I think it was Voltaire who said that while we can flatter the living, the dead deserve nothing less than the truth. I recalled that injunction when reading Vir Sanghvi’s tribute to the late Rajiv Gandhi (Remembering Rajiv, HT, Sunday 7th February). This praises Mr Gandhi as a compassionate visionary who helped heal the wounds of a divided nation and then gave it a charter for the future. Mr Gandhi’s achievements are marked and celebrated. At the same time, no failure or flaw is admitted.
Mr Sanghvi’s one-sided approach is (as I shall presently show) at odds with the historical record. But it is also at odds with his own record as a political analyst. I have long admired Mr Sanghvi for the elegance of his prose and the independence of his opinions. He refuses to see the world in black and white. Unlike many other Indian liberals, he is honest enough to criticize Muslim bigots as harshly and as often as the bigots of his own faith.
In this particular instance, however, Mr Sanghvi has shown a conspicuous lack of historical judgement. Consider this statement, which appears early in his column: ‘It was Rajiv Gandhi’s five years in office… that showed the world that India was here to stay. We had our problems. But our survival was not in doubt’.
This is an audacious claim, that does serious violence to our history, and gross injustice to those who actually assured India’s survival as a free and democratic nation. These were our first generation of nation-builders, Nehru, Patel, Ambedkar, and others, who forged a nation from a thousand different fragments, against a backdrop of famine and civil war, and then gave it a democratic constitution and a plural political culture. By the time India held its second General Elections, in 1957, it had successfully confounded the Western sceptics who claimed that it was too diverse and divided to survive as a single nation. At this time, if memory serves, Rajiv Gandhi was playing with his Meccano set.
Mr Sanghvi makes much of Rajiv Gandhi’s modest means. ‘He was the first Prime Minister to have ever held a job’, he writes, ‘to have watched with alarm as his provident fund deduction went up and to have struggled to make ends meet’. This he contrasts with ‘the unexplained wealth of political families’. Once more, one is obliged to remind him that Indian history did not begin in 1984. Rajagopalachari, Patel, Ambedkar and many others gave up lucrative legal careers to serve the nation. Then, speaking of Prime Ministers, there was a certain Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was so poor that he had to swim across the Ganges to college since he could not afford to pay for a ticket on the boat. Austerity and integrity were for a very long time the very hallmark of Indian politics. If Rajiv Gandhi is to be compared to the politicians who followed in his wake, then he must also be compared with those who came before him.
Mr Sanghvi exaggerates when he says that ‘the only reason India is a software power today is because he [Rajiv] had the vision to see the future’ (other reasons include the emphasis on technical education in the 1960s, the nurturing of domestic capability after IBM was kicked out in the 1970, and, of course, the entrepreneurial drive of the 1990s). However, the most remarkable thing about his column is not what he says but what he is silent about. Among the words missing from his assessment of Rajiv Gandhi’s record in office are Shah Bano, Ayodhya, and Kashmir.
In April 1985, in awarding alimony to a divorced woman named Shah Bano, the Supreme Court called for honouring the Constitutional commitment to a Uniform Civil Code. The Congress had a two-thirds majority in Parliament. However, instead of taking the Court’s verdict forward, Rajiv Gandhi had a bill passed overturning it. Less than a year later, the locks of the shrine in the Babri Masjid were opened. As the political analyst Neerja Chowdhury wrote at the time, ‘Mr Rajiv Gandhi wants both to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’. Chowdhury remarked that ‘a policy of appeasement of both communities being pursued by the government for electoral gains is a vicious cycle which will become difficult to break’.
This was a prophetic warning. A quarter-century later, Indians are still living with the consequences of those altogether disastrous acts. The BJP won a mere two seats in the 1984 General Elections; helped by the appeasement of the mullahs and the concession in Ayodhya, they marched on to become a national party. The rise of Hindu fundamentalism encouraged the Muslim fundamentalists, leading to the cycle of riots, bombs, and more riots that is now apparently a permanent feature of the Indian political lansdcape. The religious polarization has been hastened by the rise of the insurgency in Kashmir, in whose making, too, Rajiv Gandhi’s Government played a part, by its rigging of the 1987 elections, among whose defeated candidates were some future leaders of the jihad.
One person who would certainly have disapproved of Rajiv Gandhi’s twin capitulation was India’s first Prime Minister. After Partition, Jawaharlal Nehru’s principal aim was to ensure that India did not become a ‘Hindu Pakistan’. In the country’s inaugural General Election, his party’s main plank was the safeguarding of the secular fabric of the Republic. The tone was set by Nehru’s first election speech, at Ludhiana, where he declared ‘an all-out war against communalism’. He ‘condemned the communal bodies which in the name of Hindu and Sikh culture were spreading the virus of communalism as the Muslim League once did…’. These ‘sinister communal elements’ would if they came to power ‘bring ruin and death to the country’.
As the leading liberal born in a Hindu home, Nehru keenly understood the importance of encouraging liberal tendencies in traditions other than his own. He had hoped that Sheikh Abdullah would be the voice of progress and reason among Indian Muslims, but the Sheikh had other ambitions. Then Nehru put his faith in the brilliant, Cambridge-educated scholar, Saifuddin Tyabji. Tragically, Tyabji died in his early forties, just as he was making his mark in Parliament.
In the 1950s, Ambedkar, as Law Minister, and Nehru, as Prime Minister, reformed the personal laws of Hindus, allowing Hindu women to choose their marriage partners, to divorce, and to own property. They believed that when Muslims were more secure and had developed a liberal leadership of their own, such reforms would be made to their archaic laws, too. The conjunction that Ambedkar and Nehru had hoped for finally arrived in 1985. Rajiv Gandhi had 400 MPs, a Supreme Court verdict, and a liberal Muslim willing to bat for him (Arif Mohammed Khan), That he still funked it may be attributed either to a lack of a sense of history or a lack of a robust commitment to liberal principles—or perhaps both.
I do not want to make the reverse mistake, of seeing Rajiv Gandhi’s record in office as wholly flawed. He did reconcile the Mizos, he did encourage technological innovation, and he did promote panchayati raj (a contribution strangely unmentioned by Mr Sanghvi). At the same time, his policies encouraged the most reactionary elements among Hindus and Muslims, whose rivalry has since promoted a huge amount of discord and violence, the very discord and violence that Mr Sanghvi himself, in other columns, has tried bravely to combat.