Mainstream, VOL LII No 34 August 16, 2014 - Independence Day Special
Friday 15 August 2014, by
Like many of my fellow citizens I too watched the recent interview of Natwar Singh by Karan Thapar. The contents of the interview made front-page headlines in national newspapers. Having heard the interview in which Karan Thapar emphasised that the 80-year-old diplomat-turned-politician had revealed much more in the interview than he had done in his book. What has he revealed?
This is not in defence of Sonia Gandhi. She is capable of defending herself. This is not in defence of the Congress party. It has many very articulate advocates who are quite capable of doing that.
But I do feel the need to speak out against for some very important principles that have been sacrificed by those who have chosen to attack the Congress party, its leaders and its past actions at this juncture. And even those who are defending themselves against the attacks have chosen to do so at a level which does not seek to raise any questions or initiate a debate on a vast number of political questions.
Natwar Singh claimed to be Sonia Gandhi’s close friend and he claimed she told him things that she did not share with her children. So? How is that important? He said she betrayed him and for eight years he was sent into political exile. It may be tragic for an individual who feels betrayed by a friend but is it of national importance to us, citizens of India?
Then Natwar Singh reveals that Sonia Gandhi did not take up the Prime Ministership of India because her son, Rahul, was adamant that she should not take up the office because he did not want to lose his mother after having lost his father and grandmother. It was a very personal scene to which, if Natwar Singh was privy, he has betrayed the trust placed on him.
Even when Karan Thapar gave him an opportunity to withdraw his highly personalised attacks, the old man refused and insisted he was doing it in the interest of history. But his body language showed that he was enjoying the national attention as he said that Sonia and her daughter had come to his home with a request not to include that part in his book.
It was all a terrible waste of time and space on national television and it left me feeling very uncomfortable. I could not help but remember my father, whom Natwar Singh looked upon as his guru. Even though my father was attacked during the Emergency, he refussed to take the attack on him personally. Even though his 80-year-old Uncle was arrested and he could have been financially ruined, he refused to let his personal feelings come in the way of his political beliefs. The question that needs to be asked of all those who blame Sonia Gandhi for being authoritarian is: who is responsible? How come such a big party, which had for a good part of its existence enjoyed popular support, come to be dominated by one person? I would go so far as to say: how come in such a deeply patriarchal and feudal atmosphere of the Congress party a woman could wield such power that all the men were silenced? Could it be that they were silenced not by Sonia Gandhi but by their own internal squabbles and petty politicking that they preferred her to take on the power and responsibility rather than do something about an institution which was slowly being corroded of all the values and principles it was founded on?
How was it that there was no debate or discussion around the questions raised by Mani Shankar Aiyar in his book addressed to his fellow Congressmen called: Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist? In that book he had written: “The real danger before the country is not a BJP electoral victory. The real danger lies in the rest of us seeking to thwart the rise in electoral support to the BJP by becoming pale imitations of the original.”
Mani Shankar has continued to defend those principles even though he fell from favour and was sidelined. He like many Congressmen and women has refused to fall to the level that Natwar Singh has fallen. They have chosen to uphold something and nurture the principles that originally inspired them to join the party and refused to air personal grievances or hurts against their leaders.
There are other Congress leaders who have resigned from the Congress party because they felt that the party was making too many compromises with the communal forces. In 1982 Subhadra Joshi, a veteran Congress woman, resigned from all positions from the party as also from the primary membership because she felt the party had made too many compromises with communal organisations, such as the RSS, BJP, Jamaat-e-Islami, Akali Dal, Muslim League. She refused to take a Rajya Sabha seat because it would be with the support of BJP votes.1
Subhadra Joshi and her colleague D.R. Goyal launched the monthly Secular Democracy in which they systematically exposed both Hindu and Muslim communalism. But they did so in the context of a wider vision of India as a member of the community of nations.
And before Subhadraji resigned Jawaharlal Nehru too resigned from the Congress Parliamentary Party on August 21, 1951 stating that the Congress had lost its idealism. I am sure he felt betrayed by many but he chose to stay on and fight for his ideals and principles.
Those who have chosen to make personal attacks on Congress leaders at a time when they feel it is safe to do so; because it would help them in their careers with the new government or push sales of their books, reflect the times when mediocrity rules and intellectual independence and integrity is punished.
What is so urgently needed is a real debate on the meaning of secularism and democracy. It is not a question that only we in India are facing; it is a question around which there are inter-national debates and we need to understand these and make our interventions. So many of our young people voted for the BJP only because they wanted an alternative to the Congress party. The vote was not a rejection of the values and principles for which the Congress should have stood. And Sonia Gandhi did try to defend those principles in every speech she gave. But she was alone and she looked alone. She has had to bear a unbearably heavy cross for the sins of the Congressmen and women who have not had the guts to speak up for those principles or stand up to her if they thought she had erred in her judgements.
Natwar sounded like a feudal patriarch who was hurt by a daughter-in-law’s defiance. He says never would an Indian woman have dared speak to him like that. It made me feel that Sonia Gandhi is living in the midst of a suffocating patriarchal feudal family from which there is no escape. If the Congress wants an alternative, they should fight for one; if they want her to change, they must stand up to her; and if they want to come back to power, they must do some soul-searching.
Sonia Gandhi, on her part, has stood by her principles in the face of opposition from her party. For instance, she intervened to save Nalini from hanging because she is against death penalty. Even when Nalini was responsible for the murder of the person she loved so deeply. In her quiet way there are many examples of how she has upheld her values even in the most difficult times.
In Nehru’s vision India was to be a secular country but also a democratic one. He wanted more and more democracy so that the unity of India could be strengthened; he believed that secularism could survive only if there was more democracy. And more democracy would lead to greater unity.2
This vision has become even more important than when Nehru enunciated it. It is an ideal which may seem almost impossible to dream about at this juncture of our nation’s history and when we see the recent developments in the world. But to me that is why it becomes so much more important for all of us who believe in this vision to unite and debate how we can work towards realising this dream.
Now Natwar Singh is busy giving interviews issuing clarifications and he has claimed that America had opposed his appointment. Then should we not be discussing this matter and asking ourselves whether the growing friend-ship with the Americans will help or hinder our dream of a democratic secular India?
It would be wonderful if the national television channels could find space and time to discuss these important questions instead of allowing an old bitter man to vent his hurt on national television. But if they do not, we must work in such a way that we make the news and the news is that many lakhs of Indians still dream of a democratic secular India and are willing to work towards realisation of that dream.
1. Subhadra Joshi’s resignation letter was published in Secular Democracy, September 1982.
2. Jawahrlal Nehru, Communal Menace in India quoted in Secular Democracy, Independence Number, 1983.
The author is a human rights lawyer and writer.