PM Modi quoting Gurajada to reach out to people during covid vaccine rollout is a hopeful gesture

If it encourages his so-called bhakts and the more rabid members of the Sangh Parivar to read the likes of a Gurajada and appreciate their modernising, humanising patriotism and socially progressive views then Modi would have greatly contributed to the cause of national unity.

Addressing the nation on the day his government rolled out the COVID-19 vaccine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted the great Telugu poet, scholar and social reformer Gurajada Appa Rao (1862-1915): Sontha labham kontha maanuko/porugu vaadiki thodu padavoy./Desamantey matti kadoyi, desamantey manushuloy. I have freely translated this to read: “Give up some of your own welfare/profit, to lend support to your neighbour. / Soil does not make a country, but it is people who do so.”

Gurajada was not just a poet and a writer. He was a social reformer who wrote in support of gender equality and against caste and communal prejudice. His influence on Telugu literature, society, social movements and politics cannot be underestimated. These lines from Gurajada have been immortalised in countless speeches of social and political leaders not just in the Andhra region, from which he hailed, but across the country. Modi deserves praise for reciting Gurajada to a “New India” that worryingly pays little attention to these sentiments.

The Prime Minister, the other leaders of his own party and the members of the wider Sangh Parivar should read Gurajada in full. While the second part of the four lines quoted by Modi are the most famous and oft-quoted ones from the 18-stanza poem Desamunu Preminchamanna, written in 1910, there are other equally important thoughts conveyed in it of particular relevance, especially as we approach yet another Republic Day.

The first two lines of the stanza quoted by Modi also have relevance for India’s approach to her neighbourhood. Gurajada’s advice to “give up” something in favour of one’s neighbour has been an aspect of Indian policy towards some of her neighbours. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s policy of non-reciprocal and unilateral trade liberalisation with respect to the less developed countries (LDCs) in the neighbourhood is one example. Modi’s Neighbourhood First policy has also tried to reach out to some, not all, of India’s neighbours. Securing one’s own welfare by ensuring the prosperity of one’s neighbour is a good principle for a prosperous family and a large country to adopt.

Of the many other gems in Gurajada’s poem, two stanzas stand out as being of particular relevance to what Modi has often referred to as “New India”.

Desabhimaanamu naku kaddani/votti goppalu cheppukokoi./Pooni yedainaanu vokamela/ koorchi janulaku choopavoi.

(Don’t claim patriotism as virtue of you alone,/don’t boast of false claims./Resolve to do something good/and show that to people around you.)

In a subsequent stanza, Gurajada views the meeting of minds and hearts irrespective of religious differences as a source of national power and prosperity when he says: Mathamu veraitenu yemoi?/Manasulokotai manushulunte/Jaathamannadi lecchi perigi,/ lokamuna raanimchunoyi. (What if our religions differ?/If one is human, our hearts unite./The nation shall rise and prosper,/shining and standing out in the world.)

Prime Minister Modi, we now know, chooses his quotes carefully. That he should quote a progressive, liberal, social reformer like Gurajada to reach out to people across the country seeking their support for the rollout of a vaccine is a hopeful gesture. It will mean nothing if it remains a verbal gesture. If it encourages his so-called bhakts and the more rabid members of the Sangh Parivar to read the likes of a Gurajada and appreciate their modernising, humanising patriotism and socially progressive views then Modi would have greatly contributed to the cause of national unity.

Gurajada’s message, that a country is not defined by its geography but by its people, goes contrary to the obsession with land borders that prevents better relations with neighbours. The idea that patriotism requires claiming “every inch” of a cartographically visualised “Mother India”, “every inch” of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir or of the high Himalayas, places land at the centre of the idea of India. It is this geographical definition of a nation, of battles fought in the name of land, that Gurajada was questioning. He was urging the ruling class to pay attention to and secure the welfare of people who inhabit that land.

If a people remain poor, how can a nation be great? If one’s neighbours are not secure and prosperous how can we be so? Gurajada did not view praising the past as patriotism. Rather, he saw it in the building of a better future. He sought to reassure adherents of different religions that their faith would never be an impediment to national unity. Through his writings, Gurajada shaped national and social consciousness of the Telugus as they entered the 20th Century. Leaders of the Congress, socialists and even communists derived inspiration from the writings of Gurajada.

It is one of the great legacies of the national movement that progressive intellectuals like Gurajada, Tagore, Premchand and so on not only instilled patriotism in the minds of a colonised people but also encouraged them to adopt liberal and secular values. They wrote against casteism and propagated gender equality, they respected all religions and found value in modernity and science.

At a time when many of these values that have defined the Indian Republic are being increasingly questioned, we must return to the writings of these modernist sons of the soil. Liberalism, secularism, modernity, rationalism are not merely “Western” ideas. They find resonance in scholarly Indian writing going back centuries. Those who claim to be supporters of Modi should read the writings of nationalist intellectuals who too sought to create a New India free of casteism, gender inequality, religious intolerance, superstitious beliefs and extreme economic inequality.

Tailpiece: In the early 1990s. a young woman walked into my office room at The Economic Times in New Delhi with her biodata in hand, seeking a job. Her second name was Gurajada. I asked if she was a relative of The Gurajada. She said she was. I gave her an appointment letter without hesitation. As long as I am an editor here, I told her, any Gurajada who walks in will be assured a job!

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 19, 2021, under the title “Poet and the Republic”. Baru is an economist and author. He has recently edited Beyond Covid’s Shadow: Mapping India’s Economic Resurgence

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