Beyond appropriation

While the BJP is determined to appropriate national icons like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, the Congress is clinging on to its past to remain relevant in the present.

Updated - May 06, 2016 04:37 am IST

Published - November 16, 2014 12:20 am IST



The tussle between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party over who reserves the first right to celebrate — and thereby proclaim as its very own — national icons of modern India goes beyond the war of words between the two sides on commemorating the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharalal Nehru. Central to this tussle is the politics of the leadership between the two sides.

Experts believe that while the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is determined to appropriate national icons of the stature of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel for wider acceptance, the Congress is clinging on to its past to remain relevant in the present. More so in the case of India’s Grand Old Party, because the current leadership, with Sonia Gandhi as party president and Rahul Gandhi as vice-president, claims direct lineage from Nehru, but seem to have lost its sheen and need to fall back on the past.

While the Congress is worried that the present government’s attempt is to reduce Gandhi and Nehru to adjuncts to Mr. Modi’s programmes, it is even more anxious that the BJP is trying to snatch away its icons, who were, to begin with, Congress leaders. The BJP argues equally forcefully that Gandhi, Nehru or Patel cannot be confined to one party. “Nehru is not the Congress’s monopoly. The present Congress has not patented Nehru or Patel,” Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told The Hindu . “We are recognising everybody’s contribution to the national cause,” Mr. Naqvi said as he charged the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance with “confining themselves to Indira and Rajiv” when it came to recognising national icons.

The BJP government celebrated Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary on November 14 with Home Minister Rajnath Singh releasing a Nehru portal and commemorative coins. Minister of State for Culture Mahesh Sharma, who accompanied Mr. Singh, announced that the government had earmarked Rs. 20 crore for the year-long commemoration. But on Friday, he used the occasion to take a dig at the Congress’s current leadership. “This ‘Rastrapurush’ [man of the nation] is not the heritage of any family or dynasty,” he said. Dynasty had become a bad word during the 2014 general election and is probably compounding the Congress’s losses.

On October 31, the BJP-led government celebrated the birth anniversary of Patel as National Unity Day administering a national unity pledge despite the fact that November 19, Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary, is already marked as National Integration Day. The day was also Indira Gandhi’s 30th death anniversary. The government put in a great deal of effort to organise a run for unity to mark Patel’s birthday with Mr. Modi leading the celebrations in New Delhi. Some Congress leaders saw this as an attempt to start a Patel versus Indira debate after the ruling party’s attempts to undermine Nehru’s legacy in the past.

Mr. Modi and his party were often dubbed as anti-Nehru, and not without reason. The BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 general election made no mention of Nehru even while referring to the freedom struggle. “Indian freedom struggle, which was inspired by Tilak, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Patel, Bose and others, had a clear vision of the civilisational consciousness of India,” it said.

“Patel, Indira and Nehru were Congress leaders, the BJP would do well to remember that,” Congress general secretary Ajay Maken said. The anxiety and eagerness on both sides in co-opting these national icons, while trying to exclude the others, is a reflection of the needs of present-day politics.

History often provides the building blocks for political discourse and by extension, political propaganda. With the kind of contempt that the people seem to reserve for present-day politicians, falling back on the past is an option they will be forced to exercise sooner or later. “The present also shapes the past,” explained Professor Bhagwan Josh of the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Despite the attempts to appropriate him, the views on Nehru are extremely polarised today. “There are usually three kinds of assessments that one hears of historical figures. There are the rationalisers who say a person did what he could best do. Then there are the sceptics who question everything and say Nehru’s negatives far outweighed his positives. Finally, there are those who balance the two views. My worry is that the space for the balanced perspective is shrinking. Partly, Nehru’s own ideology is at fault here. From his perspective, you are either communal or secular. That leaves no space for the middle ground,” he said.

The Congress too has abandoned the middle ground. For its international seminar on Nehru’s world view and philosophy on November 17 and 18, it has chosen to keep the BJP and its allies away. Ironically, one of the central themes of the conference is Nehru’s inclusiveness. “Nehru respected dissent. The core thing about Nehru is his inclusiveness that is why he invited those from other political streams to join his Cabinet. The present Congress is so decimated it is not capable of that,” Professor Zoya Hasan of the Centre of Political Studies, JNU, said. “While their (Congress) point is well taken that the BJP does not share Nehru’s ideas or philosophy, they should have at least invited the Prime Minister. The Congress is being exclusivist. Nehru was completely above that,” Professor Hasan said.

With few historical figures to claim as its own, the BJP government, led by Mr. Modi, has no choice but to recognise the stature of these leaders. “Modi is deeply aware of the fragility of his victory which has come with just 31 per cent of the votes. Therefore, to broad-base his political acceptance, he has to reject the traditional legacy of the RSS, and that of Golwalkar and Savarkar,” Professor Josh said. “That can only be done by adopting Gandhi and Patel. He also has to embrace the nation builders, Nehru and Indira Gandhi,” he added.

But the government’s attempts in that direction appear lopsided not only to the Congress but even to others. The government of the day, felt Professor Hasan, is not inculcating Nehruvian ideals but simply marking an occasion by celebrating Nehru’s 125th anniversary. “When you have a BJP government, clearly the government has to mark that occasion. But adopting Nehru’s ideas, his policies and philosophy is not something that the current government is doing. In the case of Nehru, they have reviled him all along,” she said.

Mr. Modi launched the Clean India campaign on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, October 2, this year. On November 14, the government launched the Swachh Bal Abhiyan, the programmes for which will extend to November 19, Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary.

“The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a BJP programme. They are treating Gandhi and Nehru as appendages to their programme. However, Gandhi and Nehru cannot be reduced to champions of cleanliness,” Professor Hasan said.

She said the government of the day would do better to improve the lives and working conditions of sanitation workers if it really cared for the Gandhian view. The Indian national movement produced many great leaders and it was very important to remember their contribution. The debate over Nehru versus Patel was “unnecessary competition,” she felt. “It is a fact that both leaders were close to Gandhi. They were colleagues. They had their convergences and their divergences but their greatness lay in the manner in which they respected one another. They could live with differences and work out a consensus,” she added.

For sure our present-day leaders could take a leaf out of Nehru’s book, or Patel’s, instead of fighting over their legacies.

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