Now that the birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru is out of the way, it might be worth reflecting on the bitterness, rancour and downright abuse that characterised it during debates in TV studios, on social media and sometimes, even in print.
Even those of us who acknowledge Nehru’s contribution to the making of modern India concede that he made numerous mistakes. When it came to economic policy, he was often too influenced by the Fabian-Socialist approach to the issue. His hatred for the colonial powers that had ruled India for two centuries led him to view the Soviet Union in much too favourable a light. He was wrong about China: First too trusting and then, with the Forward Policy, needlessly provocative. His handling of the Kashmir issue was flawed. And so on.
But the level of bitterness that characterised the Nehru anniversary went far beyond any logical listing of his mistakes. Instead, those opposed to Nehru demonstrated an almost visceral hatred of him and his legacy. If facts got in the way of the debate, then they were quickly brushed aside and replaced with invective and abuse.
Why should a generation that had no real experience of Nehru’s style of governance feel such anger and bitterness towards a man whom most independent historians regard as one of the great figures of the 20th century?
I can think of three reasons, only one of which is vaguely honourable.
First of all, there is no doubt that, by the 1950s, a competing world view had emerged within India. Though this view is bogusly ascribed to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (who was a much more complex figure than his new-found admirers realise), it had many advocates. In this view, non-alignment was a mistake. The decision to build up a huge publicly-owned industrial infrastructure was an error. And the decision to declare Hindu-majority India as a secular country, defined not by religion but by an idea of India, was downright foolish and unfair to the Hindu majority.
But whenever parties that should have represented this view came to power, they could not counter the Nehru legacy. For instance India’s first BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee simply did not subscribe to this position. He may have had his own opinion about Nehru’s mistakes but as external affairs minister (1977-79), he stuck with non-alignment and then, as prime minister, rejected a religion-based approach to nationalism.
It is not clear where Narendra Modi stands on the issue (he has been uncharacteristically ambivalent) but there’s no doubt that many of his supporters believe that Modi’s victory is the triumph of an alternative view of India, one that rejects the Nehruvian model and celebrates a religion-heavy approach to Indian citizenship.
This is fair enough. If a competing ideology has finally occupied the mainstream, then perhaps its supporters are entitled to gloat a little.
But that doesn’t explain the rancour, the viciousness of the responses and the bitterness displayed by many of those attacking Nehru and especially by the angry army of abusive trolls on social media who spend their days posting abuse all the way from Vancouver to Versova.
That anger stems from two entirely separate factors.
The first is what many of the trolls call ‘Sickularism.’ Some Nehru-bashers are people who resent Islam, hate Muslims and blame most of the world’s ills on Islamic fanaticism. You have only to go on Twitter to see the extent to which abuse of Muslims and their religion — completely unacceptable in normal discourse — is rampant on social media. The abusers are not necessarily people who are worried about ISIS or al Qaeda. They just loathe Muslims and have no hesitation in saying so.
For such people, Nehru was the Appeaser-in-Chief. He was the man, they say, who betrayed Hindus to pamper Muslims. Just as liberals regard Indian secularism as among Nehru’s achievements, the trolls see it as his greatest crime against humanity. (Well, against Hindus at any rate). So, much of the abuse of Nehru stems not from any understanding of his successes and failures. It originates in hatred of Muslims. Nehru is blamed as the man who gave Muslims an equal stake in what should have been a Hindu country. Hence the names he is called on Twitter: Jawahar Khan, Jawahar Mohammed, etc.
There is another factor. The BJP has promised India a Congress-mukt Bharat. These days, the Congress has come to mean (especially to its opponents) the Gandhi family. If the Modi-bhakts are to attack the Gandhis (and there is no doubt that for some of them, hatred of the family is almost pathological), then they must start at the root. It does not matter to them whether Nehru intended to create a dynasty (the evidence is inconclusive). What matters is that he did. In their view, the family is a cancer at the heart of the Indian system and every element of that malignant growth must be pulled out, and that begins with Nehru.
So it doesn’t matter whether Nehru was right or wrong. Rather, in the manner that ancient and medieval Indian history is being rewritten to suit the political demands of the present, so modern Indian history must also be twisted to portray Nehru as a Muslim-loving Soviet stooge who failed India; his only achievement was to establish a dynasty which held India back from occupying its place as one of the world’s great post-Vedic superpowers.
The first reason for opposing Nehru is understandable. Triumphalism and gloating from an ideological faction that has finally come to power are common enough in politics. More troubling are the other two reasons. So much of the hatred stems not from any fair examination of Nehru’s achievements or failures, but from present-day hatreds: Hatred of Nehru’s descendants and hatred of Muslims.
It is worrying when a society cannot disentangle its past from its present. And it is even more worrying when a whole generation of trolls bases its view of India on nothing more than hatred.
Nehru deserves better. And so does Indian political discourse.
The views expressed by the author are personal