‘Those in govt must not take people for granted'

To go with DH interview by Raghotham ... Pavan K. Varma Writer and former Indian Foreign Service officer and Former Rajya Sabha member, seen during his latest book 'Chanakya's View : India in Transition' release in Bengaluru on Monday. (DH Photo)

A collection of newspaper columns made into a book rarely makes for an exciting read, given the transient nature of most newspaper columns. But when those columns are written in a time of transition of a society or a nation, they tend to come together in a book as a collection of though-provoking essays that deal with issues that are in search of answers. Diplomat, author and politician Pavan Varma’s latest book Chanakya’s View: Understanding India in Transition is such a collection of his columns since 2014. Their purpose is to provoke thought, Varma tells DH’s S Raghotham. Excerpts from an interview:

 You are talking about an India in transition. What are we transitioning into?

We must remember that India is a young nation but an ancient civilization. Somewhere, the two are both in sync and out of sync, and that phase of transition where the past becomes congruent with the present and moves on a fixed path towards a given future — that is being still negotiated, where some of the values of the old are being questioned, some of the assumptions of the present are being tested, and some of the goals of the future are being interrogated.

India is still testing the extent of democratic percolation; India is testing the degree to which economic growth as against economic equity has to be stretched; India is still testing what’s a theoretical postulate about absolute social equality. So, there are many areas in which we are a country in transition. There were certain ideals of the past, they are being questioned. So, in many respects, as a society, as a polity, as an economy, as a people, we are in a process of transition, and 70 years is too short a period to complete that process of transition. There is a contestation of ideas, and a clash of different perspectives, which defines transition. 

Let’s bring in the ‘Chanakya’ part. The top duo at India’s helm today seem to believe that they are the Chanakyas of the modern world. Nehru, in many ways, wanted to build a sort of a non-Chanakyan...

No, there are many commonalities between Chanakya and Nehru…

So, how do you assess the strains of Chanakya that Nehru picked up and what the current duo have picked up?

The one thing common to both is fixity of purpose. Chanakya believed that you must be exceptionally clear about your goal. But in the methodology, I believe, Nehru was more Chanakyan in many ways. Chanakya says you must take into account views which are different from yours and try to build a consensus, and that only a harmonious society within can be a strong society without. So, Nehru fostered the values of internal harmony where people of all faiths could live together; of economic progress whose many tenets you may doubt with hindsight, but which nevertheless moved to eradicate poverty through a certain model. 

The current leadership is oversensitive to dissent, which I don’t believe is a Chanakyan quality. It has imbibed the muscular aspect of Chanakya, perhaps even the ruthless one, although Chanakya was a democrat. It suffers from an insensitivity to alternative opinion, which is dangerous to democracy. 

And it seems we will have to live with that for a long time…2024…2029?

I don’t agree with you. We must respect the people’s mandate. At the same time, precisely on that touchstone, people’s views, attitudes, opinions, assessments change. Rajiv Gandhi came in with a majority that was roughly 100 seats more than what the current government has, but in roughly three years, the support began to unravel. So, you can never take the people for granted, or never posit the argument that there cannot be a challenge to the entrenched. This is a fundamental tenet of democracy. So, currently for instance, the economic situation is worrying, and the government can no longer live in denial...

But they managed to hide it until the Lok Sabha election results were out...

Yes, but now you are looking at a five-year period ahead. So, people’s expectations often outstrip performance and, in a democracy, you have to be vigilant about that. In a country as vast as ours, the bottom line, will always be dhandha-rozgar. At one level, people want to swim away from the islands of religious exclusivism...

Do you see that happening in the North?

I’m saying that that is the truth of India. After Babri Masjid also, when surveys were carried out, the majority said that they couldn’t care whether there was a mosque or a temple. Why? People want to swim away from the islands of religious exclusivism occupied by mullahs and mahants, to the dividends of the secular mainstream — a job, a house, a hospital, a road, water, electricity, security, education. 

You say that we Indians need to respect institutions, shun intolerance, accommodate dissent. But the train is moving in the opposite direction. And your party, the JD(U), is on that train. Why? Will history be kind to your party?

Our alliance with the BJP is limited to Bihar, first and foremost. It’s not a nationwide alliance, which is one reason why we didn’t accept a position in the Union cabinet. Secondly, on specific issues — be it Article 370, be it triple talaq, or be it the Citizenship Amendment Bill, be it the dilution of the RTI Act, be it the UAPA and its amendments, we have a point of view which we have not hesitated to articulate.  

But why shouldn’t you walk out of the alliance? Why shouldn’t you sit in the Opposition?

We could do that, or we may not do that. That’s a decision the party leadership will take. We have to watch this space. But in the interim, we have not hesitated to voice our opinion without any ambivalence on any issue which is part of our ideological framework. Where it finally goes, we will see. 

Your party is going on its own in the Jharkhand polls. How do you expect to do?

Whether we do well or not, we have made clear our resolve to fight on our own against the BJP government in Jharkhand. And you can draw your own inferences from that. 

We didn’t hear from the JD(U) on the Tabrez Ansari lynching case, which is important when we talk of Jharkhand...

It’s a complete travesty. It demeans me both as a citizen and as a Hindu. In Tulsi Das’ Ramcharitmanas, Ram tells Bharat, and I quote his exact line — par hith sam dharam nahin bhai/par pida sam nahin ath mai – There is no bigger dharma than the well-being of the other; there is no greater evil than injury to the other.

This is Ram. And in his name, you lynch a man to death! You devalue, demean Ram, and you devalue and demean me as a Hindu and you shame me as a citizen of this country. 

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