Pratik Kanjilal: In your book, you make a case for almost the entire period of British Rule being a systematic method of extraction and extortion.
There is a lot of looking back at the Empire through rose-tinted spectacles. There is a lot of self-justificatory writing as well. You’ve read Neil Ferguson, for example, who argued that the British Empire laid the foundations for India and other colonies to participate and benefit from the globalisation of the 21st Century… There is a lot of research on colony literature, which I have sourced in my book, including a lot of up-to-date research going on in Indian and foreign universities of this time period, but in terms of popular reading and writing, there is very little out there that makes this case.
Pratik Kanjilal: You have referred to the Railways as a gigantic scam. But it is always held up as a flagship project in altruism.
There was one specific justification that do-gooders expressed—that at least famines can be dealt with more efficiently (with the railway network). In fact, the worst famines continued to occur in the very areas where the Railways were. Famines killed Indians because British policy killed Indians; not because of lack of transport. The British had a policy on famines. First of all, they said, the free market principle should not be violated. Second, they believed in the Malthusian population doctrine so if land can’t support the population, let them die. And the third was a very Victorian thing, fiscal prudence—let us not spend money that we have not budgeted. So they deliberately did not help during famines… So the Railways helping deal with famines is a complete lie.
Pratik Kanjilal: You also say the British left behind a deeper impact on India than the Mughals did?
The Mughals, and most other rulers, by and large, left things undisturbed. Even much of the violence against religious places has been analysed by scholars as being essentially part of the destruction that accompanies an advancing frontier. Remember, none of the frontiers amongst the various princely states was set in stone. It was not like the modern map with a line on it. People did attack temples as they were often associated with the presiding king. You had to attack the temple to undermine the power and authority of that king. But once the ruler captured the place, they usually showed utmost respect. In fact, many Muslim monarchs paid for the building of temples. Take Tipu Sultan, for example, who is being reviled today in many ways as somebody who forcibly converted Hindus and Christians and killed people and so on. That was part of his conquest. But once he consolidated control, he was an extremely generous benefactor. All his ministers were Hindus. So Tipu is a more complex character and we are trying to apply a retrospective understanding of all these rumours. Frankly, Hindu kings also attacked temples to undermine a ruler who was believed to be protected by the deity of the temple.
Sheela Bhatt: What do you think of the demonetisation exercise? Was it an unwise move considering ours is a cash economy, or could it have been better implemented?
We will never know how good it might have been. It has been implemented so badly and in such an astonishingly incompetent manner that at the end of the day, the flaws are inherent in the way in which the idea was unleashed upon us. The problem goes to such basic elements of planning such as not having enough currency before you spring this on the nation, when 86% of your currency would become illegal in three-and-a-quarter hours. That’s astonishing. Nobody in the world has done this. Secondly, even the lack of planning in something as basic as making the new notes the same size as the old so that they can fit in the ATM is mindboggling. Then you scramble to find 55,000 engineers to recalibrate 2.5 lakh ATMs. This makes the government look amateurish.
Thirdly, the repeated changing of the goalposts. You announce an intention and then four days later you backtrack. It’s as if they just don’t know what they are doing… There has been a complete disavowal of responsibility and culpability in these failures, which is also troubling.
Then there are these mysterious raids where they are unearthing vast quantities of brand new notes in the hands of all sorts of people who shouldn’t have them, while the ordinary public has been queuing eight hours a day and, in the end, are being told that there is no money in the bank.
Then there is the talk of a cashless society, which may be an admirable goal in the long term but look at the complete absence of digital infrastructure to support it… It seems the government is trying to put the cart before the horse. Our ambitions are exceeding our groundwork and our ability to fulfill it. We must first build significant infrastructure.
Abantika Ghosh: While the British must take the blame for India’s communal problems, how much do you think the Congress’s policies added to the divide?
