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India Burnished OR Tarnished by I.J. Singh

Discussion in 'Breaking News' started by IJSingh, Apr 9, 2014.

  1. IJSingh

    IJSingh United States
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    Writer SPNer Contributor

    Sep 24, 2004
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    I.J. Singh

    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


    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 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


    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.


    March 15, 2014
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