By Ramchandra Guha
Our prime minister likes coining slogans and acronyms. There was Swachh Bharat and Make in India, then Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. Now there is Start-up India, Stand Up India. The Planning Commission has become the N[ational] I[nstitution] for T[ransforming] I[ndia]. I am sure the second part of Niti Aayog must also lead to something deep and profound; perhaps Advanced and Analytical Yearning for Overall Growth? I do not know what the SMART in Smart Cities stands for, but I do know that - as the prime minister himself has told us -the SMART in Smart Police means Strict and Sensitive, Modern and Mobile, Alert and Accountable, Reliable and Responsive, Techno-savvy and Trained.
The prime minister's penchant for smart slogans is not restricted to the domain of domestic policies alone. So, when it comes to future relations with our most powerful neighbour, we have INCH towards MILES, the first acronym joining India and China (naturally with Bharat Mata first, although alphabetically it should be the other way around), the second joining Millennium with Exceptional Synergy.
During his election campaign, Narendra Modi was assisted by some of India's most inventive copywriters. I do not know whether the slogans and acronyms offered us after the election come from them or from the prime minister's own fertile mind. What we do know is that they come quick and fast, so fast that one has to learn and follow a new slogan before one has had time to digest and understand the slogan that came before it.
Narendra Modi is what one might call a serial sloganeer. How many of his slogans will be known or remembered 10 or 20 years from now? I ask because soon we shall observe the 50th death anniversary of a former prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri coined only one slogan. But it resonated then, and still resonates after 50 years. It was, of course, Jai Jawan Jai Kisan.
The background to Shastri's slogan needs to be spelled out. In 1962, India suffered a humiliating defeat in a border war with China, in large part because our troops were under-prepared and under-equipped. Hence the slogan Jai Jawan, to ensure that henceforth the soldier would be at the centre of defence planning. Again, in the early 1960s, India suffered a series of bad monsoons, leading to severe droughts and crop failures. As parts of the country teetered on the brink of starvation, mass famine was averted only by the import of food from the West. And so Shastri came up with the second half of his still remembered slogan: Jai Kisan.
The weaknesses in defence and agriculture were partly a legacy of Shastri's predecessor as prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru had given foreign policy more importance than defence strategy. Moreover, in his approach to the economy, industry loomed much larger than agriculture.
After the war against China, Nehru finally sacked the incompetent V.K. Krishna Menon as defence minister, and brought in Y.B. Chavan, who had developed a reputation as an able, no-nonsense administrator, as his replacement. When Shastri became prime minister, he retained Chavan, who repaid this faith by buying our defence forces state-of-the-art weaponry from the Western bloc (which Krishna Menon had shunned because of his pro-Soviet leanings). The new, energized defence policies of Chavan and Shastri paid dividends in the next war that faced India, against Pakistan in 1965, when both the Indian army and the Indian air force acquitted themselves creditably.
Shastri's initiatives with regard to the kisan were more noteworthy still. Among the most able members of Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet was C. Subramaniam. He was minister of steel, a key portfolio in Nehru's economic vision. Now, after successive droughts, Shastri shifted Subramaniam to the agriculture ministry. The new minister, as it happens, was from a farming background himself. He understood the problems kisans faced, and wished to overcome them with the use of the latest technologies. He empowered the scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to conduct experiments on the new hybrid seeds available, and, in a splendid show of solidarity, planted up the lawns of his own Lutyens' bungalow with the new seeds. These experiments were then taken into the fields of farmers across India, massively enhancing crop productivity (of wheat in particular) and saving India from both famine as well as dependence on food aid from the West.
Having endorsed Chavan and chosen Subramaniam, Shastri allowed them to run their ministries without continuous oversight by the prime minister's office. He was an excellent delegator, which Nehru was not (and which Modi does not appear to be either). The choice of C. Subramaniam was especially far-sighted. Subramaniam is the only cabinet minister ever to have won the Bharat Ratna for what he did as cabinet minister. But he did what he did because of the support of his prime minister. Ironically, since Shastri died so soon, the real benefits of the Green Revolution became visible only in the late 1960s and early 1970s, allowing Indira Gandhi to claim the credit. Fortunately, Shastri's splendid leadership during the Indo-Pak war of 1965 was something no one could take away from him.
