Hosts of a function whether a private individuals or a non-official body have the complete and inalienable right to invite whosoever they choose. By implication, they also have a right to disregard the elaborate sarkari rules of protocol and go by individual or institutional preferences. In normal circumstances, these standard operating procedures of civil society should hardly warrant reiteration.
In recent times, however, civility has come to be rationed. First it was Delhi’s self-important Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid who chose the occasion of the forthcoming anointment of his son as the Naib Imam to needlessly make a political point: that he was not inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi but, at the same time, inviting Pakistan’s Prime Minister who, of course, is unlikely to attend. I don’t think Mr Modi expected an invitation just as he is unlikely to expect an invitation from my local Resident’s Welfare Association for the inauguration of the new Senior Citizens’ Park. But for the Shahi Imam to state explicitly that he was snubbing the Prime Minister with a non-invitation was gratuitous.
Now, the Indian National Congress has chosen to emulate the grandstanding of the Shahi Imam. For the beleaguered party, the celebration of the 125th birth anniversary of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is an important occasion. There are suggestions that the party would like to use the occasion as a first step in its overdue rejuvenation programme. Whatever its intention, the right of the Congress leadership to use the occasion in the best way it deems fit by either re-reading history or charting out the future is undeniable. This is more so because in its own version of its 129-year-old history, Jawaharlal Nehru was more than a Prime Minister: he was the founder of a dynasty that continues to rule the roost in the party.
The Bharatiya Janata Party would not expect Sonia Gandhi to grace the occasion when it celebrates the 2014 general election victory at a future National Council meeting. Such an invitation would be singularly inappropriate and, to be fair, the Congress president wouldn’t feel disappointed by the non-invitation. Likewise, I don’t think that Prime Minister Modi was cut up at not being able to go to Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium to address the assembled Congress members.
However, it is one thing for the Congress to laugh off any suggestion that Mr Modi should have been invited just because there are some foreign dignitaries likely to be present. It is an act of willful discourtesy for the long-winded Anand Sharma to add some needlessly gratuitous remarks to his assertion that Mr Modi hadn’t been invited. According to one media report, Mr Sharma said: “We can discuss Nehru with those who are either informed or have the capacity to understand Nehru’s vision. We have invited those who respect Nehru’s philosophy and acknowledge his contribution.”
In the course of a few sentences, Mr Sharma encapsulated exactly why the Congress finds itself on the back foot and why its claim to have a monopoly of all intellectual wisdom is today the object of so much derision. Just as Marxists, particularly those in academia, are inclined to sneer at those who disinclined to share their so-called “scientific” analysis of human societies, self-professed Nehruvians have a tendency to juxtapose their own lofty “enlightenment” and “cosmopolitanism” against the apparent “insularity” and “Right-wing” proclivities of opponents.
To what extent this elevated self-esteem stemmed from Nehru is a matter of conjecture. In one of the early studies of Nehru, Walter Crocker, who served as Australia’s high commissioner to India in the 1950s, experienced a sense of camaraderie with “Nehru and the upper class Indian nationalists of English education”. But he felt disconnected from Nehru’s ministerial colleagues and other Congress functionaries. Members of this non-U group, he wrote bluntly, “were provincial mediocrities, untravelled, ill-educated, narrow-minded; not a few were lazy; some were cow worshippers and devotees of ayurvedic medicine and astrology” and, to cap it all, “some were dishonest”.
The similarities between Crocker’s understanding of those Nehru had kept at an arm’s length and Mr Sharma’s criterion for membership into the Nehru Club are quite eerie, considering the 50-year gap between the two pronouncements.
Nehru was a patrician something that, curiously, endeared him to the earthy Mahatma Gandhi and he was blessed with a fierce sense of entitlement that he garnished with noblesse oblige. But he was also remarkably alert intellectually. This contributed to his keen sense of political pragmatism the most notable feature of which was his ability to put all his private reservations aside and ride piggyback on the Mahatma’s popularity. At the same time, he had a fascination for new ideas and new trends that set him apart from his more rooted Congress colleagues. Socialism, planning and grandstanding internationalism appealed instinctively to him because they were fashionable among a particular set at that time. He somehow saw India as a plasticine ball that could be moulded according to fashion and reshaped again. He underestimated the resilience of indigenous social institutions and allowed his prejudices to determine policy choices hence the disdain for native entrepreneurship. He was lucky that in the first flush of Independence, loyalty to the Congress allowed his personal will to prevail. On Indian politics becoming truly competitive after 1967, the hegemony of the Nehruvian consensus was challenged, culminating in the victory in 2014 of those he regarded as outlanders.
Arguably, had the intellectual alertness that characterised Nehru been carried over down the generations, the Congress could have persisted with its dominant party status. However, the injection of the dynastic principle ensured that Nehru’s legacy became a family trust. Even the private papers of Nehru, lovingly preserved at Teen Murti at state expense, are treated as family property, access being allowed to only those who have been vetted.
In many ways, the November 14 celebrations could well be reminiscent of the 12-day wedding celebrations of Jawan Bakht, the favourite son of Bahadur Shah Zafar, in 1852. It was the last public spectacle of the Moghuls and the event has barely registered in history.
Asian Age/ Deccan Cronicle, November 14, 2014