If one were looking for the shortest and most precise description to introduce Ramachandra Guha, it would perhaps be as the most honest and discerning chronicler of our times. A sociologist by education, a historian by passion and a full-time writer by profession, Guha's keen study of and sharp insight into subjects as widely diverse as cricket and environmental history or political traditions have lent him the distinction of being among the most respected public intellectuals worldwide.

In 2010, Ramachandra Guha's book Makers of Modern India profiled nineteen Indians whose ideas and their articulation had a defining impact on the creation and evolution of the Indian Republic. Guha's book is a rich depiction of how these individuals, with perspectives that were complementary in some ways and contradictory in others, shaped India's character in the nascent days of its being.

However, decades since, the very concept of leadership as well as its character has undergone a sea change. The common man yearns to find a resonance of that visionary leadership in these times, in spite of the change in the fabric and ideologies of politics, but parallels are difficult to draw. What does Guha, the historian and commentator, feel about those who hold the reins today? How qualified or equipped are they to steer the country through its process of maturing on to its brush with the next level of modernity?

In the first of a series of videographed conversations with the writer, India Together seeks to find out what he thinks of our national leaders today and the debates and controversies surrounding them. Subramaniam Vincent and Satarupa Sen Bhattacharya caught up with Ramachandra Guha in mid-July in Bangalore. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow (or watch full interview on video below).

Q. Thank you, Ram, for joining us today. We would like to talk to you today on the status of leadership in India. There is a lot of conversation on that in India today, especially driven by television media. Let us look at the current crop of leaders. You have talked of 19 people in your book whom you consider to be the "makers of modern India." Do you see any individual leader in Indian politics today who may, in the long term, be able to wield the kind of influence that a Nehru or an Ambedkar did?

No, and we should not expect that. As I said in the introduction to my book, Makers of Modern India, at the founding of any nation, you will inevitably find visionaries. So for example, you have a Jefferson or a Washington for America. The same could be true of times of crisis, for example Churchill at the time that Britain was besieged. But it's rare to have a continuous sequence of really great leaders. I think India was fortunate to have Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar all born around the same time. What we should be looking for now is not necessarily heroic leaders, but capable and focused leaders. So, first, we should set our bar slightly lower. Maybe we are not even reaching that at this point, but it would certainly be futile and unwise to hope for a new Gandhi, Nehru or Ambedkar.

Q. Since you mention crisis, look at what the nation is going through now. There is all kinds of rent-seeking, stagnation in growth and a general despondency. Would you take this as a kind of situation that could throw up a remarkable leader?

Well, the nation is throwing up leaders - whether that is the right kind, I am not sure. Also, the crisis in this case is one which has been caused by a lack of leadership. To elaborate on the point I made earlier, in India after Gandhi (2007), I made the point that a nation has to be founded by visionaries but it can be led in mid-career by mediocrities.

Clearly, Manmohan Singh is less than a mediocrity. Singh will go down, in my view, as possibly the worst Prime Minister India has ever had because of the things he did not do, compounded by the length of his tenure. It is not as if Chandrasekhar or Devegowda were remarkable Prime Ministers but they were not there for very long. And it is precisely because of what Manmohan Singh did not do that there was continuous rent-seeking, and we did not see several urgent administrative reforms that needed to be undertaken. When he came to power in 2004, we had had 10 to 12 years of sustained economic growth. So we had more money, but we had to find ways of using that money more wisely, more equitably; we had to find ways of reviewing our public institutions so that they could cope with the growing demands that our population was imposing on them. In all these respects, Dr Singh and his Government failed conspicuously.

These have been 10 wasted years. Manmohan Singh has never been visible, he has never addressed the people of India - a PM should visit the states regularly. So the point is that there is clearly a crisis in that we have had abysmally poor political leadership at the Centre for the last 10 years. But whether the alternatives on offer are going to redeem or rescue that is a different matter. But Manmohan Singh, particularly, and perhaps even Rahul Gandhi (though it is unfair to judge him since he hasn't taken on an active administrative role yet), have been less than mediocre. Manmohan Singh has in fact been a colossal disappointment, and so there is this massive failure of leadership that we see.

