There is something quite extraordinary about this discovery of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar by India in the 21st century. He has been discovered posthumously, and become a symbol (more specifically many hundreds of statues!) of the coming of age of Dalit consciousness, articulation and assertion. Conversely, if we go by the opinion poll conducted in collaboration with this magazine, Jawaharlal Nehru has been devalued.
It is certainly progressive to remind the elites about historical injustice and oppression. As has been famously said, democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. Social change and justice are critical to the egalitarianism any democracy must aspire to. We cannot lose sight of the fact that after several years of reservations, Dalits are still not represented adequately in professions like the media and cinema, and many continue to be engaged in subhuman and menial jobs.
But we cannot be guilt-tripped into undermining Nehru, just because Ambedkar is the icon of the times. Political correctness should not make us blind to historical accuracy. There is no comparison between Ambedkar and Nehru in terms of shaping the Indian nation. Nehru made us what we are as a nation. We can contest the ideas that are the cornerstones of Nehruvian socialism and secularism. But we can hardly contest the fact that as India’s first prime minister from 1947 to his death in 1964, he oversaw our transition from a colony to a sustainable democracy. Nehru gave us the ideas of India in his lifetime. Ambedkar has become an idea. Ambedkar is a figure we give lip service to because he is a symbol of the marginalised. Nehru is a figure whose ideas have been contested and attacked by those with a different vision of India. Some of his ideas may have perhaps outlived their utility but they were strong fundamentals.
If we examine the post-colonial history of the world, when the empires receded from Asia and Africa, many former colonies quickly lapsed from an attempt at democracy to dictatorships. India endured as a democracy because its first prime minister was a democrat by impulse, instinct and intellectual conviction. He set in place institutions and a Constitution that still help us endure the many venalities in our system. That Ambedkar has a starring role in the authorship of the Indian Constitution is undeniable. In his lifetime, that was his significant contribution.
It is after his death that Ambedkar gets resurrected and is born again as a figure who symbolises Dalit power, a rejection of Hinduism with its varna system, and the status quoist establishment. One thread that runs through the narrative of this retold Ambedkar story is that he was kept down by the leaders of the Indian National Congress and never given his rightful place in independent India because he was a Dalit. That is likely to be true. Certainly, Nehru was born to privilege, was a man of refinement and easy with power. He was the quintessential elite and liberal with socialist convictions. Ambedkar, on the other hand, would have faced every possible obstacle and prejudice.
India’s endured as a democracy because its first prime minister was a democrat by impulse, instinct and conviction.
Historical conspiracies are compelling if the personalities are as fascinating as those who shaped India’s birth as a nation. Ambedkar is not the first figure who is believed to have been shortchanged by Gandhi and Nehru. If one belongs to the conservative right, then Sardar Patel should have been India’s first prime minister. An entire generation of Bengalis also believe that Subhash Chandra Bose was hoodwinked by Gandhi and Nehru (mysterious tales of his death and reappearance are still recounted). The Bose-Nehru relationship is interesting as both represented the left wing of the Congress and at a critical moment in pre-independence history united to take on the right within the party.
Indeed, Nehru’s significance also lies in the fact that, in the post-Partition trauma, he did not allow the early Indian state to be more ‘Hindu’ as a counter to the emergence of Pakistan (a name that translates as ‘the land of the pure’). It has often been suggested that Gandhi chose Nehru over other worthy contenders because he understood his innate secularism. As it turned out, he was right and Nehru’s long reign ensured that India would be a secular republic although an ideological dualism still survives in the Congress beneath the lip-service to secularism.
One outcome of Nehru’s dominance and the subsequent emergence of the dynasty is that the BJP, short of national heroes of its own, appears to have appropriated the Sardar Patel copyright for nuancing and retelling his tale. Two significant leaders from the Hindu right have at different times claimed to be true inheritors of Patel. How we tell our history is important because it defines who we are. Understanding this, the ideological right has always tried to retell history. But Ambedkar has been the more successful project in revisiting history because he is a symbol of radical change.
Nehru’s waning popularity is possibly linked to the diminishing returns of dynasty. It is usually the “sins of the father” that are supposed to visit the successors. But in the case of the Nehru-Gandhis, there is no family member who touches the heights that Nehru did as a thinker, writer, political philosopher, prime minister and world statesman. Indira Gandhi was deified as Nehru never was partly because the popular franchise expanded during her reign and because of the devi-like stature she acquired after the 1971 war with Pakistan. But she was a poor democrat by instinct, and by the time she was assassinated in 1984, the Congress could never recover inner-party democracy, becoming dependent on the Family. The aura of Indira passed on to son Rajiv, who won the largest mandate in India’s history—only to lose it five years later. Since then we have had Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president while Rahul is soon expected to play a more active role in politics. But the aura of dynasty has been waning and its members must know that they are both the greatest weakness and the greatest strength of the Congress party.
But that should not detract from Nehru’s appeal. He held the reins of a fragile new nation in an age when superpowers emerged after World War II and great ideological blocs divided the globe. It would be belittling Nehru to just see him as the founder of a political dynasty. It’s not something he would have conceived of. By the time he died, there are well-recorded differences with Indira, who was emerging as a very different kind of politician and individual. Indeed, ironically, of all the members of the dynasty, it is Nehru’s pictures that are the least seen in the rooms of Congress leaders. Dynasties are not always founded by design. Surely, it was one of the great coincidences of our time that Indira would marry a man named Feroze Gandhi and hence acquire the halo of two great names of the freedom movement. The Mahatma and the first prime minister. Ambedkar’s not in that league.