We have this amazing capacity to turn complex characters from history, I mean characters who have shaped or even distorted our national identity, into talismanic refrains. We, as appropriators, apostles, iconoclasts, believers, and lazy caricaturists, reduce them to the size of our collective miscomprehension. The past is a place where politicians starved of ideas or an attitude to deal with the demands of a changing world shop for names they think will enhance their slogans. And it is where the proof- readers of our cultural heritage decipher the palimpsests of—what else?—Indianness.
As October drew to a close, Delhi saw both the cold and the new government settle in, a little uneasy, yet firm as to their outlook for the coming months. What made the culmination of October all the more interesting was the noteworthy absence of reverberations from the fall of a big tree from many years ago, the martyrdom of our leader, and the vacuum created after the death of Indira Gandhi, or Dev Kant Barooah’s equivalent of ‘India’. This is something most of us under 25, making up half of the country’s population, have seen and read growing up. Why this year was significant was the near absence of any such paeans and emotive paragraphs for Indira Gandhi, despite this being the 30th anniversary of her death in 1984. The new government made it abundantly clear that there will be a pronounced shift from the monopolisation of history and discourse by the Nehru-Gandhi family, and there will be a consequent focus on the alternative or even ‘subaltern’ narratives of India’s history which have been consistently and steadily sidelined by successive Congress regimes in a manner which was holistic in terms of the tools of propaganda used.
The decision of the Modi Government to stop the Nehru Gandhi state from entrenching itself further has been a welcome change, considering the complete marginalisation of the stalwarts of our freedom struggle, and even post independent history. The fact that the combined coverage of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Sardar Patel, Bose, Sarojini Naidu and the likes of Tilak, Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai is dwarfed by the birth anniversary of Rajiv or even Sanjay Gandhi showed the levels of obsessive degeneracy that the family had promoted over the years, and the unflinching enthusiasm with which the rest of the party and state were ready to oblige. Even post independence, we have seen the complete absence of coverage received by Morarji Desai, K Kamraj, Annadurai, EMS Namboodripad, Lal Thanhawla, Jyoti Basu, Sheikh Abdullah, GB Pant and the vast multitudes of legends our democracy produced. These leaders had risen from the grassroots, fought social and economic limitations to reach the top of the political machinery to consequently empower the millions who elected them.
Such stories have been absorbed by the vast conglomerate that is the Nehru Gandhi enterprise, as Kamraj was reduced to the man who rose against Indira in 1969 and lost, Lal Thanhawla as the loyal commander of Rajiv Gandhi who facilitated Rajiv Gandhi’s Mizo Accord and Namboodripad as the Communist who would have wrecked the Indian Polity and was heroically dismissed by Nehru.
Such narratives have continued to provide an extremely skewed view of history, and even if the narrative may hold credence to some extent, the extent and magnitude of all of these leaders’ individual and combined list of achievements have been consistently downplayed and downgraded, not regarding the fact that a majority of them were from the Congress itself. This is why it was essential to initiate a process of rediscovery, which is often mired and mixed with the far right Hindutvadi discourse being propagated.
The importance of the idealist pursuit of such a balanced discourse cannot be emphasised enough, as it showcases the legitimacy of a multitude of opinions across the ideological spectrum, and also breaks the façade of infallibility which ‘divine’ leaders are shown to possess. At the same time, it also emphasises that there is no singular idea of India behind which a nationalist fervour can be created, and delineates the difference between ultra nationalism based on religion, territory or economic might from the discourse based on nation centric dialogue.
This is where Modi and the BJP’s strategy comes into play. It is seen that the BJP and the RSS have searched for a historical grounding for their ideology for a long time, and want to be seen going beyond Golwalkar, SP Mookeerjee and Savarkar, as they feel an immense vacuum while articulating and defending their views and vision for the nation and the party. Also, as the appropriation of leaders grants legitimacy to political thought and action, while sanctifying schemes, legislations and directives carried out under such names, even if the essential motive is otherwise.
