Challenging the Nehruvian consensus


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SHORTLY after India witnessed its first Communist-led government in Kerala, Y.D. Gundevia, a senior member of the diplomatic service, asked Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru a question that some contemporaries felt was no longer hypothetical: ‘What happens if tomorrow… the communists come into power… at the Centre, here in Delhi?’

Nehru’s answer was, in hindsight, both evasive and prescient. ‘Communists, communists, communists!’ he exploded, ‘why are all of you so obsessed with communists and communism? What is it that communists can do that we cannot do and have not done for the country? Why do you imagine the communists will ever be voted into power at the Centre?’ Then, pausing for thought, Nehru spoke slowly and deliberately: ‘The danger to India, mark you, is not communism. It is Hindu right wing communalism.’1

Irrespective of whether or not the expression ‘Hindu right wing communalism’ captures the phenomenon accurately, some 50 years after his death, Nehru’s spontaneous outburst turned out to be prescient. The substantive threat to the Nehruvian way of thinking has come from what the first prime minister dubbed, ‘the RSS mentality.’2 As India celebrates seven decades of Independence, what Prime Minister Narendra Modi described as a ‘New India’ is preparing to overshadow, if not oust, the one that took shape after 1947.

In May 2014, the Indian electorate elected a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government with a clear majority. Much more than a vote for a party that has never concealed its special relationship with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – an organization Nehru believed was a replica of the Nazi movement in Germany3 – the mandate was for one man: Narendra Modi. In an election that witnessed phenomenal public interest and the large-scale involvement of India’s youth, Modi decimated the Congress, broke a 35-year record of inconclusive mandates and secured for the BJP a clear majority on its own. By the summer of 2017, Modi had further consolidated his position with a resounding win in the Uttar Pradesh state election.


An interesting facet of the 2014 general election was the last minute surge in ideological paranoia. As the defeat of the Congress seemed imminent, a section of the intelligentsia expressed collective disquiet over the likely victory of Modi.4 Their anxiety was partly based on the Gujarat chief minister’s ‘alleged’ complicity in the horrible riots that followed an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims from Ayodhya in February 2002. More significant, however, was the concern that the Modi victory would somehow alter the very ‘idea of India’. The trepidation over a modified ‘idea of India’ belonged principally to individuals and institutions that played no role, but were in fact bitterly hostile to the euphoria around Modi.

In an editorial published on the day the new prime minister assumed office, The Hindu, a newspaper that had made a seamless transition from stodgy southern conservatism to the Left, expressed its wariness quite emphatically:

‘Mr. Modi emphatically asserts that his agenda is all about governance and economic change. We welcome his assertion and wish him well in his efforts... But the reality remains that there is a huge trust deficit with the minorities, especially the Muslim community, which must be addressed. He is still regarded as a deeply polarizing figure not really reaching out to minorities unlike many of his senior colleagues in the BJP or even the RSS who have made some political attempts to bridge the divide. In order to close the credibility gap that persists as regards his acceptability to govern all Indians, Mr. Modi must ensure that the idea of India as a pluralist and inclusive landscape in which all citizens have equality before the law as constitutionally decreed, is upheld consistently and transparently, while he is in office as prime minister.’5


With less restraint, an article in The New York Times – timed to coincide with Modi’s rather flamboyant visit to the United States as prime minister in 2014 – debunked the ‘grandiose intellectual conceits’ and ‘ideological inebriation’ of the ‘Modi toadies’.

Even if the 19th century perception of India as a mere geographical expression lacking the accepted attributes of nationhood is discarded, the belief that there can be only one ‘idea of India’ is deeply problematic. In popular discourse, for example, the ‘ideals’ of the freedom movement are often invoked to delineate the acceptable from the unacceptable. However, the reality is that there was no uniform, monolithic national movement led by the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi.

What Lord Curzon had in mind when invoking the ‘fascination and, if I may so, the sacredness of India,’6 was undeniably different from the vision of Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. Gandhi in turn was at variance with V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva or even Subhas Chandra Bose’s curious attempt to forge an amalgam of fascism and communism. And this is to not even include the disparate expressions of ‘subaltern’ thought.

