Prime Minister Narendra Modi symbolises Newness. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he has liberated the nation from Nehru and Congress; and precisely for this reason, his imagination of New India marks the beginning of a new era of politics.
Modi’s opponents, interestingly, also share this assumption. For them, Modi regime has destroyed the secular-democratic culture of the republic. This unprecedented political decline, they argue, signifies the real face of New India.
A close reading of our postcolonial political history, however, suggests that the rhetoric of New India is politically plagiarised and intellectually hollow.
It echoes the ideas of less controversial political figures such as Morarji Desai and Charan Singh. And at the same time, it draws inspiration from Indira Gandhi’s regime to represent Modi as a legitimate political successor. Modi’s New India, thus, should not be seen entirely as an exception.
What is New India? Ideological Doctrine, Policy Framework, Political Rhetoric
New India, we must note, has been accepted by the BJP as a party doctrine in 2018.
This led to an official campaign by the government to seek citizens’ participation in this initiative. It was subsequently recognised as a policy framework as well. The Niti Aayog came out with a very interesting document – Strategy for New India@75 – to outline a policy framework for translating this doctrine into an action plan.
Narendra Modi’s official website underlines three features of ‘New India’: A nation driven by innovation, hard work, creativity; a nation characterised by peace, unity, brotherhood; and a country free of corruption, terrorism, black money, and dirt. To realise these objectives, the website asks Indian citizens to take an eight-point pledge. The last point of this pledge is very interesting. It says: “I will be a job creator, not a job seeker.”
This marks an interesting correlation between rights and duties. Citizens are called upon to offer uncritical support to the Modi government. On the other hand, seeking employment as a right is strongly discouraged. Indian citizens are clearly told that job creation is not a duty of the government; hence, they should not consider it as a right.
In other words, the government asserts itself as the supreme agency that works on behalf of the citizens in the political sphere, but it keeps itself away from the economic sphere and does not take any responsibility to provide jobs. For Modi, “New India is the era of responsive people and responsive government.”
New India also survives as political rhetoric in public discussions. There are two central components of this political narrative: (a) A strong criticism of Nehru as a person and the model of state he established and (b) the dynastic politics of Congress.
Contrary to popular belief, Modi and other BJP leaders do not rely on Hindu nationalist traditions (including Savarkar’s Hindutva) to refute Nehru or the state model of the 1950s. This deliberate apathy towards postcolonial Hindu nationalism is not surprising. RSS, Hindu Mahasabha and even BJS were not the main players of Indian politics before the 1970s.
They were electorally insignificant and ideologically marginalised. Their criticisms of Nehru were highly personalised and polemical; MS Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thought is a good example. These defeatist criticisms of Nehru obviously do not provide the required political substance for legitimising the rhetoric of New India.
Political Sources of New India
However, this was not the case with two former non-Congress Prime Ministers, Morarji Desai and Charan Singh, who offered extremely powerful condemnation of Nehru. Desai, for instance, was one of the first political leaders, who raised the issue of dynastic politics of Congress.
Desai argued that Nehru wanted to sideline Desai so as to secure Indira Gandhi’s political career.
Desai claimed that this had been one of the most serious weaknesses of the Nehru family. In his view, Motilal Nehru himself was instrumental in promoting Jawaharlal Nehru in Congress in the 1930s. Similarly, Indira Gandhi had carved out a space for her sons – Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in later years. Modi-led BJP’s emphasis on Congress’s dynastic politics, it seems, uses this line of argument to delegitimise Rahul Gandhi as a serious opponent.
Charan Singh’s criticisms of Nehru, on the other hand, were more policy-oriented. He refuted Nehru’s policy of industry-led development and proposed a revised Gandhian model. He writes: ‘India made a great mistake in 1947 …(by) adopting a Westernised, centralized, trickle-down-from-the-top model.’ In his view, ‘Nehru accepted an industry-based model of economic growth recommended by foreign economists…he did not develop an independent approach to India’s problems.’ Highlighting Nehru’s urban elite status, he argues, ‘if the country has to be saved, the Nehruvian strategy will have to be replaced by the Gandhian approach.’
Charan Singh’s ideas provide a strong justification to hold Nehruvian state responsible for the economic decline of the country. At the same time, his pro-farmer economic outlook seems to offer an action-oriented indigenous policy package. One may find a similar political overtone in the BJP’s 2018 resolution on agriculture.
Modi As a Successor
The linkages I trace between New India and the political ideas of Desai and Singh are not premeditated or accidental. It is true that BJP does not recognise these figures directly. But, the manner in which Desai and Singh are introduced as historical personalities in the realm of the official history of Indian politics transform them into powerful and inspirational symbols. The PMO website is a relevant source in this regard. There is a web link on it (Know your Prime Minister) that carries the biographies of all the former Prime Ministers and devotes a section to Modi’s life story.
Interestingly, there is no consistency in these biographies. For instance, Nehru’s bio-sketch does not record even a single word on his contribution as the Prime Minister for over 17 years. Even there is no mention of his books and other writings. This is quite understandable because Nehru is always seen as the most powerful adversary of the idea of New India.
Morarji Desai, however, is introduced very differently. He is admired as an idealist and committed leader, a visionary and an able administrator.
His struggle against Emergency is also highlighted to inform the reader about Desai’s unease with the Nehru family.
Charan Singh’s description as thinking and a committed politician is also very fascinating. He is shown as a grassroots leader and believer of social justice. Singh’s publication is also listed here to recognise him as an established author.
Indira Gandhi’s portrayal as a strong prime minister is the most revealing aspect of this political history.
Her achievements as the PM are listed and her contribution is recognised. Commenting on the worldview of Gandhi, the website says ‘Interested in a wide array of subjects, she viewed life as an integrated process, where activities and interests are different facets of the whole, not separated into compartments or labelled under different heads.’
Narendra Modi is introduced as the legitimate successor. Apart from listing the programs of his government and his achievements as an individual, this section directs us to four different subsections given on Modi’s personal website.
We get acquainted with Modi’s humble and poor background as an OBC tea seller; a devoted yogi; a committed activist; a sensitive author and poet and a decisive leader. The biographies of a few former prime ministers appear to merge into this life story. An impression is created that the misdemeanours and historic blunders committed by Nehru must adequately be dealt with.
This narrative of political continuity, in my view, goes against the much talked about the newness of New India. It reminds us that Modi has to deliver – not merely as the prime minister but also as a political successor, who has been given a historic responsibility to create a New India.
(Hilal Ahmed is Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)