Illiberal democracy rising
Indian democracy is quite often about the politics of visibility, the image most often replacing the substance. Political parties celebrate their leaders, both living and dead, in huge newspaper advertisements that cost an enormous amount. For leaders who have passed on, there is usually a remembrance on their birth and death anniversaries whereas in the case of serving politicians just about any occasion is an excuse to indulge in an extra splash of image building.
In recent days, the clash of ideologies and personalities of India past and present has been playing out even in the ad space with the BJP and the Congress marking anniversaries that commemorate critical milestones in India's democratic journey. Loud and characteristically in your face was the advertising blitzkrieg unleashed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to mark the second anniversary of the Narendra Modi regime (May 26). And there was a twist. Most of the fulsome tributes came from party chief ministers in BJP-ruled states who, like the vassals of yore, lauded their chieftain for his ' outstanding governance' or 'great achievements' or the 'innumerable achievements' of his 'charismatic and visionary leadership'. So we know who picked up the tab for this anniversary extravagance apart from the government of India.
A day later, there was a much smaller ad - and very few of them - in memory of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on his death anniversary. That commemoration did not come from the government of India as it should have; it was put up by the Congress party.
This was all of a piece with the policy of the BJP regime which is trying to obliterate Nehru's memory and legacy in mission mode, and not just because of his staunch ideological opposition to the politics of communalism. That legacy of his which kept India on the secular path for decades is being whittled away by a ferocious political campaign and in unsavoury ways by the saffron underbelly of the party.
Hindutva's loathing of liberals is a spillover from the time of Nehru whom they view with rage and envy. An entire online industry has sprung up to promote websites that spew venom against India's first prime minister with gross calumny while its army of Internet trolls flood social websites with misrepresentations that only reveal their lack of history and culture.
It is undoubtedly galling for the BJP and its ideologues in the parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, that they can flaunt no heroes of their own from the freedom struggle. That they did not take part in the freedom movement is a historical truth they cannot undo. On the other hand, they have to contend with a Nehru who spent close to nine years in prison and was once paraded in chains by the British.
That is one reason why the Hindu supremacist BJP resents Nehru and the liberal, secular Indians who subscribe to his ideals. The most irk- some is Nehru's known opposition to religious fundamentalism which, like poverty, he believed to be the worst scourge of the country. But there are clearly more reasons for the Hindutva brigade's implacable hatred of the man who steered India in the first 16 years of its independence, an extraordinary stint that was marked by visionary successes and some profound failures.
At the simplest level it is, perhaps, a class issue. Nehru was British-educated and patently Westernised even if he wore khadi and a Congress cap along with his trademark bandhgala - Modi's attire, incidentally, is a flattering imitation of this attire, down to his churidars - and he was suavely cosmopolitan. He wrote and spoke in elegant English and he was comfortable in the company of women. To add to his aura was wealth which he gave away, a fact that the class of people who subscribe to the saffron ideology probably find astonishing. Besides, he mattered greatly in the global scheme of things.
Today, when liberals ask why they are the target of the saffron brigade, the answer could be that for the most part they come from a similar background and champion the values that Nehru held dear. The author, once a Congressman, now has clout in the BJP. He is a member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament) and is national spokesman of the party. If he could he persuade Modi and his cabal to read his book, would it change the disastrous trajectory of current politics?