The resurrection of Sardar Patel is very important in this respect, as it is symbolically important for a number of existential issues faced by the BJP today, and therefore incentivises such appropriation of icons. Firstly, the BJP suffers from a psychological dearth of legitimacy as a very limited number of prominent freedom fighters had associations with the Jan Sangh, or its ideological parent organisation, the RSS. The party has traditionally made its ideological base resting on the writings of Golwalkar, Savarkar and a host of other Nagpur based group of Chitpavan Brahmins who traditionally form the bedrock of the RSS. This remained problematic because the BJP has only been able to garner a limited amount of legitimacy from the teachings of what we would term as radical ideas. Others like Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay are dwarfed in stature when compared to the stalwarts the Congress offers to showcase patriotism.
Secondly, the Jan Sangh does not have an illustrious record post independence either, as its top poitical voice, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee died an untimely death in 1953, and despite a range of potential successors within the RSS, the space for opposition which the Jana Sangh was looking to appropriate had been taken up by C Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party, which meant that the Sangh was reduced to either concurring with the views articulated by the Swatantra Party, or left to squabble within over technicalities and lose out on a credible opposition in Parliament within what was already a government heavy house till 1971.
Thirdly, the BJP views the pre independence Congress not as a predecessor of the INC after independence, but as a rainbow organisation of the vast multitudes of ideologies, movements and groups subsume under a united banner. They justify this by saying that a large number of Congress members were also a part of the Muslim League, the RSS and a range of other ideologically distinct organisations, and therefore the post independence INC has no right to appropriate such national icons.
Fourthly, Sardar Patel is the only leader post independence who was seen to match up to the vision, intellectual prowess, persona and the stature of Nehru, while remaining in disagreement with him on a number of issues, and while doing so, forming a distinct identity of his own, which the BJP relates to very closely. The fact that he recommended the lifting of the ban on the RSS after it was banned for anti-Muslim activities in the rioting episodes after independence, the killing of Mahatma Gandhi by a former RSS member and blatant sectarianism in a communally fuelled setting, the BJP selectively quotes from the Nehru-Patel letters to showcase the relative bent Patel had towards Hindu majoritarianism, although the same is disproved if a holistic view is taken of the matter, and Patel is seen to reflect the ideologies of the Nehruvian Congress rather than the BJP of today.
Finally, Patel was bracketed as being the strongman, who united the nation by integrating the 543-odd princely states into the Union after patient negotiations, overtures and coercion, and made India what it is today. As the BJP showcases itself as a a party which takes a hard line on matters of internal security and defence, Patel remains the perfect idol to be used to justify and bless the ‘hard line’ the NDA government under Modi will take on Pakistan, China and internal security issues. The BJP also showcases Patel as someone who died very early, and would have provided what they believe to be a much needed balance to the Nehruvian monopoly on discourse till 1964, and it is also stated that his presence could have averted the monumental decimation by China in 1962.
As the BJP goes all out to break the Nehruvian consensus in a number of areas, while taking over from the leftist monopoly on mainstream discourse in the country, we need to realise the symbolic importance of the National Unity Day, which pays obeisance to one of our greatest leaders, and acknowledges his rightful place in our discourse, something which has not been given to them post the Indira era. At the same time, we need to separate the grain from the chaff, and not get influenced by the brutal and convenient pigeonholing of our greatest leaders, which effectively leads to a trivialisation of both the leader and the issue at stake.
In Patel’s case, for example, we cannot view the leader as solely a consolidator of states and as the ‘Lauh Purush’ who exemplifies administration with ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’. This manner of discourse essentially trivialises the individual and leader as he was, and negates his contributions as a freedom fighter, as the chief organiser of the Bardoli Satyagraha, as an eloquent public speaker, writer, foreign policy strategist and as a statesman.
The same holds true of the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’, which seems dangerously close to trivialising Gandhi for the vast multitudes of the uninitiated, and developing the leader who has ‘reflections’ of all the major leaders we have had, including Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and Shastri. The new Prime Minister has taken it upon himself to be the quintessential statesman who wants to be remembered in the same league, and has conveniently appropriated shards of the personalities of each of those he wishes to emulate, so as to make dissection of claims tougher, as the previous leaders have been compartmentalised into a small range of broad issues, and it is the duty of this new ‘Lauh Purush’ to take forward the destiny originally relinquished to the Congress, and finally help him and his party become the credible successor of their legacies and vision.
The way forward in this respect can only be to use this to catalyse change on a range of social, cultural and economic issues as is being carried out, without seeming to reduce the towering personalities who created modern India into representatives of clean toilets and symbolic runs to affirm the unity of the nation.