The challenge today is not so much thought leadership, as fixing the real problems. We know what the problems are... When India was born, there were intellectual challenges. We don’t need that kind of thinking now, but we need pragmatic, focused politics.

 •  A Prime Minister in peril
 •  Degrading democracy

Q. In that case, what do you make of the fact that he came back for a second term? What does that say about the leadership processes in the country?

You see, leadership is partly about context (are the times such that you can have a profound and positive impact?) and partly about character. Can you take clear cogent action and enact certain policies that will take the country on a better path? Manmohan Singh's weaknesses were visible in the first term but the consequences emerged only in the second term.

In the first term, his weaknesses were clear in that he did not choose to seek a fresh mandate from the Lok Sabha even after becoming Prime Minister, something that all other previous PMs who had got in with a Rajya Sabha hat, did. He left the choice of ministers entirely to Sonia Gandhi - let us take two examples only: Shivraj Patil in Home, and Arjun Singh for Education. Any leader would have said, 'Madam I'll become the PM but allow me to choose my team. I will consult you and you have the right of veto, but it cannot only be the persons you nominate.' These are questions that historians will ask about Manmohan Singh.

A major reason why Narendra Modi is being seen as an alternative today and some people are willing to overlook his manifest character flaws is because Manmohan Singh was so shockingly inept.

Q. In your book Makers of Modern India, you have actually chosen political writing as the basis of leadership and a criterion for people you have chosen for mention in this work. Why do you see that as being so important?

It is important because these are all people who wrote their own speeches/essays. The 19th and 20th centuries were the heyday of print and they used books, magazines and in general the written medium to take their message to the people. Before that, you saw the oral tradition, the Romans were great orators. In fact, we may again be going back to the oral tradition. Political oratory may again become more important than political writing because of the Internet. Today, you can just record a speech and put it on Youtube. Everyone can then see it. Laloo Yadav was a funny, engaging speaker and he had to go from village to village to convey his message. Now you have Narendra Modi, who may not be an amusing speaker but certainly a compelling and powerful speaker. So, I think we may now see a new genre of political speech making that can impact people.

Q. How do you see that emerging? For example, if we take three cornerstones as writing, speech making and simply 'doing on the ground' - how would you rate the present leaders on each of these?

Of course, nobody can write with the same kind of intelligence or analytical robustness, in any language, as the leaders in those times did. Clearly our present leaders are not people who can string together a coherent argument through writing. Some of them are very good orators, for example Narendra Modi, whatever you may think of his politics. I detest his politics, but he is a compelling speaker.

You see the challenge today is not so much thought leadership, as fixing the real problems. We know what the problems are - there is atrophy of institutions, there is massive corruption, there is infrastructure deficiency, lack of foreign policy. When India was born there were real intellectual challenges - should India be a Hindu state? Should we impose one language on the whole country? Should women have equal rights? We have crossed that stage and now, we don't need that kind of thinking, but we need pragmatic, focused politics. That also seems to be missing.

Q. Speaking of pragmatic politics, let's focus on our question on 'doers' - it often emerges that leaders, in the process of doing major things, actually clarify their own thinking. Whether or not they articulate it, it is reinforced through what they have done. If you look at that angle, how would you actually compare Modi with let us say, Sardar Patel, especially as there has been this recent controversy over Modi taking up Patel's cause?

This has to be answered at several levels. First, you have to realize that Patel spent his entire life as a Congressman and it is only because the Congress has turned its back on Patel that Modi can claim him. In fact, Patel's great achievement was building the Congress organization and creating a network at district and state levels. The Congress today is the only all-India party; it is present in every state of the Union and the two people responsible for that are Patel and Kamaraj - Patel in 1920s-40s and Kamaraj in the 50s and 60s. They built the network that made the Congress a mass organization and Rahul Gandhi is reaping the benefits of that today. But the Congress has given up on Sardar Patel, which is why Narendra Modi has claimed him.

