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Nehruvian Congress to Modi’s BJP: A Changing Political Landscape

The BJP blames Nehru for the many ills the country had to face

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Opposite Ends: Photographic projections of Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi at the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya in Delhi Photo: Getty Images
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For the Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru is the “sole architect of modern India”, but the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fundamentally disagrees. Year in and year out, Nehru’s legacy has come under sustained attacks from the BJP as the saffron party tears down the “myths” to run its brand of politics and spread its ideology. There is nothing wrong with that as it very much falls within the purview of its political right.

As India gears up for the 2024 General Elections, this is not to dispute that Nehru will come under further attacks from the BJP. However, a careful study of the BJP’s perspective suggests that the saffron party’s “dislike” for Nehru was never personal. Instead, it is rooted in India’s political history.

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Remember Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), who was a minister in Nehru’s Cabinet? The former president of the Hindu Mahasabha, Mookerjee was one of the two leaders from outside the Congress who were invited by Nehru to join his interim government. The other one was BR Ambedkar. In fact, it was Mahatma Gandhi who had advised Nehru to induct Mookerjee into his Cabinet. 

He served as the Minister for Industry and Supply, a position he held for three years. During his tenure, he laid the foundation of India’s industrial policy and sowed the seeds of the country’s industrial development in the years to come.

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Mookerjee, who had resigned from the Nehru Cabinet over the controversial Delhi Pact in 1950, formed the BJS in 1951. When the Hindu minorities were brutalised in Pakistan, resulting in the flooding of millions of Hindu refugees to India, Nehru invited the then Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan for talks in New Delhi, leading to the signing of the Delhi Pact. The pact sought to “guarantee” the rights of religious minorities in both countries.

But looking at the huge influx of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Mookerjee felt that the pact was nothing but a “betrayal of the logical outcome of the Partition”. He sensed that the pact would “essentially leave Hindus of East Pakistan at the mercy of the Pakistani state.”

Mookerjee proposed to grant the persecuted Hindu minorities of East Pakistan an opportunity to settle in India. But Nehru was vociferously against such an idea. Subsequently, Mookerjee was proved to be right. While secular India stood (continues to stand) by its commitment to protect its minorities, Pakistan never bothered to keep the spirit of the Nehru-Liaquat pact.

In 1971, East Pakistan was carved out as Bangladesh. Following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, the religious minorities in Bangladesh had to suffer a lot.

In order to fix that historical wrong, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP government brought in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, to provide citizenship to the religious minorities of neighbouring countries who are compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of such persecution.

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In fact, the idea of a CAA-like legislation was rooted in Mookerjee’s suggestions that Nehru chose to brush aside.

In the Constituent Assembly debate that took place on the backdrop of Partition, PS Deshmukh—a well-known legal luminary who later became the Minister of Agriculture in Independent India—had argued that “...every person who is a Hindu or a Sikh and is not a citizen of any other state shall be entitled to be a citizen of India.” Deshmukh had told the constituent assembly, “If the Muslims want an exclusive place for themselves called Pakistan, why should not Hindus and Sikhs have India as their home?”

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Nehru, however, argued that the “principles of governing citizenship must be informed by justice and equity and not extraneous factors like religion”. In the end, the members of the Constituent Assembly voted in favour of Nehru’s proposal. Fast forward to 2019, the CAA finally overturned Nehru’s stance. 

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The BJP blames Nehru for his “serial blunders” in Jammu and Kashmir. Historically, Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state, which was acceded to India by virtue of an Instrument of Accession. It may be recalled that soon after the division of India, Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal raiders—backed by the Pakistani Army—illegally occupied a large stretch of the Valley, which is known as the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).

It is pertinent to mention that Nehru delayed the accession of Jammu and Kashmir into the rest of India by declaring a ceasefire when the Indian Army was close to gaining control of the entire territory. Moreover, he compounded his blunder further by knocking on the doors of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

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While the Instrument of Accession had made it clear that there was “no dispute” in acceding Jammu and Kashmir to the rest of India, Nehru committed another blunder by agreeing that the “final decision” with regard to the accession would be ratified by the Constituent Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir. In the intervening period “a temporary provision” was inserted in the Indian Constitution in the form of Article 370 to provide “special status” to Jammu and Kashmir.

