THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN
DEMOCRACY, Winston Churchill famously wrote, is the worst system of government in the world, except for all the others. One of its defining characteristics is its unpredictability, since democracy reflects the wishes of large numbers of people expressed in the quiet intimacy of the polling booth. The wonders of democracy have again startled the world as the voters of India confounded all the pundits and pollsters to place the country in the hands of a new governing coalition led by the Congress Party. By the time this article appears, the Congress will have provided India its sixth Prime Minister. Its first, Jawaharlal Nehru, would have been proud, but not for partisan reasons. His greatest satisfaction would have come from the knowledge that the democracy he tried so hard to instil in India had taken such deep roots.
In a few days on May 27 India will mark the 40th anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru's death at the age of 74. Just five days earlier, the Prime Minister had told a press conference, in reply to a question about whether he should not settle the issue of a successor in his own lifetime: "My life is not coming to an end so soon." When he died against his own will, so to speak, Robert Frost's immortal lines were found on his bedside table, written out by him in his own hand: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep./ And miles to go before I sleep."
An earthquake rocked New Delhi on the day of Nehru's death, and many saw this as a portentous omen. Cynics (at home and abroad) waited for his survivors to fight over the spoils; few predicted the democracy Nehru had been so proud of would survive. But it did. India kept Nehru's "promises". There were no succession squabbles around Nehru's funeral pyre. Lal Bahadur Shastri, a modest figure of unimpeachable integrity and considerable political and administrative acumen, was elected India's second Prime Minister. The Indian people wept, and moved on.
Nehru never doubted that they would. He had spent a political lifetime trying to instil the habits of democracy in his people a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system. He himself was such a convinced democrat, profoundly wary of the risks of autocracy, that, at the crest of his rise, he authored an anonymous article in the Modern Review warning Indians of the dangers of giving dictatorial temptations to Jawaharlal Nehru. "He must be checked," he wrote of himself. "We want no Caesars." And indeed, his practice when challenged within his own party was to offer his resignation; he usually got his way, but it was hardly the instinct of a Caesar.
As Prime Minister, Nehru carefully nurtured the country's infant democratic institutions. He paid deference to the country's ceremonial presidency and even to its largely otiose Vice-Presidency; he never let the public forget that these notables outranked him in protocol terms. He wrote regular letters to the Chief Ministers of the states, explaining his policies and seeking their feedback. He subjected himself to cross-examination in Parliament by the small, fractious but undoubtedly talented Opposition, allowing them an importance out of all proportion to their numerical strength, because he was convinced that a strong opposition was essential for a healthy democracy. (He obliged his Ministers and civil servants to be just as respectful to Parliament.) He took care not to interfere with the judicial system; on the one occasion that he publicly criticised a judge at a press conference, he apologised the next day to the individual and wrote an abject letter to the Chief Justice of India, regretting having slighted the judiciary. And he never forgot that he derived his authority from the people of India; not only was he astonishingly accessible for a person in his position, but he started the practice of offering a daily darshan at home for an hour each morning to anyone coming in off the street without an appointment, a practice that continued until the dictates of security finally overcame the populism of his successors.
During the 17 years of his Prime Ministership, Nehru got India accustomed to such attitudes and conduct. By his speeches, his exhortations, and above all by his own personal example, Jawaharlal imparted to the institutions and processes of democracy a dignity that placed it above challenge from would-be tyrants. Democratic values became so entrenched that when, of all people, his own daughter Indira suspended India's freedoms with a State of Emergency for 20 months, she felt compelled to return to the Indian people for vindication, held a free election and comprehensively lost it.
Another confident government, secure in its assumption of popularity and increasingly accustomed to seeing itself as a natural party of governance, has now bit the dust. But the graciousness with which Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee immediately accepted the electorate's verdict and used it as an opportunity to affirm the transcendent values of democracy is itself an advertisement of India's democratic maturity. Nothing so much became the BJP in office as its leaving of it.
The American editor Norman Cousins once asked Jawaharlal Nehru what he hoped his legacy to India would be. "Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves," Nehru replied. The numbers have grown, but 350 million voters have demonstrated yet again to the world how completely they have absorbed his legacy. Four decades after Nehru's death, that offers our nation one more cause for celebration.
Shashi Tharoor is the author, most recently, of Nehru: The Invention of India. Visit the author at www.shashitharoor.com
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