India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is now moving through an eclipse that B.R. Ambedkar experienced and yet emerged from more luminous. During his life, Ambedkar was vilified by both the left and the right, and decades after his death, he was at best ignored. Later jurists and scholars joined his followers to dust up his legacy and recognise him as a guide in political, social and constitutional matters.
That Nehru has lost state patronage is to be welcomed, for that is the only way that a great leader would be able to stand on his feet. Since his family continued to be a part of the party and the government, any celebration of his life and work till recently was suspect. A genuine admirer of Nehru would have been mistaken for a courtier.
The three virtues of a leader
Democracy demands of a leader, especially one who is called to lead the government, to possess three virtues to redeem his pledge. First, he must have a track record of service with humility. The spirit of democracy militates against our notions of ‘the leader’. What it requires of him is to submit to people’s will while being firmly anchored to due process. Nehru’s constant engagement with the masses and his deep sense of national destiny helped him to be a class apart from his contemporary world leaders, especially in the developing world. A less competent leader would be driven either by the mob or become a dictator.
It is always tempting for a leader to flex his muscles lest he be dismissed as a weakling. Democracy affords a leader two choices: either he can assert his position even at the cost of due process to convince others and himself that he’s in control, or he can submit to institutional requirements and traditions not so much as constraints on his right to rule but as a sacred obligation to be honoured. Hence, the commitment to the institutions of state forms the second virtue of a leader. That Nehru understood the indispensability of institutions above personalities is not the only measure of the man; he also recognised the need for a strong Opposition for democracy to succeed.
The third virtue is the quality of the leader’s legacy. Can the generations after him fall back on his ideas, traditions and exhortations that he preached and practised? It is fashionable today to ridicule Nehru’s non-alignment policy and his belief in a mixed economy, but he formulated these policies not as a figment of his imagination; he tailored them to suit India’s position at the time. Though this is not the place to delve into the merits of these policies, one must surmise that Nehru would have admitted to a certain wear and tear of these policies. He was also pragmatic enough to alter or jettison his policies if national interest so warranted.
Thus, Nehru was the complete Prime Minister that none of his successors can hope to be. Having witnessed more than a dozen of his successors in office over the past five decades, one is alive to the fact that no one comes even a distant second to Nehru.
Extrovert and introvert
Over and above any virtue, there is the matter of temperament that gives a leader his character. A complex office like that of the Prime Minister of India requires not one but two divergent temperaments, wherein lies the difficulty of being a successful Prime Minister. One, it has a front-office function wherein the incumbent must become the face of his government and engage with the masses to explain his policies to draw their support and legitimacy, and also nudge his officials to translate people’s aspirations into policy outcomes. One must be an extrovert, articulate and full of vigour to hit the campaign trail every now and then to plead with people why he and his political formation need and deserve their understanding, affections and support. Two, the back-office function of the Prime Minister amounts to the invisible and hence unsung drudgery of reading dozens of files and making crucial decisions. Only an introvert leader (an oxymoron) who is contemplative and familiar with the complexities of governance will be able to discharge this duty.
These two halves of the job expect the incumbent Prime Minister to be simultaneously an extrovert and an introvert. If a Prime Minister fails in his front-office functions, it would produce a political disaster, and a back-office failure would result in paralysed governance or misrule. India’s history since Nehru is replete with instances of Prime Ministers who were of either temperament, not both. Nehru remains the only Prime Minister to have discharged these two functions with aplomb.
Among Nehru admirers, there circulates an anecdote which testifies to his dexterity of being a part of the masses while supping with intellectual giants like Arnold Toynbee and Albert Einstein. Nehru as Prime Minister maintained a tradition of having ‘personal guests of the Prime Minister’ who would stay at the Prime Minister’s official residence, the Teen Murti House, in New Delhi for some time. The guest would meet Nehru at breakfast and, possibly, at dinner, and he would have his own engagements. These worthies included historian Toynbee and British physicist and Nobel laureate M.S. Blackett, who advised Nehru on setting up a defence research establishment in the country.
Blackett visited India as many as eight times during Nehru’s stint as Prime Minister. On one occasion, during the late 1950s, being a personal guest of the Prime Minister, Blackett met Nehru at breakfast. It was disheartening to the great physicist that he found Nehru to be distracted, weak and melancholic. Though he answered his guest’s questions, Nehru was truly out of his wits, or so his guest thought.