Now, think of Patel as a doer; as I said, Patel built the organizations of India's most important political party that led the fight for freedom and also managed the Indian state in the first 20 years after independence. But Patel himself was in government for only three years. He did a colossal amount of stuff in these three years. Again, it was a question of organization; he had three major achievements as Home Minister - he got the princely states aboard and persuaded each one of them, worked out specific deals with each prince and cajoled him to join the Indian state. Second, he transformed the ICS into the IAS that helped to retain a kind of civil service but modernized and adapted it to the needs of independent India. The third thing he did - and this is not adequately recognised - is that he got the Constitution passed in the Assembly, because he controlled the Congress party. So if Ambedkar, or any outsider, or even anyone within the Congress had reservations, it was his job to convince that person. He did all this very well.

But at the same time, there were areas where he was lacking - he had no interest in foreign policy and we needed Nehru there, just as we needed him when it came to ensuring equal rights for minorities or bringing the South on board. Then there were the women and youth - two enormously important sections of the population to whom Patel did not appeal at all. Patel himself recognised this, he knew he could not become Prime Minister. He was a nuts-and bolts-man. So though he was a considerable figure, in terms of contribution to nation making, he would be second to Nehru.

To answer whether Modi can be compared to someone like Patel, let me go back to my book Makers of Modern India. This book has been controversial for both whom I included and whom I left out. One of the questions I've been asked often is why I included M S Golwalkar as a maker of modern India. In my opinion, he is among the makers because we could not have had the RSS and BJP without him. People like Vajpayee, Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi were nurtured by him. Hindu nationalism became an important trend in political ideology in India largely because of Golwalkar. He had original, interesting ideas about the role of religion, civilisation, and the nation.

Now, Modi may also come to be known as an enormously influential figure in Indian history - that is quite possible - my judgment is open on that. But it will be more in the tradition of Golwalkar - probably as someone who is sectarian, propagates a kind of macho, masculine Hindutva using intimidatory tactics, hectors minorities and is paranoid about enemies, real and alleged. Just as Golwalkar finds place in this book because of his ideas and influence - which were negative but colossal - a subsequent book 50 years later may also have Modi, but not necessarily as an example of what is good and true to the spirit of Indian democracy. Not like a Patel or a Nehru or a Gandhi, or even a Tarabai Shinde. It will be a subject who made India a less tolerant, more bigoted place. He may succeed - he has enormous strength of personality, he has individual charisma and he has benefited from the true sense of despair over the shocking misgovernance of the Congress party. So he could have an impact, but he is certainly not one that a democrat like me would admire.

Q. You say Modi has stood up for Patel because his own party has forgotten him. Why did the Congress disown Patel?

The Congress disowned Patel because Indira Gandhi was suspicious of him. You see, Indira grew up in her father's house and during 1947-50 in particular, the relationship between Nehru and Patel was at times very rocky. So she grew up with the feeling that Patel was a part of a faction that was trying to undercut her father. Then during the Emergency, Patel's daughter Maniben was actually arrested - so the family feud became an open one in this generation. In case of Vallabhbhai and Jawaharlal, there were disagreements but they decided to submerge those and co-operate. In the next generation, it became more open.

And in the one after that, Rajiv Gandhi of course held that Nehru and Indira were the greatest and Sonia continues in that tradition. One of Sonia's perceptible inclinations is to attribute everything to Nehru and Indira and Rajiv. Narasimha Rao, for example, is forgotten. The credit for liberalization today is given wrongly to Rajiv Gandhi. So you see there is no place for anyone in the Congress outside the family, except Mahatma Gandhi because he is beyond party lines. It's not just Patel - Kamaraj, Rajagopalachari, Y B Chavan, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay - so many eminent Congress men and women who contributed significantly to the party and the nation are forgotten.

Q. Do you feel it would make a difference to have a more visible exchange of ideas and debate between political leaders today, either through political writing, or oratory as you mentioned?

Absolutely. The decline of legislatures is really sad. If you see the Constituent Assembly debates of 1946, and till about 1975, they were very rich and very interesting and involved all kinds of people - Communists, Socialists, Jansanghis, Congressmen - you even saw debate within the Congress. For example, I am reminded of a wonderful debate between N V Gadgil of Maharashtra who was speaking on behalf of linguistic states, while Nehru opposed it. So, of course, the decline of Parliament in that sense is very sad. All that happens are endless walk-outs. Occasionally, there is a debate and there may be good speakers still, but they don't get a chance to articulate.

