Children of history.

Photographer: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

In India, a Plot Against a Prime Minister

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
Read More.
a | A

About six months ago, a new government came to power in India, with exciting new plans for the country's future. As with many ambitious new regimes, it also arrived with a grand new plan for India's past.

Part of this has involved a calculated rebalancing of the relevance of the nation's founding fathers: the mid-20th-century quartet of Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, who laid down the lines of modern Indian democracy, as Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison did in 18th-century America. (The other part involves establishing a consensus that Hinduism is the real motor of Indian history, that modern India -- despite its religious diversity -- is "culturally Hindu" at root. One scholar has explained this tautly as "Indianizing" Indian history.)

Since the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in May, one might discern a clear, new direction for both the political establishment and the intellectual class that supports it. The most interesting strand in this new scheme, though, is its view of Nehru, India's first and to date longest-serving prime minister, whose 125th birthday falls on Friday. In this new view, Nehru emerges as a kind of haughty, godless aristocrat, never without a rose in his buttonhole and a bee in his bonnet, whose emphasis on socialism in economic policy, secularism in politics and nonalignment in foreign policy took India on a series of disastrous cul de sacs from which it took decades to emerge. If that wasn't enough, Nehru also stands on trial retroactively for spawning the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Sharp new views of Nehru’s failures continue to appear and have been in circulation since the time of his pomp (some of the best can be found in the work of Frank Moraes, in his biography of Nehru and his portrait of the 1940s and '50s, "Witness to an Era"). But it’s easy enough to identify the newest, most patronizing critics of Nehru, because almost to a man (or woman) these souls are also ardent advocates of the charms of Prime Minister Modi. They already think of Modi as nothing less than “the anti-Nehru,” a real son of the soil -- apparently, also a real secularist --  freshly, if belatedly, arrived on the chariot of history to flush out every last vestige of Nehruvian India.

India's Aspirations

A wonderful example of this hero worship is the gentleman recently quoted in the New York Times as saying that Mr. Modi was, four months into office, “the best prime minister India ever had.”

“I have no doubt that Nehru was a great patriot in his own way,” I read in one piece recently, which was as far as the writer allowed. How might one explain this sudden campaign of damning Nehru with faint praise or outright calumny?

Partly, it’s current political rivalry projected into the past. Of all the founding fathers, Nehru’s career was most closely linked with the Indian National Congress, the party toppled by Modi’s Bharitiya Janata Party in the most recent elections. Partly it’s the desire, natural to all new regimes, of the BJP's ideological sympathizers to paint an election, in the grandest possible terms, as a verdict on history, and to claim the largest scalp possible: in this case, Nehru's.

It's also a kind of disguised envy. As someone who, for all his faults, led the party that set the engine of Indian democracy in motion and was the architect of a modern nation-state in which citizenship was firmly decoupled from religious affiliation, Nehru set a high benchmark for personal integrity, political vision and (this is a quality Modi shares with him) administrative energy. But his rationalist temper and syncretic, even romantic, view of Indian history were anachronistic in India even then. (The Australian diplomat Walter Crocker, a contemporary of Nehru, perceptively forecast that “Nehru’s rule will leave some mark on India, but not as much as is expected.”) Today it is especially provoking to an emerging, and sometimes rabid, neo-Hindu consensus that seeks control of the political center.

The modern-day diminution of Nehru reveals something important not about Nehru, but about the power of political charisma -- in this case, Modi’s -- to encourage millenarian thinking and cripple considered judgment. “India has a uniquely ahistorical perspective on its past leaders," a perceptive editorial in the Indian newspaper Mint recently noted. "Usually a binary classification suffices. Either they were good or they were bad.”

In a sense, then, the idea of Modi as “the anti-Nehru” is a useful and revealing one. It’s as if public memory of Indian leadership must be a zero-sum game, with people clinging doggedly to their “fors” and “antis” like barnacles to a ship’s hull.

Given the massive challenges in leading a society as complex and a democracy as new as India’s, can one not imagine a political position that grants Nehru his due while also being cautiously optimistic about the new prime minister? Or even one that rejects them both? Apparently not -- not to the many admirers of Modi, who must kick a man when he’s dead, sometimes to the point of inventing words for him. And thus the narratives of modern Indian history in the drawing room and on the street veer ever closer toward the echo chambers of caricature and conspiracy.

To mark the 125th birthday of Nehru, though, here’s a little thought.

At India’s independence in 1947, Nehru and his political associates brought into being a new political order that was secular and socialist (in ways that would soon pose new problems). It was also, in establishing universal adult suffrage for a largely illiterate population, unpredecentedly egalitarian.

Although the upper-class, English-speaking elite to which Nehru belonged continued to hold power in India for a short time, the logic of the new Indian constitution brought about a progressive diversification of political power never before seen in Indian history.

This considered turning of what U.R. Ananthamurthy calls “the wheel of history” -- away from the hierarchical world of caste Hinduism, away from the temptation to establish a Hindu state, away from past political orders narrowly based on religion or bloodlines, away from the English-educated elite established by the colonial order -- would, in less than seven decades, allow a man from a family of modest means and a low place in the traditional caste order, born in the same year as the Indian constitution came into effect, to ascend all the way to the peak of political power. At one end of this historical cycle, Nehru, India's first prime minister; at the other, Modi, India's first prime minister born in an independent India.

In a very real sense, then, one might think of the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on his 125th birthday, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political father.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net