This Article is From Nov 12, 2014

Modi's Election is Allowing Indians an Honest Debate

Harsh V. Pant is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is "India's Afghan Muddle" (HarperCollins).

These are interesting times indeed. The Modi government decided to celebrate Sardar Patel's birth anniversary with style last month. To commemorate the day as "Rashtriya Ekta Divas", the Prime Minister flagged off a run for unity on the 139th birth anniversary of the first Home Minister of the country.

Though he noted that the day was also the death anniversary of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the focus was on Patel and his legacy - from successfully planning the historical Dandimarch to single-handedly merging all 550 regions with the country.

Modi has succeeded in successfully appropriating one of the Congress' tallest leaders and all that India's Grand Old Party could do was to call his actions "petty-minded," "partisan" and "disrespectful." Questioning Modi's claim on Mahatma Gandhi and Patel, Digvijay Singh suggested that the Prime Minister was from the RSS and should talk about its founding fathers Golwalkar and Hedgewar and that Modi was " trying to come into the central political space with a facade of liberal modern politics and by hiding his ideology of hate and rightwing economic policies." And now we are being told that Congress has decided not to invite Prime Minister Modi to an international conference it is organising to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru on November 17and 18 which is likely to be attended by a host of international leaders and representatives of various political parties from India and abroad.

It is all very curious. A party that has for decades failed to give space to anyone other than the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty at its highest echelons is today crying foul when tables are being turned. A party that had no place for anyone other than the Nehru Gandhis is crying foul. This party seeking respect for its icons is the same one that did not even allow its own former Prime Minister's body to be taken inside the All India Congress Committee building after his death in 2004, as it tried its best to deprive PV Narasimha Rao of all the credit that has been his due for leading the nation at one of the most difficult times in its contemporary history. India's Grand Old Party has had no compunctions when instead of robustly challenging America's denial of visa to a duly elected political leader of India, it lobbied to make sure that the visa ban remained in place. Today when the same person is India's Prime Minister, he is being denied the courtesy of an invite to an event where various world leaders are likely to be present. Such is Congress' respect fordemocracy that a Prime Minister elected with one of the biggest mandates in Indian politics is to be shunned because he happens to have a worldview different from the one the party espouses.

For the first time in years, Indira Gandhi's death anniversary was just a Congress affair this year, while Patel's birth anniversary was the centre of attention. The more Congress has complained about Modi stealing away Patel from the party, the more focus it has generated regarding its own disgraceful treatment of its luminaries.

What Modi is doing is certainly a part of political manoeuvringby the BJP to develop an alternate iconography and an attempt to challenge the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's hold over the Indian polity. But that makes it no less profound and refreshing. After all, Modi has used Mahatma Gandhi and Patel in his various campaigns without any ideological burden. He even used Jawaharlal Nehru in one his election speeches. They are after all the founding fathers of modern India and no party can claim monopoly over them.

But if he decides not to pay obeisance to Indira Gandhi then that is also his right. If the BJP under Modi has made it clear that it is aiming for a Congress mukt Bharat, then why should he be expected to lionise the Congress party's icons? He has to demolish them and that's exactly what he did when he lamented that the birth date of the national unifier Patel is linked to Indira Gandhi's assassination, underlining that "thirty years ago, a ghastly incident happened when thousands of our own people were killed. This was not a wound inflicted on one community, but was a knife in the heart of an order that has existed in India for thousands of years." The Modi government is articulating awidespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.


Along with the Congress party, the Indian liberal intelligentsia too stands in the dock. It is beseeching that icons should not be pitted against each other, as one eminent historian said in a television debate. The question to ask is why have they been silent for decades when Indian politics and Indian history was being dominated by one single family. An entire intellectual establishment - with their institutions, seminars, books, journals and funding - emerged out of the need to be on the right side of power.

In the past, there was no question of pitting Nehru against Patel - the two were just not on the same pedestal. Nehru was a giant, a towering figure whose "idea of India" makes India work. Patel, on the other hand, was a closet Hindu chauvinist after all.

History is written by the powerful and our intellectuals wanted to be on the right side of power. The result is a fraudulent uniformity in the views of our eminent historians. Only one school of thought mattered and it was the one that was taught and nurtured. If it was questioned or challenged, it was on the margins. Those who today claim to be the greatest guarantors of freedom of thought, never bothered to challenge their own assumptions and belief, cocooned as they were in their own proximity to the Dynasty.

Today, the centre of gravity of Indian politics has shifted and not only the Congress party but all its defenders are scrambling. They are worried that the "idea of India" is under threat, without wondering how a single "Idea of India" can prevail in a country of India's gargantuan diversity. And why can't the Nehruvianconsensus - the holy grail of Indian intellectuals - be challenged?

In any other liberal democracy, these questions would be asked and debated openly. But in India, debate on the "idea of India" has been seen as a challenge to India's very survival. Today, in television studios and newspaper columns, people who were too afraid to articulate their views for fear of being labelled out of the mainstream, are confidently expressing themselves. Sure, there are some crazies and loonies. But most of the voices are reasonable who just happen to have a viewpoint different from the fashionable ones in Indian intellectual circles.

Modi's election has done many things but most significantly, it is allowing Indians to have an honest debate with themselves. There will always be time to criticise Modi and his government but at the moment we should all relish the new voices we are hearing. A new power configuration in India is resulting in new debates and the Indian liberal intelligentsia with its concern for freedom of thought, should be the first to welcome it.

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