Q. Deeper debates interest historians, scholars and intellectuals, but do they really make a difference to the common man, people who deal with administration on a daily basis?

Not in the short term, but in the long term, yes. Debates bring about more informed reasoning, judgment and appropriate policies. It takes time and there has to be some give and take. Clearly questions of employment, livelihoods, health, security, education - these are of more immediate concern; reflective philosophical or social debates may not help in these and may even be distractions. But as a society and nation matures, a culture of critical debate and reflection, both within the political class and outside, is important.

One of the things that is clearly not happening is enough of a debate in media. I have radically reduced my appearances on television because you have a Congress guy and a BJP guy screaming at each other, whereas there is a scope for well-reasoned, informed interesting debates on many things. For example, FDI in retail. My fear is that, especially with Twitter and Internet, there will be a rise in decibel value without thoughtful analysis.

Q. Anything in your memory from recent times that you would call a powerful, original speech in Parliament or even a state legislature?

There are certainly good speakers in the Lok Sabha; I don't follow the Legislative Assembly debates too much. Omar Abdullah's short speech on being Muslim and Indian made an impact on me, and you could see that it came from within. It was not rehearsed, unlike Rahul Gandhi's in the same debate. So I think there are interesting speakers who are not given an opportunity. The anti-defection law is also problematic, because you cannot go against your party whip. So there is a problem in the way that Parliament is run, but I am sure there are good speakers. I have met leaders from different parties one-on-one and I am impressed by how much they have read and what they know.

Q. Why isn't that coming out? The capability of reflection or even knowledge, as you mention, among certain leaders - is it really visible?

No, it is not. But it would be hard to say exactly why. A lot probably has to do with the conversion of political parties into family firms. And that's across many parties, not just the Congress; everywhere you have a certain family or group in control and the entire dynamics is concentrated not on coming up with creative, original ideas but pleasing the person who is close to the centre of decision making. There is a culture of deference and sycophancy in most political parties now.

Q. So you are saying there is some self-censorship? That there may be an individual point of view where they disagree with each other, but are scared to say so?

Yes, so a Congressman will most probably think, will Rahul Gandhi approve? Or a DMK MLA would consider, will Karunanidhi be upset? For example, I am sure there are DMK MLAs who personally feel that Sri Lankan cricketers have nothing to do with what happened to the LTTE, and there is no reason to ban them from playing in Chepauk...but they can't say that.

Q. Speaking of this culture of deference, let's dwell on a social question. It is said that our society is a very hierarchical one - you have caste, you have religion and all other kinds of hierarchy. Politics is supposed to result in a breakdown of hierarchies as an organizing principle. Where do you think India stands in this journey of breaking up with old hierarchies?

It is happening, although slowly. It can only be a slow process, but it is possible that it is happening too slowly. You have 5000 years of entrenched patriarchy, entrenched caste hierarchy, prejudices against communities and you cannot have that changed overnight. We have only had 60 years of democracy. In some places, social change has happened faster than in others; for example in Kerala, where the prejudice of untouchability was even more pronounced than in Northern India, it has more or less broken down.

Even in case of women, I believe there has been progress, Of course, for the citizen in me, it is extremely worrying that there are so many more visible attacks on women, but for the sociologist, these attacks are actually a counter-reaction by patriarchs who cannot accept the fact that women today are in the workplace, women are running musical bands, women are going to college. So it is actually a society in churning where very deep-rooted hierarchies are being disturbed.

Of course, leadership is important here too. You perhaps even need strong religious leaders who can modernise and adapt for such change to happen and it is happening, though, as I said, too slowly. Also, one has to recognise that there is a lot of difference and variation among the states. What you are talking about is a very young political experiment. In a society as hierarchical as ours, it is so revolutionary to even say that everyone must be equal that it may take a few hundred years to bring about equality of some sort.

Q. Since you mention religious leaders, do you think today's religious leaders are really outspoken about social problems? You have Sri Sri Ravishankar with a kind of middle and upper middle class following, you have the Hindu yoga gurus, and you have the orthodox leaders in the Church hierarchy, who are generally reticent on public life. Was it different during the Independence or immediately-post Independence era?

