Narendra Modi's appropriation of Gandhi and rejection of Nehru reflects a political deficit rather than a sense of history
Ajay Singh | June 11, 2010
If the future is bleak, turn to history. That seems to be the only intellectual diversion the BJP leaders have these days, that is whenever they are free of internecine feud. In a gathering of some BJP chief ministers and senior leaders in Mumbai, ostensibly to attend a workshop on good governance, it was the turn of the redoubtable Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to give delegates a lesson or two in history.
In his inimitable, rather “bullish”, style Modi discovered India's first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru's “phoney love” for children. To buttress his point, he said that the celebration of Nehru's birth anniversary as “children's day” every year had hardly improved their lot. But the real mantra for people's welfare, according to Modi, remains Gandhi's talisman: "Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."
Gandhi offered this talisman in 1948 -- as perhaps one of his last pearls of wisdom before his assassination. Since then it has adorned academic curriculum and has been frequently recalled by successive prime ministers and finance ministers whenever they need to re-emphasise their pro-poor and Gandhian credentials. The practice still continues as nobody frowns upon a political master swearing by Bapu's ideals, if not in deeds then at least in words. Modi cannot be faulted on this count.
But what compounds Modi's folly is his inference that Nehru's contribution to the country is heavily outweighed by Sardar Patel and Lal Bahadur Shastri's sacrifices for the nation. There is nothing wrong if Modi holds a particular view of history. But what is totally unacceptable is interpretation of history in such a convoluted manner as to pit one icon against the other. At the workshop for good governance, Modi was not only purveying distorted history but also trying to appropriate the legacy of Patel and Shastri, ignoring the fact that both of them served as close confidants of India's first prime minister. And Nehru was anointed by Mahatma Gandhi as his “political heir” in recognition of the former's abilities and contributions.
It would be too naïve to expect Modi to be historically correct. Given the shrewd politician that he is, Modi is hardly ignorant of the fate of his party colleagues who dabbled in the history. LK Advani found himself grossly marginalised when he tried to read non-conformist history about Jinnah to the RSS leadership. Similarly Jaswant Singh found himself expelled when he tried to rewrite the history of India's partition and extolled Jinnah's virtues as a secular and progressive leader. In fact, Modi was instrumental in getting Jaswant Singh expelled at the party's Shimla national executive in 2009. He was the only chief minister who banned Jaswant Singh's book in Gujarat.
In all probability, Modi appears to be the only reflection of the Sangh Parivar's deep-seated desire to tailor history according to their tunnel-vision. In the history of India's independence, the RSS and its icons find a place only as footnotes. This is why the RSS-BJP always tries to discover deep distrust between Nehru and Patel and and seeks to appropriate Patel's legacy. Similarly, veteran BJP leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani used to envision themselves in the role model of Nehru and Patel respectively. That they turn out to be a caricature of their idols is a different matter altogether. The six-year regime of the BJP-led NDA emerged as a poor imitation of the previous Congress regimes.
Of late, the Sangh Parivar's fondness for history seems to have grown even more following their successive defeats at the hustings. Modi and his ilk are seeking recourse to history to make up for their deficit in ideology and commitment. But it would be too naïve to believe that history could act as their saviour.
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