Nehru's Legacy: The Husk of Democracy
Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary saw predictable jousting in magazine columns and newspaper opinion pages, with fervent debate on Nehru’s legacy. The marked change in recent years has been how contested Nehru’s contribution to modern India has come to be – to borrow a memorable phrase coined by Arun Shourie, the “quilts of hagiography” seem to have been parted to some extent. Moreover, the arguments and reasoning put forth by Nehru defenders only brings out the clever verbal gymnastics one must indulge in to keep the quilts in place.
Writing in – of all places – GQ magazine, in a typically hagiographic tribute, eminent historian RamachandraGuha opined how “Men wanted to be like him, women wanted to be with him.” Perhaps this risqué tenor had something to do with the magazine in which Guha’s column was published, but his deifying style towards all things Nehru and Nehruvian has always been accompanied by an equally strong contempt for the opposite political ideology, which has been represented for decades by BJP and its predecessor, the Jana Sangh.
In the lead up to the general election, Guha had penned a column for The Telegraph on March 22 2014, titled “The fear of fascism”, declaring that “Liberals and democrats are right to be worried about the personality and ideology of Narendra Modi.”
It was mildly amusing to see Mr Guha write that “Narendra Modi has regularly made nasty personal remarks about his political rivals”. The record tells us that Modi has never used non-parliamentary language against political opponents – it is his political opponents that have called Modi names.
Former Union minister and Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar called him a snake, scorpion and a dirty man. The I&B Minister Manish Tewari called him Dawood Ibrahim. Steel minister Beni Prasad Verma called Modi a mad dog and a man eater. External affairs minister Salman Khursheed called Modi impotent, a monkey and a frog. Rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said Modi was bhasmasur, the demon.
Congress party leader Renuka Chaudhary said that Modi was a virus. Congress party general secretary Digivijay Singh said that Modi was Ravan, the demon king. Congress Rajya Sabha MP Hussain Dalwai called Modi a mouse. Gujarat Congress in-charge B.K Hariprasad called Modi a “gandi naali ka keeda” (“an insect from a dirty drain”). Congress party’s Gujarat president Arjun Modhwadia called him a monkey and a victim of rabies.
Worst of all, Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Congress MP Soma Ganda Patel made casteist slurs against Narendra Modi – the former called him a “gangu teli” and the latter “ghanchi”, both referring to the oil pressers caste that Modi is from.
As recently as January, Guha himself had said Modi was a bully, a bigot, an “absolute authoritarian” and ended his outburst with an emotional “I hate him.” In the light of all the utterances made by Narendra Modi’s political opponents, and the fact that he has not once made or responded to these kind of vicious, pedestrian attacks, it is astonishing that Guha accused Modi of nastiness and failed to even mention anything about the relentless, hate-filled diatribes made by prominent Union ministers and senior Congress party leaders against Modi.
Guha’s column is a classic example of sophistry where the victim is turned into the oppressor – this is a tactic left-liberals and “lapsed Marxists” like Guha routinely deploy to tear apart political opponents and ideological viewpoints they disagree with. Only this time, it doesn’t seem to have worked very well.
While Guha takes great pains to present himself as a centered, neutral intellectual, his bias is plain for all to see. In 2010, he had said that the alternative to the Congress party was “Naxalism or balkanization”. In another column for The Telegraph published on July 9 2005 titled “Bigotry vs broadmindedness”, Guha lamented that the BJP “cannot, will not, remodel itself as a party that treats all Indians equally regardless of their personal faith.”
The irony here is incredible – it is pertinent to recall that this was the time when the UPA government was creating the Sachar Committee and when Congress chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy was pushing ahead relentlessly with Muslim reservations in Andhra Pradesh, only to be checked by India’s courts. In the years after 2005, governments led by Congress and other self-anointed “secular” parties pushed for a religion census in the armed forces, special courts for Muslim under-trials, education welfare schemes only for those of “minority” faiths, and a number of other programs where a citizen’s religion mattered in state policy – but these pernicious acts did not receive censure from Guha.
The “bully”, “bigot” and “absolute authoritarian” Narendra Modi, who nine years after Guha’s column contested the general election precisely on the plank of equality for all citizens, was the chief minister who told the Sachar Committee that he worked for all the Gujaratis and not for those of any one religion. Narendra Modi practiced the value preached by one of his most ferocious critics.
But Guha is being consistent, for being Nehruvian entails that it is acceptable to differentiate between citizens based on religion. The fatal mistake of Nehruvianism is to view citizens as members of a group, not as individuals. By maintaining a silence when various governments debased and destroyed the value of secularism, Guha is part of a pantheon of Indian intellectuals who failed to safeguard that value in public discourse and helped defile it in the eyes of the citizen.
The other error is to confuse state with society. Caravan magazine poetry editor Chandrahas Choudhury chimed in earlier this year with a column titled “Hindu nationalism, unbound”, expressing shock at how he woke up one day to be told he was a Hindu nationalist.
Choudhury was referring to a speech by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) head Mohan Bhagwat, who said that all those who lived in India were Hindus. Bhagwat may have been patronizing by wanting to claim into the “Hindu” fold all those who wouldn’t describe themselves as Hindus, but this is his view and possibly the view of his organization, which may wield political influence but is still a private organization.
Would it matter if the Pope came to India and said that all people of India are actually children of Jesus? Choudhury’s paranoia is no different from that of a Hindu fundamentalist who’d express indignation at such comments by the Pope.
What would be extremely worrying is if the influence of a private organization is translated into tangible policy measures that force Indians to identify as a member of one religion or another. Again, this is what already does happen in India. The Right to Education Act treats “majority” community schools differently from minority schools – even if the former don’t receive any funding from the government. The ability to adopt a child is determined by the religion of a citizen.
The likes of Choudhury watch the words of RSS leaders like hawks, but routinely give the Indian state a free pass when it discriminates between citizens on the basis of faith. When they should be checking the actions of the state, these “intellectuals” are obsessed with the utterances of a section of society.
On the occasion of Nehru’s birth anniversary, Choudhury wrote on how the desire of the Right to “claim the largest possible scalp” by painting this year’s general election verdict as a defeat of Nehru’s ideas was “a kind of disguised envy”. He goes on to assert – with breathtaking ignorance – that in Nehru’s India, citizenship “was firmly decoupled from religious affiliation”.
It was Nehru who, in 1955, reformed personal laws for Hindus while leaving religion-based personal laws for Muslims intact. The Indian state still prescribes civil laws based on an individual’s religion. The party that has opposed this policy for decades is – shockingly enough – the “non-secular” and “Hindu nationalist” BJP. In an Orwellian turn, to this day, the BJP is attacked for being communal because it stands for secular, non-religion based laws for all Indian citizens.
But it isn’t just lapsed Marxists and literary critics who’ve gotten Nehru’s legacy wrong. Mint contributing editor and winner of the Bastiat Prize Salil Tripathi, who for many years has been an implacable critic of Narendra Modi, wrote a column rightly upbraiding the prime minister for invoking the stories of Karan’s birth from the Mahabharat and Ganesha’s head transplant as evidence of India’s long heritage in science. Tripathi’s criticism is valid, for the veracity of these claims is unverified and unverifiable. There is enough in Indian history that the prime minister can talk about, and in the interest of science and his own credibility, the prime minister would be better served bringing up India’s contributions to science that are well-documented.
But what Tripathi got wrong was the effusive praise heaped on Nehru as a man who wanted to cultivate science and promote scientific temper – to achieve this end, Tripathi writes that Nehru pushed the establishment of the IITs, “Centre for Science and Industrial Research (sic)” and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
It is true that as the first prime minister of India who governed for 17 years, Nehru established several institutions. But what is equally important to recognize is the condition to which these institutions were reduced by the Nehruvian ideal of socialism. Tripathi informs us that 45 labs were established by Nehru. Thanks to Nehru’s dogged commitment to socialism, which has been resolutely practiced by his party since his demise, these labs became institutionally decrepit and pathologically unproductive.
In 1989, a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) lab director had remarked that “asking scientists to do industrial research is close to prostitution” – such was the mindset of the leaders of government research laboratories. The disdain towards industry and profit defined the CSIR culture for decades – the cue came from Nehru who was acerbic towards private industry, and famously said once that profit is a dirty word.
The institutional transformation of CSIR, the largest network of government laboratories, was accomplished by Dr Raghunath Mashelkar, its director-general from 1995-2006. Mashelkar was instrumental in ending unionization at CSIR – he took a firm stand that “Science is not labour”, broke the trade unions and ended with it the poor accountability and work culture unionization engendered at CSIR. He recounted instances of unionization in an interview with Shekhar Gupta in 2005 – one where the director of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute called him and said a hundred people had begun an agitation to have their demands heard, another where directors would be gheraoed and locked up in their office, prevented frome even going to the rest room till trade union demands were agreed to.
