How would the first prime minister of India, the prime maker of modern Indian democracy, have responded to his party’s dwindling fortunes today? Jawaharlal Nehru might or might not have shot off epistles urging Congressmen to introspect with him, but he surely would not have slammed the door on debate, dissent or the hard questions. Seen in this light, the Congress’s refusal to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or indeed any ally of the NDA, to the party’s celebrations of Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary is not just churlish, but an extraordinary disservice to the man it seeks to honour. Its explanation that it invited only those who “truly” believed in Nehru’s ideals goes against both the generosity and capaciousness of spirit and the sense of institutional propriety that Nehru sought to foster.
For Nehru, like the Indian National Congress once, represented an idea of inclusive democracy that could accommodate many contrary, even opposed, strains of thought and belief. His first cabinet of 14 ministers included five non-Congressmen, including B.R. Ambedkar, a staunch critic of the Congress. Nehru’s tenure in government was marked by his unquestioned authority and pre-eminence, and yet at every step, he took special care to inoculate the fledgling institutions of Indian democracy against failure by an emphasis on norm and procedure in which everyone has stakes. He remained anxious about putting in place checks and balances to ensure that the individual didn’t close off or supercede the institution. His commitment to Parliament and towards evolving the best parliamentary norms, and the ease with which he communicated with the diverse people of a vast republic (on both counts, the current Congress leadership is an unworthy successor), were a testament to how much he valued the idea of a plural India.
In its crude assertions of ownership of Nehru, the Congress appears to believe it is countering the nimble “appropriation” of party leaders like Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi that Modi has attempted, or even the Patel-greater-than-Nehru binary that the BJP occasionally stokes. But by enclosing itself in an echo chamber of platitudes, the party diminishes Nehru, while also losing the larger battle of ideas. In fact, many would argue that the Congress has failed Nehru more than the BJP has challenged it. An argumentative Indian par excellence, Nehru would not have shied from the ongoing debate over his idea of India. He does not need the Congress to quarantine him from his ideological opponents or, for that matter, shield him from the scrutiny of history.