On February 3, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi attacked the “idea of India” that, according to him, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government represents, and, in the process, explained where he stood on the issue. He spoke about two Indias that he says Modi’s government has created. Gandhi has often attacked Modi on the theme of two Indias measured in economic terms. He has also attacked Modi in the past for disturbing the secular nature of the Indian polity.
But, this time, Gandhi did something more. He attacked Modi for playing with the federal structure of India and, responding to an inaudible interjection from the treasury benches, proclaimed, “We are all nationalists.” This response came after he spoke at length about India being a union of states and the states, even historically, resisting imperial diktats. He called Modi a king too.
Discussing the idea of India is a popular occupation of Congress presidents and leaders, something that becomes an engaging topic when the party is in a state of crisis. Gandhi too discussed it in the Parliament speech but in a way that none of his predecessors have done, at least not in theory. When Sonia Gandhi became the president of a much-depleted Congress in 1998, she told the All India Congress Committee, “We are in danger of losing our central place in the polity of our country as the natural party of governance.” A few months later came the Pachmarhi “brainstorming session” in which the Congress famously set itself the goal of regaining this central place. “The fact that we are going through a coalitional phase at national-level politics reflects in many ways the decline of the Congress. This is a passing phase and we will come back again with full force and on our own steam. But in the interim, coalitions may well be needed,” she told the brainstormers.
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For the Congress, losing the central place in the polity is not in the realm of the imaginary any more, neither has the coalition phase become a passing fad, at least not for the Congress. Rahul Gandhi’s challenge is much bigger than what his predecessor faced because she was fighting the emerging state-centric parties which had taken away Congress voters to whom cultural identity appealed prominently. None of them, though, sought claims on the grand idea of India. A common refrain in the Congress circles was that only the Congress represented the nationalist, central, secular, multicultural, multi-caste and class-inclusive idea of India and that space could not be snatched away by regional players individually or in a coalition.
While bleeding support to identitarian parties in states, Sonia Gandhi’s Congress also had to contend with a clear-headed L.K. Advani, who was the only other politician in the country who stuck to a composite vision of India even when he could not imagine an inclusive society. Soon, Sonia Gandhi’s Congress lost its way on the Pachmarhi goal at a time when it made electoral gains by accommodating coalition politics and a generational change had replaced decision-makers who had cut their teeth in the political epochs of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.
Nehru was a theorist of the idea of India that the Congress was supposed to stand for, while Indira was its ardent practitioner. Their prime-ministerial years were spent in furthering and consolidating the idea of a secular nation which fought multiple challenges from feudal forces of cultural and religious chauvinism. The linguistic agitations in the south made Nehru uncomfortable, just as the communal tendencies of Congress leaders did. As a practitioner of modernity, Nehru found these tendencies parochial. A belief in modernity and Enlightenment values took him closer to the progressive left both within and outside the country, which stood in contrast with feudal practices in their respective societies and wanted to view the world in terms of class differentiations rather than culturally pronounced identities.
Indira Gandhi’s run-ins with separatist movements and sub-national assertions all over the country made her even more centralising. However, unlike her father’s times, she governed India at a time when globally the intellectual class was beginning to incorporate politico-cultural assertions within left paradigms. Mostly concentrated in west Europe, this trend opened up vast intellectual spaces for cultural chauvinism and the right in general.
Its impact in India was that a new intellectual class emerged which was uncomfortable with the monotony of a class narrative in in emancipatory politics and wanted to have alliances with more vibrant cultural and religious chauvinism in provinces which had already been reorganised on the lines of feudal identities. This intellectual class continued to claim the language of the left politics in India but successfully edged out class narratives from or made them subservient to cultural theories in the institutions they controlled.
The Congress’ idea of India only went downhill from here, but one could argue that its leadership never accepted in principle that it represented a union of feudal states, where the union would play the second fiddle to the states. It could be said that Rajiv Gandhi was intellectually naive to appreciate that a nation is an ideological construct, and Sonia Gandhi, buoyed by the losses her leadership could cause to the Bharatiya Janata Party, thought that the only challenge India faced was from a communal idea of India which had been defeated. The Pachmarhi session initiated her into politics, and it did not take her long to reject its deliberations to provide a further sense of legitimacy to regionalism.
It may be unfair to expect Rahul Gandhi to match the intellect of Nehru or the political acumen of Indira Gandhi—his immediate reference point is anyway the Sonia Gandhi years of ideological fuzziness—but conceding Nehru, and thus the idea of nationalism, to Modi cannot be smart politics. After making attempts to appropriate Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and B.R. Ambedkar, Modi took the right-wing project forward when he invoked Nehru in Parliament during the motion of thanks on the president’s address, in which he largely responded to the speech made by Rahul Gandhi.
While Congress leaders can quibble about Nehru’s quote, the context in which Modi invoked Nehru or where else he could have invoked Nehru, Modi made an attempt to claim an exclusive ownership over the nationalist narrative. Modi not only sought exclusivity over the narrative, he even claimed a continuity to it from the Nehruvian era.
Given his ideological orientation, Modi can only claim Nehru’s nationalism, but cannot appropriate its liberalism. However, given the ideological disposition of the advisors he courts, Rahul Gandhi has rejected both Nehru’s nationalism as well as its modern core when he should have only sought to correct its right-wing tendencies and not fall for regional parochialism.
(Intrinsic to the India’s idea of the Centre-state relationship is Fiscal Federalism. To understand why states are on a warpath against the Modi-government, click here)