Requiem to a bygone era
Aruti Nayar

Nehru to Iraq
by Shanta Vasisht.
Harman Publishing House. Pages 105. Rs 200. 

THE book is an account of the writer’s memories against the backdrop of the struggle for freedom. She showcases significant political milestones, changes in India and abroad and the leaders who contributed to the process of nation-building. The writer’s contention is that a neo-imperialism is stealthily creeping into modern times, even though the previous era heralded the democratic process and establishment of institutions and many countries in Asia, Far East and Africa got their freedom. The role she played as a political leader and a social worker over the decades as an eye-witness as well as a participant in public life gives her a vantage position to analyse and put national and international developments in perspective.

The 19 chapters can be read by themselves as well as in continuation because each of them deals with a single aspect of the evolution of the nation and have been titled as such. The Awakening describes the ripples of change as leaders like Gandhi became catalysts of social reform. Students, women were fired with a zeal to contribute to nation-building and participate in the struggle for freedom.

In the second chapter, The Great Masters, the author reminisces about her school education. She was educated at Shri Rama Ashram School at Amritsar (where her bureaucrat father was then posted) in 1930s. Here the focus was on imparting value-based education. She is unequivocal that the spirit of patriotism and nationalism was instilled in her, thanks to Shri Rama Ashram School, a school run in the same manner as a well-organized family often is. The principal was called Pitaji, and his wife, Mataji. It was here that the children learnt to respect family ties and strengthen social and fraternal bonds.

The Start of the Personality Cult portrays how the entire Congress party became servile to the wishes of Indira Gandhi and the process of democratisation was subverted. This was the time when the leaders who lacked a grass-roots base entered the party and started calling shots. From serving the people, the workers started serving leaders. It was the beginning of the rot that finds mention in a chapter of the same name that details the decline of the party system and encouraged sycophancy and obsequiousness.The leaders became alienated from the masses and the common people’s problems.

To the writer’s credit she calls a spade a spade (often a hoe) and with extreme honesty and objectivity bemoans the decline of idealism and values and the increasing importance of money-power and muscle in political life.

She also regrets the dubious role that the industry is playing in leveraging politicians and in fostering a symbiotic relationship with the media that often prevents focus on social issues and the hidden economic agenda often takes precedence over socio-political reform.

The example she gives is the function organised in the memory of martyrs of the Kargil war which was but for the first few minutes of tribute-paying, a jashn in which the entire Cabinet, the service chiefs and political leaders watched an entertainment programme while the widows of the soldiers looked pained.

It is this apathy and neglect of the soldiers who sacrifice their lives to ensure security for the nation that the writer rages against. It is the former Defence Minister Geroge Fernandes who gets full marks and fulsome praise from Vasisht for spending time with the jawans and redressing their problems and ensuring they got facilties they needed to work in the hostile terrain.

The decline in the level of commitment of the politicians, who are no longer statesmen, degeneration of public debate, deep roots of corruption that have overturned the mechanism of delivering justice to the common man and the economic divide is what the writer discusses and agonises over.

For one who has worked tirelessly in the Congress, it is sad for one who has invested so much personally for the good of the country to see the sacrifices being frittered away in a grab-and-hoard culture.

The title is Nehru to Iraq but it is the national scene that occupies a major part of the book but it is only in the last chapter, Domination of the Superpowers that she focuses on the US attack on Iraq and the torture and ill treatment of civilians and the role of the US media in highlighting these atrocities.

From nostalgia to anguish to a yearning for idealism, Vasisht’s account gives an insight into the making of a nation and the contribution of leaders.