When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, statues of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were famously vandalised. They were hauled from their pedestals and flung to the ground by charged crowds swept up in the momentous events of the day. Later the statues would be picked up, dusted and set upright again in a Moscow park along with other modern sculpture. But they would never be placed atop huge Soviet pedestals again.
Let us be in no doubt that the mighty ascent of Narendra Modi powering a return to single-party rule is a marker of big changes in the values and ideas that will shape India. Let us also not forget that Nehruvian ideals had in any case been quite hollowed out by the cynicism of Indian electoral politics, a shifting world order and the often flawed and unimaginative reign of Nehru’s descendants. Things have changed and this may only the beginning. Jawaharlal Nehru made some big mistakes but he had a great deal of idealism, and a marvellous vocabulary to express them. The pertinent question, therefore, is whether some of the best values Nehru stood for—personal liberty, pluralism, secularism, humanism and a scientific temper—will be preserved. Particularly ominous as a piece in Kerala RSS unit mouthpiece Kesari declared that Nathuram Godse should have killed Nehru rather than Gandhi. Though the statement was roundly disowned later, the sentiment is clear. Nehru survived; will all that he stood for now be killed?
The social churning is already visible in some rather ugly forms. The constant harping on issues such as love jehad and animal slaughter are also violations of personal liberty and space. That they are being carried out by the largest cadre organisation in the world should make us vigilant. What is clear is that, at its core, the BJP and the larger parivar see India as holding within it two nations, the Hindu rashtra and the ‘Other’ India. The cracks in the former are to be cemented by positing a threat from the latter. This project draws its energy from deeply held prejudices and stereotypes, but moves on the basis of political expediency. Check a state or city seen as a new growth area for the BJP and see a steady climb in the number of communal clashes. A clash such as the one in Delhi’s Trilokpuri area also mobilises Dalits as active ‘Hindu’ agents and then consolidates that process through making the Muslim a common “enemy”. Elections will take place in Delhi early next year; later in 2015, Bihar goes to polls. No wonder then the incidents of clashes are going up. Then there is West Bengal, where a social cauldron is in churn as Left cadre head to the BJP, the ruling TMC loses its grip and a distinctly communalising narrative of terrorists and bomb-makers plays out. Definitely a growth area for India’s now pre-eminent party as the Congress eclipse continues. The pacifism is long gone, and more than ever before, there are political dividends to be gained from aggressive chest-thumping with neighbouring nations.
What then becomes of Nehru in the age of Modi? There is to be no dramatic smashing of statues or blackening of icons, as happens in totalitarian regimes when they collapse and people come face to face with that moment of liberation. In the uniquely Indian electoral democracy of ours where historical figures are used to press contemporary hot buttons, a different process is at play. It may be called appropriation and takeover, a creeping acquisition of the icons of the country. Modi is calmly making each his own: Gandhi’s birthday will now be sought to be linked in the mind to the Swachh Bharat campaign. And Modi is not the first BJP leader to covet Sardar Patel. L.K. Advani did it years ago when he tried to fashion himself as the new-age lauh purush (iron man). Modi is good at selectively evoking the past even as he would have calculated that the nation and media, quite seemingly mesmerised, would not make much of the grotesque injustice of promising relief for the victims of the 1984 riots in which Sikhs were targeted but overlook the silence about pogroms where the nation’s largest minority were the victims.
