As a historian and academic, Sugata Bose has researched extensively on South Asian and Indian Ocean history. The grand-nephew of Subhas Chandra Bose, he examined the concept of the nation in his book The Nation as Mother And Other Visions of Nationhood. He has also researched extensively on Rabindranath Tagore. Bose took the political plunge in the 2014 general election, when he won the Jadavpur seat in West Bengal on a TMC ticket. In Parliament, he has been critical of Modi government, and recently questioned the decision to give Institute of Eminence tag to the proposed Jio Institute.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: From a historian’s perspective, is India on the rise or decline?
It’s a mixed story. In many ways, I believe, India is on the rise. If we place India in the larger context of Asia, there is absolutely no question that Asia as a whole is recovering the global position it had lost 200 years ago. We have made substantial progress since Independence. I find among the youth of India a sense of self-confidence. These are the positive aspects.
But, I think, there is a lot to worry about. There are serious inequalities in our society and economy which are not being addressed with urgency. I am truly worried that there is a wave of injustice and inhumanity that is sweeping across the country which we euphemistically call intolerance. I want to be very clear that I don’t think India as a country is intolerant. What I would like to emphasise is that many people who happen to wield political power are spreading a virulent form of prejudice and bigotry. And, we have to be very concerned about the poison of religious hatred in particular that is being unleashed. I also think that our subordinated castes and classes are further oppressed and we have to do everything to reverse this.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Do you think religion has a place in politics?
I believe that there is nothing wrong with religious faith. Religion is not our enemy. We have to be very clear that we are opposed to religious prejudice and religious bigotry. Having said that, I do feel that our State must keep an equidistance from all religious communities. I don’t want to rehash the old secular dogma… Both secularism and socialism by the 1980s had become justificatory ideologies for our centralised State. When they began to fail, when people felt politicians were being hypocritical about secularism, there was a shift to religious majoritarianism.
I think we need to be self-critical. Ever since the late 1980s and early 1990s, I have felt we needed to rethink secularism — as a system of values which we should treasure but we should not be simply mechanically talking about secularism as an ideology of the State. We have to think of equal citizenship and we have to make sure that all citizens regardless of which religious community they belong to are given equal rights and opportunities in our country.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Is the TMC equidistant from all religions?
I think so. I believe that all citizens, all residents of West Bengal are treated equally. We did actually inherit a situation, which became absolutely clear in the Sachar Commission report… where Muslims were left behind in terms of access to education, employment, housing. There we had to rectify injustices of the past. But, overall, I feel, that everyone is being treated equally.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Have our democratic institutions managed to stand up to the challenges?
All of our democratic institutions are facing a severe stress test in this age of majoritarianism. Even in Parliament, the legislature is not being given the respect it deserves. There have been serious concerns even about the judiciary. Media is, of course, a very important pillar of democracy. When I talk to journalists, I get a sense that they too are sometimes cowed because of an atmosphere of fear.
At the same time, I sense that the mood of the nation is changing. We are at the cusp of a major shift. People were afraid even until a few months ago. But now I think that the trend towards inhumanity, towards injustice has gone so far that people are beginning to feel that they must resist. I said even in my first speech in Parliament that we must not confuse majoritarianism with democracy or uniformity with unity. And that message, I think, is beginning to get across four years later, in 2018.
RAVISH TIWARI: If we compare the two Bengals, Bangladesh and West Bengal, Bangladesh is making progress as the ‘garment factory of the world’, and has also improved its Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) and Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR). Where did West Bengal lose out, even within India?
I talked about economic stagnation in India as a whole in the first half of the 20th century, and that is true for Bengal as well. However, even in those days, Bengal had a certain standing in terms of industry and so forth. But in the mid-1950s, once there was the freight equalisation scheme etc, Bengal began to lose out even in terms of its industrial potential. Also, during the long years of Communist rule, 34 years, to begin with, the Left Front introduced some moderately positive land reforms but there was nothing very positive to report in the second half of that 34-year period. There was no new industry. And there was one major mistake: there was not enough attention given to education and health. That is why you find that Bangladesh has done better in those sectors not just in comparison to India but also West Bengal. However, if we resolutely focus on these two areas, education and health, we will be able to make the kind of progress that, in fact, all Indian states ought to make.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: What are your thoughts on nationalism?
It is very important to recognise that nationalism is a truly Janus-faced phenomenon — it has a liberating aspect, it can have a very oppressive aspect. Rabindranath Tagore, in his book on nationalism, described it as one of the most powerful anaesthetics invented by humankind. The nationalism that is being propagated by those who are in power today, selfish and arrogant, that is the kind of nationalism we must be prepared to contest. Nationalism, at its best, is always critical of itself. Love for one’s own country cannot mean that you are going to beat up someone who is not prepared to shout ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. Also, no one can be a universal spokesperson for the Indian nation. There can be multiple visions of the Indian nation.
LALMANI VERMA: What challenges does the BJP pose to the TMC in 2019?
The BJP has increased its vote share in West Bengal, and it appears to be displacing the CPI (M) as the principal opposition party. That has a lot to do with the failure of the Left to survive its loss of power since 2011. But the TMC is enormously popular in Bengal and, if anything, the BJP may come a distant second in some seats. I think the BJP is a long distance away from mounting any serious challenge in Bengal.
That does not mean that I don’t have worries. We haven’t had politics of religious polarisation in Bengal in the post-Independence period and I do hope that Bengal will preserve the peace among religious communities. What the RSS and the BJP are trying to forment is religious polarisation which they hope will bring them electoral dividends. But Bengal has a very long and deep political tradition of unity among different religious communities, and it is my hope that it will triumph over the politics of polarisation.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Wasn’t giving stipends to imams also polarisation?
