| Living tradition of the dead
Yesterday, August 14, a function was held in Delhi to mark the release of new editions of Jawaharlal Nehru’s three books, An Autobiography, Glimpses of World History and The Discovery of India. The timing of the release could not have been better. These three books, more than any other book or text, have come to stand for a vision of an independent and modern India. Nehru wrote them to fruitfully occupy his mind in prison, but they have become important milestones in the intellectual and political development of most educated Indians.
A series of letters written from prison to a daughter during whose formative years Nehru, because of his political career, seemed distant and cut off, remains even today the most poignant and wonderful introduction to the history of the world. His autobiography had nothing of the inner anguish of Mahatma Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth, but it reflected upon a political context that accounted for the trajectory of Nehru’s own life. Nehru spoke of his own life but there were many belonging to a generation younger than him who could identify with what he wrote without straining too much against their own beliefs and ideologies. If Nehru’s autobiography stands today as the statement of an India waiting to be born, The Discovery of India is the nationalist’s imagining of India’s past. It is India’s discovery of herself, emotional, troubled and therefore not undisputed.
The reissue of the books at this political juncture is significant since India is, in a different way, trying to come to terms with its past; there is again a generation of Indians, proud and confident, trying to refashion the nation according to their own understanding of the world and of the Nehruvian legacy.
Nehru had that rare gift, given only to a few, of capturing the nation’s mood and of suddenly appearing as its voice or conscience. On the evening of January 30, 1948, while sobbing like a child, he was pushed to the microphone by Mountbatten, and impromptu, Nehru, in an undying sentence, said exactly what millions of Indians felt and what millions of Indians wanted Nehru to say: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.” A fortnight later, reflecting on the Mahatma’s death in the Harijan, he wrote, “Where he sat became a temple and where he trod was hallowed ground.” But even this, moving as it is even today, could not quite reach the heights of that first spontaneous crie de couer.
Or think again of Nehru’s speech on the midnight of August 14-15: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny…” Nehru spoke for India that morning, but one would like to think that he was much too sensitive not to have noted the contradictions embedded in the choice of that pronoun, “we”. The homeless, the riot-stricken and even Nehru’s Bapu, fasting in a Calcutta suburb, were not part of that all-inclusive pronoun. It was not for nothing that in continuing that piece of rhetoric, Nehru called independence a “solemn moment” and took the opportunity to rededicate himself to the people of India.
The point of remembering these statements of Nehru is to underline an absence in our national life. There is no public figure today who can quite capture in a phrase or even a speech the mood of the nation, or speak to, and for, the hearts of the people of India. Atal Bihari Vajpayee fancies himself an orator but he is so partisan, so faltering and so equivocating that nothing that he says is ever memorable or inspiring. The subsequent clarifications and denials invariably diminish the impact of his speeches. On the other side of the ideological divide, there is no one who even projects himself/herself as a speaker capable of firing the imagination of the nation.
This is perhaps the most important challenge before Manmohan Singh when he makes his debut before the nation this morning. There are remarkable similarities between the situation facing the new prime minister and the one that was faced by India’s first prime minister, Singh’s hero and role model, when he made his tryst with destiny. There are communal wounds to be healed, there is an air of uncertainty and threat that has to be dispelled, confidence has to be instilled, India’s position in world affairs has to be reaffirmed, the promise to eradicate inequalities in society restated and India’s commitment to democracy, against all odds, has to be reiterated.
Manmohan Singh lacks Nehru’s rhetorical skills and the latter’s mastery over English: he will be the first to admit this. But there are other similarities. Like Nehru, he is introspective — the thinking man’s prime minister. Like Nehru, he is not given to shrieking. Both Nehru and Singh are firmly rooted in their scholarship: one in history, the other in economics. Both are sensitive to tradition, its strength in building a nation and the need to break from it to push forward into the future.
Manmohan Singh is only too conscious of the mantle that has been thrust upon him: he is aware that he is part of the Nehruvian legacy and also that he has broken from it in at least one critical way. His position is unenviable: he is Nehru’s epigone who will never become the darling of the masses.
When Nehru spoke to the nation on August 15 during his long tenure as prime minister, certain aspects of policy-making were firmly formulated. The state, the newly-formed nation-state, would be the engine of social and economic change. Hence, the state-driven project of social engineering as exemplified in legislations like the Hindu Code bill, and the endeavour to industrialize India through a planned economy. It is with these aspects of the Nehruvian legacy that Manmohan Singh broke when he was finance minister in the early Nineties, and set India irrevocably on the path of liberalization. At the heart of the liberalization programme is the idea of the minimalist state.
Borrowing from Jeremy Bentham, it is possible now to speak of the agenda of government and the non-agenda. The latter consists of those functions which private individuals are already fulfilling. The running of business enterprises is one such function. But there exists an entire range of functions which fall outside the sphere of the individual and his activities and energies. This comprises the agenda of government: to do those things which are not done at all. In India, these would include the alleviation of poverty, the removal of inequalities in society, improvements in the health and education sectors: the state could play an important role here and complete the work Nehru began. Manmohan Singh needs to set the agenda of government in these terms.
The magic of Nehru’s words and rhetoric may not be there but that is no reason to abandon his dream. Before Manmohan Singh and the Congress is the challenge to script our autobiography. Nehru would have approved of the change of “an” to “our” since he always sought to validate his own persona in the millions of Indians he so loved.