By Ramachandra Guha/Hindustan Times
Reading the reports of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches in Gujarat, my mind went back to the first general elections of 1951-2, and the speeches made by the prime minister at the time. Memories of Partition were still fresh; the wounds caused by riots and the flight of refugees still raw. Leading the campaign for his Congress party, Jawaharlal Nehru could have sought to consolidate a ‘Hindu vote-bank’ by stoking a fear of minorities. Instead, he did the very opposite, asking Indians to cast aside chauvinism and prejudice and vote as citizens with a shared political and moral purpose.
Nehru began his election campaign in the town of Ludhiana, very close to the border with Pakistan, and where so much violence on religious lines had so recently occurred. His first speech set the tone for what was to follow. In Ludhiana, Nehru committed himself and his party to ‘an all-out war against communalism’. As one newspaper reported, the prime minister ‘condemned the communal bodies which in the name of Hindu and Sikh culture were spreading the virus of communalism as the Muslim League once did…’. These ‘sinister communal elements’, he said, would if they ever came to power ‘bring ruin and death to the country’. Nehru, here clearly inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, asked the wounded, insecure Punjabis not to retreat into a shell of paranoia but instead ‘keep the windows of [their] mind open and let in fresh breeze from all corners of the world’.
The Prime Minister’s next major speech was made in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. The place was significant; so also the date, October 2, 1951, the birth anniversary of Nehru’s other great mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. In this speech the prime minister made a remarkable personal commitment. ‘If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion’, he said, ‘I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the government and from outside’.
Narendra Modi was reared in a very different political tradition from Jawaharlal Nehru. This was manifest in past assembly elections in Gujarat, where he spoke darkly of the designs of ‘Mian Musharraf’ and of Indian Muslim families allegedly practising a reproductive policy of ‘hum panch, hamare pachees’. However, once he moved from Gujarat to the national stage, Modi discarded sectarian rhetoric. Though he would not — could not — go so far as to pledge to fight, until his last breath, violence committed in the name of religion, in the general elections of 2014, Modi rested his case on the inclusive slogan of ‘Sab ka saath, Sab ka vikas’.
However, in this most recent campaign for the Gujarat assembly, Narendra Modi has reverted to type. While in the first phase of the campaign he focused on vilifying his political opponents, in the latter phase he has targeted Pakistan, and Indian Muslims as well. He cast innuendos on a respected former vice-president, an obscure Indian citizen from Kashmir, and a senior Congress leader, singling out their shared religion as a basis for claiming that they were part of a wider conspiracy to defeat him. As the Indian Express put it, the prime minister had thus ‘lent the immense weight of his office to a shameful politics of stereotyping that holds all of India’s Muslims to be pro-Pakistan and guilty.’
Ironically, in his own campaign in Gujarat, Rahul Gandhi has radically departed from the path that Jawaharlal Nehru had laid down for his party and his nation. His repeated visits to temples (26, by one count), his public declaration of his Shiv bhakti, and the claim that he proudly wears a sacred thread (denied by scripture and tradition to OBCs as well as to Dalits) were a naked, indeed shameless, attempt to ingratiate himself with majoritarian tendencies. Nehru would have been appalled.
While the Gujarat campaign was on, the latest in a series of horrific hate crimes occurred in the state of Rajasthan. The prime minister was characteristically silent on the matter; but so, too, was his principal political opponent. To win Gujarat, Rahul Gandhi is apparently prepared to acquiesce in the making of Gujarat into a place where minorities must live in sufferance and not have the equal rights assured them by the Constitution. Therefore, he cannot speak up for Indian Muslims when they are persecuted and killed merely on account of their religion.
Nehru’s own unflinching commitment to religious pluralism and inter-faith harmony came from that other Gandhi, Mohandas. I have already quoted his speech at the Ramlila Maidan on October 2, 1951; on a previous Gandhi Jayanti, in 1949, Nehru had written to chief ministers that ‘we cannot copy the methods or the ideals of Pakistan. They have declared themselves openly to be an Islamic State believing in the two-nation theory. We reject the theory and call ourselves a secular State giving full protection to all religions. We have to live up to our ideals and declarations. More especially on this day, Gandhi Jayanti, it is for us to remember what Gandhiji taught us and what he died for’.
Narendra Modi is from Mahatma Gandhi’s home state. Although he occasionally praises Gandhi, in his politics there is little trace of any influence. Like the Mahatma, Rahul Gandhi is a leader of the Congress. Yet his understanding and appreciation of the greatest modern Indian is as limited as Modi’s. Whether at the head of government or outside it, our politicians are not prepared to challenge the rising tide of Hindutva majoritarianism. But perhaps the aam aadmi and aam aurat can still remember, and still act upon, what Gandhiji taught us and what he died for.
(Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India)
(The featured picture at the top shows Jawaharlal Nehru campaigning in Rayalaseema in Andhra in the 1952 General Elections)