"The Congress is a giant elephant. It is sure-footed. It is massive. It moves slowly. But once it moves, it moves firmly…. (But) It’s not enough to be an elephant. Sometimes we have to have the agility of a fox as well… India has changed."
Jairam Ramesh, Congress Rajya Sabha MP and former Union minister, talks about the relevance of Buddha, says a Scindia or Prasada leaving doesn’t mean end of Cong and the party continues to have a place, insists differences must be staged at party forums or ‘it will become an NGO’, and admits the need for changes. The session was moderated by Deputy Associate Editor Manoj CG.
MANOJ CG: How did you choose the subject of your new book?
The Light of Asia, which came out in 1879, is a book that I read when I was in my teens and it stuck with me. Over the years, I kept re-reading it and then I discovered how it influenced a whole generation of Indians — Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar. It has been translated into at least 12 Indian languages. It had a profound influence on social reformers, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu… It was not an academic book, it was an epic poem, and much more than any scholarly work, it really made Buddha pop in popular consciousness. In my view, the poem became so influential because it did not focus on the divinity of Buddha, it focused on the humanity of Buddha.
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Incidentally, the author of the poem, Edwin Arnold, was one of the great Indologists of the late 19th century. He was an unabashed Victorian imperialist, but he translated the Gita Govinda, the Mahabharata. Most importantly, his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, published as The Song Celestial, which came out in 1885, was the book that first introduced Mahatma Gandhi to the Bhagavad Gita. This was a book that Gandhi kept by his side till his death in 1948. It was a book that Gandhi would recommend to his family and friends. Edwin Arnold was a fascinating character in his own right. My book is a biography of a poem as well as a biography of an early orientalist.
MANOJ CG: Is Buddha relevant to Indian politics now?
In the early part of the 20th Century, the person who really influenced social reformers on breaking down caste barriers was Buddha. The Light of Asia was one of the most popular works then… The poem is about Prince Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. I have mentioned in the book that the Buddha became the Buddha by not following a Buddha, and that is the greatness of Buddha… Buddha said that the search for the light is within you — don’t be a bhakt, a blind follower, but discover the truth for yourself. That is Buddha’s eternal relevance. There is a political message of caste equality in his life and it is there in the poem too.
SHINY VARGHESE: What are some of the new things that you learnt while researching the book?
We all know about the Ayodhya dispute… Bodh Gaya too was the centre of a huge dispute between 1886 and 1953, between the Hindus and Buddhists. It was Edwin Arnold who triggered off this dispute with his visit to Bodh Gaya in 1886, when he wrote about how he saw the Mecca of Buddhism, the Jerusalem of Buddhism, being denigrated and desecrated by the mahant — the Shaivite priest who had control over the Mahabodhi temple. That started a whole process of agitation, in which the Sri Lankan monk Anagarika Dharmapala played a stellar role. The dispute finally got resolved in 1953. But even today, there are many Buddhist organisations, the Ambedkarite-Buddhists for instance, who want total control over the Mahabodhi temple. The 1953 compromise solution worked out by Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru and Shri Krishna Sinha (then Bihar CM) was for 50% control by Hindus and 50% control by Buddhists. Many people have written about the Bodh Gaya issue, but they have not traced the origin of the Bodh Gaya agitation to Arnold’s visit in 1886.
NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: Anagarika Dharmapala’s propagation of Buddhism also led to the first Buddhist-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka. So in that sense, it doesn’t seem very different from Hindutva. Would you agree?
I agree entirely with you. Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia is associated with violence. So yes, Buddha has been hijacked by political leaders for extremely divisive and violent nationalistic movements… The political use of Buddhism is no different from the political use of Islam or Hinduism or Christianity. It is a paradox that people continue to think of Buddhism in the context of compassion, love and tolerance. A large part of it, I would assume, is associated with the Dalai Lama. If you look at the track record of political parties in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, it’s not necessarily associated with compassion and tolerance. Dharmapala himself was a controversial figure. His final words were, ‘I wish for my rebirth, I am born as a Brahmin in Allahabad’. So he was also casteist…
In India, Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore were drawn to Buddha as a cultural figure, as a figure of Indian civilisation and Indian culture. Ambedkar was the only Indian to be drawn to Buddha for his political message… which was of breaking the Brahmin orthodoxy and bringing about caste equality.
ALAKA SAHANI: In contemporary India, is there a dearth of politicians who are thinkers, philosophers, and engage with literature the way Churchill, Gandhi and Nehru did? How has it affected the politics of today?
Well, I certainly wish more political leaders write. It’s not as if people in politics are not authors. Some political leaders are poets, some political leaders write novels, some political readers write biographies. But politics in India has become a 24/7 profession. In the British political tradition, you will find many political leaders who have also become very noted biographers and writers of both fiction and non-fiction. But, you know, politics in India is very time consuming. It is so people-intensive that I suppose only when you are out of power, you end up having the time to write books.
DIVYA A: Did you draw any comparisons between the Buddhist and the Ayodhya temple movements?
So, there is a small group of Buddhist organisations which would like to have complete control over the Mahabodhi temple. But as I have argued in my book, the Mahabodhi temple has been sacred not only to Buddhists but also to the Hindus. This is the characteristic of most sacred places in India… But we have this binary in our minds… The Indic civilisation has been characterised by multiple strands of sacredness, and Bodh Gaya was one of them… This notion that a place is sacred only to one faith is a peculiarly Western idea which has been implanted in the Indian consciousness… Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, Shri Krishna Sinha, Nehru, all four of them played a very important role in bringing about the compromise solution (at Bodh Gaya). So, in many ways, this is a parallel (with Ayodhya).
HARISH DAMODARAN: But what about Ambedkarite Buddhism, which really revived Buddhism in India, where would you place that?
We have been taught the traditional four sights of the Buddha from childhood, and it is there in Arnold’s poem too. But Dharmanand Kosambi was the first to point out that there was a political battle between two clans which completely anguished Prince Siddhartha, and it was that which drove him to go through the path of enlightenment and, incidentally, this is also the thesis of Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s last book, which was published a few months after he passed away, The Buddha and His Dhamma, rejects this view of Buddhism. He embraces the Kosambi view, the political view… It was (Ambedkar’s) conversion in 1956 that really shook up Indian society… But for him it was a profoundly political act. He saw Buddha through a political lens. So, as long as Ambedkar’s message of breaking down caste barriers remains central to Indian political thinking, Buddha will continue to be relevant.
TANUSHREE GHOSH: Can you elaborate on the paradox of Buddhism seen in many south-east Asian countries?
About 20 years ago, I wrote an article on the paradox of Sri Lanka. We associate Buddha with compassion, tolerance, peace and understanding, but Sri Lanka is a very violent society. There is evidence to show that the person who assassinated (former Sri Lankan PM) Solomon Bandaranaike was a monk. So, yes, these are paradoxes… Japan prides itself on its Buddhist heritage, but look at the Japanese record in the 1920s. I call it the political perversion of Buddha. These societies which proclaimed allegiance to the Buddha in every way are also societies where there is endemic social violence and ethnic conflict.
MANOJ CG: Recently, Jitin Prasada left the Congress to join the BJP. Why are leaders deserting the Congress party?
Many years ago, an American friend of mine said to me, Jairam, you Indians are very strange people. When we (Americans) join a political party, we stay loyal to that political party. But when we marry, divorce is never ruled out. In India, when you marry, divorce is ruled out, but when you join a political party, you can always think of joining other political parties… What can I say? Of course, I’m deeply saddened. I have seen him grow up… It’s unfortunate. But for every Jitin Prasada, (Jyotiraditya) Scindia who leave, there are hundreds and hundreds of youngsters in the Congress party who do not have the advantage of birth, who have not had things given to them on a platter, who are working day in and day out to strengthen the Congress . Incidentally, to both Scindia and Jitin Prasada, the Congress party gave everything at a very young age, but they seem to have felt that the pastures are greener on the other side.
MANOJ CJ: But are Jitin Prasada and Scindia just symptoms? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way the Congress is operating now?
If you are in politics only to be part of the ruling establishment, then I’m afraid there’s no place for you in the Congress party. There are a large number of people in the Jitin-Scindia age group who do not have the advantage of degree or pedigree, but they continue to be in the Congress party… I’m not saying there are no problems. The fact that we lost in 2014 and 2019 pretty badly… We know we have problems. Of course, we have to set our own house in order. Of course we have to give people a greater sense of confidence in what we are doing. And not only give ourselves but also give to the public a greater sense of cohesion and clarity on what we stand for. But what I am objecting to is the tendency to write the epitaph of the Congress party, just because a Scindia or a Jitin Prasada leaves.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: You have spoken about tolerance in Buddhism. Is it a virtue that your party’s leadership has? Many leaders who have spoken out in the past have been sidelined.
I can tell you with the greatest of confidence that I have always spoken my mind at party forums where the leadership has been present. I have taken positions which are different and I have been tolerated, I have been accepted. It is the manner in which you express yourself. If everybody is speaking publicly and airing differences publicly, it doesn’t remain a political party, it becomes an NGO, a free for all. There is a complete lack of party discipline then. I would be very worried if within party forums you do not have the freedom to express a different point of view. But I can tell you confidently that over the past 20 years I have differed with the leadership, I have expressed these differences in writing and orally with the leadership, but it is within a party forum in a certain manner.
That’s how political parties should function, like the Japanese model of management — before a decision is taken, there must be intense discussion, but once a decision is taken, you abide by it. That’s been my experience… Is there a need for more party forums? Yes, and not just at the central level but also at the state and district levels.
