A ‘World Class Monument’ nowadays, it seems, needs to be twice the height of the Statue of Liberty to qualify as one. Such are the beliefs that appear to inform the plans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gujarat’s proposed Statue of Unity, a looming, lumpy homage to Vallabhbhai Patel, all 182 metres of him, to be planted in the midst of the waters of the Sardar Sarovar dam. It may seem curious that a leader of the BJP, a party existentially opposed to the Congress, should want to spend several hundred crores memorialising an important Congress leader. But it’s symptomatic of the confusing contours of our political argument.
Patel was Nehru’s close colleague in the struggle for independence—and also sparring partner when they became members of free India’s government. They disagreed on much—and to some Patel has come to represent a wished-for alternative to the choices and path Nehru took. The 2014 election has finally offered a chance to take that supposed other path: the Congress party is firmly ejected, now to depose Nehru in favour of a different ancestral lineage, with different heroes.
Does India need new heroes? By god, yes. The North Korean style political lineage—‘The Great Leader’, who begat ‘The Supreme Leader’, who begat ‘The Great Successor’—is hardly one suited to any democracy, let alone ours.
To the many millions of young Indians who make up the country’s youngest-ever electorate (around 150 million Indians, or one-fifth of the electorate, got the chance to vote for the first time this year, and around half of the electorate is below the age of 35), Nehru appears as an antique and unglamorous remnant in the godown of Indian history—a relic of a statist, stagnant moment in India’s history. These young Indians, their imaginations if not their daily realities shaped by a horizon of growth, their expectations formed by the promise of a life materially better than any their parents enjoyed, are all focused on the future—and on their own individual hopes and prospects. Anything associated with the past, or even with the idea of the nation, holds little interest for them (good luck trying to get them interested in Sardar).
But is the new young electorate anti-liberal? There is no a priori reason to think so. If anything, young Indians today are concentrated on their own material interests: they value modern liberty, the rights of private enjoyment—ground as fertile as any for liberalism.
To young Indians, Nehru might appear as an antique. But their lives rest on the basic political wager he took—of liberalism.
The version of Nehru offered up today, which has made him an official fossil, a trinket squeezed of any sense of his human dimension, is hardly one young people today can respond to. But leave Nehru the man aside—that’s a story to be told another day. Let’s ask some questions about Nehru the historical figure, and the fate of his basic commitments.
Might the eclipse of the man mark the end of Indian liberalism? Will the idea of India he worked to define be subverted?
It is the inevitable narcissism of the present moment to think that now is a turning point, a ‘game-changer’, a decisive moment of choice. So, we are told that 2014 has marked the end of the founding idea of India, and an alternative vision will replace it. In such readings, we see the death foretold of liberalism in India. Intolerance, incivility, nepotism and corruption, offences against individual rights—all on the rise, all seen as indices of an anti-liberal turn.
Not so fast. In fact, what we are seeing is the entrenchment of liberal principles as the defining axes of the landscape across which the serious, pitched battles of Indian politics are occurring. It is unmistakably the landscape of Indian liberalism—and not of some pre- or anti-liberal world. Let me try to explain.
What we saw in the ’90s was a right-wing religious party, the BJP, gradually shift from its position of antipathy and rejection of secularism to an embrace of it. As soon as the BJP leadership began to accuse their Congress opponents of ‘pseudo-secularism’, they signalled their acceptance of India’s constitutional principles—their claim was to be the best defenders of these, better than Congress. Similarly, over the past decade, the BJP has had to jettison—at least for public, rhetorical purposes—its ambitions to enhance the wonders of India’s religious architecture (promising to erect a monument to Patel is at some distance from pledging to pile up a temple to Ram). In its stead, the BJP has, not always in the most gainly way, battened down on development and governance—hardly issues about which the party’s ideological guides, Savarkar and Golwalkar, had that much at all to say. In choosing to make development and governance the criteria by which to judge their performance, the BJP is issuing itself the threat to become a party like any other—to be judged by standards that any party in a liberal democratic system would accept.
The point is not that the tiger has become a pussycat; or that it may ever do. But, exactly to the extent that it refuses to become house-trained, the BJP will delegitimate and condemn itself in the eyes of the electorate whose support it has won. Mayhem it may still cause; but that will be to keep happy the small band of its extremist supporters. It will not be a strategy for winning wider support.
The BJP’s electoral game now is an incremental one: it must play the game of liberal democratic electoral politics, eking out support on the margins.
Nehru’s political wager was to try to implant simultaneously in India democratic practices and liberal ideals. It was an unprecedented wager, even perhaps a reckless one. Wherever liberalism had triumphed across the West, absorption of liberal values had preceded the spread of mass democracy. Wherever in Europe mass democracy came first, or simultaneously, the outcomes proved disastrous: Germany being the darkest example.
In accusing the Congress of being pseudo-secular, the BJP signalled its acceptance of India’s constitutional principles.
So Nehru’s was an immensely risky strategy. It manifested a profound faith and trust in the people of India—far deeper, I believe, than that shown by Gandhi, always the paternalist; or by Ambedkar or Patel, always suspicious of their compatriots. For all Nehru’s personal vanity, his political errors, misjudgements and impetuosities (and how could there not be plenty such, in a public life that spanned a half-century of boggling complexity and unpredictability), in his historical ambition and significance there is no one in our history who can compare.
Fifty years on, the effects of his wager are all around us: manifest in the setting loose of an unprecedented stirring in the land, whose outcome is (remarkably, for a society conceptually designed to ensure deniability, to abjure responsibility) now ours to help determine.
Liberalism succeeds through contestation: it must make and state arguments, and then remake and restate them. Persuasion is a slow business: what is logically or morally right is not always politically credible or acceptable. Liberalism is committed to discovering the truth—but it knows that to be a slow project, a distant horizon with many detours. In India today, that has become our horizon. It was not so when Nehru was born, in 1889; but by the time of his death, in 1964, it had become possible. Today’s battles—in the home and in the streets, in the courts and legislatures, through the ballot and in the media—over the rights of women, sexual liberty, free speech, education: these are not signs of the death of liberalism. They speak of a society animated by its principles and promises—if still without the institutional capacities and practices that can secure those promises. There will be detours ahead, and building what we believe to be world-class monuments will be among them. But the terrain on which we build is unmistakably that Nehru opened up.
(Sunil Khilnani is Avantha Professor and Director of the India Institute at King’s College, London, and author of The Idea of India.)
An earlier version of this article was first published in January 2014 in Outlook Turning Points, an annual collector's issue brought out by Outlook magazine in association with The New York Times