There was a dubious ‘Permit Raj’ in Jammu and Kashmir introduced by the state government led by Sheikh Abdullah. Jammu and Kashmir had a Wazir-e-Azam (Prime Minister) and Sadr-e-Riyasat (President). It had a separate Constitution and a separate flag. And Nehru in principle agreed to it.

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Politics is a battleground of ideologies. From Nehruvian Congress to Modi’s BJP, the political landscape has undergone an ideological shift.

Mookerjee—the then president of the Jan Sangh—in his Lok Sabha speech on August 7, 1952, warned that the Kashmir policy of Nehru and Article 370 may lead to the “Balkanisation of India.” He scripted an uprising with his famous slogan—Ek desh mein do pradhan, do vidhan, do nishan nahi chalenge, nahi chalenge. (The country will never accept a system which allows two Prime Ministers, two Constitutions and two national flags).

Mookerjee went to Kashmir in 1953 as an Indian citizen without seeking a permit from the state government to bring home that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. But, while crossing the border into Jammu and Kashmir at Panjab’s Lakhanpur, Mookerjee was arrested and jailed in Srinagar.

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Nehru never bothered to intervene for the release of his former Cabinet colleague. In fact, when he visited Srinagar as Sheikh Abdullah’s guest, he never bothered to inquire about the sitting Lok Sabha MP from South Kolkata, who was lodged in jail just a few kilometres away.

The selfless patriot died in custody under mysterious circumstances on June 23, 1953, paying the price for his effort to integrate India. “We must live and die for India and her liberty. This is an article of faith with us and it admits of no compromise,” Mookerjee once famously said.

There were demands for an independent inquiry into Mookerjee’s death, including earnest appeals from his aged mother Jogmaya Devi to Nehru, but to no avail. But Mookerjee’s martyrdom compelled Nehru to remove the ‘Permit Raj’, abolishing the post of Prime Minister and President of Jammu and Kashmir, bringing Jammu and Kashmir under the ambit of the Indian Constitution, Union Parliament, Supreme Court of India and the Election Commission of India.

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Finally, in 2019, Modi fulfilled the dream of Mookerjee by abrogating Article 370 and thereby fully integrating Jammu and Kashmir into the mainstream of the nation.

Now, the BJP has set the target of winning 370 seats in the 2024 General Elections—a target loaded with heavy symbolism. “Winning 370 Lok Sabha seats in this General Election would be a true tribute to Dr Mookerjee,” Modi told party members in the recently concluded BJP national convention.

As the proponent of cultural nationalism, Mookerjee believed in the ideology of ‘National Self’, which essentially encompasses the cultural, historical, civilisational and social bonds that tie the people together and imbibe a shared pride in the nation’s values, traditions and achievements, as well as a commitment to its welfare and progress.

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“Political independence becomes meaningful only if it is accompanied by realisation of the National Self.” This was what the first manifesto of the Jan Sangh read. Modi’s ‘Nation First’ ideology is rooted in Mookerjee’s ‘National Self’ principle.

In sharp contrast, Nehru was an ardent proponent of secularism, liberalism, internationalism and socialism. The BJP believes that Nehruvian ideology grossly ignored the collective will of India.

India’s pre-eminent historian Sita Ram Goel, who was extremely critical of the former Prime Minister, in his book Genesis and Growth of Nehruism: Commitment to Communism, wrote, “… Pandit Nehru had learnt studiously to look through Communist glasses at every problem that arose in India. In the process he had become more alienated from India’s indigenous society and culture and at the same time more and more friendly to every force which was out to disintegrate India, uproot its people and destroy its cultural heritage.”

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Politics is a battleground of ideologies. From Nehruvian Congress to Modi’s BJP, India’s political landscape has undergone a massive ideological shift.

While the Congress has cultivated its ideological core on the edifice of Nehruism, the BJP is throwing off the shackles of the Nehru era. Both are right in their respective political rights. At a time when the BJP, under the stewardship of Modi, is creating a nationalistic fervour of sorts, there will be no let-up in its criticism of Nehru on the cusp of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”.

(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'A Flawed Leader')

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Saswat Panigrahi is a journalist and a political commentator

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