The varieties and inconsistencies are not papered over by a growing tendency to subsume the ‘idea of India’ in the Constitution of India. But a constitution is more than the sum of its provisions. If the Constitution is seen to also include the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly and, presumably, subsequent debates on the amendments, the ‘idea of India’ becomes even less singular. Rajeev Bhargava has detected ‘a tussle between at least five competing visions’: the social-democratic vision of Nehru, the Ambedkarite thrust, Gandhi’s anti-modernist communitarianism, the explicitly socialist position and ‘what we have now come to call the Hindutva ideology’.7


The first prime minister’s towering personality and the overwhelming dominance of the Congress in the Constituent Assembly together ensured that what Nehru described as the ‘national philosophy of India’ was unambiguously Nehruvian. There may have been spirited debates in Parliament and even more robust deliberations in Cabinet and the parliamentary committees, but the final version of what Bhikhu Parekh has called the ‘statement of India’s national identity’8 was shaped by its historical context. A different leader, a different law minister and, perhaps, even a different national situation may well have resulted in a somewhat different expression of national identity.

The broad tenets of India’s post-Independence ‘national philosophy’ were, according to Parekh, contained in the Preamble and the Directive Principles of the Constitution. These included: ‘…individual liberty, equality of opportunity, social justice, secularism, the spirit of rational inquiry or what Nehru called a scientific temper, independence of thought and action and judgment in world affairs of which non-alignment was a contingent expression.9


However, neither the commitment to egalitarianism and social justice or secularism were codified, and quite deliberately so. There was a conscious realization that any doctrinaire straitjacket would create problems for a future government having different approaches to common goals. In 1976, at the height of the Emergency, however, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi bamboozled the 42nd Constitution Amendment through Parliament. Among other things, the amendment inserted ‘socialist’ and ‘secular’ to the original Preamble ratified in 1949. The passage of the amendments was not marked by anything remotely resembling the richness of the Constituent Assembly debates, not least because the leading stalwarts of the opposition were behind bars, the press heavily censored and even habeas corpus suspended.

Whether the incorporation of these two principles has reinforced the thrust towards an egalitarian society and made governance less subject to the pulls and pressures of religious faith is a matter of debate. Critics would doubtless argue that the abstract commitment to socialism made in the backdrop of India’s only post-Independence experience with authoritarianism had a sinister connotation. In the same breath, it has been maintained that the incorporation of ‘secular’ in the Preamble needlessly added a doctrinaire connotation to the spirit of Article 25 that had already enshrined full religious freedom.

Prior to 1976, there were concerns over communal conflict and how to manage them. After the 42nd Amendment, the battles acquired an additional ideological dimension with ‘true’ secularism being posited against ‘pseudo-secularism’ and ‘minorityism’ entering the political lexicon. Quite unwittingly, Indira Gandhi’s show of political and ideological expediency reinforced the contextual nature of the Constitution. Far from becoming the new Gayatri mantra for all Indians, its role was modified as the working rule book of democracy, to be changed and modified as circumstances and fashion demanded.


To many of those who challenged the rise of Modi with the ‘idea of India’, the Constitution has acquired a hallowed, near-divine status, with its contextual dimension buried under the carpet.10 When the Atal Behari Vajpayee government set up a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge in 1998 to recommend possible modifications to the Constitution, intellectual ancestors of the ‘idea of India’ brigade protested vigorously against the sheer audacity of a reassessment exercise. The committee did submit a report that contained suggestions of a very technical nature but it was not followed through with any measure of seriousness.

In politics, larger ideas are often expressed in code. The resolute equation of the Constitution with the ‘idea of India’ may appear unexceptionable and cutting across the ideological divide. However, just as President Barack Obama invoked the nobility of Article 25 to register US domestic disquiet over reports of attacks on Christian churches during his visit to India in January 2015, the unending genuflection before the Constitution has become the veil for a rearguard battle to defend the ‘Nehruvian consensus’.