Communalism was inherited from the British in 1947. I am sure none of us wanted to come to freedom in the conditions that the British left us with—a communal system, Partition, the huge refugee crisis, life expectancy of 27 years, 8% literacy rate of women and so on. Who would want to start from there? But we did and we had to do the best we could of what we had. While we must be self-critical, the truth is that we have come an astonishingly long way and we should not completely overlook that. Having said that—and I have said that in the book—this is not intended to absolve today’s rulers of any of the mistakes, deficiencies. I have written on many of our errors in judgement. I think the Congress’s record with regard to communalism, with the exception of the 1984 riots, has been rather good. The party has tried to stand up for a secular and plural vision of India.
Abantika Ghosh: But some call the Congress’s policies appeasement…
The alternative is to disenfranchise the minorities. Perhaps neither should be there but certainly, given that in any society the majority has some inherent advantages, appeasement would be preferable to bigotry and contempt coming out of some voice in our current political space.
Manoj C G: In the past, you have disapproved of disruptions in Parliament. With the Winter Session coming to an end, has your party’s strategy served any purpose?
My personal views remain strongly opposed to disrupting Parliament. My voters did not send me to Parliament to disrupt it. To that degree, I think it is deplorable that this has been part of the political culture of our country. But to blame only the Opposition is equally unfair because very sadly this has seeped into the political culture. Disruptions have become deeply engrained in our parliamentary practice. Unfortunately, to change it at any one point of time gives the advantage to the government of the day, something the Opposition will not be willing to concede. Today the golden rule of politics is: do unto others what they had done unto you. Since the BJP had done it to the UPA constituents for 10 years, the UPA constituents are like, let’s give it back… Of course, if the entire Opposition is suspended because they are all standing in the Well, what do you have in terms of democracy? So something has to be done by the parliamentary floor manager and ruling party to defuse the crisis.
Shobhana Subramanian: Shouldn’t the Congress have forced the government to defend itself in Parliament?
Well, frankly, what just happened, as had happened when the BJP was in the Opposition, is that a lot of this public discourse has moved to the media. You folks are now the LS Speaker and RS Chairman as it is in your forums that these arguments are being made. Many from the Congress have written op-eds. But Parliament is supposed to be the forum. To begin with, it is extremely unusual for such a major policy to be announced outside Parliament just a week before the Winter Session. The convention is that major policy decisions are discussed and adopted in Parliament. Okay, the PM thought it necessitated secrecy. But a week later, come to Parliament and tell us. But the fact that the PM hasn’t taken the initiative to present this, or even to ask his Finance Minister to present this, is shocking for anyone who knows parliamentary conventions. Having said that, yes, we got hung up on this thing that the Opposition, not just the Congress, wanted to have a debate and also a vote. And the government, for reasons best known to itself, has consistently refused a debate that led to a vote. Indira Gandhi was never afraid of a vote because she knew she had the numbers and there were rich debates. In fact, I remember one such debate in which Vajpayee, after losing a vote, said with an air of resignation, ‘We have the arguments, you have the votes’. We too might have been reduced to saying the same in the end, but at least you would have heard the arguments and the government could have prevailed on the basis of votes. There has also been the issue of the Prime Minister’s absence because it was seen as his policy, and therefore, he should be present.
Maneesh Chhibber: The general opinion seems to be that people like Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal have been taking the lead in rallying the Opposition on demonetisation. Has the Congress lost its leadership position in the Opposition?
No. What we have is a plural Opposition, with the Congress in the lead. So when the united Opposition went to meet the President, it was Rahul Gandhi who spoke for us and led the delegation. Indeed, we are the largest opposition party but there are others with approachable size and it is natural that they find space on this. Certainly, other parties may have their own style but I don’t think this means we are lacking in visibility. If you want to use disruptions as the yardstick, there have been as many Congressmen shouting slogans as there were others… To this day, the co-ordination meetings of the Opposition are led by the Congress. Mallikarjun Kharge occupies, though he does not have the title, of the leader of the Opposition and he plays that role in coordination and concert with other Opposition floor leaders.
Sheela Bhatt: Do you think there has been an erosion of PM Modi’s goodwill after the November 8 announcement?
To some degree, yes, but to what degree remains to be established. One of the things that this government has unfortunately succeeded in doing—and I say ‘unfortunately’ for reasons broader than political—is to identify a lot of its work and policies with patriotism. Everything that the government is doing is being described in terms of national interest. A Facebook post after the demonetisation move asked ‘If soldiers could stand at the border for 24 hours, why not for this’. And I think that has worked to some extent. So common people have given the government the benefit of the doubt. But how long will it last? Modi had asked for 50 days. I do hope the media will remind the government of its 50-day deadline. But I am sure that goalpost will also be shifted. To my mind, this is a severe test of the nation’s goodwill. So far, the government has stayed afloat because people still have the sense of sacrifice for the nation. But eventually, when all the lessons sink in, will it remain? I have my doubts.
Anand Mishra: Some parties claim not to be opposed to demonetisation but its implementation. Do you think that’s a sustainable position?
There are inherent flaws in the policy, in the way in which it has been unleashed. Where is the policy skeleton? Where is the impact assessment? The classic elements of a policy are missing because it seems to have been devised by a small group of people who haven’t discussed it widely and not taken larger things into account. So it is not just an objection to the process. Find me one credible writer, economist, magazine, think-tank who has said this is a great policy and that these are minor inconveniences that can be overlooked as the government today would like us to believe.
Aaron Pereira: What is your view on the recent instances of online hacking, including of the Congress account and Rahul Gandhi’s?
I don’t know enough to suggest that there is any sort of political motive behind it, but very clearly, it’s a sophisticated job. For example, when Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter account was hacked, I know from my sources that every attempt made to change the password and restart the account was again hacked… There is nonetheless something curious as all those targeted seem to be people who are somehow seen as critical of the government. Whether it is Mr Rahul Gandhi, Mr Ravish Kumar, Barkha Dutt—these are all people who have not been particularly sympathetic to the ruling party or are, at least, willing to be critical of the government. If this enterprising hacker wants to convey that he’s just doing it as a freelance thing against people in power, then who could be more powerful than those who are actually exercising power in the country? At this stage, you have to accept that some people have their suspicions.
Aaron Pereira: This poses a grave threat to the PM’s Digital India drive.
The point I made on Twitter, and I think others have done the same, is that while we are moving more and more rapidly towards digital India, are we moving safely? Part of the problem is that the backbone of our basic infrastructure is so weak. For all these technologies we are so proud of, it is embarrassing now that we are about the only country in the world where a landline telephone represents a more reliable way of making a phone call than a cellular telephone. We have one of the slowest connection speeds in the world today. All of these things have to be improved before we can seriously fulfill these dreams of a cashless India, digital India, and all of that. At the moment, you know, we talk about Startup India and Digital India and so on, now we’ve gone to Queue Up India, because that’s what we’re all doing— lining up at banks, ATMs, lining up to get services that everywhere else people are able to take for granted.
Maneesh ChhibBer: As a writer, politician and a Congress leader, what is your view on the recent Supreme Court order asking all of us to stand up when the national anthem is played?
I’m a proud patriot… I was born in a foreign country and I’m entitled to that country’s passport, but I’ve never exercised it. I’ve been an Indian from birth to now. I proudly wear the country’s lapel pin wherever I go. So I don’t feel that I need to be explaining myself before I articulate my position, but in today’s atmosphere, I find it necessary to do so. I believe in showing respect to the symbols of the nation– the national anthem, the national flag… I carried it to such an extreme at one point that I put my hand across my heart when the national anthem was being sung after 26/11, and got taken to court for the next four years for my pains. (Tharoor had in 2008 interrupted the singing of the anthem and asked the audience to respect it by placing their hands on their chest. He was later exonerated.) So this is the sort of price that one is willing to pay for standing up for the national anthem. But I do so as an expression of my own love, loyalty and affection for my country, not because some government or some court has told me to do so. And where I get very troubled with the Supreme Court judgment — it is only an interim order— is it turns patriotism into a command. And to my mind, that is fundamentally flawed. Either you feel loyalty to a nation inside you, or you don’t. A cinema theatre is a place to show films, not to show patriotism. Because a person reluctantly standing up because he doesn’t want to be arrested or fined, or whatever else he is afraid of, doesn’t love his nation any more than if he were sitting down.
Full interview on www.indianexpress.com