Debating history, berating history

The 2014 elections aren’t merely about changing the government. The rhetoric ahead of the polls makes one believe that it’s an attempt at once to change historical narratives handed down to successive generation of Indians.

And the man in the forefront of it all is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. He thinks India would have been better off had Sardar Patel and not Pandit Nehru was the country’s first prime minister. He also wanted to have us believe that Nehru absented himself from Patel’s funeral, an error owned up later, willingly or under duress, by a Hindi daily that regretted having misquoted Modi.

Be that as it may, the Gujarat chief minister isn’t apparently the best of raconteurs of passages of history. It was left to Bihar’s Nitish Kumar to correct the bloomers in his speech at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan on Chandragupt Maurya, Taxila and the point from where Alexander was forced to turn back from India.

Modi’s counter to the Prime Minister’s jibes at his ‘wayward sense of history and geography’ was that it was the Congress that changed geography by allowing the country’s Partition in 1947. Now that’s a fact that cannot be challenged. But the men in power at that juncture in history included the Sardar the Gujarat CM so deeply admires that he wants to appropriate his legacy even if it means mauling Nehru’s.

But what left one shocked was that in the same speech, Modi betrayed scant knowledge of his party’s history, especially that of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee who founded the Jana Sangh upon leaving the Congress in 1951.

By the PM-aspirant’s account, Mookerjee, projected so often by the Sangh Parivar as a martyr in the cause of India’s claim over Kashmir, had died in 1930 in Geneva. The reality is that he breathed his last in J&K in 1953 on being imprisoned for defying restrictions on the entry of Indian nationals into the state.

In Mookerjee’s case, Modi was corrected by his party colleagues with whom he shared the stage in Gujarat’s Kheda for inaugurating a hospital set up by Muslims. The media caught the faux pas in his Patna speech only when Nitish detected and ridiculed his sense of history.

Of their own, neither the Congress (barring Shashi Tharoor questioning Modi’s exaggerated figures of China’s expenditure on education) nor the media in general (barring the fiction he spread about Nehru’s absence from Patel’s funeral) had the presence of mind to fact-check Modi’s rhetoric.

As an iconoclast could actually be a vandal, we have to have rigorous standards for every prime ministerial candidate. Governments may come and go. But the idea of India bequeathed to us by Gandhi, Nehru and Patel must sustain.

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