Thursday, October 2, 2008

GANDHI AND INDIA'S JANUS-FACED LEADERS


Today is Gandhi Jayanti. Today is the day for yet another TV screening of Richard Attenbourough's epic 1982 film "Gandhi", to remind us about what and who Mahatma Gandhi was. I wonder, though, whether anyone watches the film any more. There is cynicism all round. Forgotten are the values of truth and fearlessness that Gandhi practiced. In fact it is hard to believe that this country was born 61 years ago out of that idealism and political morality.

Today, our internal political processes are marked by an almost total absence of morality and truth while it is almost exactly the opposite when it comes to our dealing with other nations and the framing of our foreign policy. Why did this happen? Why has this great nation been emasculated by the hollowing of its core values? Why is Gandhi now little more than a face on currency notes?

Around this time last year, the military junta in Myanmar had ordered a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in that country. That had sparked a huge 'moral' debate, with many luminaries crying hoarse that India should stop dealing with the military government and support the protesting monks. They were all concerned that if India failed to take that high moral stand, the country's image in the comity of nations would be damaged. No one was interested in the demands of pragmatic national interest, which few understood, or the fact that the Chinese were ruthlessly making deep inroads into Myanmar and posing a serious security threat to India.

That debate had prompted me, on 2nd October, to write an article about India's Janus-faced political leaders. On this Gandhi Jayanti, I reproduce it below, because the issues discussed then remain relevant even today.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
If a distorted avatar of Janus, the two-faced Roman god lives somewhere, it is here in India. To be precise, he now resides in our political class.

Nowhere in the world can you find politicians making ‘morality’ the cornerstone of foreign policy while immorality is their guiding norm in determining internal political alignments and postures. Where morality is sorely needed, particularly when a nation claims inspiration from Gandhi, we have blatant immorality, and where pragmatism and national interest should be supreme, the same people turn Gandhian or Nehruvian.

Why this hypocrisy, this dichotomy? Perhaps it stems from our age old cultural trait of treating outsiders with courtesy and respect. This was strengthened by Mahatma Gandhi in his fight for India’s Independence, when he opposed the British with unparalleled dignity and respect and got them to leave the country, without rancor or humiliation. The Mahatma, though, never displayed any weakness or meekness in his fight for what was right. He simply chose a weapon based on Truth, a weapon which he thought was best suited to achieve the birthright of his countrymen to drive the British out of India.

For Gandhi, the principles of political and social behavior were the same for outsiders as well as Indians. They were rooted to morality and truth, the two cornerstones that had to be the basis of all political intercourse. More importantly, this meant also that there was no scope for any ‘weakness’, which led to a compromise, however small, with these principles. Unfortunately, Gandhi died rather quickly after Independence, before he could guide the emerging political class to internalize these principles in their new role as the rulers of the country.

Gandhi had once said:
‘I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence... I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor’. He had also said: ‘I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honor by non-violently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden. He has no business to be the head of a family. He must either hide himself, or must rest content to live for ever in helplessness and be prepared to crawl like a worm at the bidding of a bully’.

These telling words should have been the lodestones of our foreign policy. Unfortunately, the moment Nehru was clear of the shadow of Gandhi, he remembered only the non-violent part, forgetting completely that Gandhi’s morality also dictated that aggression had to be dealt with violence, if necessary. Cowardice was not an option for Gandhi. Nehru forgot that. In my previous posts, I have already labored over the disastrous consequences of Nehru’s inability to identify and protect India’s interest, even when faced with aggression from China and Pakistan.

Nehru, it appears, lived in his own fanciful Utopian world, oblivious to the hard realities of the rapidly changing international order, post Second World War. Rather than respond to aggression as Gandhi would have done, Nehru spent his energies in trying to grandiloquently project himself as a peace loving leader of global stature. So, we saw the spectacle of this huge country identifying itself with small countries of little significance on the global stage and creating the Non Aligned Movement, even when China next door was rapidly becoming the global power that its size dictated. Nehru was happy ‘cutting chai’ with Nasser and Tito and claiming a personal high ‘moral ground’ in the world, while camouflaging the cowardice that would have drawn Gandhi’s ire.

Great nations are marked by a wholesome degree of morality and honesty in their internal political processes, and pragmatic immorality in external dealings, when required, in national interest. India, on the other hand has this policy totally inverted. Why has this happened?

One, dynastic rule has ensured that Nehru’s warts, big ones, are made to look like pimples of pride. That is perhaps the main reason why the classified papers of the China War of 1962 have not yet been declassified and why the Henderson-Brooks report on this war has not been made public. That is also probably why most strategic analysts skim over many unpleasant facts. Survival is more important than anything else to them too.

Two, our politicians, exceptions apart, have an even lesser knowledge and understanding of international relations than Nehru did. Worse, they have simply no interest in this subject and are therefore content to play along with the weak, moralistic foreign policy that Nehru laid out. After all, such a policy not only makes them collectively look good in the international arena, it also means that they do not need to waste any time and effort over these matters which are of no immediate personal concern to them or to the political parties or groups they represent.

The only thing that really energizes our politicians are gutter fights for the petty political power they are desperate to physically experience and enjoy as individuals and parties, just as spoils of war are in a foreign land. They are now as far away from Gandhi’s beliefs and values as it can get. Morality is not even a factor any more as politicians of all parties willingly rip apart every single norm of civilized behavior in their unbridled greed and lust for perverse, personal political power. Hypocrisy, corruption and falsehoods have become so pervasive that they are not issues that disturb any longer or discussed any more except when politicians are throwing blame at each other and scoring pathetic political points in TV studios.

Mahatma Gandhi is now only a face frozen on currency notes and buried on the many ‘MG’ Roads that were meant to be reminders of his character, his fearlessness and his political morality. The Janus-faced politicians who rule this great nation now seem to have no time to see either Gandhi’s face or the national emblem on the soiled currency notes they hurriedly count with salivating glee.