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On Nehru and History, Modi Has Much To Learn From Vajpayee and Advani

The two BJP leaders, going past the political divide, admired Nehru. But Modi doesn’t care about facts or history.

Published
Opinion
9 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>India's First Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.&nbsp;</p></div>
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In the BJP Raj, ICHR no longer stands for ‘Indian Council for Historical Research’. Rather, it has become ‘Indian Council for History Re-Writing’. What else can be said about this premier national body of historians when it begins to falsify the history of India’s freedom struggle and repaint the past in Hindutva colours, in the very year that marks ‘Azaadi Ka Amrut Mahotsav’ — the 75th year of India’s Independence?

Among the images of the principal national leaders shown on ICHR’s website are Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, V.D. Savarkar, Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Dr Rajendra Prasad. The iconography immediately caused a storm in political circles and raised serious questions. Savarkar among the Eight Greats? One who wrote “sorry” letters to the British seeking release from imprisonment? Who, as the president of the Hindu Mahasabha, was virulently anti-Muslim and even advocated the ‘Two-Nations’ theory, the very theory for which Mohammed Ali Jinnah has been demonised?

Does Malaviya, for all his scholarly greatness, deserve to be elevated to a place among the foremost leaders of the freedom movement? To the exclusion of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who gave the electrifying slogan ‘Swaraj is my birthright’? Also of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who stoutly opposed the partition of India? Is Malaviya’s contribution greater than that of Deshabandhu Chittaranjan Das, about whom Mahatma Gandhi said, “He was one of the greatest of men ... He dreamed and talked of freedom of India and of nothing else”? Or that of Annie Besant, the legendary British socialist and theosophist who dedicated her life to India’s independence?

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A String of Dropped Names

Madam Bhikaiji Cama, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Gopinath Bordoloi, NG Ranga, Dr Zakir Hussain, Chhotu Ram — many such names can be invoked and ICHR would be hard-pressed to answer why Savarkar and Malaviya, and not these names, are its favourites. But the deafening question that has put it in the dock — indeed, the Modi government and the BJP in the dock — is, “Why have you excluded Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru?”

Do the worthies the Modi government has appointed to run ICHR need to be educated on who Nehru was? He was, if they respect the facts of history, the second-most important leader of India’s freedom movement in the Gandhian era. He was imprisoned nine times and spent 3,259 days (almost 9 years) in British jails. He was independent India’s first and the longest-serving Prime Minister. Furthermore, he made a greater contribution to the content and core of the Indian Constitution than perhaps even Dr Ambedkar did.

Look Beyond the Height of Statues

If ICHR’s current office-bearers and their political masters have any respect for the facts of history, they would know that in terms of contribution to the freedom struggle and the making of modern India, Nehru stands far taller than Patel, for whose glorification Modi got the world’s tallest statue built in Gujarat. Sardar was no doubt a great patriot.

His role as the Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the integration of princely states into the Indian Union, after the British rule ended, was pivotal. But let’s not forget that he was India’s Deputy Prime Minister, not the Prime Minister. Moreover, he did not live long after independence. He breathed his last in Bombay on 15 December 1950, just over three years after Independence. Nehru lived till May 1964 and shouldered the main responsibility of leading the young republic for 17 long years. And let’s not forget: these were the most challenging years for the young republic, especially because of the trauma of Partition.

In its own plan to rewrite history, the BJP has been projecting Patel as the second-most important leader of the freedom struggle after Mahatma Gandhi, whom they cannot discard despite BJP supporters’ intense and barely disguised dislike for his philosophy and legacy. But in determining the greatness of a leader, history does not look at the height of statues built in his honour — it looks at the weight of his overall role in shaping the destiny of his nation.

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Erasure of Nehru Began in 2014

ICHR’s erasure of Nehru from the pantheon of India’s freedom fighters is neither accidental nor an aberration. His marginalisation, even vilification, has been going on ever since Modi become Prime Minister in 2014. Modi saw to it that there was no befitting national commemoration of Nehru’s 125 birth anniversary in 2014-15. Under his leadership, the BJP has been systematically deriding India’s achievements during Nehru’s premiership and has been showing him as guilty for all the problems the country has been facing even now.

True, Nehru was not a perfect leader. He committed mistakes. His two grave errors of judgment were referring the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations after the first India-Pakistan war in 1947-48 and not settling the boundary dispute permanently and peacefully with China through mutual compromises in the 1950s, when ample opportunities existed for doing so.

But let’s face it, is “Strong Leader” Modi, after spending over seven years in office, anywhere close to resolving India’s problems with either Pakistan or China? As they say in Hindi, “Bolna aasaan hai, Karna Kathin” (To talk is easy, to solve problems is not).

Modi’s foot soldiers on social media incessantly spread lies about Nehru; chief among these lies is that he was anti-Hindu. However, anyone who studies his life with respect for the facts of history, and not with reliance on facts manufactured by the BJP’s infamous ‘IT cell’, would realise that Nehru was pro-Hindu without being anti-Muslim. His immense pride in, and admiration for, India’s Hindu heritage, without being uncritical of its flaws, can be clearly seen in the monumental books he wrote.

