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Ignoring Indira and other icons

  By Vijay Darda | 21-11-2016

We are very well aware that when it comes to icons, every regime has two lists – a negative list that it plans to ignore and a positive list that it wishes to promote. The current NDA regime has its preferences well-defined and the logic is also pretty uncomplicated. It is guided by the approach of the previous Congress governments. As the NDA regime is diametrically opposed to the Congress in ideological terms, the mantra with regard to the icons follows a simple rule – ignore the ones promoted by the previous Congress regimes, and promote the ones ignored by them.

For instance, the Congress regimes did not ignore Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. But those interested in continuing the Patel-Nehru conflict long after the demise of these two tall leaders, can argue that the Sardar was overshadowed by the prominence given to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. They can also attribute this to the fact that Congress regimes have been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family. But this is all mythical. The fact remains that Patel has been treated as a respected national icon by successive Congress regimes. Moreover, the differences between Nehru and Patel were real, but then these did not interfere in the discharge of their national responsibilities. Each one of them was fully aware of his national role. However, when it is claimed by the Sangh Parivar that Patel (though he banned the Sangh after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder) was a taller leader compared to Nehru it does serve the political narrative of the day. This is for a simple reason. One of the political objectives of the NDA regime is to run down the Nehru narrative in the trajectory of growth path since independence in 1947. The theme that ‘nothing was done in the last 60 years and everything is happening for the first time after 2014’ has everything to do with this objective. The Sangh Parivar is deeply invested in this anti-Nehru narrative. So promoting Patel vis-a-vis Nehru helps.

But we all know one thing. Icons are beyond any damage. Any amount of chipping away at their glory does not help. More importantly, such acts hardly help in creating a counter-narrative. Take for instance, the Niti Aayog. Well, the dismantling of the Planning Commission, could be said to have brought the end of a Nehru era institution, but then what is the counter-narrative that is being offered by the Niti Aayog. It may mean a good bye to the era of five-year plans, but the moot question is what is the replacement? Some amorphous idea, that perhaps is clear only to its proponents.

It is in this context that we have to look at the NDA regime’s decision to ignore the birth centenary of the late prime minister Indira Gandhi that begins this year from November 19th. True, the BJP and its earlier incarnation the Bharatiya Jana Sangh have some bitter memories of their struggle with her regimes. A lot of the leaders may also have their own personal stories to tell. But all said and done, Indiraji was the prime minister of India, and steered the country through several trying periods since independence with success. As a country, we owe it to her to celebrate her achievements. There is nothing partisan about her success in ushering the green revolution, demonstrating the country’s nuclear prowess, fighting the East Pakistan refugee crisis in the face of the famous pro-Pakistan tilt by the United States of America, that finally led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh (when she was compared to the demon slaying Goddess Durga by the then opposition leader Atal Behari Vajpayee). Her fight against terrorism ultimately took her life, but as long as she lived her faith in secularism was not shaken. She did not change her Sikh security guards, even when there were security warnings, and lost her life. We must celebrate such courage. We cannot be partisan about such things. Indeed, by ignoring such acts of courage we belittle our own traditions.

Whether we like it or not, leaders like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi have all shaped the various elements of our national life. Their contributions in different walks of life are the foundations on which we continue to build the edifice of our modern 21st century India. This is not to say that others have not contributed to the task of nation building, but only to emphasise the primacy of the efforts of these leaders. Besides, we cannot forget that two of them – Indiraji and Rajiivji – made the supreme sacrifice of their lives in the service of the nation. It would be rare in the annals of the history to find a mother-son duo sacrificing their lives in the fight against terror. It need not be over-stressed that when a terror group assassinates a leader of the calibre of a prime minister, it is axiomatic that it finds that leader as a major obstacle in the path to achieve its goals.

Regime changes are a normal phenomenon in a democracy. But the moot question is whether national icons should also change with every new government that takes office? A clear bipartisan approach towards national icons has to emerge so that there is no tinkering with the national narrative. If a new narrative is to emerge with every change in government, the nation would lose its credibility with the people and the outside world. For instance, we have witnessed the discomfort of the leaders from the African world visiting us, when they find that Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi are ignored by the current regime.

Understandably, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP have a difficult problem in creating their own national narrative with their iconic figures. They have tried to appropriate the other Gandhi – the Mahatma – in a superficial sort of way through the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. But then they still remain tentative about other aspects of his ideological baggage like communal harmony. The same dilemma prevails about Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. But these are the problems of the positive list. Ideally, a regime should have no negative lists, and it should whole-heartedly celebrate the achievements of all the icons. This is the only way forward in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, diverse and plural country like India.

Before I conclude…

The train tragedy involving the Indore Patna Express near Kanpur is a grim reminder of the gaps in railway safety. With more than 126 lives lost, it marks a human tragedy of unacceptable dimensions. At 3 am in the morning, the passengers of the S1 and S2 second class three tier sleeper coaches that bore the brunt of the derailment would be usually asleep. So, for them death came in their sleep, giving them little time to seek escape. The initial reports attribute the accident to cracks in the rail track. This is more than cautionary as the Indian Railways have plans to introduce the high speed bullet trains in some sections. Whereas the bullet trains would come with Japanese safety standards, it is also incumbent upon the Indian Railways to upgrade the safety standards so as to ensure that such mishaps are not repeated.


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Ignoring Indira and other icons


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