On 27 May 1964, the great freedom fighter, charismatic leader, a man of letters, Bon Vivant, global statesman, and the winner of three consecutive Lok Sabha elections, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in harness. The entire nation mourned and even his critics agreed his loss was irreplaceable. Nehru might have passed on. But the "ecosystem” that he and his admirers built, which is also called the "Nehruvian India”, dominated Indian politics, society, economy, and imagination for decades. Yet, almost to the day, 50 years after his death, the disintegration and destruction of Nehruvian India began on 26 May 2014.
That was the day Narendra Modi was sworn in as the Prime Minister of India in a glittering and star-studded ceremony at the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. In attendance were leaders of all South Asian countries, including the prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif.
Narendra Modi is such a polarising figure that it is virtually impossible to have a dispassionate debate about him and his deeds.
His legion of critics in India and beyond are convinced that Modi has already sneaked into pernicious fascism in such a manner that Indian democracy and secular values espoused since the times of Nehru have become a sham. His legion of fans in India and beyond are convinced Modi is doing what Nehru should have done since 1947: liberate Indic civilisation from the servitude of colonialism and lead a ground-up transformation of society and economy. The authors are not equipped to join this debate. The limited purpose of this feature is to highlight fundamental changes nudged by Modi that have shaken the foundations of “Nehruvian India”.
Breaking the Modi Myth Using Election Data
First, the authors would like to use electoral data to dispel a myth revolving around Narendra Modi both among his critics and fans: that he is a towering colossus in the Indian political landscape the way Nehru and Indira Gandhi were. Sure, he is currently the most popular political leader in India with jaw-dropping approval ratings. Yet, his electoral track record is not too great compared to that of India’s first prime minister. The Congress under Nehru never lost a Lok Sabha or Assembly (Except Kerala in 1957) election till he was alive. His daughter Indira doesn’t have a similar near 100% strike rate. Yet, barring Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, she led her party to victory in every corner of India.
What about Modi? No doubt he has won two consecutive Lok Sabha mandates and looks a good bet for 2024. But his performance in assembly elections is quite underwhelming. Under him, the BJP has lost Delhi twice, lost Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, lost Bihar once, barely eked out a victory in 2020, won fewer seats than Congress in Goa in 2017, almost lost Gujarat in 2017, failed to win West Bengal and Odisha and lost Himachal Pradesh. Barring Karnataka and perhaps Telangana to some extent, the BJP remains a marginal player in the South. If you believe the data, you will be compelled to point out to hysterical fans of Modi that he, at least electorally, is no match for Nehru and Indira.
Yet, he has taken steps that are demolishing “Nehruvian India”. The authors would like to clarify what Nehruvian India is. What Nehru started was indeed noble and with the best of intentions. A secular ethos where all religions were respected, a truly democratic approach, a free hand to constitutional bodies, an open approach to science and technology, an emphasis on merit and excellence, and an effort to build world-class institutions.
But even admirers of Nehru (the authors are) would agree that the Congress had made a mockery of such Nehruvian values by the 1980s. His daughter Indira Gandhi not only imposed the Emergency but also completely subverted the Supreme Court. She used Article 356 ruthlessly and frequently to dismiss elected state governments she didn’t like. Her son Rajiv passed an act in Parliament that revoked a progressive and liberal Supreme Court verdict that stated that divorced Muslim women like Shah Bano were entitled to alimony.
By then, academic, cultural, intellectual, and a host of other institutions were completely dominated by Left-leaning demagogues who have an unexplained dislike of all Hindu beliefs and practices. The rhetoric of secularism was intact, but it had become a hollow slogan. A backlash was inevitable, and it manifested in the form of the movement to “restore” the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. L K Advani merely rode the backlash; some other leader would have done it if he were not there.
The Fatal Errors of the UPA
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister of a majority NDA government in 1998, there were patchy and half-hearted efforts to change the “ecosystem”. Vajpayee couldn’t do much because his allies like Mamata Banerjee, M Karunanidhi, Farooq Abdullah, N Chandrababu Naidu, Nitish Kumar, and Ram Vilas Paswan among others wouldn’t allow him to. In any case, most left the NDA in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The UPA ruled for 10 years and actually implemented many good policies, including the RTI and MREGA with Sonia Gandhi as the head of the NAC. But the regime also made fatal political errors. The main one was the effort led by the likes of Digvijaya Singh to link Hindutva outfits with terrorism. The peak levels of travesty were reached when Singh participated in a book launch function in the aftermath of 26/11 I in which the book claimed the 2008 terror attacks that convulsed India were possibly an RSS conspiracy. It simply baffled ordinary Hindus (voters) who saw Pakistan-sponsored Islamist terrorists wreak repeated havoc in Indian cities.
The authors think the Congress-led UPA won a bigger mandate in 2009 because the average voter was convinced Dr Manmohan Singh offered a better vision than L K Advani.
Mistaking this to be an endorsement of “anti-Hindu” policies, “secular” members of the NAC went overboard. A classic example was the Communal Violence Bill (mercifully junked) which stipulated that essentially the majority (Hindus) would always be blamed for a riot.
Add the Anna movement against corruption, the economic crisis after 2011, and India was ready for a “strongman” and “Hindu Hriday Samrat” like Narendra Modi. Again, Modi is but a manifestation of structural changes in Indian politics and society. If not for him, someone else would have stepped up to the plate.
Flaunting Hindu Credentials
To that extent, the arrival of Modi did mean the beginning of the dismantling of “Nehruvian India” which had become a decayed feudal relic of once noble intentions. The most powerful symbol of this is the manner in which Padma awards are given now. They are no longer the preserve of elites close to “Lutyens’ Delhi”. They have become truly “Indian”.
The second thing Modi has done is to flaunt his Hindu credentials like no prime minister had done before. Nehru had no time for Hindu rituals or even assertiveness; he had requested the then President Rajendra Prasad to not attend the grand re-opening of the Somnath Temple. Modi actually presided over the inauguration rituals of the Ram Temple in 2020.
Ordinary Indians were already fed up with the condescending and feudal behaviour of the ruling elites. The arrival of social media “exposed” the double standards of the elites even more cruelly. The smart politician that he is, Modi rode even this wave. Remember demonetisation when tens of thousands of ordinary Indians suffered and spent days and weeks outside bank branches? Far from losing political capital, Modi became even more popular because the poor celebrated that the rich suffered along with them.
Changing road names like Aurangzeb to Abdul Kalam, Nehru Memorial to prime minister memorial, installing the statue of Subhash Chandra Bose in India Gate, and the massive investments in building the Central Vista are more symbolic acts of dismantling “Nehruvian India”. Not to forget the abrogation of Article 370 that was brought about by Nehru.
When fundamental changes happen, it is usually accompanied by some ugliness. There is no space here for the authors to dwell at length on them. One example would suffice: Sadhvi Pragya, by any standards a bigoted person, defeated Digvijay Singh with a massive margin in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Sadhvi Pragya remains an accused in the Malegaon bomb blasts case and Singh continues his tirades against “Hindutva Terrorism”. History can be both cruel and ironic.
(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)