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Nehru Vs Patel: An Open Debate

The Uses and Abuses of What-if History

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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A past powered by the Dissenting Strongman and the Dreamy Intellectual enriches the legacy of freedom—and the political content of the present

THERE IS THIS scene in Darkest Hour when a prosthetically enlarged Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground to make up his mind on Hitler. The Führer has reached Poland, and entire Europe is in panic in the face of the advancing Nazi force. Within Britain’s ruling Conservative party, grandees are pressing the prime minister to negotiate peace with Hitler, and a plan for a coup in Westminster is afoot. The “delusional alcoholic” at the helm is in two minds. That’s when the screenwriter and the director, defying history, send the cigar-chomping old man for a ride on the tube so that he can gauge the public mood. And it’s this short trip to Westminster that engenders the stirring lines of Churchill in the House of Commons: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Churchill never took the tube. And most Churchill scholars argue that the man’s mind was not divided on Hitler. He was not Hamlet, vexing over the destiny of the Western hemisphere from his bathtub. The tube scene is the one that makes the movie: it humanises Churchill, provides emotional ballast to an epochal decision in history. But it is not history. It is poetic licence. While it has turned a Conservative columnist like Charles Moore away from the movie, it’s another what-if moment in storytelling that dramatises the past and divides the present. Thriller writers have made a fortune out of it, and my favourite remains Robert Harris’ Fatherland—what if the Nazis had won World War II? ‘What-if’ replaces rigidities of the factual with the elasticity of the fictional. It is a kind of creative manipulation that can make history a cautionary tale, a moral puzzle, or a war of unsavoury minds, depending on the ingenuity of your imagination.

In politics at its basest, it’s the sloganeer’s ally. It allows the politician to reduce history to an easily comprehensible—and saleable—combat of moral stereotypes. It equips the patriot to choose his heroes and banish his tormentors. It casts a shadow of historical grievances over battlegrounds of the day. It makes the payback moment a thriller. The historicity of what Prime Minister Modi has said about Sardar Patel and Kashmir has suddenly made politics a story of injustice in retrospect. Kashmir would not have been divided had Patel been the Prime Minister. But Patel was beaten by Nehru

It has the making of an unwritten historical mystery.

Nehru and Patel. It was a partnership built on intellectual antagonism, and when you look back from the vantage point of 2018, you realise that its narrative complexity carries within itself enough subplots to suit present political needs. Modi is an admirer of the original strongman of India, the other great Gujarati wronged by history—and the Family. Patel as an underdog in a historical saga—a lone voice of nationalist honour pitted against the Establishment—is an image that Modi loves to identify with, emotionally as well as politically. And he’s within his rights to do so. It’s Patel’s differences with Nehru, rather than the inevitable reconciliation in the end, that make the two men worthy of a dispute even seven decades after independence. It’s a tribute to the power of argument in politics.

Every idol in history is prone to climatic damage. Nehru was protected from questions for a long time in India by those who claimed a copyright over his intellectual tradition, which can be summed up as internationalist poetics that borrowed heavily from the prevailing utopias. He was the official nation builder, and for the world, Third Worldism’s brainiest poet. Today, if the idea of Modi has taken root in an India shaped by the Nehruvian ideal of secularism, it only shows the viability of a new argument on the nation—and its possibilities.

The new argument is not necessarily a repudiation of Nehru. His irrelevance is a premature celebration. It’s not that his India has run its course and the old ghosts of nationalism are marching out of the trapdoors. It’s that India as a nation has acquired the confidence to face up to the past and reread its provenance. In this rereading, Patel adds an aura of dissent to our story of fractured freedom. Politics is meaningful, and worth its slogans, when revered holograms are rejected and icons are cracked. History is static—and question-proof—only in places where democracy is a pretence. A past powered by the Dissenting Strongman and the Dreamy Intellectual enriches the legacy of freedom—and the political content of the present.

Some provocations, like the one triggered by the Prime Minister’s brief trip to history, let democracy argue with the past. We are better off that way.

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