately that is an International dimension. It is not an internal problem only. We had the ceasefire with Pakistan, the Tashkent Agreement, then the Shimla Agreement with Pakistan. So, we have got to tackle that. If we say it is only an internal problem, it means we are writing off half the State first, apart from anything else.

The second dimension is the relationship of Jammu and Kashmir State with the rest of India. Whether we like it or not, it is a special relationship. It is governed by Article 370 and by the Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir. I was the Sadr-i-Riyasat when I signed that document and it became Law. So, the Constitution is still there. You may ask me why it is separate. That is a different matter. Historical circumstances were there and that is why it was done. I am not going into a value judgment. I am just making a point. So, the relationship between the State and the Centre had these ups and downs. Some groups want more autonomy and some groups want abolition of autonomy and so on. So, that is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The ‘third dimension’ is the Intra-State problem. Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, their relationship; because as I have said, it is not a culturally homogenous State; the language is different, the culture is different, the food is different, the dress is different, the politics is different. So, that has to be also balanced. That’s why I made the point about those regions. So, unless you deal with Jammu and Kashmir on all three levels, the problem or the situation is not really going to be solved. That’s all.

(Excerpts of this interview were originally published in The Hindu, and is accessible here.)

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