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IT is not uncommon for descendants to be burdened by the complicated legacy of ‘famous’ parents/family. It is far more unusual for the legacy of forefathers (and mothers) to be similarly burdened by the activities and record of their progeny. Rarely, as historian Ram Guha unfailingly reminds us, has this been more true than for Jawaharlal Nehru. Little surprise that the plethora of public commentary on the occasion of JLN’s 125 birth anniversary (and the 50th year of his departure), more than helps us cultivate a richer and more nuanced understanding of the man’s life and labours, reveals our relative inability (exceptions apart) to resist scoring political debating points.

This is not merely because unlike the earlier stint of the BJP-led NDA in office, the scale of electoral victory this time around was far more emphatic, as was the decimation of the Congress. Moreover, the party in power is led not by a Vajpayee, often derisively referred to by his party/ideological cohorts as a ‘wannabe’ Nehru, but by a more self-convinced and forceful leader, admitting to greater faith in the muscular Hindu nationalism of the Sangh Parivar than the ‘wishy-washy’ composite cultural legacy preferred by Nehru and his colleagues. The episodic attempts to counterpose Vallabhbhai Patel to Nehru and accusing the Congress party of denying the Iron Man his due (of course, with no memory of Nehru’s glowing tribute to Patel on his death), or to highlight the differences between Gandhi and Nehru, provided clear intimation that the occasion would excite some unseemly controversy.

Trust the Congress to live up to expectations. Having worked hard at memorializing and appropriating him, in the process subtly downplaying the contributions of numerous other leaders, not just during the freedom struggle but even in their own party, it now finds difficulty in claiming hurt innocence, when political and ideological opponents choose to pay it back in the same coin.

Nothing, however, damaged the Congress more than its ill-advised decision to both ‘boycott’ the official function and organize its own show, pointedly refusing to invite the prime minister and his colleagues. Rarely can one think of a more ‘successful’ effort at reducing a national icon to a party one. Not that such ‘boorish’ behaviour is the exclusive prerogative of the current Congress leadership. One need look no further than the newly appointed Minister of Culture, Mahesh Sharma, speaking at the official function at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Failing to take a cue from his senior colleague, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who hailed Nehru as a Raj Purush, acknowledging his role in institutionalizing Indian democracy and as an individual of high culture and integrity whom one can and should admire despite differences over policy choices, Sharma could not resist raking up the jibe about dynasty.

In all this, are we being unnecessarily demanding in expecting propriety from our political leaders? Possibly, but it is useful to remember that Nehru, like many other political leaders of his generation, strove hard to inculcate a culture of public discourse, within and outside Parliament, which is both informed and civil. His first cabinet had as many as six non-Congress persons, including the founder of the Jan Sangh, Syama Prasad Mookerjee. He assiduously attended Parliament, vigorously participating in all debates; he also worked hard at setting up and strengthening numerous institutions, not the least by helping craft norms of proper behaviour.

Now, it is likely that these are not norms that our current generation values or associates with the political class, given their exposure to the instant and noisy judgementalism of the social media. For far too long they have been subjected to either cardboard hagiography by ‘certified’ guardians of memory or denunciations by Nehru’s adversaries. But surely that is no reason to dismiss these values as idealistic and unrealistic. Rather, one might argue that if only our current politicians become more like their predecessors, we might witness a much needed resumption of trust in our leaders.

Debates over the role and contribution of towering leaders will continue, as they must. Each generation revisits and reworks its past so that it can make better sense of what happened, how and why. Continuous interrogation is not repudiation; it is essential. As archives get increasingly declassified and placed in the public domain and our methods of historical appreciation become more refined, hopefully we will be better informed and transcend the current culture of adulation or denunciation. Nehru, as Gopal Gandhi reminds us, would have expected nothing less. While both imperious and impetuous, episodically resulting in serious lapses in political judgement, he was more conscious than most others of his own foibles, including the danger of belief in his infallibility. In that lies a lesson for our current leaders.


Harsh Sethi