The inclination to posit the Nehruvian inheritance against alternative non-Congress or even anti-Congress national formations dates back to the first defeat of the Congress in a general election in 1977. In a lecture delivered during the Janata Party rule when he experienced official disfavour for the first time, Nehru’s official biographer S. Gopal lamented:

‘The developments of the two years from 1975 to 1977 have made the name of Nehru almost a dirty word in this country… Even after the end of the Emergency, this tendency to blame Nehru has continued. We are told from high quarters that he was the wrong choice as prime minister and that his policies have led logically to disaster.’11

To many who experienced the propaganda overkill and the deification of the dynasty during the Emergency, it was compelling to locate the roots of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism to the underlying imperiousness of her father. What was earlier lauded as evidence of a focused leadership that had guided India through the immediate post-Independence challenges was rejigged in the light of contemporary politics to indicate arbitrariness.

The grafting of contemporary politics on a historical assessment of Nehru persisted in the second wave of anti-Congress mobilization. At the same time, the terms of the debate shifted dramatically. If Nehru was pilloried during the Indira Gandhi era for establishing a skin-deep democracy that depended on the uninterrupted primacy of the Congress, the second phase was marked by sharp attacks on the ‘pseudo-secularism’ that Nehru bequeathed to the country.


The period 1989-1993 witnessed considerable political turbulence centred on the movement to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The mobilization of Hindus undertaken by the BJP, RSS, and its affiliate wings, led to a fundamental change in the anti-Congress ecosystem. Till the end of the 1980s, the communist left, kisan populists and the Hindu nationalists occupied the opposition space in equal measure. Following the Ram shilan pujas that led to nearly 167,000 consecrated bricks being sent to Ayodhya and L.K. Advani’s highly symbolic rath yatra from the rebuilt Somnath temple in Gujarat, the BJP came to be regarded as the principal opponent of the Congress.

In its bid to emerge as the alternative pole of Indian politics, the BJP initially banked on both religiosity and a critique of secularism as practiced in India. In rural India, and particularly among women, the appeal of a Ram temple in his birthplace had a deep emotional appeal grounded in uncluttered religiosity. With the BJP campaign complemented by Hindu religious figures who toured the country delivering impassioned sermons on Ram, the Ayodhya campaign quickly evolved into an assertion of Hindu pride that was deftly twinned to national pride.

However, the BJP was simultaneously mindful that it was a political party and not, as Vajpayee told the party’s National Council in 1991, a ‘dharma sabha’ (religious gathering). The theme of pseudo-secularism was repeated endlessly to emphasize the political establishment’s double standards: one set of standards for the Muslim personal laws and another set for the Ram temple. Advani contrasted the ‘real’ secularism of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad with the ‘pseudo secularism’ of Nehru on the Somnath rebuilding question. He also juxtaposed the nationalism of Patel and K.M. Munshi with the ‘minorityism’ of the present-day Congress. The unstated implication was that the BJP was the rightful inheritor of the Gandhi-Patel mantle.


In time this ideological battle was extended to the Nehruvian consensus with the implied promise that the BJP was aiming not merely for a change of government but a regime change. To Girilal Jain, a former editor of The Times of India, who emerged as one of the intellectual advocates of the Hindutva resurgence, the time had come to address the larger civilizational-cultural issues that Nehru and the entire tradition of secular nationalism had so far wilfully skirted. But the new political project, he felt, could not be based on the aggressive affirmation of Hindu civilization alone.

‘The Nehru order …did not rest on the secular pillar alone. It would have collapsed long ago if it had. The Nehru structure has stood mainly on three pillars in conceptual terms – socialism, secularism and non-alignment – and these concepts have been interlinked. Nehru’s was an integrated world view. As such, it is only logical that if one of them becomes dysfunctional, the others must get into trouble. In my opinion, they have.12

In effect, Jain was calling for a Hindu revolution that would overturn the warped and ‘un-Hindu disregard for power, economic and military, and the illusory belief that social equity is possible in conditions of economic weakness.’13


Nehru died in 1964 and it would be a full 50 years before the BJP secured for itself a majority in the Lok Sabha. So, what did the Nehruvian consensus come to represent in the six decades since Independence? Nehru has often been described as the last Englishman to rule India. To many, this muddled nationality was his defining hallmark. Proposing a toast at a special memorial in Trinity College, Cambridge, its Master, Rab Butler paid the distinguished alumni his ultimate tribute. Nehru, he told an appreciative audience, ‘was one of us’.

