The Past as Future

The Past as Future

The current government’s attempt to disassociate India’s destiny from Nehru’s legacy could actually see his resurgence as the patron of secularism and social democracy.

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Voice of the nation: Nehru addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, 1963.

In the beginning of his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera describes the transformation of a photograph as a motif for his home country, modern Czechoslovakia. In the original, the photograph has Vladimir Clementis and Klement Gottwald, leaders of the revolution, in the frame. Two years later, power equations in the Republic of Bavaria, the fictional nation in the book, have changed and the changes reflect on the iconic photograph. The new photograph that circulates now has only Gottwald; Clementis has been erased from the frame by the state. Did Kundera anticipate post-2014 India? Each time the Modi government reads the history of Independent India, there seems to be an attempt to erase a seminal figure from the frame. Ironically, the attempt to obliterate Jawaharlal Nehru from the national imagination has the potential to resuscitate him and encourage a new generation to discover a radical political figure in his persona.

His long years as prime minister, followed by the stints of his daughter and grandson, had turned Nehru into a symbol of the establishment. He was blamed for establishing a political dynasty and turning over the Congress party to his family for keeps. The communists exposed the limitations of his social democracy and when elected to government turned out to be better Nehruvians than his own party leaders; socialists like Ram Manohar Lohia exposed the elitist character of his cosmopolitanism; his own party, the Congress, abandoned the principles of constitutionalism, civil liberties, secularism and command economy he professed.

However, none, including the non-Congress governments, from the Janata Dal in 1977 to the Vajpayee ministries in the late 1990s, ever really disowned Nehru’s legacy in the making of modern India. Even as India moved away from Nehruvian ideals, beginning with Indira Gandhi, governments endorsed Nehru, which ensured that he continued to be a representative of the state. His successors froze him into statues and stamps. He turned stale as a figure of the establishment. The radical political figure who toured the partisan lines during the Spanish Civil War, wrote about the problems of peasantry and advocated building a dogma-less socialism was forgotten. The establishment turned him into a sanitised and boring chapter in history. He was reduced to Indira Gandhi’s father and Rajiv-Sanjay’s grandfather. He became the patriarch responsible for all that India had failed to be.

Narendra Modi’s tenure as prime minister has been a departure from previous governments in its approach to Nehru. Under Modi, there seems to be a clear attempt to disassociate India’s destiny from Nehru’s legacy. Modi, like Nehru, believes in the greatness of Indian civilisation and seeks a place for India in the global world order. But Modi’s India is not a restatement of the Nehruvian idea of India, but a Hindutva superpower nation that privilleges a particular set of Hindu traditions over a mosaic of diverse faiths and traditions.


Nehru’s India sought a place at the high table of global affairs by proposing a new moral order of international relations: the idea of the Third World as a solidarity of Asian and African nations that emerged free by fighting imperialism and colonialism was the egalitarian ideal of the new world that Nehru proposed. Bandung, Afro-Asian conferences and non-alignment represented a departure from Cold War politics. These may have been exercises in idealism, and, ultimately, unsuccessful projects, but they were indeed worth dreaming about and reflected the spirit of the time. Sunil Khilnani, in his essay on VK Krishna Menon, recalls Henry Kissinger’s view of the non-alignment policy. “However irritating to Cold War America, it was a wise cause for an emerging nation. With a then-nascent military establishment and underdeveloped economy, India would have been a respected but secondary ally. As a free agent it could exercise a much wider-reaching influence,” Kissinger wrote in retrospect. Modi’s India seeks heft on the basis of its economic potential and offers itself as a strategic ally of the US in South Asia.

If Nehru emphasised national centralised planning and set up the Planning Commission, the present government has been focussed on dismantling those institutions and processes. Nehru championed civil liberties and founded the Indian Civil Liberties Union in 1936, while the present regime would want rights to be subservient to the flag.

Secularism was a cornerstone of Nehruvian India and he was deeply distrustful of organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “The call for the establishment of a Hindu state is a reactionary slogan and will bang the door on all future progress. The Congress wants to establish a secular, democratic state in this country,” he stated in 1947. This is a commitment unlikely to come from the current political dispensation.

A Nehru who would issue a statement in support of Russian dissident writer Boris Pasternak’s right to freedom of expression to the annoyment of India’s ally, the Soviet Union, stands apart in a time when the state prefers to gloss over the murder of radical writers. The Nehru who reached out to his ideological opponents to make the Congress and his cabinets more representative of the country will be an anachronism in today’s India.

Modi’s silences about Nehru and the government’s desire to erase him from a possible mural of Indian nation-building indicate that they see him as an ideological foe. As Hindutva becomes the establishment, Nehru is likely to find release from the burden of governmental patronage. Gandhi has had such a makeover as a thinker-activist. The socialist tradition in India, especially Lohia, rescued him from the governmental Gandhi he had become, and a new spectrum of activists searching for alternatives to capitalist modernity and money-driven electoral democracy have refashioned him as a politician of the future. Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was seen as a provincial figure in his life time, has transformed into a pan-Indian icon of rights-centric, emancipatory politics and constitutional democracy.

Nehru’s resurgence could be as a guiding light of secularism and social democracy. He may be reasssessed as the sentinel of a liberal state proud of its roots without being chauvinistic, secular without being anti-religion, and protective of democracy, its processes and institutions. Nehru represents a civility in politics that can still possibly inspire a future generation.