This column today is not a requiem for anyone in particular.
There are a few “givens” in life. One that stands out is that we all, each of us, like all that are born will die. There is no escaping it hence the question that Guru Granth challengingly posits: “What footprints will you leave in the sands of time (“Eh sareera merya iss jug mey aaaye ke kya tudh karam kamaaya,” p 922).
Is it any wonder then that there comes a time for everyone – kings and paupers both – to take stock of life and to try and fashion a legacy that would outlast our transient flesh? It becomes our last and lasting chance to have a say in how the world – friends, foes and Father Time — will value us. This is how I see the efforts of many of the presidents of this country to establish libraries or other institutions in their names as soon as they are finished with the highest office that a nation can bestow.
At birth each of us inherits a world with its share of good, bad and the ugly. We enjoy and treasure the technology and progress that is the legacy of millennia of humans who preceded us. In the bargain we also get the disease, pestilence, wars and destruction that people have wrought for ages, and their fruits.
We would rather be remembered as good and talented people who left the world a little better than when we came into it, no matter how puny our world is. Taking stock is just as necessary to individuals as it is to businesses, and, at times, just as frustrating, even painful.
But we are humans — fallible, incomplete and weak. If there is a bit of the divine in us there is also a little of the devil in each. If to err is human, surely some are more human than others. All religions teach that only the Creator is perfect.
Hence, the overpowering human compulsion to construct legacies that burnish our persona, enhance our virtues and bury our failings. If only life were that simple. Be careful: anything that can be burnished may also be tarnished.
Let’s revisit some extraordinary people who seem breathtakingly extraordinary in their successes and failures. Let’ look at the obsessions of a few movers and shakers of the world to explore how fate treats them. What would their legacy be?
Former President Lyndon Johnson has been center stage in the news recently. His critics remind us that his life’s mission has become a casualty of the Vietnam War that mushroomed from the misconstrued Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. His daughter and other defenders point to the Johnson sponsored extraordinary social legislation which made revolutionary progress possible in the United States. It was a continuation of FDR’s vision of the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, upended restrictive immigration policies, and put Medicare into place. In more ways than one he changed America for the better. Yet this shining image of the man must coexist with the tarnish to his reputation by the Vietnam War when we examine his visage. These are two sides of the same coin; one cannot be voided by the other.
This mixed record most likely resulted from Johnson’s fear that withdrawal from Vietnam would diminish his place in history as being the first president to have lost a war.
Similar quirks of character condemn Richard Nixon. He had the broad vision and the will to act – recall his opening the door to China, and navigating his way out of the Vietnam War. But forget not his misadventures of Watergate that destroyed his presidency and much of his legacy.
I mention in similar context two icons of the Conservative Right in this country: Ronald Reagan, no matter how revered, deserved considerable tarnish for his Iran-Contra policies; the other icon, Margaret Thatcher of Britain is now being tarnished for her advisory role and possible collusion with Indira Gandhi of India on the latter’s disastrous policies on Sikhs in 1984. Those events still cast a long shadow on India and its place in the modern world.
I look at the almost 67 year old history of independent India. Of the many who led the country in those years only three earned international recognition or respect: Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister; his daughter Indira Gandhi who was also the most authoritarian and dictatorial of India’s leaders; and now Manmohan Singh, the first Sikh, the first non-Hindu in India’s history to hold that august office, who became Prime Minister in 2004.
Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi were respected but not trusted in the international arena and with good reason. At one time Indira Gandhi also suspended India’s parliament and reigned as a despot by fiat. Also, Indira’s ill-thought misadventures in 1984 brought the country to the brink of fragmentation. The results still haunt us and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
But the Indian power structure still remains in the control of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in a process that has turned participatory democracy on its head. In place now are cronyism and nepotism at their best.
So, what’s there to treasure or burnish her legacy?
Now nearing the end of his public life Manmohan Singh, too, must weigh the scales of luster and tarnish that will define his place in history. Manmohan Singh, unlike most heavy weights in the political world is a quiet scholarly man of unquestioned personal integrity and competence, but like most, if not all of us, he is not immune to wondering what his legacy would be now that his day in the sun is almost done.
Gideon Ranchman recently reported that at a press conference where he announced his retirement next year, Manmohan Singh predicted (or should I rephrase it and say that he hoped?) that “history will be kinder to me than the contemporary media.” This is what usually comes out of the mouths of failed politicians at their nadir. Yet, history will surely credit Manmohan Singh with transforming modern India and revolutionizing its economy.
Manmohan is undoubtedly worlds apart from the past and present crop of political leaders of India but he remains a totally puzzling proposition. His most important work of lasting value in nation building was done as finance minister, before he was anointed Prime Minister. India was then at the verge of economic collapse. In an uncharacteristically bleak and honest message to the head of the government then, Manmohan Singh said that “We must convert this crisis into an opportunity to build a new India.” And the fact is that he did.
Here is a Sikh, internationally respected for his personal competence and integrity, riding a corrupt dysfunctional nation Here is a turbaned Sikh representing the world’s largest functioning democracy, and negotiating treaties with the likes of France when France does not let turban-wearing Sikhs live there in peace, and India itself continues to deny for the past 30 years even the most rudimentary justice to its Sikh citizens.
In the decade of the 1980’s several thousand Sikhs – men, women and children – across India were killed in a pogrom that is best labeled attempted genocide. It was not possible to mount such an offensive without the active collusion of the Indian political leaders of that time. Despite over ten official government inquiries that came about only because of public outrage, today, 30 years later, justice remains both illusive and elusive.
The current Prime Minister of the country, Manmohan Singh, has offered no solace — nothing more than an anemic apology and advice to Sikhs to forget the past and move forward. Never once did he raise his voice for justice, not only for his own people but for all Indians. In fact at the International Human Rights Forum in Vienna (June 24, 1993) he offered the bald faced lie to Sikhs and the world that “…he being Sikh finds no abuses of Human Rights of Sikhs much less any minorities in India.”
Perhaps Manmohan Singh needs to speak with his daughter who works for Amnesty International that has catalogued India’s sins exhaustively.
The only visible good to Sikhi that this Sikh, Manmohan Singh, has done is to strut around in the international corridors of power looking like a Sikh with a turban on his head; that, too, is no small achievement. So, I don’t minimize this.
During Manmohan Singh’s tenure deserving Sikhs have emerged in India’s public space: The man steering India’s economic progress is a Sikh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia; in this decade for the first time not one but two Sikh Generals commanded India’s vast army, Generals J.J. Singh and now Bikram Singh; India’s face of public diplomacy has been a Sikh, Hardip Singh Puri. These are not small measures of progress in India where society is increasingly defined by corruption, nepotism and cronyism. He has transformed the nation economically but on his watch it has descended the depths of a corrupt society faster than at any other time in recent history.
Manmohan Singh, bright and personally uncorrupted as he seems to be, good of intention as he certainly is, rides the nation like a jockey not in command of his steed and that’s the most charitable view that I can offer.
You see, some events continue to tip the scales of luster or rust, burnish or tarnish.