I have a vague and nebulous memory of India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. I was a tad older than a toddler and my father, a veteran professor of economics in a popular local college of Bhagalpur, Bihar, was a bundle of profuse energy that belied his expansive girth. Cradling me in his large, jelly-like arms he proudly thrust his youngest son on the arms of India’s distinguished Prime Minister, easily the most exemplary statesman-leader India has seen since its tryst with destiny commenced at the midnight hour on August 15, 1947. As I write this piece on the escalating threat to eviscerate Nehruvian thoughts, practices and philosophy in India, I am both overwhelmed and saddened.
I sometimes wonder what Nehru would have contemplated had he heard the shrill, vacuous hyper-nationalist call that has become the dominating impulse of our daily lives. Military tanks have moved into campuses, ostensibly to inspire passionate feelings of patriotism. Bizarre as it may seem, universities are meant for intellectual hailstorms, wherein the radical Left and the belligerent Right often clash, while the moderate Centrists do the tight-rope walk. It is a perpetual tug-of-war that encapsulates a society’s transition, especially amidst a maelstrom of rising divisiveness.
For Nehru, unlike the current czars of cultural nationalism who define it by their Hindutva tinted-glasses, it was implicit that there was no identity politics in defining Indian nationalism; it manifested in our religious plurality, our social and cultural diversity. None could claim sole prerogative rights based on majoritarian numbers that they were first-among-equals in deciding the course of India’s trajectory because India was and would always be committed to secular nationalism.
Today, especially post-2014, Narendra Modi’s carefully constructed political model that has allowed the communal temperature to be maintained at a disconcerting level even as mass media is unleashing a fusillade of manufactured good news that is meant to lead to India’s transformative growth, poses a treacherous challenge to Nehruvian ideas. And by default, to the idea of India.
Nehru had a steadfast belief in his political narrative; there was no alternative to a secular, liberal, tolerant, progressive India that had to transport millions of the suffering underprivileged in it’s long, arduous journey. Even today, it is astonishing that right-wing ideologues who have a pathological abhorrence for anything to do with Nehru, consider the idea of India an urban, elitist abstraction that is best suited for cocktail conversations in the much-maligned Lutyens Delhi. They miss the woods for the trees, because the fact is that India was providential to experience Nehru at the helm for 17 years. The task of shepherding a country from the oppressive darkness of post-colonial ravages, a savage post-Partition bloodbath amidst a world gripped by post-war reconstruction and political realignments was no easy task. But Nehru handled this complex peregrination of India into an uncharted territory with extraordinary finesse and with measured steps. He had his fair share of critics, from towering personalities like CR Rajagopalachari, Sheikh Abdullah, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, down to the perennially thin-skinned RSS and Hindu Mahasabha who found his resolute innermost conviction on secular oneness among Hindus and Muslims downright insufferable. But Nehru possessed a resolute vision; India’s ethos, values and character as enshrined in India’s Constitution were to him its stubborn, unshakeable foundations for the future; they were non-negotiable. There was no room for the Hindutva monolithic culture that the extremists propounded.
Nehru is being systematically assaulted through a carefully planted insidious campaign meant to vilify his remarkable political career, because he is a daylight reminder of monumental proportions to the RSS/BJP of what India truly represents, an all-encompassing catholic political ideology that captures its unique religious mélange. His occasional differences with Sardar Patel and Netaji Bose on sensitive issues were mischievously twisted to denigrate Nehru as a selfish man driven by unalloyed political ambition. All such ham-handed efforts have thoroughly boomeranged, because while government fiats can force change in school text-book curricula and even dictate prime-time TV hashtags, in the age of Big Data and internet archives, it is not possible to distort history. Truth, like the proverbial bad penny, has a habit of popping up.
Perhaps India had to remodel its imperatives to suit the globalisation wave after 1991. Non-alignment became less strategic in the post-Cold War era as we entered the Age of the sole superpower, with disastrous consequences. One may not agree with all of his decisions but his Nehruvian ideology has become our rock of Gibraltar, an indestructible and indelible part of India. It is not a sky-kissing statue, or a multi-coloured spectacle or a sight and sound show. It is a way of life. We live it every day, every night, with a subterranean belief in its innate eternal magic. It is also called the Idea of India. It lives on.