A rewriting of Nehru?

Appreciating India’s first Prime Minister on his death anniversary

May 27, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:35 am IST

After the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in Uttar Pradesh, some commentators once again compared Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Indira Gandhi as they had after the 2014 general election, perhaps misconstruing their common trait of an authoritarian streak for decisiveness. But from the point of view of ideology, Mr. Modi is more comparable to Jawaharlal Nehru than anybody else. On August 15, 1947, when Nehru came up with his “tryst with destiny”, he would have hardly known that 70 years later, the man in his place could be so different in ideology and undo everything he stood or fought for.

An ‘undoing’ of Nehru

Nehru and Mr. Modi are by far the two most ideological Prime Ministers in modern India. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the first Prime Minister from a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh background but he was accommodative, not secular. While Nehru wanted a left-aligned India, Mr. Modi is working assiduously to move it towards the right. The undoing of Nehru is thus a necessary prerequisite. Federal regimes post-Nehru have considerably undone Nehru, consequently creating the conditions for Mr. Modi and his fellow travellers to move forward with ease.

In the 1930s, Nehru made it clear that the Congress party needed to embrace socialism to address the issues of justice and inequality. His speeches provoked many a Congress stalwart opposed to it. C.Rajagopalachari — once described as the the “biggest man in Indian politics” by Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Secretary of State for India — even tried to stop Nehru from making such statements during his term as the Congress President. In 1927, Gandhiji had declared that Rajaji could be his successor; though by 1942, he had made a categorical statement in favour of Nehru as his successor. Others in the old guard such as Patel and Rajendra Prasad were also opposed to Nehru’s project. On occasions, they even threatened to resign. Historians are yet to tell us definitively whether Nehru could have shaped Indian politics more decisively outside the Congress or not.

On August 15, 2014, Mr. Modi announced the end of the Planning Commission, a farewell that the policymaking body perhaps did not deserve. But the commission that was shut down amid controversy was also born out of controversy. When it was established in 1950, Nehru was accused of bringing in socialism through the back door.

Long before India officially drifted from Nehruvian socialism, the commission had moved away from many of its founding objectives. In post-reform India, the body proved to be adaptive to pursue liberalisation both under the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance. Therefore, Mr. Modi’s decision to shut it down without objective evaluation only reflects his ideological conviction.

Antagonistic ties

The relationship between Nehru and the Hindu Right has always been adversarial. Nehru was often blunt and elaborate in his criticism of the right, calling its activities as “communal, anti-national and reactionary”.

But on one occasion, he extended his apologies for attacking the Arya Kumar Sabha, based on misleading information. This is an observation by Nehru on the right: “For many days every morning the newspapers brought me a tonic in the shape of criticisms and condemnations and I must express my gratitude for these to all who indulged in them. It is not given to everybody to see himself as others see him, and since this privilege has been accorded to me and my numerous failings in education, up-bringing, heredity, culture, as well as those for which I am personally responsible, pointed out gently, I must need feel grateful. I shall try to profit by the chiding I have received but I am afraid I have outgrown the age…..” (Nehru, Jawaharlal, Recent Essays and Writings, Kitabistan, Allahabad, 1937)

Nehru was also accused of being soft on Muslim fundamentalists and separatists, though he attacked the Muslim League and the Muslim All Parties Conference with great zeal.

Interestingly, in his attack on Prince Aga Khan, he said: “Mr. Aga Khan combines in himself, most remarkably, the feudal order and the politics and habits of the British ruling class, with which he has been intimately associated for many years.” Described by some as the last British man to have ruled India, it was amusing that Nehru attacked westernised Muslims for being ineligible to represent Indian Muslims.

In his maiden speech in Parliament, Mr. Modi chose not to mention Nehru. In October 2015, while addressing the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi, African leaders heaped praise on Nehru’s contribution which Mr. Modi chose to ignore. There has also been more than one occasion when he has chosen to ignore Nehru.

While public conduct in a civilised democracy demands the extension of some basic courtesies towards leaders, some would say that this is fair game in ideological warfare. In the twilight of Nehru’s life, the big question was, ‘After Nehru, who?’ Does the right hope to erase all traces of Nehru’s memory in a manner that future generations of Indians will ask, ‘Who was Nehru?’

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi. He is the editor of the book, ‘Communalism in Postcolonial India: Changing Contours’

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