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Mainstream, VOL LX No 24, New Delhi, June 4, 2022

Where Has Gandhi’s, Nehru’s India Gone? | T J S George

Friday 3 June 2022, by T J S George



Once upon a time there was Mahatma Gandhi’s India which dovetailed imperceptibly into Jawaharlal Nehru’s India. As a matter of fact, Gandhi’s India and Nehru’s India were people’s India where citizens felt like owners and cheerfully played their roles as owners. It was an India that made Indians proud.

Like all humans, and like all national leaders, Gandhi and Nehru had their weaknesses and those weaknesses often led to blunders of policy. These, too, have led to books. "Nehru’s Himalayan Blunders" is not a book on the mistakes Nehru made, but an account of the accession of Jammu & Kashmir by Justice S. N. Aggarwal. But there are other books focussed on Nehru — from Michael Brecher’s "Nehru: A Political Biography" to Shashi Tharoor’s "Nehru: The Invention of India." (Alas, M. J. Akbar has lost the way, so his "Nehru: The Making of India" is best left in the wings.)

It is clear that Gandhi and Nehru left footprints the historical value of which has remained unmatched over the years. Neither Indira Gandhi, nor P. V. Narasimha Rao, nor Lal Bahadur Shastri, nor any of the others fitted into the Gandhi-Nehru mould. But they were men of calibre and their ambitions for India were generally the same as the ambitions of the general public. So their stature remained undiminished.

Things changed after 2014. That was the year when a party’s interests rose above the country’s interests. The BJP won 282 seats in the 543– seat Lok Sabha. Narendra Modi was sworn in as the 14th Prime Minister of India in May that year. That change made historically important waves that prime ministerial changes in the past had not seen.

Why? The answer is two-fold. First, the rise to power of the BJP was different from the rise of parties earlier. The BJP brought into the realm of power an ideological objective that was unseen earlier. This meant changing the fundamentals of government and policy objectives at the national level.

Secondly, the fact that the BJP was another word Narendra Modi was critically important. He had personality traits that made his political ambitions non-negotiable. India has not seen a national leader more acutely conscious of his unimpressive beginnings. Remember the special jacket he wore for his meeting with Barack Obama, with embroidered golden stripes repetitiously proclaiming Narendra Damodardas Modi. A Congress supporter remarked: "The levels of megalomania and narcissism are unparalleled." Abraham Lincoln and Lal Bahadur Shastri rose from humbler beginnings. But those beginnings became golden feathers in their caps.

(Forgive Modi if he had the last laugh. Soon after the display of narcissism, the pinstripe jacket entered the Guinness Book of World Records. At an auction the suit was sold for Rs 4.3 crore, attracting the description "the most expensive suit ever auctioned." The buyer was a man from Surat. He was no doubt inspired by the thought that a historical treasure like that suit should not leave the beloved homeland of Gujarat.)

The question comes up: What is more valuable — a suit that costs crores, or a good reputation? Perhaps the time for that question is over. Political standards have changed. A good reputation based on good government is no longer the aim of parties. Personal glory has become a more powerful driving force.

Amazing has been the flow of books glorifying Narendra Modi. "Modi @20" is only among the latest. "N. Modi, A Biography" and "N. Modi: The Art of Leadership" and "The Modi Effect" and "Common Man’s PM" and "Truth & Dare, The Modi Dynamic" are just a few of them. Most of them treat facts, assessments and final judgments to suit political ends.

"Modi’s India" is an exception. It is worthy of special attention because it is written by Christophe Jaffrelot, a recognised specialist on Indian affairs. It goes into details that are sure to attract reader attention. The subtitle to the book sums it up well: "Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy." The point to note here is that Modi’s India has gone down in the global indexes that measure democracy’s health.

Ethnic democracy essentially means equating the majority Hindu Community with the nation. Others are reduced to second-class citizenship. "Laws are passed to protect Hindu symbols, crack down on foreign NGOs and appoint Hindu nationalist sympathisers as heads of prestigious universities."

Time was when such things were anathema to India. The country was famous for leaders who had a universal outlook and who saw democracy as the natural right of citizens. That helped India develop into a democracy that other newly independent countries saw as an inspiration. Where have those days gone? Why have they gone?

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