It feels all too counter-cultural to mention Jawaharlal Nehru today. Ghosted by almost all official celebrations of India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations and erased out of current national imagery, India seems to be indulging in the familiar rituals of a breakup with Nehru. The aggressive erasure highlights both truth and falsity and in extremis. The falsity is palpable but worth repeating that as the founder of independent India’s identity and as the longest serving prime minister of India, such crass erasures will only return more potently as with anything that is forcibly repressed. Little wonder then that Nehru’s first television interview from 1953 released by the BBC also on India’s 75th Independence Day went viral on all platforms.
Nehru’s official ghosting highlights the political truth that the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) is stridently opposed to his ideas, vision, and historical inheritance. In so doing, the BJP is only being ideologically consistent and has been so ever since the Nehru era. BJP’s predecessor, the Jana Sangh, was formed in 1951 principally to counter Nehru’s State-led economic programme for the country. Nearly a decade ago, and in the run-up to his candidacy for the premiership, Narendra Modi’s speeches targeted Nehru and his development model. If today, the so-called revdi culture is the stuff of Modi’s polemics, then nearly 10 years ago, ‘development from below’ became the momentary buzzed-up phrase. Either way, the idea has been to discredit and dismantle Nehru’s founding ideas of economic self-reliance and distribution as dictated by the State, to say nothing of secularism today.
Cancelling Nehru, the Socialist way
The BJP has been neither the first nor the only quarter that has aimed to cancel Nehru. The various stripes of Socialism did it first. This is a political legacy that continues to cause much ideological and political confusion in India. Inventor of the lexicon of the ‘aam admi’, Ram Manohar Lohia pivoted the political culture against Nehru and within his first decade as prime minister. Nehru and his party were targeted for their so-called elite and English-speaking ways. This was the original moment of the discovery of the Other Backward Class (OBC) and Lohia, as is well well-known, became the ideological inspiration for Mandal politics that reshaped India’s democracy decades after Nehru had left the scene of action.
By then, and in the era of coalitions of the ’90s, Nehru bashing was all the rage, especially in the Left-dominated academic-cultural world. I would know as I was taught by teachers who schooled me in dismissing Nehru’s urbanity, rationalism and secularism as wantonly and dangerously ‘un-Indian’. The fact that such critiques were the staple of university education during the high moment of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement only pointed to the gulf between academia and concrete politics that would only widen.
Today, it is touching to see some of the same authors and former teachers making a plea for Nehru and his India. Whether it is atonement or opportunism is central to this ideological confusion that has become the hallmark of political entrepreneurship of those opposed to the committed politics of Hindutva. Nevertheless, the broadly Socialist 50-year cancellation of Nehru crucially robbed and denuded any political power and momentum in favour of multiculturalism and secularism.
By the same token, Lohia’s project of the OBC as the key political subject of Indian democracy has prevailed and become all too dominant. The Socialist belief in this project was certainly ratified in the 1990s as OBC parties denied political hegemony to the BJP. Today, as the OBC is courted by and increasingly coalesced within the folds of Hindutva, it renders that initial belief and victory all too pyrrhic. In hindsight, it seems romantic at best and cynical at its worst to have imagined that OBC or Mandal politics alone would be a sufficient barricade against the majoritarian politics of Hindutva.
What of Nehru then and now?
For a start, Lohia protested all too much about Nehru’s so-called English ways that branded him as un-Indian by Lohia’s latter-day followers. An almost unbearable degree of self-awareness of his alienation from the so-called ordinary Indian or aam admi occasioned Nehru’s entry into politics. Nehru’s Autobiography testifies as much. By his own admission, if MK Gandhi was the true ‘soul’ of India, then Nehru consciously fashioned himself as the body and vehicle for its realisation.
Today, Nehru’s Socialism is a persistent taunt to brand his years as the ‘bad’ era of the Indian economy and has become standard currency of lazy commentary and political sound bites. Strikingly, Nehru’s own Socialism was dealt a death blow not by any clever slurs by Lohia from the political side-lines. But rather by Congress grandees who were both decidedly more consequential and conservative. Nehru’s two big-ticket reforms—one, the Hindu Code Bill helmed by BR Ambedkar for property and better conjugal rights for women, and two, the Zamindari Abolition Act—were both scuppered and aborted by political heavyweights such as Purushottam Das Tandon, Rajendra Prasad and GB Pant. It was a thorough inside job! If anything, the 1950s were arguably the high-water mark for conservatism in India that left the first prime minister outmanoeuvred by his own party members.
Nostalgia for Nehru and any viral footage only highlights the vast gulf between the Nehru Era and the Modi Age. The first principles of a multicultural and just democracy can no longer be advocated let alone advanced by political opportunism or pleas to the past. The ideological clarity of Hindutva is now only matched by its aggressive pursuit by fully committed cadres. The aam admi too is potently back, this time adding more ideological confusion than Lohia and his powerless but ultimately dangerous followers could have ever dreamt of. The idea of India now demands total political reinvention, forsaking fair weather friends and, dare I say, consigning Lohia to the library.
Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.