Ram Nath Kovind’s first speech after taking oath as the 14th President of India was unremarkable for what it contained. The usual eulogies to India’s shrinking diversity and its citizens’ resilience comprised the larger part of the speech. Paeans to India’s scientific achievements were present, as were praises of our “jugaad” solutions to everyday crises.
“Bhagwaan Buddha” and “Start-up India” also featured, but the ghee in the fire of his nascent presidency was provided by the somewhat reluctant sloganeering of “Jai Shri Ram”. It was a speech that followed the now well-known BJP-RSS template. But because it was made by President Kovind, it was remarkable for its omission of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.
President Kovind named Mahatma Gandhi, first President Rajendra Prasad, Sarvepalli Radhakrishna, Sardar Patel, Dr BR Ambedkar, and the RSS ideologue, Deen Dayal Upadhyay. Patel was thanked for unification of the princely states and Ambedkar for the Constitution, but Nehru, who was free India’s Prime Minister for nearly two decades, somehow did not qualify for even a token mention – this, despite the great and decisive achievements of those two decades.
Photo: Press Trust of India
Mentioning him in the hugely significant inaugural speech wouldn’t have decreased the threat to the first prime minister’s legacy of building a modern, heterogeneous, liberal and tolerant society based on the now increasingly absent scientific temper. Including his name would not legitimise the tyrannical reign of his daughter Indira Gandhi, or the actions of his grandson Rajiv Gandhi complicit in the anti-Sikh riots, or even make the present Congress leadership look any less crisis-ridden.
In any case, during such speeches, the President has to either go strictly by merit or by courtesy. Either include all the key leaders — and the Prime Minister who oversaw the first 17 years of India’s post colonial history, certainly qualifies to be called a key leader — or leave them all out, like the former President APJ Abdul Kalam did when he was sworn in on July 25, 2002. But in Nehru’s case, his merits obviate the need for any courtesy.
For those who are only familiar with the systematic vilification of Nehru through keywords like the Kashmir question, and the China debacle, here is a small assortment of his contribution to India.
Freedom struggle and Nehru
Let’s start from the start. Like the other notables named by President Kovind, with the exception of Mukherjee and Upadhyay, Nehru spent a substantial number of years in prison during the freedom movement against the British. He spent 3,262 days in jail out of which 1,040 days were during the 1942 Quit India Movement.
Spirit of democracy
It would be worthwhile to compare the parallels between the times when Emergency was declared in 1975 and the fundamental rights of Indians were suspended (by Indira Gandhi) and the prevailing “undeclared Emergency”, according to the opposition parties at least.
We would do well to remember what Nehru himself said about the role of Opposition in a democracy. He said, “I do not want India to be a country in which millions of people say yes to one man, I want a strong opposition.”
Myth of Nehru wrecking India’s economy
“Memory is a friend of ingratitude as we forget more than we remember.”
Calling Nehru a socialist loser, or criticising the now disbanded Planning Commission (Nehru’s brainchild), or holding him responsible for today’s economic problems, is a classic case of shifting the blame to the dead.
Former President Pranab Mukherjee, who has been feted for his stints as the Congress-era Union finance minister, deals with this myth head-on in this speech.
According to him, “Nehru has been criticised in later years for having accorded primacy to the government in economic matters. These policies must, however, be seen in the context of Nehru’s times. Capital formation (generating money) in a society, exploited for 190 years, was a huge task which could not be left to the private sector alone.”
Former President Mukherjee continued, “The relative merit of a regulated economy was widely accepted those days. Nehru’s efforts did not throttle private initiative. The private sector continued to play an important role, especially in agriculture and small and medium industries. In fact, during the early days of independence, even the private sector supported the idea of a key role for government in creating economic growth.”
Moreover, many private sector companies received strong support from public sector financial institutions, enabling them turn into domestic giants in their respective fields.
India’s GDP in the first 15 years of independence
A couple of years ago, Prime Minister Modi had been in news for bringing up India’s past and how it was a source of shame. Here are some facts that if seen with some empathy towards a newly-liberated colony, will make every sensible person proud.
In the first 15 years, Indian economy grew at an estimated rate of four per cent. India was ahead of countries like China, UK and Japan. The massive public investments in steel, coal, fertilisers, power plants, dams, roads and highways had tremendous uplifting effect on the economy.
Adult suffrage and key institutions
Countries like the USA and South Africa allowed voting rights to women and blacks much later, whereas Indian women got the right to vote at the same time as men.
Institutions like the Election Commission, the IITs, the IIMs, Atomic Energy Commission of India, the National Defence Academy, various central and state universities as well as the Sahitya Kala and Lalit Kala Academies, along with their counterpart in the performing arts, the Sangeet Naatak Academy, were all founded during the 17 years that Nehru was the Prime Minister.
We have had 16 Lok Sabha elections so far and power has been transferred from one party to another peacefully. This is an achievement that cannot be taken for granted. India’s institutions are the bulwark of its democracy.
Scientific temper in all spheres of life
In these times of having astrologers in government hospitals, it would do us good to remember that Nehru aggressively campaigned against obscurantism and religious bigotry. He strove to instil the principle of scientific temper in every sphere of Indian polity. That scientific temper was based on an objective exploration of truth in social, natural and religious phenomena.
Nehru’s speech at the opening of the Bhakhra Nangal Dam highlights his commitment to science over superstition and jobs over religious dogma.
Nehru said: "For me, the temples, the gurudwaras, the churches, the mosques of today are these places where human beings labour for the benefit of other human beings, of humanity as a whole. They are the temples of today. I feel more, if I may use the word, religious-minded when I see these great works than when I see any temple or any place of pure worship. These are the places of worship because here we worship something; we build up Indians; we build up the millions of India and so this is a sacred task.”
Why Kovind couldn’t even utter Nehru’s name
As PM, Nehru had the RSS banned for its suspected role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. He believed, and all Indians agreed with him on that, that communalism, or in-fighting over Mandirs and Masjids, is a disease that will ruin India. He fought all his life against it and survived four assassination attempts including a bomb attack.
His modernity, scientific temper and pluralism were anathema to the right-wing from the beginning. Though they could not defeat him or his idea of India as long as he lived, the RSS and its offshoot, the ruling BJP, are doing everything to efface his enormous contribution towards making India what it is today.
Of course, successive Congress governments since Indira Gandhi have made this job easier by succumbing to cynical politics.
Today, Nehru is defined by the RSS labels of “elitism”, ‘’Kashmir-blunder” and “China defeat of 1962 war”. But this is in fact a longstanding strategy of the RSS. They misrepresent him, stigmatise him and then emulate him in order to replace him with their brand ambassador, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
PM Modi’s rebranding of himself as a statesman and the recent launch of the Goods and Services Tax at midnight on July 1 is but one example.
To defeat Nehru’s idea of India, the RSS wishes to wipe out his legacy. President Ramnath Kovind is an “RSS loyalist”, and, therefore even more so, thanking his supreme ideological opponent would have been a gesture befitting India’s 14th President.