By Najam Sethi
21 Nov 2014
India’s Congress Party is in soul-searching mode after its unprecedented loss to the BJP in the last elections. Its favoured option is to try and revive the memory and legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru as the great freedom fighter and founder of modern India. A recent conference in New Delhi presided over by Mrs Sonia Gandhi attracted VIP delegates from all over the world to commemorate Nehru’s fiftieth death anniversary, extol his virtues and stress how he had laid the foundations of a great democracy on the basis of an independent economy, a non-aligned foreign policy and an assimilative secular ideology of the state. It is significant that Narendra Modi, the BJP superhero who has taken India’s rich and poor alike by storm, is opening up the Indian economy to foreign investment, aligning with the West and is publicly hostile to the notion of secularism.
Most Pakistanis see Nehru through the angry prism of Kashmir. He is the villain who annexed it forcibly and then reneged on his pledge in the UN to hold a plebiscite to determine its future. It is the “unfinished business of Partition” that remains the root cause of conflict between the two countries. But we also grudgingly acknowledge that without Nehru India would not be the enviable democracy it is today, while we are still struggling to anchor ourselves firmly in it. After all, in 1947 both India and Pakistan were “fraternal twins”, in the sense of an overlapping genetic and linguistic heritage, a common struggle against colonialism, a post-colonial state-bureaucratic system and a common Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. Both started off in quest of democracy. But India is a democracy today because it was a democracy yesterday, and the day before, and the day before. Each year of uninterrupted democracy has strengthened it. And it is Nehru who laid the foundations of freedom and democracy in India. But we in Pakistan have, from Day One, floundered on the rock of military-bureaucratic rule and autocracy. And that has made all the difference.
Broadly speaking, the choices made by Nehru in the first critical months and years sowed the seeds of democratic India. As prime minister he governed with a cabinet of elected civilians. In Pakistan, we opted for a non-elected, military-bureaucratic oligarchy. Nehru laid the foundations of an independent India on the basis of an independent economy (the Mahanalobis model). In Pakistan we opted for a free-market economy (the Harvard model) and became dependent on US aid. Nehru built a politically independent India without becoming part of the Cold War. Pakistan joined various defense pacts with the US and gave it military bases against the USSR.
Nehru scripted the story of India as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-regional, multi-linguistic state comprising many “nations” and peoples. The bedrock of the state was secularism. The bedrock of the nation was assimilation – internal unity in diversity. The bedrock of democracy was a consensual constitution, free and fair elections, regional state autonomy and economic and political independence externally.
But we were unlucky. The Quaid, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, didn’t live long enough to practice his vision for a secular Pakistan in which Hindus and Muslims and Christians would cease to be Hindus and Muslims and Christians, not in the religious sense but in the sense that all citizens of the new state would be equal. The bedrock of the new state became centralization under a military-bureaucratic oligarchy. The bedrock of the new nation became a form of non-assimilative and exclusivist Islam in which Muslims were more equal than non-Muslims. The bedrock of the new political system became a “guided constitutional democracy” with rigged elections and a dependent and indebted economy.
Modern Indian generations take India’s democracy and economic and political independence for granted. Therefore the Congress is not likely to cut much ice with them by harping on Nehru’s achievements fifty years after his death. Nor will he serve their purpose if they deliberately choose to block out the core element of his democratic vision – empowerment of the masses through alleviation of poverty, disease and illiteracy. This is precisely the “development agenda” that has caught the imagination of half a billion Indians on the margins of society no less than its middle classes and catapulted Modi to center-stage.
Another Nehru legacy has also fallen by the wayside. That is an enduring settlement on Kashmir. In 1962, Nehru sent Sheikh Abdullah to Pakistan but nothing came of it. In 1973, his daughter Indira Gandhi signed the Shimla Pact with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto but bilateralism didn’t get anywhere. The BJP tried to smoke the peace pipe with Nawaz Sharif and then General Musharraf (1999-2004) but Nehru’s Congress blocked progress despite the promise of an out-of-the-box solution that tilts in India’s favour. Now Modi’s BJP has frozen the process all over again.
Nehru’s Congress Party remains wedded to the Nehru dynasty. The irony is that this core strength of yesterday has become its core weakness today.