Sunday Anchor

An anniversary turns into a tug-of-war

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not forget Jawaharlal Nehru on his birth anniversary even while he was in Brisbane for a G20 meet. Posing for selfies with students at a university, Mr. Modi said he was fortunate to be among children on “Chacha Nehru’s birthday.” While checking out an exhibition, he even left a message that embodied the Nehruvian spirit. He jotted down in Hindi: “Research is the mother of development.”

Even as Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary turned into a tug of war between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, it is quite hard to believe or even understand Mr. Modi’s new-felt love for Nehru. Reports suggest that he now wants his government to come up with ways to connect Nehru with his much-touted Swachh Bharat campaign.

It is too early to say whether Mr. Modi will be able to clean up India beyond her few roads; or whether changing the destiny of the nation would mean more than changing the content of textbooks in schools. As of now, the only certain thing is that, despite what his detractors may say, a large number of people have voted for him. That is democracy with all its strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps Nehru would have said, as he was quoted in a 1963 Playboy interview, that in a democracy such as India’s, it was doubtful that the judgment of the electorate would improve. “All the noise and din and the machinery of advertisement prevent men from thinking,” he had remarked then.

That was India’s Prime Minister speaking 50 years ago. That was a man who wrote in The Discovery of India that he was not much of a politician, but led the nation with such statesmanship that is almost impossible to replicate. As the scholar Ashutosh Varshney says: “If Gandhi is the father of the Indian nationhood, Nehru is the father of Indian democracy.”

These are not mere words. To get a glimpse of Nehru’s vision, one doesn’t need to be a Nehru scholar; one just needs to read letters he wrote as India’s Prime Minister to his Chief Ministers, every fortnight, from 1947 to 1963. As Madhav Khosla writes in the introduction of Letters for a Nation, a volume of these letters edited by him: “At this critical moment in India’s history, when economic growth has unleashed unfathomable energy and democratic aspirations have displaced old political idioms, it is worth remembering the ideals of Nehru’s India — as liberal society structured around individual freedom, a state respectful of procedures and norms, a model of leadership where strength and self-inquiry might cohere — and the power and meaning they once held.”

Is Mr. Modi capable of self-inquiry? And, more important, does he believe in the Nehruvian model of leadership? Not very long ago, he had said that the country’s destiny would have been different had Patel been the first Prime Minister instead of Nehru. But he forgets that even Patel would have been quite dismissive of him. As Patel’s biographer Rajmohan Gandhi says, Patel would not have felt during the 2002 Gujarat riots that Mr. Modi was fulfilling his Raj Dharma. He would not have liked that Mr. Modi or anybody else builds his statue. Mr. Modi also forgets that neither Patel nor Nehru would have forgiven him for his insistence to call Mohandas (Gandhi) as “Mohanlal.” Patel and Nehru had their differences, but their commitment to Gandhi’s ideals and to India was much above political or personal disagreement; they worked closely together to build India both before and after Independence.

Mr. Modi’s latest act of appropriating Nehru has alarmed the Congress. Speaking at a function to commemorate Nehru’s quasquicentennial, Sonia Gandhi said that there were “concerted attempts to destroy the vision of Nehru, the way he used to view India.” Nobody told her that Nehru would not have approved of the way she treated the Congress as her family heirloom. Or for that matter how she sat for years on Nehru’s post-1946 papers, denying access to scholars except two of them. Nehru’s vision also does not mean the pettiness with which the Congress decided not to invite Mr. Modi to a seminar on Nehru organised by the party.

Nehru and Patel had their differences, but these were on issues of national importance. There was no pettiness, and there was no doubt about how the other was acting in the best interests of the nation. Both were extremely gracious to each other. In a letter written by Patel in October 1949, a month before Nehru turned 60, he writes of Nehru: “It is obviously impossible to do justice to his great and pre-eminent personality in these few condensed words. The versatility of his character and attainment at once defy delineation. His thoughts have sometime a depth which is not easy to fathom, but underlying them to all is a transparent sincerity and a robustness of youth which endear him to everyone without distinction of caste and creed, race or religion.” That is why those who play up the differences between Nehru and Patel are doing a great injustice to both leaders.

The biggest insult to Nehru is how many Indians, who have never read a word from or on Nehru pass their judgment on how he handled issues of national importance — Kashmir, for example. These are the people who, if they saw a young Nehru somewhere today, would probably identify him as Roshan Seth.

Like any other leader, Nehru had his shortcomings, but his contribution to the making of India is far greater than these.

Today, both Modi and Sonia Gandhi want to hold on tightly to the Nehru Pellegrina. But they forget that Nehru himself held no cardinalship, he claimed to be nobody’s uncle.

Nehru, and for that matter Patel, belong to no party, to no individual. That is why there should be no attempt to appropriate them, to own them. Both Nehru and Patel are beyond appropriation.


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