The creeping majoritarianism is all too apparent. One may well ask: was the beat of the Hindu rashtra just hidden behind the secular republic of Nehru’s dreams? Journalist Mark Tully, who has covered India since 1965, says this: “It’s early days yet but certainly there is an aim to alter what has been conceived as secularism so far. But that does not mean secularism will die. The secularism India needs is a centuries-old tradition, rooted in what I have called Indic religions.” Tully then goes on to expand on how Modi can fix the greatest mistake made by India’s first prime minister. “Nehru failed in the very important area of governance because he continued with the bureaucratic system set in place by the British, hence India was never rid of the colonial attitude of babus talking down to people. If Modi can go beyond making bureaucrats come to work on time and set in place new structures, he would like Nehru then have played an important role in true democratisation.” But there is fellow journalist and former editor Kumar Ketkar who just says that “any equating of Modi with Nehru is blasphemous. Nehru was a visionary. To understand him is to understand the universe. He is communicating with Einstein and George Bernard Shaw. Modi is just a power-aggrandising CEO of a country. There is no question that Nehru will survive Modi and everything else.”
Yet, if there ever were a moment to bury Nehru, this would be it. The party and family of Jawaharlal is diminished as never before. There is the political failure of Rahul Gandhi and the unappealing persona of Robert Vadra. There is a pathetic party with only defeat in its sight, no victories on the horizon. (Certainly, there will be no more schemes and buildings named after members of a particular family and even admirers of Nehru would surely see that as a national blessing!) As it is, the Congress has not really been big on promoting Nehru lately. Yet, as a BJP ideologue says, “Nehru presents a special challenge as he was the architect of India even as he was opposed to everything the RSS stands for but the Modi regime cannot openly denigrate him nor is he easy to appropriate.” Patel, in contrast, is a strong leader who can be a useful stick to beat Nehru with. As for Gandhi, the nation worships him like a true icon and patron saint, but no party, state or regime follows Gandhianism. (Although an original thinker, some of Gandhi’s ideas that extend from village rule, to abstinence to celibacy, are non-applicable.) But Nehru had a big role in making us what we are as a nation. We can contest the ideas that are the cornerstones of Nehruvian socialism, but hardly the fact that as India’s first prime minister from 1947 to his death in 1964, he oversaw our transition from a colony to a sustainable democracy. If we examine the post-colonial history of the world, when the empires receded from Asia and Africa, many former colonies quickly lapsed from an attempt at democracy to dictatorships. But a true democrat in ideas and spirit, Nehru’s 17-year reign ensured that did not happen as institutions were put into place.
So how exactly will the BJP approach Nehru? Seshadri Chari, the former editor of RSS mouthpiece Organiser, says with a smile, “It is a mistake to imagine we would act against Nehru. We are ready to respect and appropriate all the icons of India, from Gandhi to Patel to many regional leaders who have not got their due to even Comrade Dange!” He is right to the extent that the NDA has not stopped any of the Nehru initiatives started by a committee established by the UPA. The commitment to upgrade the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library remains, as does the plan to create a Nehru portal with all his works online. A stamp and a coin too will be released to mark his 125th birth anniversary. So, the Congress cannot really claim the new regime has stalled plans to celebrate Nehru. They themselves had not been too big on promoting Nehru lately. In 2011, for instance, only 58 ads with Nehru’s image were released in 12 English dailies; by contrast, there were 108 ads about Rahul in the same publications.
And Modi did indeed surprise many members of the Nehru committee when he made his opening remarks at a meeting last week. He said that the last time Nehru had been celebrated was 25 years ago and this time the “jan manus” should be attached to the celebrations. He went on to suggest that since Nehru is linked to Children’s Day, the Bal Swachh Programme should begin on his birthday. He also said any initiatives linked to Nehru should promote the scientific temper and invited ideas from members (a pity that no one, including three representatives of the Congress and many wise people of India, did not take the opportunity to point out that it would help if the PM of the country did not mouth absurdities like Ganesha’s head being proof of plastic surgery in the mythical past or Karna’s birth being a miracle of genetic science in the age of the Mahabharata).
