Why is Jawaharlal Nehru a thorn in their flesh?

Why is Nehru being targeted so viciously by the ruling dispensation 58 years after his death?

President Eisenhower greets Jawaharlal Nehru at White House, Dec. 1956
President Eisenhower greets Jawaharlal Nehru at White House, Dec. 1956

Kumar Ketkar

Why is Nehru being targeted so viciously by the ruling dispensation 58 years after his death? He is not here to answer the wild allegations and demeaning attacks on him, but he still looms like a spirit they must exorcise, because the Hindutva project cannot succeed till the idea of India associated with that man, resting in the many folds of the national consciousness, has not been expunged. The barefaced lies about Nehru, coming out of the Sangh propaganda machinery, are the means to supplant that vision— Nehru’s vision of an inclusive, secular, rationalist, modern India, with a sense of its cultural continuity but of scientific temper—with their own Hindu supremacist bile.

The RSS has forever been critical of Nehru, but their attacks on the man became more strident and sinister after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014. Right from its inception in 1925, the RSS was anti-Gandhi, and soon after, anti-Nehru. It’s the RSS, whose troll armies fake stories and morph photos of Nehru with missionary zeal, that has shaped the mind and politics of Modi. B. Goplakrishnan, an apparatchiks of the Sangh, trained in Nagpur, had published from Kerala an article in Kesari in October 2014 that the murder of Gandhiji was only half the job done; the other half, of killing Nehru, still remained.

In the face of this vicious misinformation campaign and the hijack of mainstream media, it’s necessary that some spirited attempts are made to reaffirm the truth, especially for the post-Independence generations of Indians whose discovery of India is threatened by this malign propaganda.

Narendra Chapalgaonkar, now 84, a former Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, has taken on the challenge to write a forthright book on Nehru’s pioneering role in various fields—from the economy to science, to culture, to the making of a federal polity. While it’s not polemical, it does confront and respond to the vengeful attacks on Nehru. It’s good the title is in Marathi (soon to be translated into English) because Maharashtra is the epicentre (the RSS headquarters being in Nagpur) of the venomous campaign against Nehru.

The leadership and cadre of the Sangh was, by definition and diktat, upper caste Brahmins. All important institutions and government agencies are essentially run or managed by this community— from the media to the judiciary, to top bureaucracy, schools and higher academia. The anti-Gandhi, anti-Nehru virus, injected in this community in the 1930s, has now assumed monstrous proportions, its virulent spread made possible by BJP’s troll armies and the Modi regime’s capture of the media.

Nearly the entire RSS leadership and most Sangh activists come from Maharashtra’s upper caste, middle class intelligentsia. The mindscape of the Marathi middle class intelligentsia is filled with this poison; it’s no surprise that Nathuram Godse came from this class. Being a direct, plainspoken, historically accurate biography in their first language, Chapalgaonkar’s Pantpradhan Nehru is a much-needed and timely addition to the canon of Nehru literature.

B.S. Moonje, founder and ideologue of the RSS, had long sessions with Benito Mussolini in 1931. He was consulting the fascist dictator about creating a structure for the Sangh. Is it just coincidence that Nehru declined Mussolini’s invitation around the same time, even when he was in Rome, not once, but twice? Nehru said he couldn’t shake hands with a fascist ruler.

When he visited the Soviet Union in 1927, Nehru was impressed with their Five Year Plans. By the time of the Lahore session of the Congress in 1929, under his presidentship—where the party adopted the Poorna Swaraj resolution—the Sangh had already started stalking him. By 1936, when the Congress had its Faizpur session, Nehru had successfully mobilised industrial workers and peasants, which put him in the crosshairs of the Sangh’s hardcore anti-Socialists.

In the 1930s and 40s, the freedom movement gave rise to other formidable political ideologies— socialist, communist, liberal (both left and right). These new political streams did suck some life out of the Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha’s Hindutva project, but the virus survived nevertheless. The assassination of Gandhi and the rejoicing by the upper castes in Maharashtra (and elsewhere in India) showed that the virus of hate had lost none of its potency.

Anti-Nehru sentiment and politics assumed various shapes and forms once he became Prime Minister. It did not remain the exclusive preserve of the communal Right; the Left contributed its fair share. For some sectarian communists, Nehru was the “running dog of capitalism”. For socialists like Ram Manohar Lohia, Nehru was compromising with big capital and the elites, paying no attention to the backward castes and classes.

For the economic rightwing, Nehru was a socialist and had no respect or concern for entrepreneurs. For Liberals, Nehru represented the Soviet straitjacket, the man to be blamed for the latter day licence-permit raj. For the sizeable US lobby among intellectuals and the media, Nehru was leaning towards the Soviet Union and Nonalignment was a sham. The agriculture lobby, consisting mainly of rich farmers, argued that Nehru was anti-farmer, pro-industry.

All these detractors, mainly from the educated, upper caste middle class, had created a large enough base for anti-Nehruvian politics. Many of them did not see Nehru as a villain or enemy of national sentiment, but they distanced themselves nevertheless from his leadership.

The art and culture world, however, saw in Nehru a modernist icon. His acolytes included film celebrities, singers, painters, theatrepersons, historians, public intellectuals—the likes of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, K.A. Abbas, Kumar Gandharva, Ravi Shankar, Amrita Pritam, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and many others.

Over time, especially after a surge in neoliberal economics created a new upwardly mobile Indian middle class, with links to wellheeled NRIs, the Nehruvian ethos lost some of its lustre. Individualism replaced norms of affirmative action and social justice; careerism replaced idealism; slanging matches a.k.a. TV debates replaced social dialogue; social media swamped social consciousness. In this surreal world, it’s not easy for Nehruvians to reclaim mindshare for that ethos, that liberal worldview, that brand of progressive nationalism.

In international relations, too, Nehru’s enlightened non-alignment has made way for a kind of unprincipled tactical dance between the US and Russia, cosying up to one while sizing up and supporting another, claiming a hollow “independence” that fools nobody. It has most certainly lost all its moral capital on the world stage and its leadership of the developing world.

The same lack of principles, the same low-level opportunism is manifest in our lurch towards neoliberalism, goaded by corporate sharks, while wearing the mask of an ‘open economy’. The MSME sector, which provides livelihoods to large swathes of our population, is facing ruin even as crony capital spreads its tentacles. The counterpoising balance of a mixed economy has been abandoned as a relic and the welfare edifice is teetering even as India crows about overtaking the GDP of the UK.

Though Chapalgaonkar’s book does not engage with these themes as a confrontation with the current regime and its politics, it does reaffirm the key tenets of Nehru’s philosophy and policies, and is, by that token, a timely intervention. We should remember that the Sangh project to discredit Nehru is not merely about the man nor even about the Congress or the Gandhis, but about eradicating, if they can, the Nehruvian idea of India, for that is what stands in the way of their majoritarian Hindu supremacist fantasy.

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Published: 14 Nov 2022, 4:00 PM