Illiberal Democracy Rising
May 30 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – Indian democracy is quite often about the politics of visibility, the image most often replacing the substance. Political parties celebrate their leaders, both living and dead, in huge newspaper advertisements that cost an enormous amount. For leaders who have passed on, there is usually a remembrance on their birth and death anniversaries whereas in the case of serving politicians just about any occasion is an excuse to indulge in an extra splash of image building.
In recent days, the clash of ideologies and personalities of India past and present has been playing out even in the ad space with the BJP and the Congress marking anniversaries that commemorate critical milestones in India`s democratic journey. Loud and characteristically in your face was the advertising blitzkrieg unleashed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to mark the second anniversary of the Narendra Modi regime (May 26). And there was a twist. Most of the fulsome tributes came from party chief ministers in BJP-ruled states who, like the vassals of yore, lauded their chieftain for his `outstanding governance` or `great achievements` or the `innumerable achievements` of his `charismatic and visionary leadership`. So we know who picked up the tab for this anniversary extravagance apart from the government of India.
A day later, there was a much smaller ad and very few of them in memory of India`s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on his death anniversary.
That commemoration did not come from the government of India as it should have; it was put up by the Congress party. This was all of a piece with the policy of the BJP regime which is trying to obliterate Nehru`s memory and legacy in mission mode, and not just because of his staunch ideological opposition to the politics of communalism. That legacy of his which kept India on the secular path for decades is being whittled away by a ferocious political campaign and in unsavoury ways by the saffron underbelly of the party. An entire online industry has sprung up to promote websites that spew venom against India`s first prime minister with gross calumny while its army of Internet trolls flood social websites with misrepresentations that only reveal their lack of history and culture.
It is undoubtedly galling for the BJP and its ideologues in the parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, that they can flaunt no heroesof their own from the freedom struggle. That they did not take part in the freedom movement is a historical truth they cannot undo. On the other hand, they have to contend with a Nehru who spent close to nine years in prison and was once paraded in chains by the British.
That is one reason why the Hindu supremacist BJP resents Nehru and the liberal, secular Indians who subscribe to his ideals. The most irksome is Nehru`s known opposition to religious fundamentalism which, like poverty, he believed to be the worstscourge of the country. But there are clearly more reasons for the Hindutva brigade`s implacable hatred of the man who steered India in the first 16 years of its independence, an extraordinary stint that was marked by visionary successes and some profound failures.
At the simplest level it is, perhaps, a class issue.
Nehru was British-educated and patently Westernised even if he wore khadi and a Congress cap along with his trademark bandhgala Modi`s attire, incidentally, is a flattering imitation of this attire, down to his churidars and he was suavely cosmopolitan. He wrote and spoke in elegant English and he was comfortable in the company of women. To add to his aura was wealth which he gave away, a fact that the class of people who subscribe to the saffron ideology probably find astonishing. Besides, he mattered greatly in the global scheme of things.
Today, when liberals ask why they are the target of the saffron brigade, the answer could be that for the most part they come from a similar background and champion the values that Nehru held dear. At least that comes across as a major grouse with the saffron lobby if you read their blogs and other online rants.
But there are obviously deeper reasons for the grow-ing chasm between the secular opponents of the majoritarian principles pushed by the Modi regime and the supposedly rooted Indian who prefers the vernacular, is proud to belt out Bharatmata kiJai (victory to Mother India) and is above all a proud Hindu.
As the saffron ideology becomes increasingly popular, specially with the middle class, there is a marked inability in the ranks of secular society to come to terms with this phenomenon. Their antipathy to Hindutva is also marked by a similar revulsion tinged with derision. Where, they ask, are intellectuals of repute who can make a persuasive case for the country`s rightward shift? Why does the BJP and its brotherhood of saffron suffer from such a striking intellectual deficit? They have no historians or even Sanskritists of repute. They might have some economists in their retinue but certainly no thinkers with a compelling vision for the country`s future.
One way for the Modi men to understand why Nehru`s legacy endures would be to understand his towering vision for the country. To start with they could peruse Nehru: The making of India, published in the centennial year of his birth (1988). The book is long but easy to read and it shows why Nehru is still important to the idea of a modern India. `His most important contribution in a life full of contributions was a clear establishment of a vision in which to lift India from the 18th century towards the 21st, explains M.J. Akbar, the author, who repeatedly emphasises Nehru`s conviction that communalism was the worst evil facing independent India.
`Having watched religious emotions play havoc with the unity of the country and the people, to stand up and take positions against what might be called fundamentalism, to seek to define a new language by saying that the steel mills and the dams were the temples of modern India, this required conviction, courage and the confidence that swaying them with religion was not just wrong but injurious … these were remarkable convictions that shaped India.
The author, once a Congressman, now has clout in the BJP. He is a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament) and is national spokesman of the party. If he could he persuade Modi and his cabal to read his book, would it change the disastrous trajectory of current politics?
The writer is a joumalist based in New Delhi. [email protected]
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan