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The Hindu Notes for 17 August 2018

A statesman and an orator

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a large-hearted leader, always civil and never afraid to take tough decisions for India

Barmer had suffered devastating floods in 2006, and as the MP representing the constituency, I was involved in relief operations. Pranab Mukherjee, as Defence Minister in the United Progressive Alliance government, had accompanied Sonia Gandhi, then Congress president, for a survey to take stock of the operations. A district administration briefing was planned in Barmer for them, and as soon as they arrived Ms. Gandhi told me, in earshot of media persons, “Your MLA has behaved very badly with me.” Unaware of what had happened, I nevertheless apologised with folded hands “on behalf of everyone”, including the MLA, who like me belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That little apology made it to a tiny news story, which in turn reached Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then already in retirement from politics. He sent me a thank you message, the first and only one I received from him, “for maintaining Indian traditions, culture and our dignity”.

A dignified man

It was this civility and dignity that marked Vajpayee’s life and politics, and which seems completely at odds with the prevailing political culture of today. His endearing manner, display of affection and quality of giving earned him respect all around, including from the Opposition. His easy manner was reflected in his ready smile and a wink, and it kept debates from escalating into confrontation. His mannerisms, including his long pauses, were easy to interpret as earnest. Yet, he would not shirk from the toughest decisions — in calls he took for India, he revealed the steel in him that his amiable persona often cloaked. There were two decisions that he took during his prime ministership (1998-2004) that helped change India completely; they still define India today. In taking them he demonstrated the willingness to take the bull by the horns.

On May 11, 1998, India began a two-stage series of nuclear tests that changed the way the world perceived decision-making in New Delhi. To top it off, de facto nuclearisation was claimed as a policy, giving nightmares to economists and policymakers. Vajpayee had factored it all in, including the likely course of Pakistan’s reactive tests and the effect of sanctions on both countries, before giving the green signal. From that moment, the global attitude towards India began to change, and it defined India’s rise.

The second decision has changed India internally — it was the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). Unlike the much celebrated ‘Golden Quadrilateral’ and the expansion of other highways undertaken on his watch as Prime Minister, it is the PMGSY that has completely altered the lives of farmers in India’s far-flung villages and hamlets. For the first time they came to be connected to markets through a motorable road, thus bypassing middlemen who had always controlled access. Till date, it remains India’s only pure data-driven scheme, unalterable by political pressure. Both decisions were game-changers for India.

Vajpayee’s birth in Gwalior on December 25, 1924 to Krishna Devi and Krishna Bihari Vajpayee, and his subsequent upbringing and education are well documented. His early influences from Arya Samaj and then the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are just as well known. His full-time commitment to the RSS, and subsequent secondment to the Jana Sangh, brought him in contact with Syama Prasad Mookerjee. The political graph was only upwards from there, bringing him appreciation from India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who prophesied that one day Vajpayee would lead the country. But before he became Prime Minister, Vajpayee cut his teeth as India’s first non-Congress External Affairs Minister (1977-79) in the Janata Party government, and provided a glimpse of his future direction.

Efforts with Pakistan

By the time he became Foreign Minister, Pakistan had been defeated in war, divided into two, and was headed for another round of military rule. Despite all that, he launched persistent efforts with Pakistan, beginning with a visit to the neighbouring country. This was to remain the foreign policy theme through his tenure as Prime Minister. It drew from a realisation that India would never be able to earn its place under the sun unless it made peace with Pakistan.

But doing business with Pakistan was never easy. After the bitter rhetoric of the 1998 nuclear tests, there was the euphoria of the bus journey to Lahore in 1999. A little-known fact about the bus trip is that as it crossed the Radcliffe Line at Wagah, the Border Security Force was playing Daler Mehndi’s Punjabi pop hit ‘Sade naal rahoge to aish karoge’ (If you stay with us, you’ll do well). Obviously it was a message lost on Pakistan, which thereafter responded with the intrusions in Kargil that led to a brief but bitter war that summer. Vajpayee held his nerve and didn’t waver despite adverse military conditions in the early days. Eventually India won a military victory as well global goodwill, a rare double achievement. Years later, I was the first Indian journalist to meet Nawaz Sharif, who had been Prime Minister of Pakistan during the Kargil war, when he was in exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He said: “Mr. Vajpayee is justified in feeling let down, we did let him down.”

Quietly purposeful

The humiliation at the end of the year in 1999, with the hijack of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar, was followed by another attempt to forge peace with Pakistan at the Agra Summit in July 2001. In between, in 2000, Vajpayee didn’t hesitate to let Pakistan know what he was about. Unknown to most, though it is murmured about occasionally and was even hinted at in the Pakistani media at that time, there was a devastating strike across the Line of Control (LoC) that lasted the longest, and till now accounts for the most casualties ever on the other side. All that the Indian raiding party left behind as evidence was an HMT watch, showing India time. Troops manning India’s posts said at the time that they had lost count of the number of ambulance sirens wailing across the LoC. Behind Vajpayee’s cherubic, charming exterior, there was indeed a spine, and he could take, and handle, ruthless policy decisions.

Vajpayee will ultimately be remembered for his oratory, the skill with which he summoned the apt word out of nowhere, his longish silences that would be suddenly broken by a beautifully worded sentence. His resignation speech of 1996 in the Lok Sabha stands out, as does his Srinagar address of April 2003 in which he held out the hand of friendship to Pakistan and which led to a sustained peace process. The 1996 speech had drama, anguish, integrity, hope, and sincerity that seeped through every word, every phrase. It remains a benchmark in speech-making, all of this before the era of PR speech-writers and social media platforms to take things viral. His speech went viral by the oldest known medium, word of mouth.

His command of words will always set him apart from other leaders. And nothing more so than his poetry. A couplet of his found pride of place in the BJP central office for the longest time. In translation: “With a small mind you cannot become great/ with a small heart you cannot stand tall.” It was a dictum he heeded by living and governing with a broad mind and a big heart.

A long march since freedom

To overlook the strides India has made since 1947 is to miss the lessons of history

The Partition and the bloodletting that accompanied our Independence took up much of the energy of our founders. An opinion piece by an unnamed Indian official in the October 1952 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine describes the challenge: “In its [Partition’s] wake came the immense task of organising, within a few weeks, the movement of no less than 6,000,000 refugees, of improvising arrangements for their immediate relief, and devising plans for their permanent resettlement and rehabilitation. When was a ‘refugee problem’ of this magnitude set before an untried government in the very first days of its existence and solved with equal expedition and success?” There was no significant foreign assistance to deal with a refugee crisis that was second in scale only to that generated by World War II. While presenting the first Budget of independent India on November 26, 1947, Finance Minister R.K. Shanmukham Chetty noted that the immediate impact of the Partition’s “tragic developments has been to divert the attention of the Government almost completely from normal activities”.

A difficult start

The Partition was an unwanted addition to an already full plate of immense problems. Most of India’s 350 million people then lived in staggering poverty. One of the biggest problems was that of food, or the lack thereof. The Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed three million lives, was still fresh in memory. In his maiden budget speech, Chetty noted that India’s “food position has continued to cause grave anxiety both to the Provincial Governments and the Central Government”.

Writing in 1958, more than 10 years after Independence, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith was of the view that India’s villages, where over 80% of Indians lived, were “preoccupied, with the production of food”. Galbraith noted that “Indian economic life as a whole” was mostly about food production. To address inadequate food production, our first government focussed on expanding India’s irrigation capacity. Chester Bowles, an American diplomat, noted in an opinion piece that India embarked on creating three large dam systems (Damodar, Hirakud and Bhakra-Nangal) that had an irrigation capacity 70% more than that of the Grand Coulee (in the U.S. state of Washington), which was at that time the largest irrigation system in the world. The breathtaking ambition of such an irrigation system at a time of deep uncertainties and insecurities is a marvel in itself.

Be that is it may, our founders were visionary and understood the need for balanced development. While today we keenly observe the ups and downs of the Index of Industrial Production (IIP), India imported 90% of industrial goods around the time of Independence. The Five-Year Plans that many mock today helped India’s industrial sector grow by an average of 7% over the 1950-65 period. The decline under the British was being reversed even as the basic building blocks of a new socioeconomic order were being put in place. In the 50 years before Independence, India’s GDP growth averaged about 0.9% per annum. During the first three Five-Year Plans, it averaged 4%. In 2018, we can say that 4% was low and that our founders were ineffective. Who in the year 1900 could imagine that India would grow at 4% a year over a 15-year stretch? In those 15 years (1950-1965), India’s average GDP per capita growth rate was almost 20 times that achieved during the 1900-47 time period.

Building blocks

Yes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi can call today’s IITs “India’s instrument of transformation” but he fails to express a sincere debt of gratitude to those who founded IITs. We can debate the quality of education in India but must also keep in mind that when India became free, the literacy rate was just 12%. The current government takes victory laps after reportedly electrifying 18,000 villages even as it whitewashes the fact that when independent India was born, only 0.2% were electrified. By the time Manmohan Singh passed the baton to Prime Minister Modi, 97% of villages had been electrified already. For those of us who want India to become truly great, developing an understanding of where India came from is essential. Otherwise, with the benefit of hindsight, we can mindlessly criticise past efforts and be distracted from our current context. After all, with all of the knowledge and expertise available in 21st century India, the current Prime Minister ended up enacting a disastrous economic policy of demonetisation that his predecessor described as “organised loot and legalised plunder”.

Never forget.

Salman Anees Soz, formerly with the World Bank, is a member of the Indian National Congress. Views are personal

Is it right to turn NMML into a museum for PMs?

Nehru’s legacy is not so weak that it would be threatened by the celebration of Indian democracy

Nations set up museums to preserve collective memory for future generations. Democracies are more about institutions than individuals, but often the latter are commemorated for special acts they may have performed. Public museums in democracies should serve larger collective purposes, not partisan ones. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) is in the news because of loud opposition to the idea of setting up a museum for all Prime Ministers (PMs) in the Teen Murti Bhavan complex. Some feel that other than Jawaharlal Nehru, no one deserves a place in Teen Murti; others feel that institutional arrangements, not location, is the issue. The NMML is an autonomous body with the PM as its President. However, the property belongs to the government, which decided to set up a museum for PMs.

India’s freedom struggle

It is useful to understand what the NMML is. The museum is only a part of it, and is not even the dominant part. The museum itself is focussed more on India’s freedom struggle than Nehru’s life, and its narrative ends in 1950. The NMML is famous globally because its library, reprography and manuscript sections house the best collection of journals, books, photos and personal papers of individuals and institutions. It is invaluable to researchers on modern and contemporary Indian history.

The claim that introducing other PMs, and making provision for future ones, would detract from Nehru’s legacy does not stand scrutiny, and does not do justice to Nehru himself. The NMML and Teen Murti house the library and other related units, all established after Nehru’s death. In them, Nehru is just one of the thousands whose documents and photos are displayed. A substantial portion of the Teen Murti Estate has been diverted to other public uses. A private body set up a planetarium in the 1980s, albeit named after Nehru, which it transferred to NMML in 2005.

The role of the Prime Minister

Three important points must be kept in mind. The role of the PM bothered both Nehru and Sardar Patel and there was a contentious trail of letters between them. Nehru argued for a more activist role that included guiding ministries within their respective domains. Things got so out of hand that Mahatma Gandhi had fixed up a meeting of the two on January 31, 1948 to smooth things over, but it was not to be. From Patel’s passing away till the present, the PM has had, for the most part, an overwhelming role in the government. Studying this is key to understanding the beauty and uniqueness of Indian democracy.

Two, Teen Murti was selected in 1948 as the residence of the PM, not of Nehru. Even after it became a museum in his memory, the Union Cabinet, on August 9, 1968, decided that it should once again become the residence of the PM. The NMML agreed to shift the museum to Patiala House, but it did not happen. With its 25 acres in the heart of Delhi, Teen Murti is the most suitable location for the new museum. Imagine a scenario with a bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi for each of the 15 PMs, and for all those yet to come. It’ll be disastrous.

Three, Nehru’s legacy is not so weak that it would be threatened by the celebration of Indian democracy in Teen Murti. Perhaps those who object in his name should read him, his life and his works.

The museum should continue to tell the story of the freedom struggle, but in more imaginative ways

Is it the case that the NMML was meant for only one PM, Jawaharlal Nehru? What exactly is the relationship between the two? Apart from carrying his name, how much of NMML is really devoted to Nehru?

The NMML has four functional units — a library, a museum, a research centre and an archive. Each has an independent flavour. The institution was set up in the 1960s. B.R. Nanda, its first Director, introduced an important dimension to it. He started an oral history section, in which interviews of important political leaders, bureaucrats, social leaders and litterateurs were collected. Many important people from the period of the freedom struggle were able to record their impressions for posterity. Thousands of such interviews have by now been conducted, and constitute an important repository for research on modern India.

Best repository of research

Ravinder Kumar, who took over from Nanda in the ’70s, transformed it into a vibrant research institution. A large number of fellowships were offered to young and senior scholars to work on a various social science themes. The NMML also brought out a large number of publications on important historical themes. At the same time, the library kept growing and so did the archive. At any given time, the number of scholars visiting NMML for research far exceeded those visiting the National Archives of India. The NMML became perhaps the best repository of research documents on the British period of India’s history, consisting of government records, newspapers, private collections of important individuals and papers of political parties.

