When history bends to the whims of those in power, beware. The British bent it to make them look like benefactors of India. After they left, we have had 15 prime ministers.
How did they shape history? Some put things down on paper, so we have a fair means of forming opinions about them.
Of the half-dozen who wrote books, Manmohan Singh carried the stamp of authority because he was internationally recognised as an economist.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee and V P Singh wrote literary stuff that appealed to limited groups of readers. P V Narasimha Rao was a linguist and scholar but his books were self-consciously contrived. Morarji Desai was too full of himself to make an impact.
The Prime Minister who stood out as an authentic author was Jawaharlal Nehru.
His ‘The Discovery of India’ and ‘An Autobiography’ are recognised as masterpieces and continue to be read for their literary quality as much as their historical importance.
That made Nehru the Prime Minister Extraordinaire in the annals of India. Is that why there are attempts now to denigrate him? These are sustained attempts and apparently well planned. It is clear that important segments have emerged in our political society who want to make Nehru look historically unimportant and intellectually suspect.
Of course Nehru did some blunders — in Kashmir, on the border with China. But his overall record remains strong. Much of the technological advancement that turned India into a modern state grew out of Nehru’s vision.
He helped establish the network of IITs and the research laboratories under CSIR and DRDO. He ensured liberal funding for Homi Bhabha’s atomic energy projects (knowing that Bhabha’s ambition was to make an atomic bomb; he almost succeeded and paid the price for it with his life.)
It is the same visionary approach of Nehru’s that made Chandigarh a world landmark. When a capital was needed for the newly created states of Punjab and Haryana, Nehru again thought out of the box.
The result was celebrity architect Le Corbusier creating a capital complex unlike any other in the world, with a Rock Garden thrown in as bonus. It was as though Nehru wanted to say with Hilaire Belloc: “When I am dead, I hope it will be said that his sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
Unfortunately, we have entered an era when books are not read. There is a new audacity that promotes political partisanship with intellectual pretensions.
Look at the boldness with which The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has been renamed Museum of the Prime Ministers of India.
The psychology behind that name change is transparent. So is the reason. Nehru symbolised secularism and socialist equality. Both are anathema to the present dispensation and, therefore, Nehru has to be deprived of his special status in the minds of people and shown up as one who misled India.
Efforts to achieve this objective work at the mundane level and at the symbolic level. Anand Bhavan, the legendary Nehru family centre in Allahabad, received a tax notice for Rs 4.35 crore last November although it is a museum-cum-educational centre under the J N Memorial Fund which is tax-exempt.
At the symbolic level, President Ram Nath Kovind’s first speech in Parliament omitted any reference to the first prime minister of India although he mentioned Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and his contributions to the nation.
The Prime Minister, for his part, made a two-hour speech in Parliament asserting that democracy developed in India on the foundations established during the Buddha’s time. No mention of the pioneers of the Constituent Assembly who laid the foundations of our democratic republic.
It is interesting to see how different viewpoints can develop under the same ideological strictness. When Nehru died in 1964, Vajpayee said: “Humanity is sad today, it has lost its devotee. Peace is restless today, its protector is no more.” On a different occasion, his party colleague and the present prime minister said: “Nehru wore a rose on his jacket, but was ignorant of farmers’ woes.”
With an American capitalist twist, the Wall Street Journal said: “The BJP has not rejected all of Nehru’s ideas — only the good ones such as secularism and the freedom of the press.”
The bad ones were apparently the “disastrous economic policies” such as socialism and Soviet-style central planning. In the old days, good and bad were defined in ideological terms. Today, everything depends on personalities. If you are with the winner, you have the world at your disposal. If not, you have nothing at your disposal.