Purely going by his preponderance in the national media (ranging from incessant intellectual interventions in various national dailies/magazines to sound-bites emitted in the hallowed precincts of Delhi television studio shows anchored by nearly fawning hosts) Ramachandra Guha, short of official coronation by the Nehruvian elitist intelligentsia, appears to have emerged India’s most important public intellectual. His new book, “The Makers of Modern India” is scheduled to hit the stands soon.
In Guha’s case we have a hitherto unwitnessed dimension at play, over and above the standard operating procedure that goes in to the making of an eminent intellectual. Guha’s intellectualism is not merely cheerlead by the usual suspects of the entrenched left liberal academic establishment. He appears to be a tutor to many influential technocrats and wealthy men of post liberalization India – a few of them who possibly have suppressed political inclinations and are currently biding their time in mouthing homilies. Without any data points to substantiate, this writer is inclined to speculate that Guha could have contributed liberally to the thought process that went behind a very readable book written by a knowledge industry doyen.
Guha’s intellectual persona has been built up gradually to currently dizzying heights – he is today, undoubtedly Indian civil society’s interlocutor to the rest of world – one who demystifies the complexities of our cacophonous democracy and ugly ‘Yindoo’ fundamentalism to a puzzled but receptive global audience. Reading and quoting Guha has become an intellectual fashion for not only for the entrenched left liberal establishment but also to the noveau networked elites representing Shining India.
Not so long ago, outside of those who were seriously engaged with the intellectual discourse of this country, Guha could have been easily mistaken as a mere cricket historian (with more than typical unhealthy levels of Tambrahm obsession with cricket trivia) who occasionally wandered in to uninspired political history essaying. I still vividly remember a visibly happy Guha in a TV Studio, hardly able to restrain his joy at the electoral eclipse of NDA in 2004, making a superbly funny dig at the loud mouthed buffoonery of Venkiah Naidu by likening him to a Andhra cricketer Narasmiha Rao (Rao played 2 test match for India, apparently tonsured his head in Tirumala after which he never appeared again for India. Naidu too had tonsured his head as a prelude to 2004 election results).However such facile characterization of Guha was slightly unfair given his versatile scholarship and seminal work in social anthropology and such esoteric fields.
Things turned around dramatically for Guha after the publication of his much touted magnum opus “India after Gandhi”. Guha skyrocketed to stratospheric levels of adulation. The book admittedly was a magisterial effort in post independence history compilation/documenting. But the book was extremely underwhelming for those who have more than passing interest in political history of India. Early passages of the book made for a breezy reading as it recounts and celebrates the efforts of few unsung bureaucrats who played an instrumental role in the making of modern India. That a person like Guha, who indulges in unabashed Nehruvian veneration could even recognize the significance of other contributors towards the nation building effort warmed the hearts of few critics. However the latter part of book, especially the chapters pertaining to contemporary history, degenerated to banal wiki style writing. Surprisingly, criticism of the book was muted and with a generous dose of liberal media orchestrated buzz, the book is now a defacto reference cum recommended reading for those who want to initiate themselves in to post Independence political history. It’s pretty unfortunate that other than L.K Advani’s brave attempt to restore some balance through his excellent autobiography, a serious counter narrative has not been as yet launched to Guha’s nearly monodimensional construction of post-independence India.
Another interesting aspect of Guha’s intellectualism is that it cannot be straight jacketed in to the lazy, ridiculously reductionist caricature/characterization that many in the boisterous sections of the rightwing resort to against anyone those who don’t agree with their worldview i.e invoking the “Marxist-Mullah-Missionary” framework. Guha occasionally displays streaks of liberalism thought in a disappointingly selective manner. A hallmark of any desi-liberal, like his global counterpart elsewhere, is feeble censoring, sometimes even tacit justification of virulent wave of Islamism-Leftist violence while unleashing a verbal fusillade against a benign form of nationalism that essentially emerged as a counter mobilization response to such these twin forces of organized brutalities.
Guha also sometimes comes dangerously close to forging a narrative justifying the mayhem unleashed by India’s very own marauding red army .But just when we think that he is an quintessential Indian left liberal (overt face of covert terror) he manage to salvage his dwindling liberal credentials by launching a well-articulated criticism of the organized left. One still recalls his blistering criticism of Arundhati Roy’s poisonous polemics and his sharp attack on a notorious and controversial China loving Madrasi Marxist journalist for whitewashing Tibetan cultural genocide.
While Guha too has been recently susceptible to classical leftist tactics of using imagery based narrative of suffering India rather than hard data to build his case, there is nothing meaningful from his end to suggest that he is an indoctrinated ideological opponent of economic reforms like those Marxist ideologues masquerading as professors in the School of Economics, JNU. It could also partially stem from the fact that on purely professional cum pecuniary grounds, the likes of Guha have been well served by a globalised India.
One is not sure in what ideological mould that Guha sees himself in – possibly that of the pontificating internationalist social democrat type intellectual of the European variety (those who continue to carry the White man’s moral burden, think that Europe is cradle of all things intellectually remarkable, trust upstarts writing for The Economist as source of infinite wisdom and support cradle to grade welfare social welfare while wanting to leverage all great things that capitalism provides)
Another Guha surprise is his claim of intellectual affinity with C. Rajagopalachari – a brilliant liberal who was an early opponent of Nehru’s catastrophic economic experiments and a remarkably erudite Ethihasic scholar. But nothing in Guha’s writing suggests that he has even remotely embraced anything that Rajaji stood for.
Can the Indian rightwing come up with a coherent strategy to deal with Guha, the public intellectual? The easiest and laziest thing for the Indian rightwing to do would be to continue ad hominem criticism against Guhaism without any attempt to build a counter narrative. But with Guha also set to gain greater prominence in determining the way the idea of India is going to be communicated to world now and in the future, the Indian rightwing movement can look at an engagement strategy with Guha. In a lighter vein, given that any field of activity in the Indian intellectual industry cannot be impervious to dynastic continuity we might see Guha Junior (shows early promise of following Dad’s footsteps) unleashed on us.
Can we have even a meeting point between two ideological spectrums – one school of thought that passionately (and rightfully) believes that Bharat preceded India (we had a civilizational continuity largely influenced by Hinduness but enriched by other extrinsic cultural influences which predates the formation of Republic of India) and Guha’s idea of Nehruvian India (which besides denying existence of shared cultural commonality, strips the Desh of any glorious civilizational moments and believes that the idea of India is purely a Nehru initiated work in progress.)
From Guha’s end, a realization that outside the charmed circle of academics and intellectuals, the only other group of people in this country who are engaged with serious political thought and care deeply about the idea of India is the hugely expanding group pejoratively termed Internet Hindus (Middle India is largely apolitical and apathetic). They may be boisterous, bellicose and not fully initiated to the parameters of a civil debate. But it is a group that is sufficiently energized about and engaged with existential issues confronting this country. Guha would do well to understand that this group would be wiiling to hear many interesting insights that he can offer says provided he departs from the conventional Secular vs Communal binary faultiness.
(Prasanna Viswanathan is an old friend of Centre Right India)
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