Having recently raised the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins, there was more than a touch of irony when Swadeshi Jagran Manch chief, Swaminathan Gurumurthy, tells Outlook, "The only political party I have ever worked for in India is the Congress. In 1971, I worked for Kamaraj even while being part of the RSS." In the course of a wide-ranging interview, the chartered accountant swayamsevak, clad in tee-shirt and pants, sporting his trademark kumkum on the forehead, spoke on Gujarat, disinvestment, Jayalalitha and the BJP’s insipid performance.
On Sonia's Foreign Origins And Jayalalitha
You have been very enthusiastic about Jayalalitha raising Sonia’s foreign origin issue. Why revive this dead issue?
I have interacted with so many politicians but never with Jayalalitha. I have seen her only in films. I am in no way linked to her. Well, Jayalalitha did use what I wrote (in the New Indian Express). Earlier, I had congratulated her through my column for raising the foreign origin issue. Sonia’s foreign origin is not a dead issue, perhaps a dormant one. As for Sonia, if she had any political objective in 1984, she would have changed her name right then from Antonia Maino. Her idea was somehow to secure citizenship without even a name change. The condition that a person should stay for one continuous year in India was waived in Sonia’s case. In between she had gone abroad and returned. It shows that there was a sudden urgency to get the citizenship. She had waited for 15 years, why then the urgency?
There’s talk of an Advani-Jayalalitha axis. Any help from Home Ministry in pulling the Antonia Maino skeletons out of the cupboard?
If Advaniji wanted to make files available to me, he could have done that when it was a raging issue, when I badly wanted it. In fact my investigative reporting should surprise even him.
But has the issue not been settled legally by the Supreme Court?
In India, Hindutva has more legitimacy than the Constitution. It is not a simple legal, constitutional issue. The Constitution never visualised the possibility of a foreign-born becoming prime minister. The issue has come up only now. A love affair that normally unsettles a family has unsettled the whole nation. It is the difficulty of the Congress that has been transported to the Constitution of India. Sonia will never have legitimacy, notwithstanding legal validity. We are not talking about the right of Sonia Gandhi to reside in India; it is about her wanting to be prime minister. The issue is more sentimental than legal or constitutional. I think she knows it as much as anyone does.
But Sonia does fall at the feet of Sankaracharyas, goes to the Kumbh mela… she is less seen attending a church. Even the Kanchi Sankaracharya once said that Sonia’s origin is not an issue...
This does not give her legitimacy. I am supposed to be the follower of the Kanchi math, but I’ll certainly disagree with Jayendra Saraswati on this. And if one has to act according to what the Sankaracharya says, then our secular polity must first say so. On Sonia, this is Kanchi Sankaracharya’s personal opinion. The Hindu society has no Pope to bind it with his view.
But what about Jayalalitha’s ambitions in raising the issue? You seem to be applauding her from the back-stage...
She has taken stands on issues like I do. If someone in CPM takes a stance on economic issues in line with mine, I support them. She has said that in politics there are no permanent friends and permanent enemies. She is clearly targeting the DMK’s relationship with Delhi. I am not willing to speculate on whether Jayalalitha has prime ministerial ambitions or not, but there is a very large pan-Indian audience that would agree with Jayalalitha on Sonia Gandhi.
Isn’t this again the middle class -- articulate, but non-voting audience?
This is a wrong assumption. Look at how this point will register: the name Sonia is not her name; the name given by her mother-in-law (Indira Gandhi) is not her name; she disregarded that name. You know what kind of impact this will have on ordinary people? For you and me, her name Antonia Maino might be a matter of curiosity. Even for the ordinary Congressman, the fact that she did not want to even have an Indian name will make a huge impact. It is these small matters that will ultimately decide larger issues. How does she – how can she – defend it? This is one thing she has not been able to open her mouth on. Jayalalitha, by talking about this, has established a rapport with a huge national audience.
How do you assess the BJP’s low-key response to this?
Perhaps the BJP does not want to create a bad relationship with the Congress. That’s the way it seems. But if there’s one issue on which the BJP will come back to power, it is Sonia. Congress may rule 12 states, but the nation is another thing. Even Congress leaders tell me that their biggest problem is Sonia. She is there because they could not agree on anyone else.
But the BJP in power has Congressised so much. Will someone like Jayalalitha, who has been pursuing Hindutva of her own kind more aggressively in Tamil Nadu, emerge as a big player in Delhi by 2004. Are regional parties getting Hindutvaised?
You are implying that for degeneration Congress is the benchmark. The BJP does show these trends. The issues mentioned by you are linked to Hindutva. The BJP cannot disown these issues in a national election. I believe Hindutva is a reality in Indian politics. Before Ram Janmabhoomi movement one could not have seen a Jayalalitha taking such a stand. This movement has brought about catalytic changes in Indian polity. I can sense the consequences of Jayalalitha’s stand. A Mulayam Singh may like her to now come and campaign in Uttar Pradesh. They both agree on Sonia. And Jayalalitha is not connected to the sangh parivar, so Mulayam can justify her use too. There’s no doubt that Jayalalitha has widened her political space.
