No ‘vishwaguru’: How history will judge today’s political leaders

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, disparaged by critics for being weak and powerless to check corruption, had ruefully remarked that history would be kinder to him than the media and political opponents. PM Narendra Modi has no such worries and said on Gandhi Jayanti, 2021: “…this is my conviction, that for my own healthy development, I attach big importance to criticism. I, with an honest mind, respect critics a lot. But, unfortunately, the number of critics is very few.”

There is no doubt that PM Modi, by virtue of his political skills, eloquence and popular appeal, would find a suitable place in India’s contemporary history. As PM of the world’s largest democracy, twice in succession, he has led his party to overwhelming electoral victories and made his mark domestically as well as on the international stage.

History, however, discriminates while according recognition and a nation’s achievements matter more than individual attainments. Indians have for long nurtured a sense of exceptionalism, not unmixed with hubris, that India’s “manifest destiny” guarantees it the status of a great power with some even fantasising about “Akhand (greater) Bharat”.

The reality is that unless the ship of state is steered with strategic wisdom and economic prudence, India may remain an overpopulated and under-developed nation — nuclear-armed and boasting of a huge GDP but facing mass poverty, jobless growth and a restive youth. Our failure, since independence, to assimilate alienated citizens and deliver social justice to the deprived remains a blemish on our republic.

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The Modi government has, in the past eight years, launched a host of schemes that aim at providing relief and ameliorating public privation. But its real sense of accomplishment seems to stem from the fulfillment of the Sangh Parivar’s long-cherished agendas in two separate but related dimensions.

Firstly, Article 370, which entitled Jammu and Kashmir to its own constitution, flag, and “Prime Minister” has been an issue of concern to the Parivar since 1949 when the Jammu-based Praja Parishad started agitating for “ek nishan, ek pradhan aur ek vidhan” (one flag, one prime minister, and one constitution). In 1953, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Jana Sangh, who had joined this agitation, died in a Srinagar jail, lending an emotive edge to this issue.

In 1977, the Jana Sangh joined the Janata Party only to break away in 1980 as the new-born Bharatiya Janata Party. Through all these transitions, the Parivar remained consistently focused on the “assimilation” of J&K. Thus, the 2019 abrogation of Article 370 and the fragmentation of India’s only Muslim-majority state represented the triumphant culmination of the Sangh’s long-standing aspirations.

The agenda’s second dimension relates to the implementation of the “Hindutva project”. In 1923, political activist and freedom fighter, VD Savarkar, had explained the concept of Hindutva by defining a Hindu as one “…to whom, Hindustan is not only a fatherland (pitrabhu) but also a holyland (punyabhu).”

Via this definition, Hindutva seeks to render the term “Hindu” synonymous with “Indian”, while excluding all other citizens from its ambit. It is in the context of this project that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the impending National Register of Citizens must be seen. Nationwide relief at the peaceful settlement in Ayodhya has been replaced by grave apprehensions as new Pandora’s boxes are being opened.

While electoral victories are no doubt image-enhancing, the benefits of playing domestic party politics must be weighed against the cost of damage being inflicted on the nation’s security and external relations. The balance sheet shows that the law of diminishing returns has been invoked. India’s international image has been dented, as seen from our slide on the scale of global indices — from poverty and hunger to democracy and press freedom. To domestic discontent, on account of unemployment and price rise, tensions are being added, fueled by the exploitation of religion and caste-related issues for political ends. Rather than blaming “foreign conspiracies to defame India”, it would be far better for national morale to tackle these problems.

It is time for the nation’s political leadership to don the mantle of statesmen. Looking beyond party agendas, they need to privilege national interests — especially where the two are divertent. Herewith, some thoughts of a septuagenarian citizen.

India’s influence in the world has been rooted in the “power of its example”. The capacity of Indian culture to embrace diversity and assimilate with confidence not only new Indic religions but also foreign faiths attracted universal admiration. Descent into bigotry and public hate-mongering is damaging India’s image.

The current surge of majoritarianism may help win elections but the steady alienation of India’s minorities, constituting a fifth of our population, will irreparably damage national cohesion and the integrity of our multi-religious nation. As religion becomes a convenient tool of polarisation, we must face the reality that the fires of religious strife once lit will be hard to extinguish, and even worse, will sideline our existential struggle against poverty, hunger and disease.

Finally, we must face the reality that India’s claims to being a “vishwaguru” now lack conviction. While public discourse has become coarse and abusive, speaking truth to power is equated with “sedition” and political pressures have denuded the media as well as public functions of their moral fibre. Disregard for ethical and democratic norms is manifest in the open trading of legislators and in visible rewards for pliant public servants.

Historically, India succumbed to foreign powers because it was a “house divided”. Today, as cracks begin to show again, our leaders must do their utmost to ensure national unity and cohesion. By following “raj dharma” or ethical conduct, they will not only ensure their niche in history but will also set a worthy example for us and our children to emulate.

The writer is a retired chief of naval staff

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