Contrary to popular belief, it is just not true that the documents and records are confined to any single political party or ideology. For instance, the NMML is the best place to go to even for research on the politics and ideology of the Hindu Mahasabha. It contains papers of the Hindu Mahasabha, the private collection of V.D. Savarkar, and also the files of the weeklies brought out by it. Mridula Mukherjee, as NMML’s Director, initiated an extremely important project of digitising all the documents of the NMML archive. This was nothing short of a dream come true for any regular researcher of modern India. If it had been completed, it would have made available millions of important documents to everyone in India. Unfortunately, the project was shelved after she left.

Not just about Nehru

The museum tells the story of the freedom struggle through a display of documents since the late 19th century till 1950. It also has a display of the many gifts Nehru received as PM. The museum is located in the building where Nehru lived as PM. For this reason it has an added attraction. But apart from that, there is nothing particularly ‘Nehru’ about the institution.

Therefore, any symbolism notwithstanding, substantively NMML is not about Nehru. All the four components — library, archive, research centre and the museum — have their own dynamism and relevance, which go far beyond any individual. All the four components need to grow. The library should get more books. The archive should acquire more documents, preserve them and ideally digitise them. The research centre should continue to promote social science research on important facets of modern and contemporary India, by inviting distinguished research scholars. And the museum should continue to tell the story of India’s freedom struggle, but in more imaginative ways.

At its core, it was never a memorial for any single individual; nor should it become one. It needs to continue to be what it has been and do a better job of what it has been doing so far.

The intention of the Modi government is to belittle the legacy of India’s most impactful Prime Minister

The NMML was established with the explicit aim of honouring India’s first Prime Minister and the national movement. It has done exactly that. It is a treasure trove of original material related to the man who made modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru. A PM is first among equals. But in Indian history, Nehru towers above everyone who followed him in terms of vision, stature, accomplishments, and democratic spirit.

The NMML also houses the greatest collection of material relating to India’s fight for freedom. All shades of views are represented there, including papers of Hindutva proponents like Syama Prasad Mookerjee. It has truly established itself as an internationally renowned seat of research. Any attempt to genuinely augment the NMML would be welcomed wholeheartedly. But is that really the case here?

When Lal Bahadur Shastri was offered the opportunity to move into Teen Murti Bhavan, which was where Nehru lived throughout his prime ministerial years, he declined as a mark of respect, and set in motion the process of converting it into a memorial to Nehru. Decades later, the Modi government has proposed a ‘museum of governance’, which will include a memorial for all PMs at Teen Murti Bhavan. But memorials to Shastri and Indira Gandhi already exist.

Insidious strategy

Clearly, the government’s intention is to belittle the legacy of India’s longest-serving and most impactful PM. The Sangh Parivar is on a long-term mission to oust Nehru from his rightful place in modern India’s history, because he stood for an idea of India which is the antithesis of their divisive, regressive world view. This proposal is only one of many methods to implement this insidious strategy.

This is not an isolated event. The hostile attitude of the government and Sangh Parivar acolytes towards Nehru has been evident since 2014. This was not the case during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The attempt to rewrite history, to erase Nehru from textbooks, the fact that PM Narendra Modi deliberately skips Nehru’s achievements in his speeches or distorts facts is akin to a Stalinist purge.

The trouble at NMML began when Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma made unwarranted hostile remarks in public against the institution. As a self-respecting and independent historian, the NMML Director, Mahesh Rangarajan, resigned in 2015. One of India’s leading public intellectuals, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, appointed by the NDA government, resigned from the NMML’s Executive Council on grounds of dilution of criteria for appointment of the new Director. The level of pettiness at NMML descended to the replacement of Nehru’s portrait in the main seminar room with Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s photo.

In 2015, renowned scholars and public intellectuals wrote an open letter to the government expressing anguish at the turn of events at NMML. Imposing assorted concepts at the first PM’s residence is, “from the perspective of both history and aesthetics, anachronistic, inappropriate and unjustified,” they wrote.

Sabotaging NMML

Despite growing protests not only from the Congress, but independent scholars and institution builders of repute, the Modi government has redoubled its efforts to sabotage NMML. Governance does not belong in a museum. There is ample space elsewhere in Lutyens’ Delhi for a memorial for the rest of India’s PMs.