Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Greatest Indian Since Gandhi

CNN-IBN have recently run an opinion poll to select "The Greatest Indian After Mahatma Gandhi".

I voted in that poll myself, and my choice was Dr BR Ambedkar

While Gandhi was obviously not one of the candidates, I'm not sure I would have rated him the highest even if he had been. Many of Gandhi's ideas were good, his principles were admirable, and the independence of India a spectacular achievement, but greatness is subjective, and the perception of the relative greatness of people varies with the passage of time. Gandhi today is not the colossus he once was. Many of us today see him as a good human being with his share of flaws.

I can't vote for Sardar Patel, not now anyway. I used to admire him until the BJP and allied parties adopted him as some sort of right-wing hero. I don't know if Patel himself subscribed to the ideology of the Hindutva movement, but their support of him makes him tainted goods, in my opinion. That's unfortunate.

I guess I could have voted for Nehru. Nehru's commitment to both secularism and socialism have come under fire (but not from me!) Nehru did some amazing things to make India what it is today (just think about the directions in which his peers Nkrumah, Tito, Nasser and Sukarno took their countries). His pro-technology, agnostic world-view also mirrors mine.

Ultimately, I decided on Ambedkar because we of the non-Dalit elite have simply not understood what life as a Dalit must have been like, and it is time we acknowledged this. India will be great only when the evil of caste is wiped out from its society, and Ambedkar symbolises the fact that a Dalit is no lower than anyone else, and can be as great as the greatest of them. The odds that Dr Ambedkar had to surmount to become a lawyer (studying at Columbia and the LSE, no less) and ultimately lead the team that drafted the Indian constitution, probably match the long and difficult journey of Barack Obama from a single-parent home to the White House. When reading his biography, I'm happy to read that he did receive encouragement from people of nominally "higher" castes, such as his Brahmin teacher. This parallels the support Dr Abdul Kalam received in his childhood from a few Brahmins, even though society as a whole segregated Brahmins from non-Brahmins, especially Muslims. (These examples show that even in the worst of times, there is hope for India because humanity never completely deserts its people.)

The famous historian Ramachandra Guha (author of the seminal tome "India After Gandhi") has written a brilliant article on the poll, concluding that "This anointing of the Singular and Unique goes against the plural ethos of a democratic Republic" and that "one might choose hundred great Indians, or fifty, or ten, or even, as I have ended by doing here, three. But not just One."

Dr Ramachandra Guha's points are very well-argued, and I cannot do justice to his piece by summarising it here. It deserves to be read in full.

He contrasts the popular vote in this contest against the vote of a panel of experts, and criticises the aam aadmi's (the common man's) vote on two counts - one of ignoring Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and the other of elevating Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. He says the aam aadmi, in contrast to the expert panel, has got it "spectacularly wrong" on both these counts. I am ashamed to admit I had never even heard of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya until I read his piece, so on behalf of the aam aadmi, I am happy to accept Dr Guha's rebuke.

I must, however, raise a point in favour of the aam aadmi's choice of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam as the greatest Indian since Gandhi. It's not just that Dr Kalam is a decent and good man or "The Good Muslim" as he put it. It's that Dr Kalam as President has allowed Indians to feel better about their country as a State. Corrupt and cynical politicians have besmirched this country's reputation. The common man is ashamed of the Indian state. The greatest contribution of Dr Kalam's has been to make the highest office in the land an outpost of decency, if only for 5 years. Dr Guha has sadly ignored the symbolic power of cleansing that Dr Kalam's single term as President has had on the Indian psyche. We have been uplifted by those 5 years. Even the most cynical Indian would not call Dr Kalam a "rubber stamp", the derogatory epithet we apply to all other Presidents. Think about this, Dr Guha. The aam aadmi is not "spectacularly wrong".

I should quote Gerald W Johnson from his book "Communism - A Study of Revolution":

Although any one man you may point out may be a foolish fellow, all the people, taken together, have a political wisdom that in the long run is superior to that of any one man.

That's how I would rest my case. While my personal choice remains Dr. Ambedkar, the people have spoken, and the Greatest Indian since Gandhi is therefore Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.
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