Will this be at the expense of both the BJP and the Congress?
Yes, it can damage both. After the United Front experiment – Gowda, Gujral – anyone can aspire to be prime minister. But if she does emerge as prime minister, it will be a fleeting phenomenon, like Gujral. India is a huge affair. Only the RSS has the potential to create a nationally-acceptable leader in two years through a national issue, through a rath yatra. And if BJP-RSS chooses a person the others will accept it. This mechanism the Congress lacks. So the Congress will have to look only to the Gandhi family for leaders. But I am sure the Congress will perform better even if they agree upon an old man like N. D. Tiwari (laughs).
On The BJP And Disinvestment
How does the BJP-led NDA government fare on your report card?
At the ministerial level, corruption has been very low.
What’s the charge? That Laxman received a lakh? On Fernandes, even Tehelka has withdrawn. Corruption means huge deal-making… besides Advani and Vajpayee, there are ministers like Shanta Kumar, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Shourie … a dozen ministers against whom nobody can make an allegation. This has never been the case after 1980. So corruption is not an issue now. After 1990, the power of the state has come down rapidly because of the marketisation of the economy and the weakening of several institutions affiliated to the government – banks, PSUs. Between 1980-1990 the polity had drawn maximum out of the public exchequer. In the balance sheet of the GoI in 1980, the assets were Rs.1000 crores more than its liabilities. But by 1990, the liabilities were Rs 5 lakh crores in excess of assets.
What about the situation now?
It has a spillover effect. Things have aggravated. We are adding to our deficit at the rate of Rs. 90,000 to 100,000 crores a year. But the roots lay in 1980 when Mrs Gandhi was advised: ‘Don’t tax the nation, let the inflation tax the nation.’ Clearly, wrong advice. So the government became a weak institution after 1990. Today the government’s capacity to deliver can be seen only in terms of law and order, honesty, how it manages the market forces…
Are you happy with the way the BJP has handled this?
On the economic front, I am not happy. On political issues like the Ram temple they could have certainly done better. They did not seem to have even read properly the Supreme Court judgment, which said that the portion of land determined by the government to be in excess of the disputed area – about 1.8 acres – can be returned. Only the disputed area could have been retained and 90 per cent of land returned.
The use of Kanchi Sankaracharya was just a part of political management. The government could have definitely done better. All this is going to cost the BJP dear. Ultimately, BJP is also another political party and will have to become conscious of its constituency. They will to repair their relationship with their constituency.
Has this process begun because elections are just 18 months away?
You can’t blame the BJP alone. No party has medium, long-term policies in the Indian polity, including the BJP. Even newspapers like The Hindu, Economic Times, the editorialists, political commentators, the entire English-speaking intellectual class that sets the agenda of the nation – they are all clueless about long-term strategy. There’s been national confusion, never a national debate. We accepted socialism without debate and gave it up without debate; accepted market economy without debate; accepted WTO and divestment without debate; we constituted a Disinvestment Commission and completely rejected its report. Nobody discussed it. This is the failure of the English-educated intelligentsia in the country. And this is the class that does not see problems in India, but sees India itself as problem.
Your old friend Arun Shourie and you had done a series of articles in the Indian Express in 1986-87 against the Ambani-controlled Reliance group. But this May, we saw him hiving off of 26 per cent stake of IPCL to Reliance. And today it is HPCL, BPCL’s turn. Has Shourie betrayed you and swadeshi by presiding over the discount sale of India?
I told Arun the other day, ‘Our relationship will remain intact whether HPCL gets divested or not.’ My economic philosophy is different from Arun’s. Our worldviews on politico-cultural-religious issues overlap. Our economic outlook differs also because of our diverse backgrounds: I come from a more rural/ town upbringing to modernity and city India, unlike Arun who studied in cities and travelled the world.
If it were any other minister, it could have been said there are other factors at work. But with Arun that’s not possible. His commitment to the nation and personal integrity are beyond doubt. He is doing what he thinks is right.
As far as IPCL is concerned, the Divestment Ministry acts in two ways. One, they rationalise private monopolies. According to the American prescription monopoly itself is not wrong, it is created by market forces; it is misuse of monopoly power that is wrong for which there is competition law. In India we have no such institutional mechanism to control. Even then there is no justification for the state creating a (private) monopoly. By divesting IPCL the state created a monopoly in favour of Reliance. The second objection is that Reliance stands charged under the Official Secrets Act. And the rules of the Divestment Ministry bar a bidder charged under OSA. By some weird interpretation, the charge under Section 3 and Section 5 were distinguished.