Blackett was sceptical that Nehru could solve the problems of a vast and populous country like India, despite his intellect and commitment to national interest. It so happened that Blackett met Nehru at dinner on the same day. For every minor query, he found Nehru launching into a mini lecture, brimming with enthusiasm.
Blackett wondered aloud: how could a man who was so weak to engage in an informed conversation at breakfast be so vigorous at supper to expound on every question? Pat came the reply: “Oh, I addressed a public rally in the evening!”
A great leader has something timeless about him and he remains consequential. He cannot be deprived of the credit for the services he rendered and the values he stood for, even if his ideas and policies become passé and even if the rulers of the day find his memory inconvenient or unprofitable. Above all, people’s collective memory will not allow him to fade into oblivion. Jawaharlal Nehru is one such leader that modern India produced.
Bakeries in the U.S. and the U.K. have become the latest sites of contestation about fundamental rights. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Christian baker’s right to refuse to bake a cake for the wedding of a gay couple. On October 10, the U.K. Supreme Court held that a baker’s refusal to bake a cake with a message in support of gay marriage does not constitute unlawful discrimination.
The case at hand
Ashers Bakery in Northern Ireland offered a customised cake service, which enabled customers to provide pictures or graphics that would be iced on a cake. Gareth Lee, a member of an LGBT organisation called Queer Space, placed an order for a cake with a graphic that included the cartoon characters Bert and Ernie (from Sesame Street) together with the words “support gay marriage”. After initially accepting the order, the bakery refused to fulfil it and offered a refund on the basis that it was a “Christian business”. Mr. Lee took his order elsewhere.
Mr. Lee claimed that in refusing to fulfil his order, the bakery discriminated against him on grounds of sexual orientation and political belief. He succeeded in both courts leading up to the Supreme Court, with the Court of Appeal deciding that businesses could not, based on their religious beliefs, cherry-pick which services they offered to the LGBT community. These decisions (at least in respect of the claim of sexual orientation discrimination) were problematic for three reasons. First, they confused the content of the message with the identity of the customer. Second, the decisions would have produced disquieting consequences, as they would equally oblige a gay or lesbian baker to bake a cake with a homophobic message. Third, they failed to acknowledge that implicit in the freedom of speech is the freedom not to speak — and placing a message on a cake most certainly constitutes speech.
The U.K. Supreme Court has decisively addressed the first two of those concerns in its judgment. The court noted that it was clear on the evidence that the bakery discriminated not against the customer, but against the message. The bakery had served Mr. Lee before, and was willing to sell any of its other confectionaries (or indeed, a cake without the graphic) to him. Support for gay marriage was not a proxy for a particular sexual orientation, as people of all sexual orientations could support gay marriage. The bakery’s response would also have been identical had a heterosexual man or woman requested the cake with the same message. Acknowledging that it was deeply humiliating to deny a person a service on the basis of their identity, the court noted that it would, however, do the project of equal treatment “no favours” to “extend it beyond its proper scope”.
Contours of the freedom of speech
However, while undertaking its analysis on discrimination on the basis of political belief, the court went much too far in identifying the contours of the freedom of speech in this debate. One of the important arguments was whether a message printed on a cake would be conceived of as speech not just of the customer, but also of the baker. People typically see a sculpture or painting as embodying the message of the sculptor or artist. On the other hand, we are unlikely to assume that a printing shop necessarily associates with the messages of each of the banners it prints. Is the “support gay marriage” cake akin to the painting or the banner? Instead of engaging with this question, the court chose to sidestep it entirely — noting that by simply “being required to produce the cake”, the bakery was being requested to express a message with which it disagreed.
Put simply, the court made the mistake of conflating speech with conduct. Baking a cake does not constitute speech in and of itself. If it did, then by the same logic, the local printing shop could legitimately refuse to print banners bearing messages with which is disagrees. The neighbourhood café could refuse to brew coffee for some prospective customers because of the “expressive” element involved that task. The court failed to recognise that it also does no favours to the free speech project by extending it beyond its remit.
In a peculiar turn of events after the judgment was delivered, an agency that was hired to take photographs of the owners of the bakery upon their success at the court refused to complete the project and hand over the photographs. If it is established that they did so based on the sexual orientation or political beliefs of the owners, the photographers could themselves be held liable for unlawful discrimination. The U.K. Supreme Court’s observations on free speech, however, might just save them.