I would think they were possibly more outspoken back then. I think religious leaders now are more concerned with controlling their territory, their flock, expanding their reach - they are not interpreting what is happening in society, I would think that in the time of the national movement - roughly the 1880s to 1940s - there certainly was a challenge before all three religions - Hinduism, Islam and Christianity - posed by European modernism as well as Indian nationalism and Gandhian ideology. So you had their leaders reflecting on how to accommodate these modern aspects, how to move forward.

Today, either you have outright reactionaries, like Baba Ramdev, or they are extremely cautious like Sri Sri Ravishankar, who will do nothing to disturb his properties or his general feel-good approach towards spirituality among a section of confused urban elites. There are still a few Jesuits who I feel are doing good work at the grassroots, and are often at odds with the Catholic church for the kind of work they do, but by and large religious leaders have become entrepreneurs and managers, who are more concerned with management and protection of their assets. Alternatively, they are reactionaries - in Islam for example, there has been a real wave of reactionary movements. In Kashmir, which had a very liberal pluralist Islam, women were very emancipated throughout the first half of the 20th century. Sheikh Abdullah and Begum Abdullah did a great amount of work for the cause of women's education. And now you see a movement for women in burqas in Kashmir. Across the board - Hindus, Muslims and Christians - either religious heads are becoming more conservative or they are acting like corporate guys.

Q. The present discourse on leadership in India revolves largely around Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, but I have heard you say that fortunately for us, there are better choices than either of them. Can you tell us three candidates that you would endorse as Indian PM?

My view is this: I don't want one great, heroic redemptive leader in Delhi; my choice would be 15 or 20 good chief ministers. We are going through a period of coalition politics and you can only do so much from Delhi. Of course, you need a PM who is more focused, more active and more capable than Manmohan Singh.

There are several very good chief ministers in India. Nitish Kumar is one, Manik Sarkar of Tripura, who has won four times, has handled insurgency quite well. And they are from different parties. There are good leaders in the Congress, too. My hope for Indian democracy in some ways is that in the next elections the Congress does so badly - gets 80 to 100 seats maybe - that they kick out the family. And then you may just see some good leaders emerging in the party as well.

Q. Why do you choose Nitish Kumar? What are his achievements and qualities that make you root for him?

I think he worked in an extremely backward state. His primary achievement is that law and order improved enormously under him. Also, he is focused on education, health and infrastructure, three very significant things. True that he has not been able to attract entrepreneurship. But I think the point of significance - and others including Modi's critics in the BJP itself have said this - is that Nitish Kumar, or for that matter Shivraj Singh Chouhan in MP, have been in backward states and tried to modernise them. In Gujarat, Modi is building on the achievements of earlier leaders and entrepreneurs of an already industrialised state.

Even Manik Sarkar, most speak very highly of him - he has handled a serious insurgency problem, there is absolutely no corruption, he walks to work everyday, he is open to new ideas and technology. I have also heard good things about BJP Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar in Goa.

These leaders are all competent in their own ways, but of course, whether they would be good prime ministers is another question. However, again, I feel that too much importance is attached to one guy from Delhi who is going to fix everything. That is not realistic. Over the next 10-15 years, I would like to see good leaders in the states who take the country forward.

Another thing that is needed is a stable two-party system in the states. The states that have done best in terms of social indicators are Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala and all have two-party systems, alternating in power over the years. Whereas states like Bengal where you have had one party ruling for 30 plus years have fared the worst.

Q. Even when you take the problem from the PM to the Chief Ministerial level, there is the emergence of what we see as authoritarianism - whether it is in the way that Modi or Jayalalithaa rules or in the way Mamata deals with criticism. What would you say about that?

Absolutely, it has been happening across the board. Either you have political parties around families or around state satraps. There is Naveen Patnaik too, and Mayawati, and even Nitish Kumar has an authoritarian streak. It is said that even Mamata's ministers don't know whether they can meet her or not. There is a tale that goes around that when Jayalalithaa holds a Cabinet meeting, she is the only one who sits - no one else is allowed to! Now, these may or may not be true but the fact that such stories are told gives an idea of how these leaders are perceived. And that is worrying. That is not how democracy is meant to be.