But then it’s clear that Modi is both skilled and powerful enough to straddle complete contradictions. He is seen by a section of society as a symbol of modernity and growth, although he repeatedly invokes strong symbols of the mythical Hindu nation. (His loyalists argue that such unscientific rhetoric about the Mahabharata had no aim other than to invoke pride in India’s past). Right-wing columnist Swapan Dasgupta is part of both the larger Nehru committee and the smaller executive committee whose functioning will be reviewed by Union home minister Rajnath Singh. He says that “the problem is not Nehru, but the Nehruvians who killed many currents in the projection of history. Meanwhile, from what I can see, there is no diabolical plan afoot unless you count making children sweep floors as such.” Yet Dasgupta has repeatedly spoken about creating a “counter-establishment” which would mean a sort of purge of educational and cultural trusts of the left-liberal dispensation. He says that “I do believe that a counter-establishment should be created as Ronald Reagan did against the Democrats, but it will happen gradually and not in one jolt where someone would say, ‘Off with Nehru’s head!’.”
Historian Mushirul Hasan, a typical liberal scholar, sees things rather differently. He says that all this noise about propping up Patel is also designed fundamentally to undermine Nehru. “An attempt is being made to gradually repudiate the Nehruvian legacy, pit one historical figure against the other, invent new history,” he says. Certainly, the BJP is a party that understands sentiment about nation and hence national figures. And they know that the principal figures of Hindutva ideology have limited appeal. That is why it is important to appropriate the pan-Indian figures. In one of his first speeches after the BJP’s excellent show in the Maharashtra assembly election, Devendra Fadnavis (now CM of the state), a Brahmin with close links to the RSS, did not mention Hindutva icons like Hedgewar, Golwalkar and Savarkar but spoke of Dr Ambedkar and Jyotirao Phule, both figures from the state who fought for the rights of the lower castes.
Meanwhile, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, says that all such debates about historical figures are framed in ways where we miss the main point. The historical figures, he says, leave a complex legacy, but they are reduced to icons, and the terms of the debate are “made suffocating”. By the standards of the chatter, he says, “Nehru and Gandhi would have had huge differences, and Patel and Nehru would never have worked with each other.” Mehta also stresses the distinction between secularism as a constitutional right and a political reality. “There is the secular utopia and the practice of secularism. Certainly Nehru is the greatest architect of secularism in India, but the Congress party itself always saw India as a federation of two communities.” Let the historians have their debates, he says, as long as the constitutional rights of all citizens are preserved. Mehta—who is also a member of the committee to celebrate Nehru’s anniversary—says we should not confuse Hindu rashtra with a historical claim as it is a “normative claim”. The panic buttons he believes are being pressed because there has been a big shake-up of “India’s power structure”.
Towards the end of his Tryst with Destiny speech, Nehru had said: “No nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or action.” That is a powerful message, universal in its simplicity and logic. That is why Nehru is so difficult to demolish. Statues can be smashed, but ideas live on....
The Confrontation That Really Isn’t
The BJP distaste for Nehru is a more recent phenomenon
- In a blog post, historian Ramachandra Guha recalls being told by a retired MEA official that Atal Behari Vajpayee’s first question on entering his office as Union minister of external affairs in the Janata Party government was about the blank space on the wall from where a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru had been discreetly removed in 1977. Vajpayee remembered seeing the portrait on his earlier visits and ordered that it should be put back. Guha goes on to quote profusely from the tribute paid by Vajpayee in Parliament after Nehru’s death.
“…a dream has remained half-fulfilled, a song has become silent…like Ram, Nehru was the orchestrator of the impossible and the inconceivable…he too was not afraid of compromise but would never compromise under duress…the leader has gone but the followers remain. The sun has set, yet by the shadow of stars we must find our way…”
- Journalist M.J. Akbar, currently a BJP spokesperson and one among many of his biographers, recalls how Nehru once saw a Muslim tailor being attacked in Chandni Chowk. The then prime minister stopped the car and, before his aides could intervene, waded into the crowd to rescue the victim. Akbar also points out that while the Intelligence Bureau advised him to remove Muslim cooks from his kitchen in view of what would nowadays be described as a ‘threat perception’, he refused to do any such thing.