Congress vs BJP: Why Nehru's 125th birth anniversary will be ugly

There we go again. The stage seems set for another Congress-BJP showdown in their old battle over rival interpretations of Jawaharlal Nehru's legacy.

The Congress has fired the first pre-emptive salvo ahead of Nehru's 125th anniversary which the erstwhile UPA government, under its tutelage, had planned to celebrate on a rather lavish scale. It had set aside an estimated Rs 100 crores for a series of high-profile projects, including a Gandhi- style feature film on Nehru.

 Congress vs BJP: Why Nehrus 125th birth anniversary will be ugly

Jawaharlal Nehru. IBN Live.

The party has accused the Narendra Modi government of abandoning UPA’s plans because of what its senior party leader Ananda Sharma called the BJP 's visceral "antipathy" towards Nehru and his ideas of secularism and pluralism.
"A Prime Minister who wants to rewrite history, whose antipathy towards Nehru is well-known and who did not care to mention him in his Independence Day speech. How can you expect such a Prime Minister to commemorate Nehru’s birth anniversary?”, Sharmais quoted as saying adding with a smirk that the Congress had decided to go ahead and organise its own celebrations and couldn't care less what the government did.

A committee, headed by Sonia Gandhi, has been set up to draw up a programme highlighting the party’s and Nehru’s “achievements’’.

The government has not said anything officially yet, but it doesn't require great perspicacity to reckon that Modi wouldn't be going to town on Nehru's anniversary. Sources suggest that the Congress was given to understand informally that the government wasn't enthusiastic about it.

But there's also a view in well-informed Congress circles that the party is deliberately picking up a fight to assert its "ownership" of "secular" Nehru as part of its "secular Congress versus communal BJP narrative". "The Congress wants to treat Nehru as its private property and would not like to associate with any government programme," one close Congress-watcher said .

The move comes as the BJP is trying to project Sardar Patel as the "real" architect of "swatantra Bharat" prompting one to ask whether it has ever occurred to the two parties that they are distorting history and undermining the collective effort that has gone into making modern India by reducing it to a Nehru-Patel affair? This rather ugly tussle between two self- appointed guardians of modern Indian history to parcel it out between themselves by laying claims to two of its most important figures, after Gandhi, has gone on forso long that it has started to grate. But, far from simmering down, it is hotting up in line with the country 's increasingly polarised politics.

In this new phase, a resurgent BJP is busy promoting a new iconography of modern India designed to cut Nehru down to size while lionising leaders such as Patel and Madan Mohan Malaviya, who espoused Hindu nationalism and were not comfortable with Nehru's western ideas of liberalism and secularism.

The proposed grand statue of Patel for which the Modi government has controversially allocated Rs 200 crores (against Rs 150 crores for women's safety!) in the union budget is meant to symbolise this new hierarchy of the "true" sons of India as against the namby-pamby Oxbridge-inspired liberals like Nehru and his chums.

What we are witnessing, really, are covert attempts to tweak history for political purposes by exaggerating the rift between Nehru and his more home-grown colleagues and portraying the latter as victims of a liberal conspiracy. The fact is that despite differences (it would have been surprising if there were no dissenting voices in a huge and democratic organisation that the Congress then was) Nehru and his critics worked together both during the freedom struggle and then in building a new independent India.

If they were alive they would have been embarrassed by being dragged into such a petty and sectarian political row. The important thing to remember is that they all remained with the Congress until the end and the so-called “Nehruvian” idea of India — a term later coined by academics — reflected a collective vision.

Having said that, there is no doubt that the Congress is guilty of projecting the Nehru family (aka Nehru-Gandhi dynasty) as being more equal than others. Those who were not always on the same wave length as Nehru have been sought to be marginalised, if not completely written out of history. Even many of Nehru’s close colleagues have been pushed into the background.

How much, for instance, do we hear about Maulana Azad or Rafi Ahmed Kidwai both of whom played a crucial role in mobilising Muslims behind the party during the independence movement and then in laying the foundations of independent India as ministers in the Nehru cabinet? As education minister Azad encouraged setting up world class technological institutions like the IITs besides initiating a programme of mass school education. Kidwai, as food and agriculture minister,is credited with taking measures that prevented a major food crisis in the 1950s. And what about Lal Bahadur Shastri? How much does the young generation know about him beyond that slightly mawkish Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan slogan — turned into a filmi cliche by Manoj Kumar — and the fact that died away from home in Tashkent while on a peace mission?

Come to think of it, we need to rehabilitate many of our forgotten heroes and heroines but the BJP is cherry-picking only those who had a "Hindu" image. What it forgets is that they might have differed with Nehru on some issues but they would have cringed at the thought of being co-opted by the Sangh Parivar in its quest for some stardust which it so desperately needs to burnish its nationalist credentials.

The thing is that the Hindu Right has a genuine problem when it comes to its role in mainstream freedom struggle (it remained on its fringes , to put mildly) and is, therefore, woefully short of its own icons in that department. Hence the raid on Congress stable to pick and adopt those who, it believes, would lend it respectability .

There is no doubt the Congress massively over-projected Nehru at the expense of others and reaped political benefits by portraying "Nehru's Congress" as the sole inheritor of the legacy of independence. But the answer is not to go to the other extreme and dismiss Nehru simply as another Congress leader. He was independent India's first prime minister and led from the front in giving shape to a young nation and putting it on the path of secular democracy even if his idealism sometimes proved costly.

For the government not to honour his memory on his birth anniversary out of political pique will be churlish. The Modi administration must not let its quarrels with the Congress to politicise the issue.

Nehru is not a Congress property but belongs to the whole nation — and so does Patel. Neither Congress nor BJP should be allowed to exploit the names of national leaders to advance their party political agendas. The least they deserve is a Happy Birthday from all.

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Updated Date: Aug 28, 2014 16:59:33 IST