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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 40, September 27, 2014

Changing the Character of Political Discourse

Sunday 28 September 2014


by Arun Srivastava

Narendra Modi, an RSS pracharak, could not be expected to possess a broader view of the national and global perspective as Atal Behari Vajpayee had. Modi suffered from a sense of personality complex but strove hard to project himself as the independent, new face of the Indian as well as Hindutva politics. He followed the political line: if you have to occupy the centre-stage in the political arena oppose and deride all, challenge any person who crosses you. He has been precisely following this dictum. Ever since he became the Chief Minister of Gujarat he was striving to create a space for himself. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 is testimony to this. He wanted to build his own support-base instead of relying on the traditional RSS and BJP followers. The process of his elevation to the office of the Prime Minister underlines this trait. He was conscious of the fact that if he had to make his own mark on the political system of the country, he had to pursue the aforemen-tioned course. He even did not subscribe to the values and politics of Vajpayee and Advani. At the macro level he might have got his sustenance from the Hindutva of the RSS, but a number of incidents point to the fact that it was his personal self-interest that guided and shaped his politics.

He was clear that if at all he has to emerge as the tallest Hindutva leader he would have to oppose socialism and secularism, the basic components of the Indian polity and its cultural ethos. For this it was necessary to oppose the Nehruvian model of socio-economic discourse and also politics. He had learnt the lesson from the decline of Vajpayee and Advani, how both the leaders were marginalised by the RSS for nurturing a soft feeling towards secularism and the Nehruvian discourse. Direct opposition to the Nehruvian philosophy might have boome-ranged which was why he attacked it from behind the façade of ineptness and failures of the Nehruvian model of governance. Ironically, Nehru is today remembered for his failures rather than his achievements, specially his obsession with state planning that eventually choked the Indian economy in a maze of controls. Backed by Right-wing economists and intellec-tuals Modi succeeded in reinforcing the belief in the minds of the common Indian that Nehru and the Nehruvian policies were primarily res-ponsible for the present mess.

Modi knew that any kind of sympathy or softness towards the Nehruvian policies would prove suicidal for him. His mode and style of campaigning during the Lok Sabha elections provided enough insight into the fact that he treated himself as above the equals; not one among the equals. The enormity of his political clout could be assessed from the simple fact that he even debunked and insulted senior leaders of the party posing no challenge to his authority. The question then arises: what was so special about him that none could muster courage to speak on his face.

His political and ideological indoctrination positioned him as the enemy of the Nehruvian discourse which is tolerant in nature and based on the principles of secularism, egalitarianism, socialism and humanism. From the day Modi was sworn in as the Prime Minister he had made a point to deride the Nehruvian model. In fact Modi epitomises the saffron challenge to the Nehruvian consensus. It would not be feasible to analyse Nehru without compre-hending his socialist politics, policies and programmes. Academics and intellectuals opposed to Nehru argue that just after India achieved independence, Nehru should have followed the road of free market. In their quest to impose their Right-wing Hindutva economic philosophy they tend to ignore the then prevailing ground realities. In the fifties not only India but even other free countries could not have dared to become capitalist-roaders. India would have stood isolated. The fundamen-tals of development which formed the foundation for launching reforms would not have been there. India would have turned into a banana republic. It is much easier to blame in retrospect.

It is simply foolish to suggest that Nehru erred by not listening to C Rajagopalachari’s advice to follow the free market. Rajagopalachari quit the Congress in 1959 to establish the Swatantra Party, espousing economic liberalism. Unfortunately his ideals and ideas were not even subscribed by the private sector. If the people at that point of time believed that India should opt for a free market policy then certainly the Swatantra Party would have emerged as a major political force. But it did not.

The Nehruvian concept was essentially about nation-building. He realised that India could hold its own in the world only if its citizens developed a new national identity that went beyond the old tribal loyalties, build modern industry to give its economy strategic depth rather than stay happy selling plastic toys to the world, and a new scientific outlook that was suitable for an ambitious nation. What followed were steel mills, big dams, research laboratories, the space programme and new universities.The economic strategy was quite correctly based on the assumption that India cannot overcome the menace of poverty without faster economic growth. Nehru was the socialist who laid the foundations of capitalist India.

Modi must be aware that Nehru’s initial strategy paid off. India experienced an economic boom in the Nehru years. It was during the period of Indira Gandhi that the private sector became restive and started accusing the state of denying them the opportunity to grow. In 2012-13 India again witnessed a similar situation. The private, now the corporate, sector was complaining lack of government response to their needs and accused the government of suffering with policy paralysis. It is a fact that the private or corporate sector does not look beyond its own vested interest. Its claim of concern for India and its people and also performing the task of social responsibility are fake, an eye-wash. The money which they donate towards their social responsibility is collected from the common people, the purchaser, by levying them. They want to thrive at the cost of the poor people.

