Political shifts have challenged the reputation of Jawaharlal Nehru as the beacon of modern Indian nationhood. As Independent India approaches 70, many of the fundamentals that defined the Nehruvian consensus have been questioned and discarded. This in itself is not a regressive development. The post-1945 world that defined Nehru’s outlook has changed inexorably. Consequently, it is only natural that attempts to convert Nehruvian thought into a national dogma have faltered.
Yet, there are themes that endure. Nehru’s intellectual vanity and his disdain for those who didn’t share his European modernism helped suppress many indigenous currents of political thought that had shaped the nationalist awakening. However, Nehru never succeeded in killing off all challenges to his Reformation; his undeniable political dominance merely drove awkward alternatives underground, from where they emerged only after his death.
The near-unchallenged political dominance of some six decades led to the Nehruvian consensus becoming common sense among the intelligentsia, particularly those in the liberal professions. This section has guarded its echo chamber fiercely and denied institutional space to those that don’t quite fit into the Left-liberal mould. Consequently, the challenge to the Nehruvian order has come from quarters that have a marked anti-intellectual bias, not least because their relevance stemmed from electoral politics. A caricatured view of the other has often prevented a meaningful conversation between two sides of a cultural and political divide. The tendency to talk at each other has been reinforced by media interventions: the English-language media revelling in condescension and insolence, and the social media falling back on conspiracy theories and outright abuse.
Nowhere are the fault lines more marked than on the touchy question of secularism that has divided India sharply for the past three decades. However, the problem of how best to define national identity and negotiate relations between different religious communities is as old as the Republic itself.
As early as 1958, in a conversation with the French intellectual Andre Malraux, Nehru had identified two of his foremost challenges: “Creating a just state by just means… [and] creating a secular state in a religious country.” In 1976, at the height of the Emergency, in a bid to stymie all debate permanently, Indira Gandhi enshrined these Nehruvian ideals into the Constitution. The 42nd Amendment injected “socialism” and “secularism” into the directive principles.
Far from making either socialism — now almost entirely discarded — or secularism a principle cast in stone, the attempt to codify a nebulous principle involving neutrality in matters of religion and non-discrimination ended up creating more complications.
Whereas the pre-1976 spats over secular principles were over issues such as cow slaughter and Hindu personal laws, the subsequent contests became far more bitter and divisive. The Ayodhya agitation that gripped India for nearly a decade was posited as a contest between “real” and “pseudo” secularism. Since 1996, “secular unity” has entered the political vocabulary and created a new category of untouchables, with Narendra Modi now being the lead pariah.
The problem, it would seem, stems from a novel definition of secularism. In his extremely sympathetic biography of India’s first prime minister, S Gopal noted that “in Nehru’s view the responsibility for communal peace rested primarily on the Hindus”.
Like Sartre, to whom the Jewish question was a gentile one, to Nehru the Muslim question was a Hindu one. The test of social solidarity was the feeling of confidence given to the minorities. Whenever there was a communal disturbance, Nehru presumed the failure of the district authorities and the activity of Hindu communal elements”.
Curiously, by putting the onus entirely on Hindus to safeguard enlightenment, Nehru was not necessarily reposing faith on a tradition of tolerance and open-mindedness. “In practice”, he wrote to Kailash Nath Katju in November 1953, “the Hindu is certainly not tolerant and is more narrow-minded than almost any person in any other country… It does not help much to talk of Hindu philosophy, which is magnificent. The fate of India is largely tied up with the Hindu outlook. If the present Hindu outlook does not change radically, I am quite sure that India is doomed.”
The striking condescension towards the majority who elected him to power apart, Nehru’s formulations — on which the edifice of Indian secularism was built —pointed to a fundamental moral problem. There is a legitimate educative and reforming role that creative elites play in societies, even democracies.
However, when that elite disavows popular mentalities and transforms itself into an autonomous and superior entity based on a sense of entitlement, it invariably generates a backlash.
The legacy of the freedom movement and Indira Gandhi’s political dexterity sustained a Congress monopoly over power for long, but it couldn’t prevent the million mutinies. Once India moved out of the orbit of state dominance and witnessed relative prosperity, questions of national identity began engaging popular attention.
To suggest that India has become more Hindu as it has become more prosperous and democratic does not in any way imply a rejection of the secular idea. What it does imply is that secularism has discarded some of its patronising one-sidedness. The proprietorship of the Republic has been hugely enlarged.
Yet, there are underlying tensions created by a widening gulf between a cosmopolitan outlook and mentalities more rooted in indigenous traditions. These tensions aren’t new but they demand unending conversations between the conflicting sides. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening. A big change in Indian politics demands less certitudes and more openness.
(The author is a Rajya Sabha MP, senior journalist, and political commentator)