The omission of Jawaharlal Nehru’s name from President Ram Nath Kovind’s inaugural speech attracted criticism from the Congress. Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, B R Ambedkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya were mentioned but not Nehru. The Congress was shocked.
Yet, it was fitting. The old order has collapsed. A new dispensation is in power. Raising the threat of communalism no longer has the bite Congress expects it to have. It is corruption which is the big worry of the new generation. It was this shift that propelled Nitish Kumar back to his old friends in the BJP/NDA.
This shift is crucial. The party that Nehru led for many years and the country he ruled between 1946 and 1964 were built on the pillars of democracy, rule of law, and the Constitution. Western-style secularism and liberalism (which had only shallow roots in India) were to be the guiding principles. He won three general elections in succession, the only leader to do so thus far. He bequeathed the country and the party to those he thought would preserve his legacy.
His name was evoked, but the edifice he had built was dismantled. Tolerance for opposite views within the party went with the break-up of the Congress in 1969. Constitutionalism went with the Emergency. The rule of law was given short shrift by his grandson Sanjay Gandhi, when as an unelected person he launched a sterilisation campaign against Muslim men.
Secularism for Nehru was a deeply held belief as he was a rationalist and an atheist. For his party, secularism was a vote-gaining ploy. When necessity for political gameplaying beckoned, his other grandson abandoned secularism by the decisions on Shah Bano and allowing shilanyas at Babri Masjid. The passive stance of Narasimha Rao when Babri Masjid was being destroyed sealed the cynicism which Nehru’s party had about his core philosophy.
The Congress was so sure of its hegemonic power that it never apologised either about the twin bad decisions of Rajiv Gandhi nor about Rao’s passivity. Secularism kept being repeated as a mantra but its meaning was merely chasing Muslim votes. No one had noticed that in an intensely religious society, where in private life Indians (including Congress leaders after Nehru) follow their traditional ways, secularism was just a superficial make-up, put on when going out to play politics. Indira Gandhi had gurus and swamis and visited temples ostentatiously. And why not? She was a Hindu, brought up as one and lived and died as one.
There is no local word for secularism in any of the languages. Jaw-breaking words such as sarva-dharma-samabhava or sarva-dharma-nirapekshata are not right. How did anyone expect the ordinary voter to know what was being said? If you probe Nehru’s personal behaviour you would label it nirdharmic (non-religious). It would make no sense to most Indians, and to the Westernised elite, only in their front rooms, not in the interior of their homes.
Congress hegemony ended in 2014. Narendra Modi won not on the grounds of secularism/communalism but on corruption and inclusive development. If you want to protect the lives of Muslims, or punish the cow vigilantes, argue on the basis of the rule of law and citizen rights enshrined in the Constitution, not secularism.