One thing is quite noticeable. They have been opposed to any government initiative which aimed at benefiting the poor. Recently they and their loyal intellectuals severely criticised the Food Security Bill. They even opposed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Surprisingly, Modi has been non-committal about implementing the Food Security Act. He was also contemplating to slash the budgetary resources to the NREGA. His cohorts have been accusing it as leading to a loss of government resources. Some BJP-ruled States, like Madhya Pradesh, have already slashed the budgetary allocation. It would be wrong to say that Nehru left behind an economy that eventually suffocated because of excessive controls. It is also alleged that India ended up with a high-cost industrial sector protected from global competition. But it is a fact that the Birlas, Goenkas and Tatas laid the foundation of their empires during the Nehru era. During those years not only Nehru but many other leaders of the former colonies followed a similar development strategy, someone like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. It was only in the 1960s that countries such as South Korea began to switch their economic strategy.

Politics does not exist in isolation; it is not “trishanku”. The nature and content of the politics of a country is defined and shaped by the economic development and growth of that country. Liberalisation and reforms have changed the political and economic contours of the country. The urban middle class, which was still in the nascent stage during the Nehru era, has now acquired a definite character. India is rearing to join the rank of developed countries. Little doubt that the finance which has been floating around in India had a major impact on devising the mode of politics. But at the same time it does not mean that the basics of politics have undergone complete change or we should outright abdicate them.

The Jana Sangh in its new avtar of the BJP has been a rootless party. Till the eighties it could not connect with the people of India. It has earned the notoriety of being a communal party, simply interested in rousing communal passions and indulging in violence. The party has no relationship with the religo-political-social ethos of the country. An insight into its political journey would make it clear that after traversing through the streets of the nationalist economy, and Gandhian economy it has courted the corporate crony capitalism in the guise of the Hindutva economy.

The Congress turning Left was a historical necessity. Now in the wake of liberalisation and reforms the Congress has been trying to become a capitalist-roader. In fact the confusion whether the party should continue to uphold its socialist policies or outright go for capitalist mode of politics was primarily responsible for the pathetic defeat of the party in the Lok Sabha elections. The Congress leadership could not evolve a pragmatic line. It would be also wrong to construe that the people of the country, especially the urban middle class, had opted for capitalist-oriented politics as the BJP could manage a meagre 31 per cent of the total vote. Still 69 per cent of the people are not in favour of the political agenda set by Narendra Modi.

On August 15, addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Lal Quila, Modi chose to strike at Nehru and the Nehruvian philosophy by announcing the dismantling of the Planning Commission. No doubt the functioning of the Commission was often questioned. It was also alleged that it failed to meet the aspirations of the people. Yet the fact remained that the Commission was the only available mechanism to undertake the development of the country. In 2008 the USA suffered a massive setback to its economy due to the collapse of the Lehman Bank. The Indian rupee is guided by the rise and fall of the dollar. But evcn in this situation, the Indian economy came out of the problems unscathed. It was only because our basic structures and financial institutions were quite strong to withstand the economic quake. The credit must go to the Nehruvian philosophy. Now the corporate sector is pressurising the Modi Government to make the banking sector follow the market dictates. Little doubt this would imply that one day the entire Indian banking system would turn bankrupt. We ought to take a lesson from the bankruptcy of the Lehman Bank.

Some academics close to Modi allege that the Planning Commission was an unconstitutional body. This is nothing but an attempt to vilify it by the protagonists of the Hindutva and corporate lobby. For them it was a communist structure and hence it ought to be smashed. However, the burial of the Commission will witness the emergence of a real unconstitutional authority in the form of vesting the powers and responsibilities to a group of corporate players. They would now decide the destiny of the poor people of the country.

Every ruler tries to leave behind his own legacy. Modi is an ambitious person and would certainly like to do that. But in the process he has been eroding the basic societal values and relations. The RSS is expecting from Modi to comprehensively change the political consensus of the country. Even after six decades of Nehru’s death, the Nehruvian consensus remains a driver of our politics, an idea formidable enough for Modi to feel threatened by. While he is on the course to dismantle the Nehruvian ideas, he has not been circumspect of his intentions to foist the Hindutva philosophy. This he intends to accomplish through his “development”, mantra which is autocratic in nature. The Indian polity and social traditions have been soft and docile in nature. These accommodated diverse ideas and thoughts. But through his autocratic functioning Modi is striving to kill and destroy these sophisticated feelings. In his rule there is no place of dissent. The worst has been happe-ning in Uttar Pradesh. It has become the laboratory to experiment with politics of hate and divisive politics with Amit Shah as the laboratory assistant.

