BJP & Congress Can Come ‘Closer’ – And Nehru Can ‘Make it Happen’
Beyond all debate, Nehru still emerges as a tall leader who served India with unimpeachable devotion and commitment.
No nation can rise to its full potential of development, greatness and glory if its society remains internally divided, its politics is perpetually polarised, and if it fails to establish friendly, peaceful and cooperative relations with all the countries in the world, especially with its immediate neighbours. Differences in society and polity are natural, diversities even more so.
Blind Hero Worship Is Dangerous For a Nation
However, a mature and forward-looking nation, drawing from the wisdom of its own past and learning the right lessons from the experiences of other nations, is able to weave harmony out of these diversities and differences. It neither uncritically aggrandises its own past, nor refuses to acknowledge what was, and is, right and worth-learning from the experiences of other nations, cultures and civilisations.
Similarly, while lauding and gratefully remembering all its heroes, it steers clear of two dangerous traps — one of blind hero worship and creation of personality cults, and the other of vicious villainisation of its great historical personalities. Nations that fell into one or the other of the two traps — and some have fallen into both — have inevitably suffered a lot of turbulence and trauma.
A good example is the now-extinct Soviet Union, once a superpower, where the cult of personality around Lenin and Stalin served to hide many systemic ills, which ultimately led to its downfall.
Another, more useful, example is from China. The hero worship of Mao Zedong reached dangerous heights during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which was the most destabilising and debilitating episode in the history of modern China. The cult of Mao became a cause for many of the worst crimes committed by his followers, and a cover for his own egregious mistakes. Yet, when the nightmare was over, Deng Xiaoping, the farsighted and sagacious leader of China’s reform and opening up, made sure that Mao was not turned into an anti-hero consigned to the inglorious pages of the country’s history. Had he done so, China would have sunk into another prolonged period of turmoil. Instead, Deng surmised that Mao was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong”. We do not know how accurate that assessment is, but we do know that the social and political stability it engendered has helped China make spectacular progress on many fronts in the past four decades.
Can Nehru ‘Bring Congress & BJP Together’?
The above preface was necessary to take a balanced look at the contemporary happenings in society and politics in India, and, within that context, critically assess how — and why — the ruling saffron establishment is trying to demonise Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, showing him as the original ‘desh-drohi’ (‘anti-national’).
This attempt by the prime minister and his followers is doomed to fail, principally because it stands on the straw legs of lies. But my own counter-attempt in this article has a greater purpose: it is to show how Nehru, contrary to the belief on both sides of the ideological divide, can indeed help bring the Bharatiya Janata Party (perhaps the post-Modi BJP) and the Congress closer for the greater good of India.
‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ – Nehru Championed This Idea Long Before Modi
First, a few fundamental facts. Nehru was a towering figure in the constellation of leaders who fought for India’s independence from British rule. He was a colossus in the post-Independence era who provided firm leadership in the aftermath of the most traumatic event in India’s history, her blood-soaked partition. He was a statesman with a global stature who laid the foundation for a proud, modern and atma-nirbhar (self-reliant) India. Yes, Nehru had made self-reliance a credo of his nation-building project long, very long, before Prime Minister Modi, compelled by the coronavirus crisis, spoke of ‘atma-nirbharata’ as a national need.
A passionate patriot, a die-hard democrat and an uncompromising secularist, Nehru’s contribution to the making of India’s Constitution — and hence to the institutions and ethos of India’s parliamentary democracy — was greater than that of any other leader.
Beloved by the people of India in his time, he became India’s longest serving prime minister, a record unlikely to be surpassed by the present and future PMs.
Of course, Nehru did commit some costly mistakes — is there any great leader in the world history who didn’t commit mistakes? His biggest blunders were, one, his failure to resolve the Kashmir issue with Pakistan in his own lifetime; and, two, his failure to prevent the war with China, and India’s defeat in that war, in 1962. Yet, if we apply Deng’s formula to evaluate his legacy by remaining faithful to the facts of history, we would undoubtedly conclude that Nehru’s accomplishments far outweigh his failures and mistakes.
Easy For An Uninformed Person to Fall For Anti-Nehru Propaganda
But this is not how Modi and his ‘bhakts’ are evaluating Panditji. (I am using the prefix ‘Pandit’ deliberately because Nehru was widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest scholar-politicians of his generation.) If an uninformed person listened to their vile propaganda against him, they would conclude that Nehru is responsible for almost all the woes of present-day India.
Why is there still poverty and underdevelopment in India? “Because of Nehru’s ‘socialistic’ policies.” (Never mind that building strong PSUs in the 1950s was a necessary part of making India ‘atma-nirbhar’ in key sectors of the economy.) Why is India still beset with the Kashmir problem? “Because Nehru did not give Sardar Patel the responsibility of complete integration of Jammu & Kashmir into the Indian Union.” (Never mind the incontrovertible fact that Patel indeed wanted to hand over the entire Kashmir valley to Pakistan in lieu of Junagadh coming to India.)
