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A time to look back at our PMs

Indira Gandhi was essentially a pragmatic politician with little vision for the future or commitment to ideals, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2006 04:48 IST

Come yet another Independence Day. It is time to look back on what we have achieved and where we failed since August 15, 1947. This year, I ponder over the doings of many PMs we have had from Nehru to Manmohan Singh. Nehru was as close to being Plato’s concept of a philosopher-king as a ruler of any country in the world. For one, he was the most popular political leader of his time. Being an agnostic he did not have religious prejudices nor ever made a show of religiosity. He had a low opinion of those who did. He initiated plans to make the country more prosperous; gave equal rights to women; outlawed caste discrimination. However, he was also headstrong and short tempered. He was prone to nepotism appointing cronies to important posts in preference to the deserving: a gross example was Krishna Menon as High Commissioner, having him elected to Parliament, making him Defence Minister and putting him in charge of Foreign Affairs. But despite wrong directions, Nehru remains one of our greatest.

Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi had long runs as Prime Minister. She was essentially a pragmatic politician with little vision for the future or commitment to ideals. Despite spectacular achievements like breaking up Pakistan into two and making India a nuclear power, she marred her record by allowing corruption to creep in by patronising favourites. She was vindictive towards people who fell out of her favour.

Other prime ministers came and went. Morarji Desai left his mark by trying to force prohibition. And failed. Narasimha Rao had a larger run but was loathe to take decisions. He will be remembered for freeing the economy by allowing private entrepreneurs to play their role in building our economy, and breaking the stranglehold of the public sector. He did this by lending support to his Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure of six years was significant in many ways. He accelerated the pace of economic reforms initiated by Manmohan Singh and gave new shape to our foreign policy by extending a hand of friendship to Pakistan, opening full diplomatic relations with Israel and closer ties with the US. However, it was during his tenure that Hindu fundamentalist parties like the RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal came into the forefront and poisoned the communal atmosphere.

And now we have Manmohan Singh backed by Sonia Gandhi. Between them they have run the country for over two years. India has never been as prosperous as it is today. Its relations with its neighbours  have never been better. It is not surprising that in their frustration, opportunists both in the Congress and Opposition parties have made breaking-up the Sonia-Manmohan partnership their top priority. As long as this partnership lasts, so long the Congress party will remain in power.

The Taj Mahal design

The Smiths of Agra and Delhi are a remarkable family. Between them they know more about the two Mughal capitals than anyone I know. Besides English they know Urdu, Persian and Hindi. RV Smith’s articles appear in many papers and tell you about quaint places, legends attached to them, and people who lived there. His latest offering is a collection of articles: The Taj: Myth & Reality (Hope India). Among the articles one is by Thomas Smith entitles Who designed the Taj? And the other The Foreign hand in the anatomy of the Taj which examines the claim of an Italian being its architect by Reverend H Hosten. One believes that the original design was made by Ustad Isa; the other gives credit to an Italian Priest Veroneo of Venice who happened to be in Agra when it was being built. I beg to differ with both in as much as I am convinced that later writers, mostly foreigners, could not believe that Indians were capable of building a monument as beautiful as the Taj Mahal. I am sure the original concept was that of Emperor Shah Jahan himself, his role model was the mausoleum of his grandfather, Emperor Humayun in Delhi. He meant it to be the final resting place of his favourite Queen, Arjmand Bano Begum who died giving birth to their 14th child. There is good reason to believe he planned to build another mausoleum for himself across the river. His son Aurangzeb dispensed the idea and buried his father alongside Arjmand Bano.

Those interested should first take a look at Humayun’s tomb and then at the Taj. There are two striking dissimilarities: Humayun’s tomb is a mixture of red and beige sandstone, the Taj is entirely built in white marble. Humayun’s tomb looks squat in comparison to Taj which is higher than the Qutab Minar — its higher stature and pure white makes it more elegant and beautiful than its role model. Whether or not this was suggested by Ustad Isa or Veroneo or Shah Jahan’s own idea, no one knows or is ever likely to find out.

Kissa kursi ka

Three men died in a car accident. When they reached heaven, they found God sitting on a throne. He asked the first man “What do you believe?” “I believe that all men are equal. Hence there should be no discrimination”. “Very good!” said God. “Come and sit on my left.” He then asked the second man: “What do you believe?” “I believe that there should be no wars, famine or disease. Everyone should live peacefully and happily.” “Excellent!” said God. “Come and sit on my right.” He then asked the third man “What do you believe?” “I believe,” the third man answered “that you are sitting on my throne.”

(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh, New Delhi)