In 2010, in a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain that saw off the proposed Nazi invasion of Britain, David Cameron referred to his country as the “junior partner” of the mighty US during that battle. Needless to say, the British Prime Minister was wrong: The US did not join the war against the Axis powers in Europe until December 1941 when Hitler declared war in solidarity with Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Some time later, while appearing on an American chat house, Cameron compounded his history malfunction by being clueless when asked the meaning of ‘Magna Carta’ and the name of the gentleman who penned the stirring words of ‘Rule Britannia’.
If the voluble Minister of State for everything-apart-from-HRD Shashi Tharoor was to use the same yardstick for the Prime Minister of the land of his birth as he does to the humble natives of India, Cameron would have been dismissed as a man who lacked the intellectual rigour and breadth of reading to be leader of a country that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But, and wisely so, Tharoor would never insist that the leadership of the two main parties in Britain should be chosen from those who had acquitted themselves honourably in competitions such as Mastermind, Brain of Britain and University Challenge — the British variants of the Bourn Vita quiz contests that people of an earlier generation may be familiar with. After all, didn’t Cameron graduate with a first class degree from Oxford?
The suggestion that politicians shouldn’t ideally make factual errors in their public utterances is well taken. After all, they have an army of researchers to provide them inputs and check for possible inaccuracies. Yet, errors and other boo-boos do creep in. Indira Gandhi was a canny politician but her knowledge of international economics was elementary. She relied on her speech-writers for guidance. Unfortunately, one of those speech-writers copy-pasted a big chunk of an article written by a well-respected Pakistani economist into one of her speeches. There were many red faces in the PMO when this plagiarism was detected. Yet, I don’t think that this bloomer caused anyone, least of all those who wrote histories of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership, to suggest that she was not suited to high office on this count. The fact that she never completed her degree in Oxford was also never regarded as a disqualification. Indira was admired and berated for what she did in office and how she moulded India.
Likewise, Rahul Gandhi will not be judged on the strength of his frequent drop-outs from exalted institutions and his dodgy academic credentials, but on the strength of what he says and how well he connects to the Indian electorate. He would certainly not pass the Tharoor test of erudition but this failure by itself shouldn’t make him a lesser man. His puerile ideas would. Yet, ironically, these ideas have come from too much reading and too little experience of how 99.99 per cent of Indians live, laugh and cry.
Narendra Modi, the man who is making life a little uncomfortable for the babalogs who have made the bungalows of Lutyens’ Delhi into their social preserve, may well be guilty of narrating history in a very Hindu way: As a katha. Like Hindu lore, he may have perceived time as yug rather than years; and he may even have collapsed the thin wall separating history and mythology. In this, he is as guilty as anyone who is unapologetic about facets of their Hindu inheritance. However, should the fact that he appears to have a very thin layer of cosmopolitan modernity necessarily suggest that he lacks leadership and political far-sightedness?
The likes of Tharoor and others who are in a state of flutter over Modi’s alleged historical inaccuracies and his appropriation of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s legacy would probably have been equally disoriented over a third Gujarati who didn’t quite fit the mould of babalog behaviour: Mahatma Gandhi. It is often forgotten that Gandhi raised the hackles of a lot of well-established Indians of his day. These included Lokmanya Tilak, Rabindranath Tagore and Bipin Chandra Pal. Even those like Subhas Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan who were important in the Congress accepted the Mahatma’s leadership with caveats.
Yet, I don’t know too many Indians who repudiated Gandhi solely on account of his culinary fads, his bizarre sexual experiments and his obsessive non-violence. That was because these weren’t central to Gandhiji’s main mission: To secure India’s Independence from foreign rule. Modi’s knowledge of history may well be imperfect and he should certainly be a little careful about his juxtaposition of facts. But to base our judgment of Modi on the strength of his knowledge of historical minutiae is akin to judging Tharoor on the basis of his very plummy accent or the fact that his lived experience of India is extremely patchy.
If popular faith has been reposed on Modi it is on account of his vision for the future, not his knowledge about the past. This is why the recent kerfuffle over Alexander, Taxila, Chandragupta and Sardar Patel is a wonderful ‘time pass’. The real battles are being waged elsewhere — in an idiom that both Tharoor and I are unfamiliar with.