April 05, 2020
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Storm Toss'd

The light did shine at midnight, but there's been enough darkness at high noon.

Storm Toss'd

AT 17, one can be very exacting in one's standards and highly intolerant of any deviation from them. Thus it was that the magic day 50 years ago, for which I had waited ever since gaining consciousness, was nearly ruined for me by the girl next door shortly

after it dawned. Pestered by a younger brother anxious to know why there was so much excitement all round, she blandly told him: "Aaj Pandit Nehru ko taaj pehnaya ja raha hai" (today is Pandit Nehru's coronation). I was infuriated.

Here we were, 330 million Indians, ushering in the largest democracy the world had ever known, and this stupid girl seemed to think that we were establishing a new monarchy in place of the British Crown. My impulse was to give the ignoramus the tongue-lashing she deserved. I was deterred by my brother and college friends, who reminded me that we had a bigger problem on our hands and should not be distracted by a blabbering neighbour.

All five of us were staying at Nangloi, a small satellite village where my father was then station master. The problem we faced was serious indeed: how to get to Delhi to partake of the joyous festivities focused around what Jawaharlal Nehru, in his memorable and most quoted phrase, was to call the "tryst with destiny". There was no transport, rail or road. In fact, the northern part of the subcontinent, on both sides of the new divide, lay paralysed because of  the horrendous slaughter and the largest mass migration during peacetime in history that accompanied Independence and Partition. That really was the reason why we were living in our father's house, not at college at Sangrur, 150 miles to the north, where we should have been.

Nangloi, now swallowed up by Delhi's relentless and ugly sprawl, was then 10 miles from the nearest point in the national capital. We had no option but to walk though, making a virtue of necessity, we declared it our "Long March to Freedom". By early evening we had become part of the swirling, rapturous crowds which had begun surrounding Parliament House. At the stroke of midnight when Nehru's inspiring words started coming over the public address system, we danced, embraced one another and wept. It was an unforgettable moment, and I have never forgotten it.

Nor, I must confess, have I forgotten the girl next door who I never saw again after returning to college. During the 47 years I have spent in the troubled trade of journalism, chronicling and analysing the twists and turns of Indian politics, I have often wondered whether she was not more prescient about the future than me.

Not only was Nehru treated by his adoring countrymen as uncrowned king, but also the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which ruled India for 37 of the 50 years since Independence, has had no parallel in any other democracy. This is not the place to discuss the dynamics of dynastic or familial politics in this country which has a wide spread and deep roots. But a few points must be made.

First, Indira Gandhi's ascension to the office of prime minister 18 months after her father's death and Rajiv's succession immediately after her assassination were both endorsed by the electorate by overwhelming majorities. Secondly, the phenomenon of democratic, dynastic rule is by no means confined to India or South Asia alone. Witness, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar and Meghawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia. Thirdly, it is remarkable that John Kenneth Galbraith, eminent economist and a former US ambassador to this country, has consistently refused to comment on dynastic rule in India on the ground that he does not want to "insult the memory of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys". However, it must be conceded that Salman Rushdie had a point when he described the Nehru-Gandhi clan as a "dynasty to beat Dynasty in a Delhi to rival Dallas".

My second memory of that glorious night when, once again in Nehru's words, the world slept but India awoke to a "new life and freedom", relates to a quarrel in a family of refugees which, for want of shelter like thousands of others, had dossed down in a verandah of Connaught Place. Since we were too exuberant and euphoric to even think of sleep, we had simply wandered into the overcrowded centre of Lutyen's city. One refugee, evidently disturbed, screamed: "Eh aazadi nahin, barbaadi ay" (this is no independence, it's ruination). Others fell on him like a ton of bricks and took him to task for having lost all sense of proportion. Eventually, the family elder spoke. He argued that though their suffering was acute, some price had to be paid for independence. He also said that soon enough things would begin to look up: "Mark my words, for every building we've left behind, we will put up two."

As it turned out, this was no empty boast. The speed with which millions of refugees were rehabilitated—thanks largely to their own enterprise, though government grants and loans helped—was truly astonishing. As was their subsequent prosperity. The bulk of the capital's super-rich today are children and grandchildren of men and women who, half a century ago, built up their future almost with bare hands, often subsisting on a diet of carrots and radishes, washed down by lassi.

