Last month, Royal Mail issued eight postage stamps commemorating Britain’s Prime Ministers. Of the five more recent leaders portrayed, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were Conservatives, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson represented the Labour Party and William Gladstone was a Liberal.
Those with an interest in British history can justifiably debate the selection. To my mind, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury, both Conservatives, also deserved inclusion. Tony Blair was also missing—maybe because he lacks vintage. However, what is important is that the selection was bi-partisan and reflected a slice of Britain’s past. It was also interesting that the First Day Cover postmark had a quote from Harold Wilson—“The main essentials of a successful Prime Minister…are sleep and a sense of history”—that captured the essence of laid-back Britishness.
A reason why Britain produces the best—and certainly the most readable—works of history may lie in the national appropriation of the past. In his lifetime, except during World War II, Churchill was both admired and reviled at the same time. In the 1930s, the mainstream Conservative Party regarded him as a wilfully awkward customer, not least for his views on Germany and India; and as the Prime Minister in the early-1950s, there was widespread exasperation over his insistence on remaining at the crease. Yet, he was given a state funeral by a Labour government in 1965 and one the best biographies of Churchill has been penned by Roy Jenkins, a man who was politically always on the other side.
Unfortunately, this generosity of didn’t manifest itself when Thatcher died in 2013. Although she too received a state funeral, the news of her death was greeted by unseemly celebrations and chants of “the witch is dead” by those who intent on reducing history to political slogans and, worse, blood feuds that endure across generations.
This unending partisanship over history is a French import. Maybe it was the unending turbulence from 1789 that made French politics more contested that explains the difference with Britain’s more gentlemanly view of posterity. The schism between the Napoleon-ists and the Royalists endured till the early-20th century; the Dreyfus affair institutionalised a schism between the progressives and traditionalists till 1944; and the divide between the Gaullists and the Petainists persist in different ways even to this day.
A few years ago, for example, the Mayor of a French hamlet was prosecuted when it was discovered that the Town Hall hung a photograph of Marshal Petain along with other past heads of state. The French view of its past, as the novelist Allan Massie movingly captured in A Question of Loyalties, is governed by both denial and self-censorship. What is awkward is either left unaddressed or hideously caricatured.
In India, unfortunately, and perhaps again due to past turbulence, there has been a tendency to emulate the French model and construct an idyllic past. These tendencies have come to the fore in the controversies centred on the commemorations of Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary.
No one can take away from Nehru’s role in shaping the contours of post-Independence. Whether in the economy, foreign policy and political institutions, the country is still grappling with the Nehruvian inheritance and debating it with laudable passion. Even his blunders and missteps—and there were many—continue to haunt India. No wonder the what-if questions have become a national obsession. Unfortunately, the discourse isn’t limited to good-natured debates where people disagree and thereafter exchange namastes.
There is an inclination to view Nehru as the fountainhead of all post-1947 wisdom and a corresponding political determination to enshrine India’s first Prime Minister as an ideological role model for all times. The deification isn’t limited to the man himself: Nehru worship has been extended to the endorsement of Nehru’s progenies and self-professed Nehruvians. A legacy has become an entitlement. This explains why the backlash, often articulated in crudely visceral terms, is so fierce.
India can countenance both sets of distortions if, at the end of the day, the collective appreciation of a disputed past comes to be better informed. To hope for agreement is neither possible nor desirable. The 17 years of Prime Minister Nehru doesn’t lend itself to a single narrative forged through a show of “scientific temper.”
Sunday Times of India, November 16, 2014
Sunday, November 16, 2014
O By Swapan Dasgupta
Posted by Swapan Dasgupta at 12:47 PM