Look, my own view is that we ought to have concentrated on providing justice to the minority community in the fields of education, employment, housing, credit to start businesses etc. We must not make the mistake of making religion the enemy of the nation. Let’s focus our attention against religious bigotry and religious prejudice.
LALMANI VERMA: At a time when the Congress is projecting Rahul Gandhi as a PM candidate, would the regional parties too want to project their own candidate for 2019 — Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati?
Is the Congress projecting Rahul Gandhi as the PM nominee? They seem to have an open mind, so far. If there is a new government, which I hope there will be after the next general elections, the prime minister will be the first among equals. It will be a very different scenario from what we see today, where the Prime Minister is all powerful and even his Cabinet ministers are relatively insignificant. And, therefore, there are many potential PM candidates.
I may have a preference for Mamata Banerjee. She was a seven-term Member of Parliament. She has spent seven years as Chief Minister. She has been Cabinet minister three times. So if Narendra Modi could make a bid for the prime ministership on the basis of his record as chief minister of a middle-sized state — and that record was nothing to be proud of, particularly in its early years — then I don’t see why the Chief Minister of a larger state, who has also played a role in national politics, cannot be accepted as a legitimate candidate for the prime minister’s post. Similarly, Mayawati has been chief minister of the most populous state in India, and therefore, she might have a legitimate ambition of becoming prime minister.
The Congress will likely be the larger party, compared to the regional parties, if they do extraordinarily well in their own states; I suppose that’s the basis on which members of the Congress might want to project Rahul Gandhi. I think he may have done better if he had served as a minister in Manmohan Singh’s government.
I don’t think that’s the most important issue, the question of leadership. The next election is likely to be much more than a presidential contest about who might become the next prime minister. It will really be a contest about what kind of India do we want to see in the future, what form should the Indian Union take.
ANANT GOENKA: What would be the three or four things Mamata Banerjee would do differently as PM compared to the Modi government?
Well, the question is, what has Modi done? He promised achche din, but that phrase has almost been forgotten. I haven’t heard him utter that phrase in recent times. What does seem to have happened is that a couple of billionaires seem to be calling all the shots, so far as our economy is concerned, and we really need to have an economic programme that promotes the interests of 1.35 billion people, rather than the interest of a couple of favoured billionaires and industrialists.
There will certainly be more welfare, a greater emphasis on primary healthcare. There will be more emphasis on primary and secondary education. There will have to be more emphasis on higher education as well — making our universities an attractive place for students and we must also bring in the best scholars. It will also be a more federal India, where states’ rights will be respected. And it (the Mamata Banerjee government) will also make sure that the interests of our subordinate castes and classes are protected.
ANANT GOENKA: How do you reconcile with the fact that capitalistic economies seem to admire strong leaders? For example, the economy of Turkey is booming, stock markets in India were at an all-time high recently.
There have been strong men from many different political traditions. Hitler was, of course, supported by big German businesses during the 1930s. The other strongman, Stalin, however, led a monolithic sort of Communist Party of the Soviet Union. So, strongmen can emerge from many different kinds of political traditions. But the point that you’re making is a different one, that capitalists seem to like strongmen. When a strong man is in charge, the stock market booms. And yes, capitalists look for stability, and they falsely believe that it is a strong man or an authoritarian regime that can provide that kind of stability, a context in which they can earn their profits. What they don’t often see is that these authoritarian regimes may appear to be strong, but they are actually quite brittle. And again, you know, why should one be guided by the profits that are being made by a handful of businesses and industries?
RAVISH TIWARI: As a historian, how do you look at an aggressive China and its imperialistic tendencies?
We need to place the rise of China in a couple of different contexts. One is the global context, and there, of course, China is the challenger. The US is the status-quo superpower. But then, we also have to place China within an Asian context. For a while, particularly China under Deng Xiaoping, was being very cautious, and they were focusing on strengthening their own economy. They were biding their time, as it were. But, of course, we have seen the China under President Xi Jinping, which is much more assertive, and any rising power of this kind will almost inevitably pose a challenge to its immediate neighbourhood.
But, I believe that one of our greatest political and diplomatic challenges in the 21st century will be to see how we can peacefully manage the simultaneous rise of China and India. What we really need to avoid are the kinds of nationalist conflicts which completely undermine the idea of Asia and of Asian universalism.
We should not just be thinking of the short term. China has articulated its vision, the role that they want to play in Asia and the world. It is time for India also to articulate its vision about the kind of Indian Ocean arena they want to see in the future, the kind of Asia that we want to see… Our best thinkers had never been inward looking. They had all wanted to contribute to the shaping of a global future, and that’s something that we in India should not shy away from doing at this moment.
RAVISH TIWARI: What is your view on Reliance Foundation’s proposed Jio Institute being awarded the ‘Institute of Eminence (IoE)’ status?
I raised the question of the ‘Institute of Eminence’ label being given to a non-existant institute — the Jio Institute — in Parliament. I asked why was a single Central or state university not included. Clearly, Jio Institute is being recognised for its potential three years from now, or whenever. So, I asked, does not a single Central or state university have the potential to become a world-class institution? There can be no question that IISc in Bangalore, the two IITs of Delhi and Mumbai, deserve the Institute of Eminence status. But, we have to be more accommodating of state universities.
Look at what China did. When they decided that they were going to have some of their universities break into the top 100, they chose Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, all of which are now highly ranked universities. And, they are not just going for institutes of technology, they are also focusing on truly universal universities.
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