Shourie is a former World Bank employee who turned journalist and is now minister for disinvestment. Don’t you think it’s easier for the World Bank/IMF to carry out their agenda through him?
So far as national interests are concerned Arun will be more effective and capable of safeguarding them than me. Privatisation today is not being forced by IMF or WB. India is opting to do it, in its own wisdom. What India did in 1991 or 1994 could have been under pressure from these world bodies. No statement from SJM in the recent past would have said that this divestment is happening under IMF or WB pressure. We are really out of the range of their influence today. Arun feels India should become strong economically for which he says the government will have to unburden itself. That’s his view and I disagree with him. But I cannot doubt the genuineness of his concerns.
So the opposition space (SJM/RSS) and the establishment space (BJP/NDA) are both occupied by people who share a lot. Within the government Ram Naik, Fernandes, Dhindsa take your kind of hard line on HPCL, and another set of ministers takes a different line. Divestment of some PSUs is deferred but seems inevitable after three months. Isn’t this just dramatic posturing?
Look at the marxists’ position today. It’s identical to ours on economic matters. I have been appealing the marxists to come and join us on issues we agree upon. But you see Indian polity is not organised only on the basis of economic policy. So the marxists will not come for joint action with us. I am willing to work with anybody on swadeshi issues.
Why don’t you see this as a democratic discussion? If the prime minister listens to all points of views under the banner of NDA, and postpones a decision he is only trying to encourage a debate and evolve a consensus. It is good. To term this as drama would be unfair.
On The West, Islam, Swadeshi, Hinduism...
You advocate swadeshi in every realm. But much that you write, say on the US’s ‘war against terror’ or on Islam, would please the West...
The west is pleased with it today; they were not pleased with it day before yesterday. I’ve been writing about Islamic fundamentalism for a long time, about how Islam as a religion can be interpreted to promote violence. The West must have been very unhappy with me then. Who has changed? Not me. The West may have. Even before the collapse of communism, in April 1989 I’d said how after the end of communism, Islam would emerge as a greatest threat to the world.
Why do you use a lot of Naipaul and Samuel Huntington to substantiate your thesis on Islam?
That’s because I address the English-educated audience (which relates to these names). Actually, Huntington’s views follow what I wrote in 1989. Anyway, he only foresaw a clash between Islam and the Christian West, not between West and Hinduism.
But much of the Hindutva-Hinduism comes from Hindus who live in the West...
Clash of civilisations presumes that certain civilizations/religions want to dominate others. Hindu civilisation is a non-conflicting civilisation. Confucianism, another non-conflicting thought, has learnt that unless they turned aggressive they won’t survive. Hence a highly passive Japan became aggressive after 1854. China too became aggressive. But we never became an aggressive civilisation. At best, we can only be aggressively defensive about ourselves. There’s nothing like Hindu fundamentalism. Opposing Islamic fundamentalism becomes Hindu fundamentalism.
The word Hinduism is itself a western appellation, maybe an Islamic one. It was earlier called brahmanism, vedic brahmanism…
The name we have given ourselves is 'Sanatana Dharma'.
Yes. But this Sanatana Dharma was bogged down by internal contradictions like caste, too many gods, lack of codified texts, and it perhaps never had the stamina to become a conquering, colonising, dominant civilisation...
Not at all. From Japan to entire Southeast Asia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central Asia… it was completely permeated by the sanatana dharma. Today, in Vietnam you have vedic-brahmin families.
You say the caste system was there even in Japan?
Caste system is an evolution in India because of dishachara and kulachara. Even some marxists have studied this well. You must read Dipankar Gupta’s Interrogating Caste. According to him caste is not hierarchical, but is only a distinction. No caste accepts that it is inferior to another caste; every caste thinks the other caste is inferior. Caste is the biggest strength and biggest weakness of India.
You claim that Sanatana Dharma was a once-dominant force most of Asia. But today most of these nations have been lost to Islam or Buddhism: Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, China, Japan… except for Nepal. This has happened over centuries because of the weakness of Sanatana Dharma. The space for Hinduism is shrinking. Do you think this has led to explosive, aggressive hindutva?
Historically, Sanatana Dharma/ Hinduism had a politico-cultural sweep. But the political India began shrinking, because of the assault of Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These religions are text-based. And these texts are prescriptive. There’s textual fundamentalism, not found in Hinduism… There is intense connection between political India and Hindu India. Hence the Hindu movement, the assertion of Hinduism, was not religious but was expressed in nationalist-political terms.
I am not a Shiv Sainik. I am not saying India should be populated only with Hindus. It is impractical.
Hinduism is non-aggressive? But Hindutva has led to a lot of violence, destruction, killings…
Arun Shourie once told me that RSS will become moderate, and lose control of Hindu leadership.