Nevertheless, if Modi wants to build a new republic, he cannot think of building the structure on the foundation of hate politics. It is his feeling of insecurity that has been haunting him and making him scared of the Nehruvian approach. He ought to know that everything in India is not Nehruvian. There are others too and he must ensure guarantee of the fundamental rights of the people of the country. He must outline his plan and concept of modern India. With the overwhelming mandate Modi has been conspiring to deviate from the ideals for which India stood. Nonetheless, will Modi change the political discourse and create a new ‘Republic’? Will India be ‘Modi-fied’?

Interestingly the Hindutva protagonists have termed Modi’s rise as India’s second ‘Republic’. Some have described it as India’s second independence. The real face of Modi’s ‘Republic’ is slowly becoming clear. Though from the Red Fort he spoke of an inclusive approach, his recent steps do not speak of inclusiveness. The prevailing condition in India could be traced to the backdrop of the developments that had taken place in Egypt and Syria during the last decade. A Republic cannot be created. It is not simply a structure of bricks and cement. Human dignity and its participation in the process is key to its success.

They see many virtues in Modi, including signs of ‘moderation’ and restraint. Some even speak of the ‘two Modis’—one responsible for 2002, and the other who is no longer anti-Muslim and might become ‘remorseful’ about 2002. One analyst lavished praise on Modi for not mentioning the BJP’s trademark, that is, the ‘Trident’-Hindutva issues: building a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya; abrogation of Article 370 pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir; and imposition of a Uniform Civil Code. All the earlier manifestos were replete with the three issues. They termed ‘Sanatana Dharma’ syno-nymous with ‘Indian nationalism’, declared that ‘Shri Ram lies at the core of Indian consciousness’, equated ‘the Hindu world view’ with ‘cultural nationalism’, and deman-ded a Ram temple, abrogation of Article 370, and a commission to ‘draft a Uniform Civil Code’. Facing high decibel criticism for being involved of the Gujarat pogrom, Modi has been quite cautious in projecting himself as the yes-man of the RSS. While he projected himself as an independent individual, the fact is that he was at the beck and call of the RSS and implemented those policies and progra-mmes which he was asked to do by the Sangh. The RSS is fully complicit in Modi’s plans to weed out all the personnel and policies associated with the Atal Beihari Vajpayee legacy, and build a primarily Sangh-based party around Modi.

Modi’s Teacher’s Day interaction with students across the nation suggests he is doing his best to become the new Nehru, trying to burnish his image in much the same way Nehru did. This is ironic. He has done his best to smear Nehru’s legacy. Modi did not mention Nehru in his Independence Day speech. It was very obvious why Modi appropriated a day meant for teachers to impose his thoughts on children. He wished to superimpose himself upon Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and obliterate Chacha Nehru from the memories of children. He certainly could not have then used Nehru’s birthday for that purpose. It is a paradox that Modi is paranoid with Nehru and the Nehruvian consensus but at the same time wants to project himself as Chacha Nehru. He was trying to wear big shoes indeed and, whatever his paranoia about the dynasty, it is never going to be easy to destroy or erase either the name of Nehru or the Nehru legacy from this country (and I am not talking about Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi here).

The Modi Government is also planning to remove the names of Nehru-Gandhi from several government schemes, like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). This simply reflects the psyche that has been working to boost and project the image of Modi. It is worth recalling that veteran BJP leader LK Advani once remarked that Narendra Modi was a great event manager. Modi organises events in a grand manner which often ensures that style makes up for substance. The way Modi converted an innocuous calendar event, Teacher’s Day, into ‘Modi’s day out with school kids’ exemplifies his skills. This event was converted into a symbol of “Chacha Modi” talking to school kids via Doordarshan.

It is yet to be seen how Modi changes Nehru’s vision for India that rested on four pillars—multi-party democracy; state guarantees for the equality of all citizens regardless of gender, class and religion; a mixed economy with the state playing a ‘commanding role’ in promoting industrial development; a foreign policy based on pan-Asianism and equidistance from the two superpowers. The RSS must look into the consequences of seeking to posit Modi against Nehru. Nevertheless, one should compliment Modi for bringing back Nehru on to the centre-stage.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at

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