History has a nasty habit of coming back and biting at a time when least expected. Heroes and tyrants suspended in the sleep of eternity, monuments and artefacts long past their sell-by date, and revolutions that become just footnotes in the passage of time can suddenly reappear to stir the melting pot of the times, like the Babri Masjid did or Tipu Sultan is doing right now. Politics is the provocateur. Its victims just do not realise an outgoing legacy is making its last stand.
The Nehruvian age insidiously created a template for post-Independence India. Secularism was defined primarily not as tolerance towards other religions, but as a political tool to woo the minorities. India’s liberal Western-educated intellectuals were too happy to oblige. Their vanity was stoked by their access to the salon culture of Nehru and Indira. This establishment had a distinct upper class flavour, comprising people with Fabian Socialist views. They could run the economic, academic and historical narrative on behalf of the government, just like the current establishment of Hindi-speaking, non-upper class Hindu historians and intellectuals are doing now, by fuelling their obsession with an India that no longer exists. Such is the nature of power—influential courtiers always echo the ideology of the ruler, without truly understanding the motives. The BJP that came to power in 2014 is different from the one which lived by Vajpayeeism, where a remark by Girish Karnad would not provoke a riot or death threats. It has ironically given him the status of an Indian Taslima Nasreen, who lives under Indian protection against Islamists who want her head. Nor would it have been possible during the Vajpayee era for a Congress state government to make political capital of a gin-and-tonic remark about renaming an airport after a sadistic despot who tried to wipe out or convert Hindus of his realm. Passions run deep in the collective subconsciousness of any race. Stories handed down the generations remain inflammable. The Congress just had to provoke these memories, for it knows well that any violence with nationalist hues would give the BJP more bad press at a time when Narendra Modi is faced inquisition in the UK from the British media on the intolerance issue.
Tipu Sultan was neither a nationalist nor an Indian hero. He was an 18th century bin Laden, cruel and ambitious, a realpolitik player who longed to rule India with French help. There are two Nehruvian templates for what it means to be Indian: celebrating tyrants like Babur and Aurangzeb to appease the Congress idea of Islamic heritage and honouring those who fought against the British. Tipu fell into both categories. The Murderer of Mysore fought the British to keep his throne by allying with the French—who, like the Dutch and British, also wanted to conquer and loot India.
Modi wants to channelise the national energy into rebuilding India. The politics of polarisation and incitement backfired in Bihar, as it will again in UP and Assam, if not abjured. The BJP’s enemies, emboldened after its Bihar debacle, will continue their provocative agenda. There will be chaos on the streets and in Parliament, stalling legislation and causing economic despair. The BJP would be well advised to ignore most gauntlets. A winner is one who chooses the time and place of battle wisely.
The government’s priorities should be about making history, not recreating it. Or else, a great mandate of hope will be binned without an elegy.