It’s like the Emergency without the Emergency being declared: Sumit Ganguly

Debaashish Bhattacharya | Updated on January 16, 2020 Published on January 16, 2020

Strength in numbers: The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act have been widespread, cutting across religious and caste lines   -  THE HINDU/AADESH CHOUDHARI

American political scientist Sumit Ganguly on the dangers of a ruling party with a clear majority pushing its agenda, and no opposition to speak of

American political scientist Sumit Ganguly, a distinguished professor at Indiana University, is worried about the situation in India. Ganguly, who holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations, believes that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a “vicious ideological agenda”, while the Opposition is “dispirited, disorganised and unimaginative”. The 65-year-old strategic affairs expert who has written five books, including the Oxford Short Introduction to Indian Foreign Policy (2015) and Deadly Impasse: Indo-Pakistani Relations at the Dawn of a New Century (2016), and edited 15 others, describes the protests over a new citizenship law as “profoundly disturbing”. Over a cup of his favourite Darjeeling at the crowded Flurys tearoom during a recent visit to his hometown, Kolkata, Ganguly — who writes for a host of American newspapers and journals — discusses future political scenarios with BLink. Excerpts from the freewheeling conversation:

What do you think of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC)?

What’s going on is profoundly disturbing. The BJP obviously has a clear-cut majority in Parliament and now feels empowered to do almost anything it pleases. You have a completely dispirited, disorganised and unimaginative Opposition, which cannot muster any meaningful pushback against the BJP and this is enabling the BJP to carry out its vicious ideological agenda without any form of parliamentary restraints.

The CAA is completely dishonest for the simple reason that the BJP has suddenly woken up to the fact that there is an oppression of minority in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Is this a novelty? Somehow, this is a great discovery for them. If they are so concerned about minorities, why not then include the Rohingyas and the Ahmadis in Pakistan, who are also oppressed minorities? Why not the Shias of Afghanistan? This notion that the BJP is a champion of the oppressed and persecuted minorities simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

If you appease a particular electoral constituency that is easily moved by these kinds of appeals to religion, the careful exclusion of Muslims from the CAA suggests that there is a clear-cut agenda. This is to cause further domestic divisions or an exclusionary policy directed towards Muslims. That’s the real issue here.

Will it polarise votes or end up counterproductive for the BJP?

It could prove to be counterproductive. But in the short term, there is no question that it will polarise the Hindu voters even further and inflame passions between Hindus and Muslims. But if the protests that have taken place nationwide or in particular parts of the country can be sustained for a period of time and the people do not give up their opposition (to the CAA and NRC), then the BJP could discover that they may have bitten off far more than they can chew.

But what the BJP leadership is counting on is this: Even though the protests have been quite vociferous and quite vigorous, the fact is that the vast majority of people will have to return to their everyday lives, and deal with the issues that concern them routinely. Quite apart from repression, simply devoting time to protests in a sustained manner is exceedingly difficult. This kind of movement dies out because such collective action is very difficult to sustain over time, and that’s precisely what the BJP leadership is counting on. Yes, there will be a surge and then it will taper off.

Has the Modi government’s latest action dented India’s image in the US?

There is no question about it. It may not have dented India’s image with the Trump administration, which couldn’t care less about the minorities in the US, so why should it care about their plight in India. But India’s image has been dented in the American Congress, in the legislature where people on the senate foreign relations committee or on the house foreign affairs committee — individuals there have spoken out. The major newspapers — The Washington Post and The New York Times — have carried both news stories and harsh editorials.

Meanwhile, there are real worries on the economic front…

The Indian economy seems to be in free fall at the moment. In the last quarter, growth fell to 4.5 per cent. So, I think this will lead to a loss of business confidence in India. If the social tension, combined with the economic decline, continues, the grand hopes about India will begin to fade away.

Vandalism accompanied the protests, with railway stations and buses set ablaze and policemen attacked in states such as West Bengal. Wouldn’t all this damage their own cause?

Absolutely. Violence will be counterproductive. The people who are burning buses, attacking the police and destroying property are doing untold damage to their own cause. They are playing directly into the hands of the BJP. Even those supporting them will turn their back on them. So far, I have been very heartened by the fact that the protests seem to be cutting across religious and caste lines. But if they take significantly violent turns and the minority community gets implicated, god help us all.