Mashelkar also made a push for patenting and protecting CSIR’s innovations. In 1995, CSIR received just eight patents – in 2003, it received 196. A moribund, inward-looking organization where patents and translation of research into products were anathema was turned into a globally-competitive and high-performance organization that developed intellectual property and conducted research on contract for large, innovative corporations like General Electric.
The same Mashelkar was smeared by Ramachandra Guha in an article published on March 31 2007, as someone who was “felicitated in a function hosted by the RSS” and “joined the board of Reliance Industries” soon after leaving office as director-general of CSIR. Both these were “things scientists were not supposed to do”, Guha asserted. In his high-minded derision for scientists working with industry, Guha seems to be aligned with the CSIR lab director who had equated industrial collaboration and private profit with prostitution.
As for DRDO, it continues to be an inefficient, bureaucratic organization. It begun developing the Arjun tank in 1972, and it took 32 years for the tank to enter production. Costs for the Arjun tank escalated from Rs 155 million in 1974 to Rs 3 billion by 1995. DRDO’s Tejas light-combat aircraft development program commenced in 1983, and took some two decades to complete its maiden flight, finally inducted into the Air Force last year after nearly almost 30 years. Smaller-scale projects that DRDO has worked on include mosquito repellents, body creams for keeping insects away and new fabrics for bras – these are hardly cutting-edge areas of defence research.
It’s worth thinking about – should Nehru be lionized as a man of science simply because he created these institutions as India’s first and longest serving prime minister, and he delivered regular homilies on the importance of cultivating a scientific temper, even though over time the economic ideas he stood for all but left research laboratories on the cusp of institutional collapse and turned them into a drain on the public exchequer?
Indeed, the tale that Nehru deserves huge credit for India’s modern scientific institutions is like the fable of Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda being the proponents of the mobile phone revolution.
Perhaps Nehru’s greatest contribution was that he afforded a stability to the new republic through a period of trauma and self-doubt. But this stability soon turned into a debilitating stasis as economic freedom and social liberties were crippled in India when Nehru’s successors carried forward his ideas to their logical conclusion.
Nehru eliminated the right to property as a fundamental right through the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1951 and believed that profit was a dirty word – Indira Gandhi nationalized industries in the 1960s and 1970s, and imposed economic controls that bred corruption and inefficiency on a gargantuan scale. He believed that Muslim society could only be changed by Muslims and amended civil laws only for the Hindu community in 1955, thereby abdicating his moral authority as the elected Prime Minister of all Indians – in 1986, Rajiv Gandhi overturned a Supreme Court verdict in the Shah Bano case by using his brute majority in Parliament in the service of religious conservatives and to the detriment of Muslim women, also implying that Muslims weren’t Indians and should have separate laws for their own community.
Besides being agitated by media criticism of his own government, Nehru believed that the press was “poisoning the minds of the younger generation” and placed restrictions on free speech by pushing through the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1951 – Rajiv Gandhi pushed for the Anti-Defamation Bill in 1988, an astoundingly brazen attempt to control the press that saw polar ideological opposites N. Ram of The Hindu and Arun Shourie of The Indian Express taking to the streets together in protest.
Nehru believed that the public sector should industrialize India – in 2004, one of the first things the Sonia Gandhi-controlled UPA government did was cut to size the disinvestment ministry, which had successfully privatized government companies for the first time in India’s history under Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government, turning it into a department within the finance ministry.
In the foreword to his book “Our Constitution Defaced and Defiled”, the great jurist Nani Palkhivala had written thus in 1974: “Liberty can die as surely, though not as swiftly, in a democracy as it does in a totalitarian state. Only the husk of democracy – the one man, one vote rite – may survive after freedom has perished.”
The directional path on which Nehru’s ideas set independent India, and the zealous commitment with which almost all successive Congress prime ministers carried forward those ideas did precisely that to liberty and democracy in India – only the husk of democracy remained as individual and economic freedoms were eroded for over four decades.
The 2014 general election saw sharp debates on a variety of social and economic issues – the people of India delivered their verdict. Unfortunately, those accustomed to lionizing Nehru still can’t accept that, for the moment at least, his ideas have been comprehensively defeated – the Nehruvian way had its day in the sun and failed.
It is a welcome change – a break from Nehru’s ideals was good for our country, as exemplified by the tenures of prime ministers PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Narendra Modi has received a stronger mandate than both of them, and is well positioned to detach India completely from Nehru’s corrosive philosophy. If he succeeds, the rejuvenation of Indian democracy, turned to husk by Nehruvian ideals, will be accelerated.
Disclosure: The author is an investor in two private technology companies where Dr Raghunath Mashelkar is a member of the board of directors.
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