California – In his 2008 book ‘Nehru: The Invention of India’, author Shashi Tharoor mourned the fraying of the Indian consensus which Nehru constructed as Independent India’s first and long-lasting leader (serving as prime minister from India’s emergence in 1947 as an independent nation, until his death in 1964). “Democracy endures”, Tharoor went on to say, but “secularism is besieged, non-alignment is all but forgotten, and socialism barely clings on.”
Even to those of us who adored Nehru and virtually worshipped him, it seems unjust to constantly adulate the past at the cost of the present. The doom and gloom forces in India have never ceased to accept that India is more than the sum of its parts, and more than its history, and importantly, that newer entities and ideologies have to surface which may not necessarily be consistent with past visions and personality cults.
At a time when the new left forces in the US – galvanized by Black Lives Matter and by Bernie Sander Socialists – are discarding American founding fathers and reclaiming both American history and future as only what they call it to be, it is hardly surprising that Indians also feel confounded at the loss of past heroes and the glory that was India, along with their lost hold over the narrative of what is India. Tharoor’s characterization of Nehru as India’s Thomas Jefferson itself now seems ironic in view of the current de-deifying of Jefferson and holding him culpable for practicing and perpetuating slavery.
Erosion of our collective memory of our two nations’ past splendor (with all its warts and shortcomings) is not merely a product of revisiting and redefining history. It is also an outcome of the failing quality of our political leadership and follower-ship. Today’s political heroes whether in India or in America no longer have to be persons of grace and charm, statesmen or stateswomen, with mastery of speech and thought based on years of painstaking scholarship and writing, or advocates of truth or of a consistent ideology.
Like Biden, they can lead a campaign from the safety and privacy of their basement, fight and most likely win an election without once having to answer a challenging question on what is their ideology or even their passing whim on a critical issue. Or they can be loudmouths like Trump blustering through loudly delivered stump speeches spewing the same stuff time after time, without regard to civility, let alone being statesmanlike. In all cases, regardless of candidates, be they Clinton or Bush, Obama or McCain, Biden or Trump, or as in case of India – Sonia Gandhi or Modi, they and their votaries have no passion other than to capture our votes and to retain the seat of power for as long as they can wangle.
As we celebrate Nehru’s birthday, and get ready in America to usher in a new President or renew the old one, the goal of freedom and justice for all remains a chimera. Democracy is an aspiration that inspires and fits a constitution but fails its practice. China’s current much hyped success in tackling and suppressing the Corona pandemic, which has invited enthusiasm and envy both in America and India, is a sad indicator of our failing trust in democracy and in non-autocratic means of tackling a crisis – in this case caused by a deadly virus.
The most sanguine of media experts and lay observers criticize Trump for not taking on a nation-wide one size fits all approach to stem the viral tide which is what China’s President did. Even some doctors and epidemiologists have longed for and advocated nation-wide shut down of the entire country for three weeks to achieve the miracle of a one shot eradication of the epidemic. Never mind that this flies totally in the face of our constitutionally earmarked allocation of powers between federal and state governments, and disrespects the principles of diversity, and local level rather than centralized decision-making.
Consensus building is intrinsic to democracy but is getting more and more difficult to achieve. “In the beginning there was America” was easy to claim (as John Locke did referring to the New World called America), when America was small in size and manageable with just 13 colonies and a few million inhabitants, but not what it is today. It was then broadly homogeneous and as a cluster seeking to shake off the yoke of a foreign power, albeit with no thought to extend the same freedom to slaves to free themselves from their owners.
India had the same unifying torch to light its freedom struggle, and also the same failings in so far as caste, faith, gender, socioeconomic status and all other disabilities continue to undermine notions of equal justice and equal access to privileges of state for all.
Alas, after two centuries behind it, today’s America is less excited to be one. Starting by being one nation under God, we moved decades back to hyphenate our American identity by linking it to African, Asian, Hispanic, European or Native American.
In India likewise, being Indian became less important than to have one’s identity defined by one’s state, language or faith. Politicians everywhere speak of unifying and unity but thrive on disunity. Academicians and thinkers love to unionize thinkers and homogenize thought processes by crushing diversity of thinking and appropriating the power and right to define events solely in terms that suit their agenda.
Centrifugal forces of Indian religious and cultural divisiveness, as Tharoor, echoing other India pundits contends, have sabotaged the Nehruvian and founding fathers’ dream of creating and maintaining “a just state by just means”. Rather than in the ominous religious and cultural forces, the problem whether in India or America, one could argue, lies in the unrealistic vision of those impractical founding fathers who naively fostered the myth of equality, uniformity, and unanimity. Justice is blind in theory but remains partial in practice.
We are unjust by nature, unlike the angelic uncorrupted view of man put forth in religious and philosophical texts. To compete is as intrinsic to us as is ruthlessness to competing. We are not here to win based on equal opportunity for each or on the principle of ‘one for all and all for one’. Rather we seek to and almost always put our own self-interest above all else. That is how when Biden promises a utopian reign of equality for all or Trump offers prosperity for all, one has to struggle to actually lift our blinders and train ourselves to see their truth as falsehoods and not the other way around.
On November 14, we celebrate Nehru’s 131st birthday, which given his playful fondness of and ease with children, continues to be celebrated in India as Baal Divas (Children’s Day).
On a personal note, I would like to share with readers a childlike encounter with Nehru when, as a 10 year old, I rushed to the podium from which Nehru was exiting. Running past the small crowd around him I stood face to face and requested him for the rose he was wearing in his lapel. He smiled and tried to brush me aside by saying, “You funny girl, why would you want my rose?” “I shall keep it to remember you by”, I answered bravely. He took it out from the buttonhole of his ‘achckan’, gave it to me and patting me affectionately sent me off. Though in a subsequent move, I lost the album in which the rose lay pressed for over 20 years, that rose remains fresh in the safe house of my memory.
On his birthday, I could well say – “May you rest in peace Panditji”, but I prefer saying, “May you be born again and again to lead India.”