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PM's References to Indira and Nehru

Author: Ashok Malik
Publication: NDTV.com
Date: October 8, 2014
URL: http://www.ndtv.com/article/opinion/pm-s-references-to-indira-and-nehru-603513?pfrom=home-topstories

At a public meeting recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked people to devote the week between Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday (November 14) and Indira Gandhi's birthday (November 19) to extending the Swachh Bharat campaign to primary schools and anganwadis. This has led to some speculation in the media that Modi, having appropriated Vallabhbhai Patel and Madan Mohan Malviya, among other Congress stalwarts, is now ready to claim a slice of the legacy of Nehru and Indira.

Is this a fair and realistic assessment - or is it journalistic imagination? Before answering that question, it is important to point out that there is no uniformity to the history or legacy of the Congress. It all depends on which Congress one is talking about.

As an institution, the Indian National Congress is 129 years old. Its life can be divided into three near-equal segments:

Between 1885 and about 1920, the pre-Gandhi period, it was a collective of the early elites of modern India
Between the 1920s and the mid to late 1960s, it was the pan-Indian movement that Gandhi put together, and which had something for almost every Indian
After 1969, the Indira Gandhi period, it became just another political party and faction - albeit the largest one - in a competitive and partisan electoral environment.

The BJP's quarrel is largely with that third incarnation of the Congress. Of course this is not to suggest there are no differences with earlier avatars of the Congress, or with Congress governments before Indira Gandhi.

Take Nehru for example. The Sangh family blames him for not pushing a uniform civil code in the first years of Independence, when it was politically feasible to institute such a code. It also charges him, justifiably, with mishandling and misunderstanding the Kashmir problem as well as the challenge from China in Tibet and beyond.

Having said that, Nehru was not without his achievements. He presided over a foundational and formative period in Indian history, and the task before Modi at the dawn of the 21st century, with a young and hungry population, is comparable. Nehru's strategic project of building heavy industry in India and his considerable public investments in higher education are certainly something one can see a Modi replicate. Of course, Modi's policies will have far more room for the private sector and for Indian enterprise.

The supposed appropriation of Indira is much more problematic. Just what is there to appropriate, other than the determined leadership in 1971, the year of the Bangladesh war? Indeed Modi's campaign in 2014 was virtually a repudiation of Indira raj and Indira's legacy.

Her dismantling of public institutions and packing of the bureaucracy and even the judiciary with favourites; her weakening of the federal balance by crushing the autonomy of state governments; her treatment of political opponents as enemies; her promotion of cronyism, self-defeating nationalisation and licence-permit toxicity; her paranoiac personality that left India rattled and in constant turmoil; her hostility to key countries that isolated India in south Asia; her feckless instigation of violence, whether in Punjab or Sri Lanka, to hurt political opponents: so much that the UPA government did and defended had its roots in the Indira period. Even the coal scandal can be traced back to her policies.

In many senses the nation and the society we have to rebuild - and whether Modi does it or a later prime minister is for posterity to judge - is the nation and the society Indira Gandhi ruined.

As such, the so-called appropriation of Nehru and Indira, especially of the latter, needs to be considered with sobriety. Modi has simply used two dates that the Congress is hyper-sensitive about to further his national cleanliness campaign. He has attempted to at once invite the Congress to take part in the campaign, and provoke it into appearing churlish should it stay away. Beyond that, one cannot really see an appropriation.

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)
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