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India after Nehru

In the garden behind Teen Murti House there is a shaded bit of ground under a banyan tree. Here three flames burn, their flicker bright in the grey winter afternoon. In the front and to the right is Rajiv Jyoti, to the left is Indira Jyoti and behind and at the centre is Jawahar Jyoti.

As you look at this equal triangulation of memory, you could feel the rise of a quiet anger. There might be other memorial flames that belong next to Nehru’s but certainly not these ones.

Inside the Teen Murti museum itself there is a sad spread of decrepitude: you can see exposed wiring and bird droppings; the walls look like they haven’t been painted for decades; the exhibits look as if they were hung up in 1964 and then forgotten.

The labels are yellow and awry, the glass windows looking on to the preserved offices and private rooms are smudged, the model of the train carriage in which Nehru’s ashes were carried to Allahabad looks as old and rusted as the carriage itself might be today.

You wonder why the model is there in the first place. Then you look again and the model reminds you of another carriage, a real one, burnt out from the inside, probably standing at a siding near Godhra station.

Where, today, is the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru? It’s tempting to answer the question by pointing to the two things mentioned above — whatever JLN’s legacy may be, it is now dying inside the bracketing of Indira and Rajiv, or it is already dead between the dusty model of the railway coach and the tragedies triggered by the real coach S6 of the Sabarmati Express in February 2002.

You could argue that the man’s endowment to our society was so weak and full of contradictions that between Indira, Rajiv and Narendra Modi it has now disappeared, barely leaving behind any trace.

Or you could take the view of historians such as Perry Anderson that there was no legacy in the first place, nothing except a weak-brained, closet brahminical, Hindu-capitalist statism; and you could agree with Anderson that this hypocritical secular-socialist mask is now coming apart to reveal the real face behind it. Both answers would be easy to construct and both would be wrong.

One sign of how Nehru’s influence is ingrained in our society is that even Narendra Modi, his antithesis in many ways, is obliged to claim adherence to some kind of secularism

First, let’s be clear about one thing. Just as Modi looks ridiculous trying to co-opt the legacy of Vallabhbhai Patel, so, equally, do the members of the current Congress party look like parvenu clowns as they claim ownership of Nehru, repeating his name in a mantra that seamlessly links JLN to Indira, Rajiv and Rahul.

The party that Gandhi and Nehru led, the party that was the largest contributor to bringing about our independence, long ago passed into history.

If you look for Jawaharlal’s legacy today, you will not find it anywhere in official Indian politics. Any JLN-DNA that still nourishes us is extant despite concerted attacks upon it by almost all the mainstream political parties. So the co-opting of “brand Nehru” by the Indira-Rajiv-Rahul Congress is, at a basic level, irrelevant when considering the man’s legacy.

Nehru’s real legacy can be seen in different, sometimes startling, places. Take this one instance: Modi might be busy spreading lies about Nehru but the interesting thing is even Modi has been forced to tone down his usual poisonous Hindutva rhetoric, been obliged to pretend to some kind of secularism when vying for national office.

This secularism (the genuine kind, not the pretend one) is what has kept India together through 67 turbulent years and Nehru is one of the main figures who conceptualised and then established this secularism.

Make no mistake, without Nehru India would have very likely ended up being a gargantuan, neon-orange, Hindutva-tised Pakistan, a festering lesion on the world. As it is, we survived Partition and we survived becoming collateral damage in the first brutal years of the Cold War.

For someone like Anderson, who has seen the humiliating dismemberment of every revolution he has ever championed, it is clearly unbearable that this Indian independence, achieved without the gun and without communist ideology, is still a working, rolling contraption.

In his recent diatribe, Anderson ascribes Indian independence solely to the Second World War, slyly “forgetting” that the Russian revolution could also equally be ascribed to the First World War.

For Anderson, a massively bloody “revolution”, a decade-long civil war that would surely have dwarfed the horrors of Partition, would have been preferable as long as it was led by proper communists.

Led by the Party, India would then somehow also have avoided the fate of the Soviet Union, Cuba or, indeed, China. There would have been no purges, no gulags, no state-triggered famines and we would today be living in a socialist valhalla.

The fact that we avoided this nightmare is thanks to that much maligned idea of M.K. Gandhi’s called ahimsa. And the fact that India negotiated those first 17 years without falling apart or becoming a pawn of either Russia or America is down in large part to the much-maligned Jawaharlal Nehru.

This Nehru has long left Teen Murti House; you will not find him there. You will not find this Nehru in the posturings of the Congress despite the tasteful greeting card with his portrait that Sonia Gandhi has sent out this Christmas.

You will not find Nehru among the powerful of this country. Yet you will not be able to avoid or forget the real Nehru because the Hindu Right knows it has to besmirch his memory in order to destroy what he stood for.

When the Hindutvatites attack the Congress and Nehru, they know they are actually attacking two different enemies, no matter what they and their cousins in the Congress say.

Nehru, for all his flaws, was a liberal humanist and socialist; his religion was the Enlightenment and the politics of rationality and justice that grew from it. Today, we see that rationality and humanism in different places; in fact, it’s so ingrained in parts of our society that we don’t even notice it.

We see it in the way Sachin Tendulkar conducted himself on the cricket field, serving the nation with both his aggression and his humility. We see it in the Gujarat bureaucrats who resigned their posts and took up the struggle against Modi’s fascism.

We see it in the many NGOs and unions across Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan who are fighting the corrupt politicians and businessmen without reaching for the AK-47.

We see it in the struggles of the feminist movement and the RTI andolan. We see it in the successes of our scientists and tech people. We see it in the daily, common civility that still weaves this society together, despite all the violence and greed.

And we will continue to see this legacy in action, no matter which mainstream party comes to power around JLN’s 50th death anniversary in May.