Why didn’t India emerge as a global power? “Because Nehru followed the policy of non-alignment, instead of aligning with the US and other western powers.” (Never mind that non-alignment helped India pursue an independent foreign policy, wedded to world peace, which raised its prestige among scores of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Reasons Behind Villainising Nehru
The debunking of Nehru’s legacy by Modi and his followers has four main components. One, a ludicrous attempt to project Patel as a leader taller than Nehru, who, we are told to believe, connived with Mahatma Gandhi and prevented the Sardar from becoming India’s first PM. A corollary of this propaganda, which too stands refuted by all available facts, is to show Patel as a strong opponent of Nehru’s leadership.
Its second component is the launch of a massive hero-worshipping exercise around Modi designed to elevate him above all the other leaders of post-Independence India — above BJP’s own Atal Bihari Vajpayee and even above Nehru himself.
The third component is their slogan of making India’s polity ‘Congress-mukt’. The presumption behind this slogan, as vain as it is delusionary and anti-democratic, is that if the Congress could be pushed to the margins of Indian politics, the legacy of Nehru (and that of the Nehru-Gandhi family) would automatically shrink to irrelevance.
Fourthly — and this is especially important for understanding Modi bhakts’ attempt to re-script the Idea of India — is to brainwash a large section of India’s Hindus into believing that Nehru was anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim, and so, therefore, is Nehruvian secularism.
If we view this anti-Nehru propaganda in its totality, it becomes clear why India’s society has become communally divided like never before, and how India’s politics has become so polarised as to shrink the space for any meaningful dialogue and cooperation between the two main national parties — BJP and Congress.
Let us pause here and ask ourselves two pertinent questions: Did pre-Modi BJP view Nehru as a villain? Secondly, did Nehru himself regard the Bharatiya Jana Sangh as a political enemy, which needed to be eliminated from India’s political space?
Vajpayee’s Praise for Nehru
The only reliable source for answers to these questions is facts of history. And these facts clearly establish that the pre-Modi BJP’s attitude towards Nehru was markedly different. Despite their political differences with him, senior leaders of the Jana Sangh and, later, BJP, had genuine respect for him. Read, for example, how Vajpayee vented his grief in Parliament a few days after Nehru’s death in 1964: “…A dream has remained half-fulfilled, a song has become silent, and a flame has banished into the unknown. The dream was a world free of fear and hunger; the song a great epic resonant with the spirit of the Gita, and as fragrant as a rose; the flame a candle which burnt all night long, showing us the way.”
The loss was not that of a family or community or party. Mother India was in mourning as “her beloved Prince has gone to sleep”. Humanity was aggrieved because its “servant” and “worshipper has left it forever”. The “chief actor of the world stage has departed after performing his last act”.
Vajpayee Once Compared Nehru to Lord Ram
What Atalji said next would surely infuriate many Modi supporters. He compared Nehru to none other than Ram! “In Panditji’s life, we get a glimpse of the noble sentiments found in the saga of Valmiki”. Like Ram, Nehru was “the orchestrator of the impossible and inconceivable”. Describing him as one “no one can replace”, Atalji said, “That strength of personality, that vibrancy and independence of mind, that quality of being able to befriend the opponent and enemy, that gentlemanliness, that greatness − this will not perhaps be found in the future.” (Modiji, please pay heed to the italicised words.)
Nehru’s departure had pushed India into a vortex of uncertainty. Taking cognisance of this new reality, Atalji appealed to Indians to rededicate themselves to his – and the Republic’s – ideals. “With unity, discipline and self-confidence, we must make this Republic of ours flourish. The leader has gone, but the followers remain. The sun has set, yet by the shadow of stars we must find our way. These are testing times, but we must dedicate ourselves to his great aim, so that India can become strong, capable and prosperous.”
Finally, endorsing an ideal dearest to Nehru’s heart, Vajpayee reminded his countrymen: Were India to “establish lasting peace in the world, we shall have succeeded in paying proper homage to him.”
‘Nehru is A Towering Personality of Freedom Era’: LK Advani
And what did Lal Krishna Advani, the other principal architect of the BJP, think of Nehru? Here I speak from personal knowledge. The year was 1997. To celebrate the golden jubilee of India’s independence, Advani, the then president of the BJP, embarked on a nationwide programme, called the Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra, to create awareness about India’s freedom struggle. Criss-crossing India by road for two months (and Indian roads were in a far worse condition then), he visited all the major places associated with the freedom movement and paid homage to all its martyrs and leaders, irrespective of their political, ideological or religious background.