Nothing underscores this more clearly than what visiting friends from Pakistan have to say. One of them remarked only the other day: "In your country the word sharanarthi has disappeared from your lexicon. In mine, I am still a mohajir. What is more, we mohajirs are at the receiving end of one of the subcontinent's cruellest conflicts." Sangrur, where I studied, now a nondescript district headquarters in Punjab, was the capital of a princely state, Jind, and a lovely garden city. It was one of 562 such entities. It gave me some idea of how antediluvian, capricious, authoritative and degenerate rulers of the princely states could be. There were honour-able exceptions, of course.

But about most of the rulers, the less said the better. In theory all these 'states' could be independent. But, barring the complex case of Kashmir, most of them were incorporated into the Indian Union with the rulers' consent.

REORGANISATION of states along linguistic lines was another stupendous achievement. But denial of a Punjabi Suba then turned out to be a grievous error for which India has paid dearly, what with the decade-long, Pakistan-backed insurgency by Sikh militants, Operation Bluestar and Indira Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh security guards. However, in 1957, when state boundaries were redrawn, no one could have foreseen this gory scenario even in his or her worst nightmare. At that time everything looked rosy. It was the high noon of the Nehru era. India had held its second general election, to international applause. And having successfully completed the first Five-year Plan, it had embarked on the second that was to lay the industrial and technological base for subsequent progress. We Indians walked tall because we were self-confident at home and respected abroad.

Ironically, it was precisely then that the downward slide also began. The first jolt to India's policy of befriending China came in 1957 when the construction of the Chinese road across Aksai Chin came to light.

Months later erupted the notorious and sensational Mundhra affair which turned the spotlight on the problem of corruption and abuse of authority that has assumed the proportions of a raging scourge and is threatening to eat into the country's vitals in the golden jubilee years. It needs emphasising that compared with today's ubiquitous scams, involving mind-boggling loot and its brazen defence dramatised by the likes of Laloo Yadav, the Mundhra scandal was chickenfeed. No one was accused of lining his pocket. All that was alleged was that the state-owned LIC had squandered a few lakhs of rupees by making questionable investments in dubious shares of companies owned or controlled by a racketeer, Haridas Mundhra. A judicial inquiry, promptly ordered by Nehru, led to the resignation of the then finance minister, T.T. Krishnamachari, and the exit of several top officials. Mundhra went to jail.

It is neither possible nor intended to make this essay in remembrance a capsule history of India since Independence. In any case, the recent history, including that of the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent death dance or the formation of the weird 14-legged creature called the United Front, are too well known to need recounting. But a few major landmarks merit a fleeting mention.

The first is the brief but brutal border war with China in the high Himalayas in 1962. This was a trauma which no one who lived through it can ever forget. National morale disintegrated almost overnight and was not to recover until nine years later when, under Indira Gandhi's leadership, this country won a decisive victory in the war for the liberation of Bangladesh. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Nehru, lived only 18 months thereafter. In this short period, he led India in the 1965 war with Pakistan and then back to peace at Tashkent where he died within hours of signing an agreed declaration with Ayub Khan.

Indira Gandhi's infamous Emergency in the mid-'70s will remain a blot on modern Indian history. The poison it introduced in the body politic has not yet been flushed out of the system. The 1977 general poll, in which the Empress was overthrown, was hailed as a "revolution by the ballot-box". If so, this was a revolution that was immediately devoured by its children. For Indira was back in power. The fate of the V.P. Singh regime that replaced Rajiv Gandhi's was no better. And the plight of the present Gujral government is there for all to see.

If this seems depressing, as it surely is, one must look at the other side of the coin, too. To have remained in one piece is achievement enough for India. Except for the 19 months of Emergency, this country has been a vibrant democracy. It also has the freest press between Tangiers and Tokyo. The much-derided "Hindu rate of growth" has now turned into an impressive 7 per cent. There is striking unanimity among international experts that by 2020 India's economy will be the fourth largest, after those of China, the US and Japan. And yet it cannot be overlooked that four Indians out of every 10 live below the poverty line and more illiterates live here than in the rest of the world put together. Five thousand "dowry deaths" a year are a shame. But then India is also marching on and there is impressive upward mobility, among both men and women.

In short, to vary an old metaphor slightly, the Indian glass is both more than half full and less than half empty. It all depends on the eye of the beholder.

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