Sunday, 16 November 2014

"JUDGING NEHRU"--Fragment of a one-act play in progress, extracted from my novel The War Ministry

‘Jawaharlal Nehru, you have been remanded here to stand
trial and answer for the sins you committed against the people of
India. How do you plead?’

‘Where am I?’ Pandit Nehru blinked and shielded his eyes from
the lights blinding him. He stood up looking around, trying to
discover the source of the booming voice.

‘This is your purgatory, dear Prime Minister.’

‘Purgatory is for Catholics and I am definitely not one of the flock.’

‘This is the only part the Catholics got right, but here religious
identity is superfluous, only applicable to the living. Of course,
you were a famed atheist, weren't you? Apparently without faith,
but yet encouraging everyone to call you Panditji, the unbelieving
Brahmin. Your life’s story abounds with such ironies, doesn't
it? The most English of Indians who turned on the Empire, the
socialist who loved the finer things in life, the democrat who gave
birth to a family of dynasts. Does your hypocrisy know no bounds,

‘Ridiculous. Who or what are you?’

‘It depends. Now that you are here in this place beyond
existence, do you still cling to your atheism?’

‘I assumed death, one way or the other, would answer all
these metaphysical riddles we encounter in life…obviously not. I
never explicitly said I was an atheist, but neither did I concede to
identifying myself as a spineless agnostic. I yearned for far more
than mainstream religions could provide and had no patience
for the simplistic piffle they fed the masses. Perhaps the non-dualistic
nature of Advaita Vedanta and the ethic-based teachings
of the Buddha got closest to the truth. They directed us to look
within for the answer to the universe’s mysteries. But no religion
ever completely swayed me and I always maintained that I was
far more interested in the real world than worrying about the
unknowable. My dharma was always to help the people and I gave
my life to that purpose.’

‘So you are not an atheist but you still do not believe in a higher
power? Then you may call us vox populi, the voice of the people,
the judge and jury of every great democrat such as yourself. But
you should bear in mind that “vox populi, vox dei” is a belief held
by many of your fellow democrats. I’m sure you remember that
quote from Harrow and Cambridge, only the best education for
daddy’s pride and joy, an Englishman’s education.’

‘The voice of the people is not the voice of God, of that I’m sure.’

‘So you say.’

‘It has also been said by Alcuin, a man far wiser than me, that
we must not heed those who keep saying the voice of the people
is the voice of God, for the riotousness of the mob is very close to

‘Bravo, Panditji, your memory holds beyond your earthly
passing. But then you would know about the mob more than
anyone, having subverted the people’s love for you into your own
version of demagoguery!’

‘What rot. Is that the charge against me? Being a demagogue?
I refute it with the contempt it deserves. You are going to have to
come at me harder than that because even my enemies could not
doubt that I put my country’s interest before my own. My years in
gaol are proof of my commitment.’

'Granted, but did you not once write a pseudonymous article
about yourself, warning readers against your worst impulses? What
did you refer to yourself as? An Indian Caesar, of course. Your ego
could not tolerate any smaller comparison. Is that not what you
had turned into, feeding high-minded dreams and honey-dripped
rhetoric to the people while you built a dynasty just like Caesar
did? The charge against you is that you turned the Indian republic
into a monarchy for you and your heirs.’

‘That is ludicrous; you cannot blame me for what happened
after I left the scene. Shastri succeeded me, not Indu; she had to
wait her turn.’

‘And she did wait, perhaps for the last time in her life, but not
for long. She was your secret weapon, fulfilling your covert agenda;
to turn India’s polity into a royal court for your daughter, the
empress. How you must have looked on with pride as she trampled
on the very Indian democracy you so claim to treasure, which
she did not stop destroying till she completed her task with the
proclamation of Emergency. India was officially transformed into
a monarchy with a sullen and vicious crown prince to complete
the cast.’

‘If you had to judge me, why did you wait so long?’

‘You are a great man, Jawaharlal, and history takes its time
giving its verdict on great men.’

‘History is on my side, you may hold to account my family
for their subsequent conduct and that’s fair enough, but Indian
democracy survived even the worst that my heirs, as you call them,
put it through. The fact that democracy has flourished in India
is the ultimate verdict that I will be judged by, because there was
no cause I pursued with more vigour than to ingrain democratic
values in the Indian people and build institutions. I consider that
to be my legacy and it will withstand the test of time.’

‘Don’t be impudent; you have much to answer for beyond your
family’s doings. You will be judged, just like everybody else who
was taken over by hubris and dared believe they could lead men
and nations without having to answer for the consequences of their
actions. A day of reckoning comes for everyone and to be purged of
your sins you must first accept responsibility…if you had stepped aside in 1958 you would have avoided all the indignities that were to befall India in the years to come, and you would not have died a broken man, Jawaharlal...’

‘…I admit fault for everything that transpired during the 1962
war, for the war dead, for the national humiliation, for having
to betray the path of Non-Alignment and beseech the Kennedy
Administration for emergency military assistance. Those were
grave errors and I admit them, but historians have the benefit of
hindsight; leaders, however, are forced to lead even in the fog of
war with limited information, while facing multiple pulls and
pressures, which is why I stand by every one of my decisions in
office from September 1946 onwards, irrespective of how they may
have turned out.’