I was working as an aide to Advani those days and accompanied him throughout this exhilarating odyssey, and later narrated it in my book A Patriotic Pilgrimage. When our rath, an imaginatively re-designed Tata truck, reached Chennai on 27 May, I suggested to Advaniji that it would be appropriate for him to pay tribute to Pandit Nehru on his death anniversary. In his press statement, Advani praised India’s first prime minister for “his idealism as well as contribution to the freedom movement and subsequent development of parliamentary democracy in India”. Regardless of the BJP’s differences with many of his policies, Advani added, “We hold Nehru to be one of the towering personalities of the Freedom Era. At a time when the ideas and ideals of that glorious era have been completely abandoned by the leaders of his own party, the BJP believes that recalling the positive aspects of Nehru’s life and work will help in arresting the degradation of India’s political culture.”
How many leaders and followers of the Modi-led BJP either know, or care to acknowledge, these facts?
‘Jana Sangh is a Patriotic Party’: Nehru
Similarly, how many Congress leaders and followers either know, or care to acknowledge, the fact that Nehru never regarded the Jana Sangh as a political enemy? Nehru had very serious ideological and political differences with the Jana Sangh. Even though, at Gandhiji’s urging, he had inducted Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee (who later founded the Jana Sangh in 1951) as a minister in his first Cabinet, they never had a smooth relationship. However, this did not prevent Nehru from developing strong admiration for Vajpayee (who had served as Mookerjee’s political secretary) when the latter began his parliamentary career in 1957. While introducing Vajpayee to a foreign dignitary, Nehru even said these prophetic words: "This young man one day will become our country's prime minister."
This, of course, is a well-known fact. But let me now present a little-known fact about Nehru’s liberal personality and his innate democratic spirit. The scene was the lawns of Teen Murti Bhavan in New Delhi, the official residence of India’s first prime minister. (It is the very place where Modi has decided to diminish Nehru’s presence with his plan to build a museum in honour of all the PMs of India.)
Time: A summer morning, a few weeks before Nehru breathed his last in his bedroom in this stately building. He had invited a small group of journalists for an informal breakfast meeting. They talked about many national and international topics, until, in the context of a discussion on domestic politics, a journalist from The Patriot (a pro-communist newspaper) made a derisive comment on the Jana Sangh, calling it an ‘anti-national party’.
Nehru immediately stopped him with a retort: “No, Jana Sangh is not an anti-national party. It is a patriotic party.”
(This incident was recounted to me by Lalji Tandon, a senior BJP leader from Lucknow. A close aide of Vajpayee, he now serves as the Governor of Madhya Pradesh. According to Tandon, he had heard this from a journalist-friend who was present at the breakfast meeting with Nehru.)
Nehru’s Patriotism Was Beyond Reproach
A lot has changed in India and the world after Nehru’s demise 56 years ago. We can clearly see from today’s vantage point that not everything he did or say was right. What is right at some point in history does not always remain so when circumstances, both domestic and international, change. Also, more facts come to light as time goes by, enabling people to debate and judge historical figures more objectively and comprehensively.
Nevertheless, when all this debating and judging is done, Nehru still emerges as a tall leader (albeit, a flawed leader in some respects) who served India with unimpeachable devotion and commitment.
His patriotism was beyond reproach. His commitment to democracy, secularism, self-reliance and egalitarian development make him an inspiring figure even now. In the best traditions of his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru remained wedded throughout his life to the ideas of world peace, universal brotherhood and the rights of the weak and vulnerable.
Nehru’s Legacy: BJP & Cong Will Find More Commonalities Than Differences
If you are a book lover, you will find that reading him is pure joy. And was he anti-Hindu? Just read his ‘Last Will and Testament’. Few Indians have penned more profound words of reverence for Mother Ganga and the Himalayas.
Surely, many ideological and political differences between the BJP and the Congress will remain unreconciled. Yet, if right-thinking people on both sides look at the life and legacy of Nehru — and also the life and legacy many other great men and women of that era with divergent beliefs — they will find more in him that unites them rather than divides them. Above all, what unites the two, and all the rest of us, is India, which, both in its ancient and modern avatars, Nehru loved with every breath of his life.
I said, earlier in this reflection, that “a mature and forward-looking nation, drawing from the wisdom of its own past and learning the right lessons from the experiences of other nations, is able to weave harmony out of its diversities and differences.” Here is a pearl of wisdom from India’s past, contained in the Rig Veda (which Nehru in his Discovery of India credits with the “unfolding of human mind in the earliest stages of thought”) —
May we march forward with a common goal.
May we be open-minded and work together in harmony…
May our aspirations be harmonious.
May our minds be in unison.
May we strive to reduce our differences.
May we be bound in strong fellowship and unity.
This — and this alone — is the path to India rising to its full potential of development, greatness and glory.
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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