Recently, General Bipin Rawat, then Army chief, made what was widely criticised as a political statement in a public forum...

India has long prided itself on an apolitical military. One should not politicise the military, because once you do that you are headed in a very dangerous direction.

Are we going to see a Pakistan-type situation in India in the future, with the army brass being politicised?

Not in the foreseeable future, partly because India is so large and diverse, unlike Pakistan. But it may lead to a situation where the military becomes identified with a particular government rather than a neutral force, which is the last thing one wants in India.

In India, when all else fails you turn to the military. An army flag march seems to have an extremely salutary effect on quelling a civil disobedience or unrest. I saw that after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. I was in Kolkata then. Also, think about divisions within the military. It happened already once in 1984 (during anti-Sikh riots). A certain number of army officers and men rebelled and had to be arrested. Do we really want to see that happen again?

I think all democratic institutions are under assault — the free press, judiciary, the investigating agencies... You name it. It’s like the Emergency without an Emergency being declared.

Is Modi still hugely popular with the Indian diaspora in the US?

A large number of people in the Indian diaspora were deeply disappointed with the Congress party. The country was completely adrift under the Congress. Modi five years ago looked like someone decisive, had the image of being free from the taint of corruption. He was someone who had a clear vision for India and came across as a muscular leader. And so they reposed a lot of hope and faith in him. Some of that has worn off. But the diaspora still has not recognised that he has failed to deliver on most of his promises and that he has been long on promises but short on delivery.

Where do you think the Congress party went wrong?

The Congress has to end its fascination with the Gandhi family. Else it cannot emerge as a viable opposition force. Rahul Gandhi is clueless. I don’t care how well-meaning he is. The party is so sycophantic that they are unable to shed the aura of the Gandhi family... For God’s sake, this country does not lack talent, but the talent must be allowed to flourish sometimes.

You don’t think Rahul Gandhi is capable of leading the party?

He is laughable. He cannot connect with the masses the way Modi does, and it has been demonstrated time and again.

What do you think the Congress ought to do?

The Congress must find a way to open up the ranks of its leadership and it also has to assert its distinctive set of policy priorities. It cannot come up with anaemic responses to the BJP. It has to vigorously sketch out its alternative vision for India. And the worst thing that the Congress has done is to play the soft-Hindutva line. It somehow thinks it can steal away the BJP voters, but it’s not going to work.

The Congress is not at all free of taints. It was in power when the Babri mosque was demolished. What did the Congress do when the Sikhs were being attacked in 1984? If anything, many of its leaders actively took part in the mob attacks. After the Babri demolition, I once spoke to Hamid Ansari. He had just retired from the Foreign Service and was not vice-president of India then. He said all he asked for was to be treated as an equal citizen of India, which I thought was an eminently reasonable position.

Do you see the Congress making a comeback at the Centre?

There are talented individuals in the Congress. But these people are not allowed to come up, to speak and act independently. I noticed that even my old friend Shashi Tharoor was extremely careful when asked about the leadership in the Congress.

I know you follow Bengal politics in the US. How do you look at Mamata Banerjee?

Mamata Banerjee is striking the right notes. She is doing so because she has her own constituency to cater to. Suddenly, she has become a great champion of the minorities and supporter of dissenters. But she has her own record of always having suppressed dissent. People have been arrested in Bengal for writing critically of her on Facebook. Suddenly, she has become a champion of civil rights. She is not doing this out of any moral convictions. I wish that was the case. You need to understand her politics to understand this.

Do you think the BJP has a chance of coming to power in Bengal in 2021?

They won a number of seats in the 2019 general elections in Bengal. There is a real danger, particularly in these extremely polarised times.

Well, many in Bengal trace their roots to what is now Bangladesh. Those from refugee families carry bitter memories of being persecuted and evicted from their land of ancestors...

Those memories can be stoked and revived. There is a latent anti-Muslim sentiment in Bengal based upon historical memories. They can be revived and channelled into votes. The perceived appeasement of a community can boomerang on the ruling party in Bengal. There is a real danger of that.


Debaashish Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Kolkata

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Published on January 16, 2020
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