Fifty years ago today, India lost its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After India's independence from the British, Nehru was the foremost of the leading architects of modern India, dreaming of development based on technology, and a socialistic pattern of society, one based on secularism. In the most recent general elections, India's close to a billion voters said 'No' to his Congress party and its allies, inflicting a reeling defeat to his great grandson, Rahul Gandhi, and his mother, Sonia Gandhi.
One day before this milestone anniversary, on May 26, after a historic month-long polling, which constituted the largest democratic elections in the history of the world, held peacefully and where the majority spoke, Narendra Modi, the leader of the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, who has worked through the ranks of the party with a Hindu nationalistic agenda under the banner of hindutva, or “Hindu-ness.,” was sworn in as the country's 15th Prime Minister.
Even though India has made much progress since Nehru's Prime Ministership six decades ago, coming on the heels of an administration led by the United Progressive Alliance under the Congress Party, rife with corruption, staccato and whimsical economic growth, and lackadaisical leadership contributing to widespread frustration and general malaise, this is a verdict for hope, for change. Understandably, the mandate is for change of party and its leadership, for more steady economic growth; for a more efficient government. On this day especially, marking the passing of 50 years of his passing, we are prompted to ask, has the time arrived for Nehru's brand of a budding rose, which he sported in his famous Nehru jacket buttonhole, to wilt and fade, and for the lotus to bloom? [The symbol of the winning Bharatiya Janata Party is a lotus, also the national flower of India].
To be sure, for Nehru's dynasty to fade is a victory for democracy; for no democratic country ought to have unquestionable allegiance to four generations from the same family to carve out a niche for succession and lead the country. Interestingly, in a further reminder of how discerning and politically astute India's voters are, Maneka Gandhi, alienated from the Nehru-Gandhi family, and widow to Rahul Gandhi's uncle, Indira Gandhi's other son, Sanjay Gandhi, won her bid on a BJP ticket, by virtue of her strong record as a public servant.
Even within this backdrop, it is imperative to understand and reckon Nehru's legacy, albeit with limitations and complexities, recognizing some of his setbacks on domestic issues on identity politics, foreign policy debacles as in 1962 with the Border War with China, and the quagmire on the Kashmir issue, to name a few. Round I, in terms of foreign policy and regional diplomacy seems to have gone in India's favor. Skilfully and gracefully, Prime Minister Modi extended invitations to regional leaders, including the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Shariff to attend his inauguration; a historical first. Round II and successive rounds after this will be more substantive and critical. One hopes that the new generation ofleadership in the subcontinent will look at long standing stalemates such as in Kashmir more objectively, and create more pragmatic and sustainable regional ties and mutually beneficial alliances addressing territorial, environmental, water and other resource issues. The initial signs bear hope in this regard.
Six decades ago, Nehru and his brand of Congress and other leaders represented progressive thinking, and contributed to a secular democratic culture. While there remain problems galore, 50 years after his passing, and 64 years into independence, we are better for it; with a lasting democratic cultural legacy.
India's democracy has said no to Nehru's unfit 'heirs' and ushered in a government that is led by a Hindu party, headed by a man who exemplifies the opportunities of every 'aam aadmi' ( common person) to rise to power albeit economic class, privilege and lineage. But, this is also a man whose legacy as chief minister of Gujarat, has a stellar record of economic development as well as the tarnish of allegedly looking the other way during the pogrom of communal carnage a decade ago. In a carefully orchestrated and highly effective campaign, the supporters of Mr. Modi have successfully avoided such divisive issues; they have also skilfully used social media to woo young and new voters, the generation of 'selfies' and 'snap chats' with twitter and instant messaging. Such voters are dreaming of a new India, with an economy replicating Gujarat's glitzy economic revival.
But surely, there is more to India's democracy than mere economic revival and growth. At a minimum, the growth of the country has to include economic justice, be equitable, and inclusive.
Arguably, Mr. Modi's victory has transgressed ideology. Beyond the BJP and its allies, his supporters also include those who are frustrated with deep seated culture of institutional corruption and inept leadership. It is, however, also important to keep in mind that India's economic revival had already begun more than a decade ago, by an alliance that has lost people's faith today; by development that has also brought on deep disparity. The new government will be well advised to keep equity in distribution of economic benefits high on its agenda. Many argue that this mandate may have been a negative one against the UPA government, which makes it more critical for the Modi government to deliver on its promise of development before the voters become impatient.
Likewise, the new government will not be doing justice to India's progressive democratic culture, which has stabilized in India as a legacy of Nehru, to 'look the other way' on challenges to civil rights and gender equity, or ubiquity of violence against women. During the campaign, the party has successfully avoided sticky domestic issues such as secularism, minority and gay rights, and media freedom. Now that it is in power, it has a responsibility to address them.
Thus, while there is hope there is also the responsibility for the new government to strengthen, and certainly to not quell secularism, and civil rights of all women and men, of any religion, any gender, of any sexual preference. In the new India everyone is rejoicing about, there is much still to be accomplished, especially to distribute the the dividends of development to the poor, to respect the dignity of women, to stop the plunder and rape of the environment, and to honestly rid the administration of corruption.
And, in the midst of giddy exuberance, we need to pause, to hope, but also to learn from mistakes and missteps in history, ones that are six decades ago, or just a decade or so ago; of regional level; of also national and at the level of states. India would be wiser as a nation also acknowledge Nehru's as well as that of other leaders; to look beyond ideological myopia; to not throw the baby with the bath water. Despite turning out to be an ineffective PM, especially in the second term, Dr. M M Singh's ( from the Nehru legacy), thesis provided a template for development that has done India much good in the last two decades. Perhaps there is a place in the new India for both, the rose and the lotus, to blossom and prosper. At this juxtaposition of historical moment of truth for India's future, as we ponder between Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" and Monty Python's "What did the Romans do for us?" here is an example of new India looking back at the Nehru legacy: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/Nj9vxG5tosfFcTuKIIBIVK/What-did-he-really-do.html