'So be it, you have said your piece. Your judgement awaits you...'

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Why I joined the Aam Aadmi Party...

Last night I visited the website of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and for the first time in my life applied for membership to a political party. Considering I’ve spent the last decade totally consumed with observing, discussing, researching, and writing political novels about India’s incomparable democratic drama, it is not a step I took lightly. Every General Election is important but the upcoming one is likely to be especially so. No matter the result it will bring elemental change to India’s polity that will reset the battle lines for many an election to come. The current campaign is about more than individual personalities, it is about voter anger against the establishment of such ferocity that it could cause the complete recasting of the polity. The old rules no longer apply, political leaders will have to either adapt or depart.

Since 2010 India’s polity has been in a downward spiral. An age of corruption and excess came to a grinding halt as scandal after scandal crossed our television screens every night without respite. The government got pummelled every day but continued to survive because a divided and complicit opposition abdicated its role. Thus the Indian people found themselves hostage to an unacceptable and interminable stalemate. Cynicism pervaded in every nook and cranny of the land, and so it remained during the intervening years. 

India’s two national parties must bear the brunt of the blame. On the surface the Congress and BJP may appear separated by the gulf of ideology, but in actual fact they mirror each other from across the political divide, they are in fact conjoined twins. If one party raises the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the other brings up the 1984 Delhi riots in response. If one speaks of the Gandhi family son-in-law’s alleged venality, the other threateningly whispers of Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law. If one follows the Sangh Parivar’s diktat without a word of protest, the other readily surrenders all autonomy at the feet of the Gandhi family. Both rail against the media when confronted by their own varied shortcomings, and they both go deaf and dumb at the mere mention of the name of India’s richest man. To choose between the BJP and the Congress is a false choice, India deserves better than the politics of division and opportunistic backroom deals. It is time for a third way.

I now believe the Aam Aadmi Party could be on its way to becoming India’s third national party. Having written three novels on precisely this very subject, I have found it impossible to witness this exciting new development from a studious distance. Arvind Kejriwal may not look the part of a maverick, and like everybody else I too initially underestimated his determination, but the Delhi election campaign changed everything. He and his motley crew campaigned tirelessly to make believers out of us Dilliwallahs and long voter lines into the night were proof that something special was taking place. Voters love an underdog. 

Joining the AAP was the furthest from my mind till an unexpectedly electric moment in Arvind Kejriwal’s speech in the Delhi Assembly during the discussion of his government’s trust vote on January 2nd when he broadened the definition of who an Aam Aadmi was to include everyone who possessed a moral outlook of honesty and truth regardless of what their bank balance or background was. In one stroke he had made it possible for everyone to conceivably consider themselves within the rubric of Aam Aadmi, even the middle class. For the first time since Vajpayee left the public stage I found myself unconsciously nodding along as I listened to a political leader speak. The message was unambiguously inclusive, unifying and optimistic, my very favourite words. It was not just a Chief Minister delineating his governing agenda but also a leader with national ambitions for his party using the media spotlight to address the country. We got the message loud and clear.      
The first days of governance in Delhi have been tumultuous, but governance is never easy and the inexperienced ministers will take time to adjust to the shock of being catapulted into office. They over-promised in the campaign but moved quickly to meet the most high profile of the promises. Accusations of fiscal irresponsibility and populism are flying thick and fast but they have marginal electoral relevance. Issues of execution could arise but Kejriwal’s IRS experience is showing in the way he’s marshalled the bureaucracy so far to come up with crafty solutions to the water and electricity campaign pledges.

I worry about the one-size-fits-all attitude of AAP leaders who see referenda or other forms of direct democracy as the instant solution to even the most intractable issues; an example being the recent furore on Kashmir which was an eminently avoidable misstep by Prashant Bhushan. Kejriwal must be prepared to make tough decisions which may be correct but yet unpopular. To govern effectively a leader must inform, persuade and show the way.   

Clearly I don’t agree with every last thing AAP has proposed, but nor is that necessary because I’m wholly on board with their core agenda of fighting corruption in all its forms, empowering the common man, and reining in crony capitalism with a more progressive path to economic growth. The legacy of the age of loot and incompetence during the hideously technocratic premiership of Sardar Manmohan Singh must be rolled back. I doubt Narendra Modi and his billionaire cheerleaders have any such house-cleaning in mind. 

With work on a national manifesto in its early stages there are swathes of policy areas about which AAP is only just initiating an internal debate to finalise its stand and those gaps will be filled in due course. It is a national party being born right in front of our eyes, Gandhian in its origin, sprouting forth in that quintessentially chaotic Indian manner, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, standing shoulder to shoulder, all proudly wearing their white topis, jharus held aloft, and there is untold promise in all that they can accomplish. As a result Indians everywhere have begun talking passionately and idealistically about participating in the political process again. Youth voters have been energised. Hope resides in India once more, the cynicism and rancour of recent years is finally dissipating because new leaders, new ideas, and new possibilities are breaking through the mist. Could it be a false dawn, you ask? Possibly. There are no sure things in life, all you can do is make your best judgment and then jump in with both feet. I could not resist the call of the Aam Aadmi. Can you?