There is this great speech by Ambedkar made at the Constituent Assembly on Bhakti and hero worship, where he talks of how, in a democracy, you cannot lay down your liberties at the feet of a person, however great he may be. But we see that kind of thing happening all the time today - there is certainly a surge in authoritarianism.

Q. Can that have a negative impact on the possibility of good state leaders taking the country forward?

It would have to be countered by some other party coming and dethroning them. In Kerala, for example, you cannot have such a thing - you have a party system there. Building party organizations is hard and slow work and it is easier to lean on the charisma of an individual leader.

Q. Stepping away from the mainstream and visible political leaders of the day, what are your thoughts on the alternative movements that we have witnessed in the nation of late - whether it is the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare or the movement for a new politics seen during the Karnataka elections, which is also most likely to be seen when the newly formed AAP contests the Delhi assembly polls later this year? How do you reflect on the leadership in these?

There are two things to note here: for one, although the quality of political leadership in the country seems to be less than optimal, in other spheres - in social work, in the professional services, and in some parts of the business/corporate sector, we have seen individual leaders of very high quality.

As far as alternative politics is concerned, it is obviously born out of despair with the state of affairs in mainstream politics. Often, however, these movements get swayed by media attention and portrayal. Let me give you an example from the anti-corruption movement. There was real public anger against corruption all over India when Anna Hazare was on fast in Delhi. The government was completely on the defensive; it had to give in and it said, 'we will have a committee to discuss a Lokpal bill - five cabinet ministers and five unelected NGO workers." Now, that was a colossal victory. That was absolute parity. At this point, however, they completely spoilt it by saying this will be telecast live. And if Kapil Sibal made a casual remark about Kejriwal, Kejriwal went to a TV studio and abused him back.

At such a stage, however, if you want real change to take place, you have to suppress your ego, forget media, sit in a closed room across the five guys from the other side and work out a reasonably acceptable Lokpal bill. There may have been some compromise, some give-and-take but now we have nothing at all. It was a huge strategic mistake. I had, in fact, told Kejriwal whom I was in touch with back then, to avoid getting into personal hassles with Sibal or anyone else on media. Where else would you get such a huge opportunity and parity - five heavyweight ministers in dialogue with five unelected representatives from your side? But the activists were very ill-advised and they fell into the trap of the media.

You see, the media is very good at highlighting a problem. They are disastrous in aiding solutions. Gandhi was one to recognise that very well. He knew when to start a movement and when to call it off. That is a skill that leaders of new movements in the country have to learn. I feel sorry, because they had the momentum going for them.

I don't blame Kejriwal. He was young, and maybe he will grow and mature. He has good advisors now. I also think Jayaprakash Narayan of the Loksatta may be more open. Democracy is about conceding a bit and getting what you want in return. If you toe the hardline completely, you may get nothing at all.

Q. One final, personal question. From your works, one gets a sense that you are a democrat and that you have your own personal interest in seeing political and social reform...yet, you write as a historian. How do you bring in a sense of detachment as you chronicle events over a time period in history, which helps you to steer clear of any really hardline position?

Of course, I feel deeply anguished and upset about things - from Robert Vadra to the recent tragedy in Uttarakhand - and I am also a very emotional person, but now that I have 30 odd years of study and reflection behind me, I have a sense of some of the limits to what can be done and also a sense of warning against easy quick totalist solutions as much as against putting your liberties at the feet of any individual. So whether you call it detachment or scepticism, it is there.

I do think that it is very important for a writer not to be part of a political party or a political group. Your independence is your most valuable asset - for your sanity, for your integrity and also for clarity and credibility of your analysis. As a writer and a student of democracy, you can have broad views but you should not be obliged to defend your position. For example, I have seen some people in the Press who are very close to the Congress, and even when the Congress commits a howler, they feel obliged to give a positive spin to it. And in that, they have to give up some of their independence. So when you speak of detachment, I would say it is another word for independence, where you are not involved in partisan politics and you try and have a more reflective understanding.