Lament for ‘Nehru’s India’

Friday, 25 February 2022 01:54 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Recently, in a rare diplomatic row between India and Singapore, the former lodged a strong protest over comments made by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that almost half of the lawmakers in the Lok Sabha, or the Indian Parliament, have criminal charges pending against them, that suggested a decline in the country’s democratic polity from what he said used to be, ‘Nehru’s India’. 

The ruling Baratiya Janatha Party (BJP) government took umbrage at the statement and summoned the Singaporean High Commissioner in New Delhi to the Ministry of External Affairs to lodge a formal complaint.

Prime Minister Lee had been speaking in parliament about accusations of lying against an opposition lawmaker. His remarks on declining morality in politics was in reference to an issue that has absorbed Singaporeans since 2021, when a woman opposition Member of Parliament claimed that the Police had made disparaging remarks to a rape victim. Three months later, MP Raeesah Khan, admitted to lying and stepped down. In Singapore lying is considered serious enough to end a political career. 

It is this high standard of integrity that Singapore demands from its officials that warrants the tiny island nation’s status as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. To this enduring reputation, Singapore owes its economic success and prosperity. The Singapore premier’s warning was about how a once-respected country with a high sense of morality amongst its elected representatives could deteriorate within a few generations to what is to be observed in the Indian Parliament of today.

The Singaporean PM might have referred to ‘Nehru’s India’ in the context of morality and integrity of its elected representatives, but his observations are equally relevant in terms of what India used to represent – a pluralistic, secular democracy. Jawaharlal Nehru’s India presented to the Global South, still reeling under colonialism or in its immediate aftermath, a free, democratic, pluralistic nation that was united amidst phenomenal diversity. In the early years after independence, India was no romantic utopia. It was wretchedly poor, famines were not in the too distant past, socialism had its limits in uplifting the downtrodden, and to boot, the country faced multiple security threats, with wars with Pakistan and China.

Yet through all this, not only did Nehru deliver India, and greater South Asia, from the yoke of British colonialism, he navigated his diverse country through the initial birth pangs of a new nation, keeping it united despite significant centrifugal forces that could have easily disintegrated such a racially, religiously, historically and culturally diverse country. India’s republican constitution adopted in 1949 recognised group-differentiated rights and multiculturalism that included quotas for marginalised castes and tribal communities, and self-government rights for linguistic, ethnic and religious groups. 

Due to these farsighted policies of its first premier, India remained a democracy throughout its post-independent history while many African and Asian countries descended into anarchy through authoritarianism, corruption, internal strife and division after finding freedom from colonialism. 

These very qualities, that won this great nation so many admirers around the world, are now under grave threat. Hindu nationalism has raised its ugly head. Whether tacitly offered patronage by powerful sections of the polity or not, these forces of division are affecting the very fabric of India and threatening its unity. Recently, article 370 of the constitution was removed that granted a Special Autonomous Status to the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.  Hindu nationalism which is encouraged by authorities and carried out with impunity, has reached new levels and is increasingly challenging India’s claim to being a pluralistic, secular democracy. The intimidation and oppression of Muslims have become particularly pervasive under the BJP government. It is as if the very foundations that made India great are being destroyed from within. In this context, it is unfortunate that the Indian Government has taken offense to a statement by the Singaporean Prime Minister however inappropriate or undiplomatic. Perhaps it might have been used as a moment to reflect on India’s own trajectory. The lament for ‘Nehru’s India’ is a call by those who admire this great nation and have benefited from its struggles; and those who do not wish to see this beacon of hope for freedom and democracy be extinguished at a time when such values are needed the most.