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TalkPoint: In many significant ways, Nehru’s vision for India seems passé

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On Jawaharlal Nehru’s 128th birth anniversary, many of his political, philosophical and cultural ideas appear to be under assault. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, is in danger of being ghettoised as merely a Congress party politician.

Will Nehru’s political and philosophical vision for India endure?

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1938, Jawaharlal Nehru declared, “There is no religious or cultural problem in India”. He went on to clarify:”What is called the religious or communal problem is really a dispute among upper-class people for a division of the spoils of office or of representation in a legislature. This will surely be settled amicably wherever it arises.”

Itihaas gavaah hai (History is witness) that the settlement nine years later was not amicable, and Nehru’s denial of differences did not help.

In the same article, Nehru spoke of Indian unity as ‘essentially cultural’ in ways that might gladden Savarkar’s heart (“India as a whole was their holy land”). These are the not-so-little incongruences in Indian politics that, 70 years later, we dare not discuss.

Here are other sharp perspectives on Nehru’s political and philosophical vision for India:

Shankar Saran: Hindi columnist and professor, Political Science, NCERT
Neera Chandhoke: National Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research
Jaithirth Rao: entrepreneur and writer
Mridula Mukherjee: political historian

However, given the present conjuncture in Indian politics, these are precisely the convergences we need to understand. Partition was hardly a consensual settlement of differences, but it did settle one thing: the divide between the Hindu Right and the Congress, that was glossed over even during the 1945 elections, when they forged a united front in Punjab, was sharpened in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination. Finally, the Congress could distance itself sharply from the RSS, beloved of refugees who were grateful for its assistance during their forced migration.

We tend to think of Nehru in ways that make him appear as a colossus among mere men. The truth was more complicated: Nehru’s vision and idea of India could only take shape to the extent that other strong men – Vallabhbhai Patel, B.R. Ambedkar, K.M. Munshi – allowed it room.

This becomes clear during the Constituent Assembly debates, and the first few amendments to the Constitution. India’s Constitution, then, was the product of many minds. In many significant ways – ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’, the Non-Aligned Movement – Nehru’s vision for India seems passé. Yet, his belief in some of the temples of modern India (IITs, if not large dams) continues to pay rich dividends some of the time.

Nehru’s vision for India, to the extent that it is embodied in the Constitution, will endure for as long as the Constitution of India endures.

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