An elusive tryst with destiny

Perhaps Modi is the man who can fulfil that tryst that Nehru talked about 72 years ago.



By Rahul Singh

Published: Wed 14 Aug 2019, 9:50 PM

Last updated: Wed 14 Aug 2019, 11:52 PM

Today India celebrates the 72nd anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule (Pakistan celebrated it yesterday). And it comes at a defining moment, with the Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief, Narendra Modi, making a momentous decision on the constitutional status of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir (colloquially known simply as Kashmir). Ever since India and Pakistan became independent, Kashmir has been a running sore with both countries, leading to two all-out wars in 1947 and 1965. A former US president called it "the most dangerous place on earth", though because of its scenic beauty it has also been described as a "heaven on earth".

By all rights, Kashmir, being a Muslim-majority kingdom and contiguous to Pakistan, should have gone to Pakistan, according to the formula laid down for the partition of the Indian sub-continent (basically, what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). But there was a complication. Kashmir had a Hindu king, and a popular leader, Sheikh Abdullah, neither of whom wanted to unite with Pakistan. Three decades of an armed insurgency, resulting in the deaths of close to 40,000 militants, Indian security forces and innocent civilians, have brought no solution, despite the induction of some 400,000 Indian troops into the area. Modi decided to do something drastic: On August 5, by a Presidential order, he abolished the semi-autonomous status of the state and integrated it more closely to the rest of the country. At the same time, the state was split into two, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. In Jammu, the majority of the people are Hindu; in the Valley of Kashmir, Muslim; and in Ladakh, Buddhist. He said that not only would this bring in greater economic development but end the bane of terrorism. Whether his gamble will pay off, only time will tell. Be that as it may, Modi and the BJP have put their indelible stamp on India in the last few years with their Hindutva agenda.

Pakistan, too, has seen a major change with the coming into power of former cricketing legend Imran Khan. His predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, is under a cloud, facing serious corruption charges. Though it is too early to pass any judgment on Imran Khan's performance, what little that one has seen of him is positive. He has made the right moves in trying to rid his country of its overweening venality and bring its economy back on course. When he went recently to the United States, he did not charter a plane as his predecessors were wont to do, but went as a simple passenger in a commercial plane, with his entourage. Though he may have been an ostentatious personality is his private life, he is not so in his public life. In the US, too, he and President Donald Trump seem to hit it off. Both men are blunt, plain-speaking individuals. Even on the touchy subject of Kashmir, he has not over-reacted. He has only made his displeasure felt by sending the Indian High Commissioner back to New Delhi and downgrading diplomatic ties with India. However, the main problem that the relatively new Pakistan prime minister faces is to be seen as his own man, not that of the army's.

Returning to India, the Nehru/Gandhi family of Sonia and her son, Rahul, have been relegated to the sidelines, at least for the time being. But certainly not the entire family. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, have a lasting place in the history of India since independence. Rajiv Gandhi perhaps less so, though had he lived, it might have been a different story. Just when he was coming into his own, a terrorist bomber cut short his life. As for Rahul Gandhi, he really has not been able to emerge from his mother, the Italian-born Sonia's shadow. What's more, he has had the formidable Modi to contend with, an unequal contest.

In any case, though the BJP would like to downplay Nehru, his permanent legacy in making India a vibrant, secular democracy, while setting up institutes of higher learning, as well as modern industrial plants, cannot be denied. India also had Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration. With the deaths of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan soon after Pakistan's independence, that country lost its most enlightened and charismatic figures. Long periods of debilitating army rule followed, the worst being that of General Yahya Khan, when the eastern part of the country broke away to form Bangladesh and the Pakistani army was humiliated. That was also Indira Gandhi's moment of glory. However, her rule was blotted by the notorious "Emergency", when opposition leaders were put in jail, press freedom suppressed and fundamental rights curtailed, just so that she could remain at the helm. However, she had the grace and good sense to retire from the political scene, temporarily at least, when the general election went against her and her party. Her second mistake was the mishandling of the Sikh problem, culminating in the disastrous storming of the Golden Temple, the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, by the army in Amritsar, which led to the death of hundreds of soldiers, terrorists and innocent pilgrims, and which directly led to her assassination by two of her Sikh bodyguards. This was followed by shameful, chilling communal riots in the capital city of New Delhi and elsewhere, in which thousands of innocent Sikhs were slaughtered.

On the economic front, too, she was a disaster. But her son, Rajiv, and then the prime minister who followed him, Narasimha Rao, liberalised India's ruinous socialist economy, and India began to soar. It continued its upward trajectory under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but then a series of scams in his second term gave Modi and the BJP the opportunity to oust the Congress party from power, thus ending the dynastic rule of the Nehru/Gandhi family. I, for one, do not see them coming back.

On the eve of Indian independence, Nehru, had made an eloquent speech: "At the stroke of the midnight hour India will awake to life and freedom," he said. He also spoke about his nation "stepping out from the old to the new" and of India's "tryst with destiny". What has happened to that tryst and has it been fulfilled? Sadly, not. India is still a country with, in Nobel-laureate V.S. Naipaul words, "a million mutinies", where some 200 million people continue to live below the poverty line and where basic health and sanitation facilities are lacking. Perhaps Modi is the man who can fulfil that tryst that Nehru talked about 72 years ago. Most Indians think so.
Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times


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