OPINION | Nehru and Gandhi Make Surprise Visit to 'Howdy, Modi!' But Should BJP Exorcise or Embrace Them?

OPINION | Nehru and Gandhi Make Surprise Visit to 'Howdy, Modi!' But Should BJP Exorcise or Embrace Them?

The ruling party’s supporters should realise that only by stopping the vilification of past leaders from rival ranks can they ensure their own icons are treated justly in the future when power changes hands.


Pathikrit Sen Gupta

Houston, we have a problem! It’s not inconceivable that thoughts on these lines flared up in the minds of many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters when the speech of Steny Hoyer, Democratic Congressman and Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, at the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ gala on Sunday took an unexpected turn.

“Like America, (India) is proud of its ancient traditions to secure a future according to Gandhi’s teaching and Nehru’s vision of India as a secular democracy where pluralism and human rights safeguard every individual. America and India must strive to make our promises and aspirations a reality for all our citizens,” Hoyer said during his 14-minute speech in front of more than 50,000 people who had thronged the NRG Stadium in Houston for a Narendra Modi-Donald Trump double act.

His remarks came just hours after union home minister Amit Shah remembered Jawaharlal Nehru while addressing a rally in poll-bound Maharashtra on the Centre’s decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status provided under Article 370 of the Constitution.

“PoK wouldn't have come into existence had Nehru not declared untimely ceasefire with Pakistan, a mistake of Nehru...Sardar Patel should have handled Kashmir, instead of Nehru handling it,” Shah said.

The home minister was perhaps taking his cue from the words Modi himself had uttered in the Lok Sabha last year.

“Had Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel been India’s first Prime Minister, a part of my Kashmir would not have been with Pakistan today,” the PM said in a searing attack on the Congress.

The BJP and its supporters have time and again attempted to retrospectively pit Independence icons Nehru and Patel against each other. They have often fantasised aloud how India’s fortunes would have got a boost had the “Iron Man” from Gujarat been the country’s first prime minister instead of the man often described as “the architect of modern India”.

So how would India’s first home minister have handled the Kashmir conundrum had the matter been left entirely to his discretion? V Shankar, who was political secretary to Patel at the time, wrote in his book that the Sardar was content “to leave the decision to the Ruler (of Jammu and Kashmir)”, and that “if the Ruler felt that his and his State’s interest lay in accession to Pakistan, he would not stand in his way”.

Shankar’s views find resonance in the official version of events recorded by the late VP Menon, a close associate of Vallabhbhai Patel, in his historic book The Story of Integration of Indian States. While visiting the Valley, Lord Mountbatten had told Maharaja Hari Singh “that if Kashmir joined Pakistan this would not be regarded as unfriendly by the Government of India”. According to Menon, the viceroy said to Hari Singh “that he had a firm assurance on this from Sardar Patel himself”.

The BJP has been trying to appropriate Patel’s legacy in a bid to fill the scarcity of Independence icons in its pantheon, even as it attempts  to amplify the accomplishments of right-wing leaders such as Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Syama Prasad Mukherjee. The 182-metre Statue of Unity in Gujarat was built to commemorate Sardar Patel, and was inaugurated last year on the 143rd anniversary of the Congress leader’s birth by Prime Minister Modi who has also been personally pushing to turn the site into a tourist attraction.

Apart from the official, and occasionally legitimate, criticism of Nehru’s legacy and in particular his foreign policy, sympathisers of the ruling party have also been running an online smear campaign against India’s first prime minister, frequently resorting to myths and falsehood. Unfounded claims like Nehru’s grandfather was a Muslim, the Congress leader was a philanderer, he died of a sexually transmitted disease, he awarded the Bharat Ratna to himself, and that he orchestrated the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose adorn countless WhatsApp messages, Facebook pages and Quora posts.

While Mahatma Gandhi has been venerated by Prime Minister Modi, the “father of the nation” has not been spared by right-wing leaders and conspiracy theorists. As the BJP’s 2019 Lok Sabha candidate, terror accused Pragya Singh Thakur praised Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, terming him a patriot. Prime Minister Modi said he would not be able to forgive her for the remarks. Party president Amit Shah announced that a show-cause notice had been issued to her. However, the BJP retained her as its nominee from Bhopal after she apologised for the statement. She went on to win the polls comfortably and now sits in Parliament, when it is in session. Five years ago, another BJP MP, Sakshi Maharaj, had described Godse as a patriot.

On social media sites, Gandhi is frequently vilified by Hindutva champions as a pervert, the prime proponent of Partition, and a Hindu hater. Analysts have said that the biggest problem right-wing groups have with the Mahatma is that he advocated Hindu-Muslim unity while proclaiming himself to be a devout Hindu.

But on Sunday, Hoyer, perhaps inadvertently, sent a message to the Gandhi and Nehru haters.

“On the eve of Independence, Nehru praised Gandhi’s mission to ‘wipe every tear from their eye’. And they made a pledge for India’s future that so long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over,” he said. “And in that sense the work of our countries is not over. As he took his oath for office for the final time, Abraham Lincoln called for malice towards none, and charity for all...”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is undoubtedly the most popular leader in India and among the diaspora right now, by a long way. He proved it again at the Houston event by changing the dynamics of the country’s relationship with the United States by, literally, lending a hand to Donald Trump ahead of his 2020 bid to retain his presidency. With several bold decisions as prime minister and  by turning into India's salesman-in-chief across the world, Modi has ensured a lasting legacy for himself. But BJP supporters should realise that only by stopping the vilification of past leaders from rival ranks can they ensure their own icons are treated justly in the future when power changes hands. Then, even decades down the line, the response to “Howdy, Modi!” might be an enthusiastic “Yee Haw!”

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