Party Patriotism

The ‘anti-national’ allegation against those who criticise or question the government, cuts across party lines.

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel!

-Samuel Johnson

I am always intrigued by perceptive quotations. What I find fascinating is the accuracy of insight which they offer. And if the provenance of the quotes goes back more than a century, the insight is all the more remarkable as these figures did not have the advantage of easy interaction that has been made possible in the last 100 years.

From all accounts, Dr Samuel Johnson was not much of a traveler, nor was he known for super-abundant socialisation. Yet, his observations convey an analysis of human nature and proclivities which can only evoke admiration.

This particular observation suddenly emerged in my mind when I found the following headline in nearly all the national dailies:

“Team Anna Anti-National-Prime Minister’s Office”

In other words, the Prime Minister – and by implication the entire government – was questioning the patriotic quotient of Team Anna. Their position being that questioning the government of the day was tantamount to treason, although the particular epithet was not used specifically.

What serves to generate ennui is that this is a time-honoured ploy in the history of Indian politics since Independence in 1947. It may have roots in the pre-Independence era when questioning the leaders who were putting up a fight against the British was scoffed upon, as it was perceived to be weakening the Independence struggle.

The politicians found it convenient to resort to this ploy post-Independence. To label your opponents as anti-national was one way of evading a meaningful discussion.

The first occasion I recall politicians slugging it out this way was during the 1967 General Elections. The state was Tamil Nadu, then known as Madras. Congress Chief Minister M Bhaktavatsalam was busy campaigning against his main rival-DMK, led by C N Annadurai. Bhaktavatsalam delivered several speeches where he openly accused the DMK and Annadurai of being “the worst anti-nationals” and “traitors” and warning the state’s populace of dire consequences. I vividly recall him saying that the DMK were so anti-national that no Congressman of any shade would ever contemplate sitting at the same table as them as that would be a betrayal of the people of Madras.

It did not work! Congress was wiped out and the CM as well as the ex-CM, Kamaraj (who was the National Congress President at the time) lost their seats. I am tempted to adumbrate this incident, as Bhaktavatsalam’s promise of the Congress always maintaining a distance from the DMK turned out to be an empty promise – unless we regard the Congress (I) as a different party. And his grand daughter, Jayanthi Natarajan ex-Congress (I) spokesperson is now a minister in a government that is being propped up by the DMK.

Years later, we witnessed this tendency in Indira Gandhi. She unashamedly used the anti-national card against anyone who deigned to speak against her. We witnessed this absurdity when veteran freedom-fighter Jayaprakash Narayan was labeled anti-national. Apart from being her father’s nominated successor at one time (he decided to shun active politics), JP was a thorough gentleman whose wife Prabhavati was Kamala Nehru’s closest friend. Kamala had written several letters to Prabhavati describing how ill at ease she felt in the Nehru family with the mistreatment that was meted out to her.

Following his wife’s death in 1973, one of JP’s first actions was to undertake a trip to Delhi and return all the letters to Indira. To his dying day he refused to divulge the contents, and it was left to the others who had been privy to the letters to reveal what was in them. And he was the designated“anti-national”!

Card-carrying sycophants like Khushwant Singh and Vasant Sathe joined the chorus in condemning JP. Others among her list of anti-nationals were EMS Namboodripad, AK Gopalan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jyoti Basu, Vijayaraje Scindia, Gayatri Devi, Pravirchandra Bhanjdeo and so on. Their cardinal crime – they all had dared to question her policies and good faith.

In 1978, there was another allegation of anti-nationalism and treachery – this time in Rajya Sabha. Khurshid Alam Khan, a Rajya Sabha MP had risen to speak and speaking on a Hindu-Muslim riot in which about 10 people lost their lives – Hindus and Muslims – he commented, and I quote,“The Middle Eastern countries would be well within their rights to withhold every single drop of oil from India if even a single Muslim lost his life in a communal riot”. The entire treasury bench erupted shouting “anti-national” and “traitor” and even Prime Minister Morarji Desai – never one to hold back – accusingly asked Khan if he really was an Indian.

Khan’s comments were dangerously immature and some might even call them mischievous. I would go so far as to say that after this performance Khan should not have been allowed to contest elections and gradually banished from politics. But to call him a traitor was way over the top. Incidentally, Khan was made a minister on Indira’s return to power, and as a minister he spearheaded the campaign to ban Rushdie’s novel. Later on, he became a governor and his son Salman Khurshid is today a senior Cabinet minister.

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s views on what constitutes “treachery” are even more bizarre. In an article, he labeled VP Singh a “traitor” for opposing Rajiv. Although he had nothing to say when in 1996 this very traitor’s party propped up his party’s government. Aiyar then went on to label DMK as a party of Rajiv’s murderers. Need I say more?

Incidentally, around this time even a film actress Simi Garewal taking a cue from her political patrons, accused VP Singh of treachery in a Doordarshan documentary on Rajiv. So much for Doordarshan’s impartiality.

Bal Thackeray has his own concept of anti-nationalism which includes using not just foul expletives but strong-arm tactics against whosoever his whimsical logic decides merits that treatment – South Indians, Muslims, Biharis etc etc etc. And such is the trepidation he inspires, that people like Bachchan and Tendulkar pay obeisance to him.

The local MP in my mofussil town follows the same logic. A private TV channel was intimated out of existence by his goons when it deigned to criticise him. He called it grossly anti-national.

This bogey is quite tiring. There are quite a few anti-national acts by our politicians sitting in the hallowed portals and beyond. For instance, I would consider that allowing Quattrocchi to escape from India, sending a senior official to London to release his money at public expenditure and getting a senior minister holding the external affairs portfolio to influence the trial in a Swiss court is anti-national by any reckoning.

Allowing the state apparatus to terrorise a particular community is anti-national. Not providing the protection provided by the Constitution to an author seeking asylum in my view violates the spirit of the Constitution and hence is anti-national. Support for khap panchayats by Navin Jindal is anti-national.

But the Indian politician’s take is so very different.

And to conclude, let me revert to another quote emerging from someone who lived over 2,500 years ago. I have often wondered if he was prescient enough to visualise the state of the Indian polity when he made the comment.

Characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner.

– Aristophanes



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