I would certainly be happier with a faster pace of organisational reform. If you are asking me whether we have always been responsive to the changing requirements of our constituency, which means the younger generation and middle class, I will say yes. The Congress is a giant elephant. It is sure-footed. It is massive. It moves slowly. But once it moves, it moves firmly…. (But) It’s not enough to be an elephant. Sometimes we have to have the agility of a fox as well… India has changed. Aspirations have changed. Expectations have changed. There is growing goodwill for the Congress party. Are we tapping this goodwill enough? No. Should we be tapping this goodwill, faster and more aggressively? Yes.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Is it wrong for a politician to desert a party which lacks political force in most parts of the country right now?
Why did you join the party in the first place? I don’t look upon this as joining ICICI or HDFC bank. You join a political party because of the party’s ideology and programme… For me, a political party is not like a job or employment… (You are) doing it out of a sense of commitment and allegiance to certain values. And suddenly you discover that you don’t have sympathy with those values anymore. I fail to understand why people change political parties… I have far more respect for a guy who has been in the BJP for 40 years, than for a Congressman who goes and joins the BJP.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Why has the Congress failed to convey its messages to the country since 2014?
That is where the organisation is important. We have talked about this — the need for organisational changes and reforms, giving people a greater sense of participation in the process. That is certainly part of the role of the Opposition that I’m talking about. But let us also face it… we are facing a very hostile political environment, where it is very difficult for the Opposition party to project its point of view, whether it’s on the electronic media, print media or social media. I’m not holding the media responsible for this, but this is a reality. We are faced with a juggernaut of a machine on the other side which ensures that whatever we say either gets drowned out or is branded as anti-national. All the questions that we asked last year, on Covid for example, are legitimate… We will continue to do so. But we are branded as vaccine hesitators and anti-nationals. This is what gets traction in the media. We are facing a very uneven playing field here. I’m not blaming anybody. We have to factor this in. We have to be that much more aggressive and conscious of organisational change and reform. It’s going to be an uphill battle.
MANOJ CG: In the future, will the Congress be agreeable to vacating the leadership role of the UPA to a regional party in the interest of larger Opposition unity?
The UPA was a post-poll alliance. The United Front of 1996 was a post-poll alliance. But today, we are in need of a pre-poll alliance. That is why there are efforts from time-to-time to get like-minded parties together.… Did the BJP fight Assam with a face? Will the BJP fight Uttar Pradesh with a face? ‘Face’ is a convenient argument to give. I think it’s more important to have a base than a face.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: What do you mean when you say ‘hostile’ political environment? Never since the 2014 defeat have we heard or seen any major churn or debate inside the Congress party.
Mao (Zedong) said, ‘(Political) power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ In India, power grows out of the barrel of the Prime Minister’s Office. This level of centralisation has never been seen before. This level of use of institutions like the CBI, ED, Income Tax department and other agencies to settle political scores, either before elections or during the elections, has never been seen before. Also, the ruling party must criticise the Opposition, but this is denigration… The rules are made by those in power to suit those who are in power…. This is a new phenomenon for the Congress party. Mr (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee was a vegetarian opponent in comparison to what we have faced in the last couple of years.
As far as debates are concerned, we have had internal debates, introspection camps and many such activities… But since 2014, we have perhaps not had (that kind of) ideological questioning of ourselves. The 2014 result was a complete shock and 2019 was suddenly a trauma. The scale of defeat was simply unexpected.
Individually, you will find Congressmen speaking up on issues of economy, Covid, politics, both at the state as well as national level… I for one would certainly agree with the point of view that this individual articulation is one thing but to have a collective effort is something else. There is a very fine dividing line here. We can’t do many of these debates in public. We have to have it within our party forums. So a lot of things that happen internally don’t get projected externally. For example, when you see parliamentary debates, you get one view. But when you attend the standing committee discussions, you get a completely different view. This is because people speak freely as they are not bound by whips or what the party view is.
VANDITA MISHRA: We hear senior Congress leaders speak about the BJP machine, the uneven playing field and how institutions and the media are unfavourable to the Congress now. Why do we never hear about the Congress’s larger ideas for the country and its people?
The Congress has been speaking for years. The Congress has defined what it stands for, for years. Of course, as new challenges arise, we have to keep refining, redefining and reinforcing that message. But let me also say that criticism of the Congress comes very naturally to everybody in this country. We are held up to a different level of expectation, maybe because of our history and legacy. And the fact of the matter is that they are a machine — a machine that projects its message very effectively. It’s a very simple message: ‘If you are not with us, you are against us.’ The Congress message is a nuanced message. It’s much more difficult to occupy the centre space when it comes to economic policy, social policy, cultural policy and political policy. We are fighting for the centre space.
It’s very easy to take extreme positions like the BJP has taken, and then try to move towards the centre… Dumping on the Congress has become a national pastime. And if I may say so, it has become a national pastime amongst liberals. It’s increasingly becoming a pastime amongst all people who are fed up with the government. People keep saying what is wrong with the Congress, but there are many things right with the Congress, which nobody talks about, unfortunately.