Writing in these columns in April 2010, I remarked: "Had Shastri been given another five years, there would have been no Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi would both be alive, and in private life. The former would have been a (failed) entrepreneur, the latter a recently retired airline pilot with a passion for photography. Finally, had Shastri lived longer, Sonia Gandhi would still be a devoted and loving housewife."
Shastri's early death enabled Indira Gandhi, and in time her descendants, to establish a stranglehold over the Congress and, during the long years when the Congress was in power, over the government of India itself. The spin doctors of the dynasty have since had time only for one Indian politician who was not of the family - Mahatma Gandhi. Otherwise, it is Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, and Sonia who are given all the credit for any progress India may have made since 1947. In a shameful display of partisanship, they have ignored the contributions of other great Congress stalwarts like Patel, Raja ji, Kamaraj, Chavan, Subramaniam, Narasimha Rao, and Shastri himself.
Indira's and Sonia's Congress cast away the memory and legacy of Vallabhbhai Patel, allowing the Bharatiya Janata Party to claim him. They also cast away the memory and legacy of Lal Bahadur Shastri - will the BJP now claim him too? If they do, it will be even less justified than their appropriation of Patel. For, while Shastri departed from his predecessor in his greater focus on defence preparedness and agricultural productivity, in one respect he followed Jawaharlal Nehru faithfully and fully - namely, in his respect for social and religious pluralism.
Like Nehru, Shastri was emphatic that India was not, and must never be, a Hindu Pakistan. During the Indo-Pak war of 1965, the British Broadcasting Corporation, in one of those lazy stereotypes common to the Western media's representation of our part of the world, claimed that "since India's Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri is a Hindu, he is ready for war with [a Muslim] Pakistan". Shastri strongly rebutted this false characterization. In the last week of September 1965, he addressed a massive public meeting at New Delhi's Ramlila grounds. There he said: "Mir Mushtaq [a veteran Delhi Congressman] who is presiding over this meeting is a Muslim. Mr. Frank Anthony [a famous lawyer and member of the Constituent Assembly] who has addressed you is a Christian. There are also Sikhs and Parsis here. The unique thing about our country is that we have Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and people of all other religions. We have temples and mosques, gurdwaras and churches."
Having foregrounded the religious diversity of that meeting, this country, Shastri continued: "But we do not bring all this into politics. This is the difference between India and Pakistan. Whereas Pakistan proclaims herself to be an Islamic State and uses religion as a political factor, we Indians have the freedom to follow whatever religion we may choose [and] worship in any way we please. So far as politics is concerned, each of us is as much an Indian as the other."
Is this a vision that Narendra Modi can and will embrace? The jury is out on this question. In spite of his arduous efforts to re-make himself as a pragmatic reformer, traces of his past as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak remain - as in the refusal to condemn members of parliament and ministers who make vicious statements against Christians and Muslims, the reluctance to wear a skull cap even for symbolic purposes (while happily donning the traditional headgear of different castes and tribes across the country), the occasional references to an alleged thousand years of slavery that India is said to have experienced before he became prime minister.
To hope that Narendra Modi may become a religious pluralist in the mode of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru may be too much to expect. This column is written with a more modest hope - to warn the prime minister, or at least his advisers, against a promiscuous coinage of slogans. It would be good if, in marking the 50th anniversary of Lal Bahadur Shastri's death, Narendra Modi takes a vow that he shall henceforth coin no new slogans or acronyms. Rather, he should choose two or three of the slogans he has already coined, identify the individuals best placed to head the ministries under whose domains these programmes lie, and then give them the autonomy and freedom that the likes of Y.B. Chavan and C. Subramaniam once had under their own boss.
The Telegraph, January 9, 2016