Perhaps his finest ode to Hinduism was his Will and Testament, penned in 1954, in which he expressed his reverence for River Ganga and the Himalayas. Tragically, in the current atmosphere of communal polarisation deliberately created by the ruling party, there is a new definition of who a true Hindu is — one who is explicitly or implicitly anti-Muslim.

Vajpayee’s Heartfelt Homage to Nehru

Was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) always so hostile towards Nehru? No. And this shows how much Modi’s BJP has deteriorated both intellectually and morally from the BJP in the previous era, when it was led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani. Here are two telling examples.

Vajpayee, the BJP’s founder and its tallest leader, held Nehru in very high esteem. Because of this, he was regarded by many as a Nehruvian in a non-Congress party.

In one of his finest speeches in Parliament a few days after Nehru’s death on 27 May 1964, he expressed his grief in these words. “…A dream has remained half-fulfilled, a song has become silent, and a flame has vanished 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.”

Perhaps addressing the hardliners in his own party (then called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh), Vajpayee then said the loss was not that of a family or a community or a 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”.

What Atalji said next would surely embarrass, even infuriate, many Modi supporters. He compared Nehru to none other than Lord 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 the inconceivable”, he said. Describing him as one “no one can replace”, Vajpayee 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.” Modi would do well to pay heed to the italicised words.

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Vajpayee's Appeal to Indians

As is well known, Nehru’s demise had pushed India into a vortex of uncertainty. A colossus had departed. A grieving nation stared at the vacuum with uneasy thoughts for the future. Recognising this, Vajpayee urged Indians to rededicate themselves to Nehru’s ideals, which were also the ideals of the Republic. “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, the Jana Sangh stalwart reminded his countrymen: were India to “establish lasting peace in the world, we shall succeed in paying proper homage to him.”

Almost six decades have passed since this heartfelt homage was paid to Nehru by one who was then among India’s best-known opposition leaders and who later became the nation’s beloved Prime Minister. Has the passage of time erased its meaning? No.

Advani hailed Nehru’s Contribution to the Freedom Struggle

Here is a second example. The year was 1997. To celebrate the golden jubilee of India’s independence, L.K. Advani, then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, undertook a unique nationwide mass-contact programme — Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra. For two months, he travelled continuously all over India by road (and Indian roads were in a far worse condition then), 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 then working as an aide to Advaniji and accompanied him throughout this exhilarating odyssey, and later described it in my book Swarna Jayanti Rath Yatra: The Story Of Lal Krishna Advani's Patriotic Pilgrimage. When our rath, an imaginatively re-designed Tata truck, reached Chennai on 27 May, I suggested to Advani that it would be appropriate for him to pay tribute to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on his death anniversary. He readily agreed.

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Modi Raj vs Nehru's Time

In his press statement on that day, he 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”. In spite of BJP’s differences with many of his policies, Advaniji 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.”

Sadly, India’s political culture has suffered unprecedented degradation in the past seven years. The institutions of parliamentary democracy, which were built and nurtured by Nehru, are under constant attack. Parliament itself is slowly becoming dysfunctional. One only has to contrast the functioning of Parliament in the Modi Raj to how it was in Nehru’s time. Modi rarely sits and participates in Parliamentary debates.

Nehru put his heart and soul in the proceedings of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. There is a complete breakdown in Modi’s dialogue with the Opposition. Nehru would have been aghast at an Indian Prime Minister keeping mum over mob lynching of innocent Muslims. He would have instantly dismissed a ministerial colleague, and even sent him to jail, for making a “Goli maro saalon ko” (shoot the traitors) speech in the national capital. Modi, in contrast, has rewarded that errant junior minister with a promotion to the Cabinet rank.

‘Blowing Out Someone Else’s Candle…’

How times have changed! Gone are the days when India had leaders with large hearts, a truth best testified by Nehru and Vajpayee.

Nehru, it is well known, was an admirer of Vajpayee’s spellbinding oratory in Hindi, even though the latter, as an opposition parliamentarian, often criticised his policies. He once said, while introducing Vajpayee to a foreign dignitary, “This young man one day will become the country’s Prime Minister.” It is also well-known how Vajpayee, soon after becoming India’s External Affairs Minister in the Janata Party government in 1977, personally intervened to stop an act of de-Nehruisation. When he was set to take charge of his Ministry in South Block, the mandarins of the Ministry of External Affairs removed a large portrait of Nehru at the entrance to his office, thinking the leader of the erstwhile Jana Sangh might not like any signs of the Congress rule in the building. Vajpayee noticed that something was amiss. He immediately ordered his staff to reinstall the portrait.

Generosity of heart and mind is the hallmark of a great leader, something which both Nehru and Vajpayee possessed in ample measure. Modi has no trace of it.

Modi believes — and so do his followers — that he is the greatest Prime Minister in India’s history. In truth, he is not. That honour indisputably goes to Nehru. In order to hide the uncomfortable truth, he has commanded his government and his party to re-write history. And ICHR has simply done what its masters wanted. All this is happening because Modi has not cared to read the maxim: “Blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours shine any brighter.”

(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 comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com.)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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