Going by reports from Bihar, the dissatisfaction with the Nitish Kumar government seems quite palpable. Putting the blame on Lalu Prasad’s rule, invoking memories of “jungle raj” doesn’t seem to be working for the ruling combine. On the other hand, according to recent surveys, at least 70 per cent respondents were satisfied with the Narendra Modi government’s handling of COVID-19, including the forced migration caused by the lockdown.
This reflects the success of the BJP’s media management. It will be wise to face the fact that Modi has been able to convince people — mainly Hindus, but, mind you, not merely the upper-caste ones — that a process of redesigning the nation is under way. The basic “maladies”, secularism — in whatever manner one defines it — and liberalism are “being taken care of”. Derisive worlds like “sickular” have been put in circulation in a systematic way. While most liberal and democratic voices have discarded the idea of a grand narrative and embraced politics of identity, Modi has gone back to the idea of nation in a big way, convincing many that India as a nation is under grave threat. “In such a situation, ‘we the nationalistic Indians’ must not crib about difficulties like price rise, mismanagement of COVID-19 and other disasters. Let us stand by the PM instead of supporting his critics,” argue his supporters.
Herein lies the secret of Modi’s hold on people’s imagination. All his faults, blunders and missteps, including demonetisation and the abject surrender to China, are either forgotten or forgiven as “the man is sincerely trying to save and, in fact, rebuild the nation”. Under Modi, the BJP has perfected the RSS’s traditionally effective communication strategy. Apart from WhatsApp, the supposedly respectable and reliable media like TV have been put in service to construct a regime of violent “debates” and shape a “low information” and a “low-expectation voter”. The Congress is not able to make a serious dent in Modi’s popular appeal, despite Rahul Gandhi consistently talking sense, arguing rationally on issues of governance, economy and national security.
The fundamental reason for this failure is the inability to put issues in a framework of preserving and strengthening the Indian nation. Even the humblest and most disadvantaged Indian, at some level of consciousness, is concerned with the security and future of India. Contrary to the dominant liberal wisdom, the days of the “nation” are not over. In fact, due to the liberal obsession with politics of cultural identities at the cost of economic and common social issues, questions around the nation have come back with a bang all over the world. It has been theoretically argued that the nation is just an “imagined community”. Indeed it is, and that is why it is disastrous to ignore the social and moral orientation of this imagination. A modern nation evolves out of historical memories, which are ultimately negotiated in accordance with the kind of future vision, the “imagination” it is built upon.
Jawaharlal Nehru was one Indian, who reflected deeply on these questions. He was a rationalist, but never dismissed emotions, sentiments and images associated with cultural memories. He did not do away with the image of Bharat Mata, but infused it with a vision of a democratic and inclusive India. He was clear that while you cannot “live in the past”, you cannot ignore it either. Multi-level plurality is the most basic fact of life in India and any future imagined by erasing that plurality is going to be a disaster. Pakistan was “taught” this lesson within 10 years of its existence, though it refuses to learn. Ironically, we seem eager to follow the same path now.
“Plurality is a defining feature of Indian nation, but it cannot be an excuse to tamper with the integrity of the nation”: This was the gist of the message that Nehru and Patel conveyed unambiguously in the fraught years from 1947-1950. They refused to send Indian troops to Kashmir unless the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession and nipped in the bud the designs of the Nizam, while also putting down a communist insurgency with a firm hand. Nehru never lost sight of what he called “India’s destiny” — a major role in shaping the future of the world.
The Congress seems to have lost touch with Nehruvian nationalism. The Nehruvian “idea of India” was not merely a tribute to the plurality and diversity of Indian tradition and culture; more importantly, it was a vision of a sensitive, inclusive, just and, of course, strong and assertive nation. This is what Nehru evocatively termed as the “discovery of India”. Whatever the votaries of identity politics might say, the idea of a nation, and imagined or real threats to it, continues to haunt popular consciousness even in post-industrial societies, not to talk of a post-colonial society like India. At stake, then, is the core content of the idea of India as a nation. To save and strengthen that content, it is necessary to reinvent the Nehruvian approach to nation-building. It certainly does not imply mimicry — that would turn history into tragedy, maybe even a farce.
The point is to “reinvent” the sense of the historical destiny of India that is so strong in Nehru’s worldview. This idea has to live up to the challenges of the present moment. It has to be more inclusive in nature, more accommodative in approach and, at the same time, more assertive. If India has to survive as a secular democracy with vibrant institutions, there is no other way but to take the Nehruvian approach to nation-rebuilding.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 3, 2020 under the title ‘Needed: Reinventing Nehru’. Agrawal is a writer, historian and author of Who is Bharat Mata?, an edited collection of writings on Jawaharlal Nehru
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