Nehru’s cosmopolitan conviviality didn’t merely stem from the social confidence that comes naturally to ‘gentlemen’ with breeding. Living in an age before ‘Orientalism’ injected a large measure of post-colonial self-censorship, Nehru was deeply appreciative of the intellectual currents of ‘progressive’ western thought. This not only made him ‘one of us’, it set him apart from his more rooted colleagues in India.

Yet, the Nehruvians were not an isolated minusculity surviving on the reflected glory of a prime minister who was the object of hero worship. S. Gopal wasn’t wrong in suggesting that the ‘cross-currents and contradictions in Nehru’s mind were shared, to a lesser or greater degree, by the many Indians who found in him their spokesman both before and after 1947.’14 The Nehruvians were a minority but a very influential minority that controlled the levers of intellectual power. Yet, the inherent fragility of the modernizing project was apparent, not least to Nehru. In 1958, the French intellectual André Malraux asked Nehru to identify the greatest challenges in his 11 years as prime minister. ‘Creating a just state by just means,’ replied Nehru unhesitatingly. After a pause, he added: ‘Perhaps too creating a secular state in a religious country.’15


On the face of it, the response was intriguing. In 1958, Nehru was at the height of his political power. He had overcome all challenges to his authority inside the Congress and the 1957 general election was seen as a resounding endorsement of his state-led economic modernization programme. Hindu nationalism hadn’t recovered from the ignominy of its connections with the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi, and Muslim separatism was rudderless and orphaned after the Muslim League leadership either migrated to Pakistan or joined the Congress. Some 12 years after India witnessed a devastating religious conflict that culminated in Partition, sectarianism wasn’t really thought of as an intractable problem. The more meaningful debates were over industrialization, agricultural reforms, the linguistic basis of states reorganization, and even foreign policy.

Alternatively, was Nehru gripped by a sense of foreboding? Was he mindful that underneath the apparent stability and the march towards modernization lurked a creeping backlash, a possible ‘counter-revolution’? If so, he wasn’t the only one.

In a little known monograph published in 1967, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, then a resident of Old Delhi, observed that the intellectual ferment that began with Raja Rammohan Roy ‘has created a social class whose outlooks, ideas, behaviour, and social role are utterly different from those of the traditional and numerically stronger part of the middle class.’ As democracy took roots, there was bound to be a clash between the ‘new intelligentsia’ and the ‘traditional Hindu middle class’ that could only be resolved by the ‘complete subordination of the one to the other.’16

In his time, Chaudhuri was regarded as somewhat of a crank and his views disregarded. As India gradually overcome the dislocation of Partition and settled into a somnolent ‘Hindu rate of growth’, the awareness of Nehru’s departures from Hindu common sense became increasingly blurred. Consequently, both the Indian intelligentsia and western observers failed to anticipate and grasp ‘India’s agony over religion’ that was to define its politics from the late-1980s.


The ‘progressive’, socialist way of thinking that appealed instinctively to Nehru (and his successors) envisaged no place for religion in political mobilization. India’s bitter tussles with sectarianism during the national movement against British rule had served to bolster the left-liberal conviction that the ‘false consciousness’ of religion had to be uprooted and replaced by ‘real’ nationalism based on economic progress and social equity. At a personal level, Nehru lived in denial of the rising tide of Hindu-Muslim conflict that was to culminate in the formation of Pakistan. Till the very bitter end he harboured the conviction that Muslim separatism was a passing fad and would disappear once the Congress took meaningful and decisive steps to make Muslims understand that their material well-being mattered above everything else.

Despite the bloodbath of Partition, Nehru’s overall belief in the inevitable triumph of science over religion and superstition didn’t change. What did undergo a significant shift, however, were his strategies of political management. Prior to 1947, the Muslim League, with its belief that Hindus and Muslims constituted separate nations, was, along with imperial rule and the ‘feudal’ forces, the principal enemy. After Independence and the assassination of Gandhi by radical offshoots of the Hindu Mahasabha, Nehru felt that ‘Hindu communalism’ was the biggest impediment to the evolution of modern nationhood.17 The ‘RSS mentality’, he felt, cut across parties and had infected a sizable section of the Congress, including the top leadership.


It is worth emphasizing that these apparently conflicting mentalities didn’t inject a divisive note in the framing of the Indian Constitution. There was unanimity that India would be a multi-religious country where the freedom to profess and practice different faiths would be statutorily protected. A confessional state – the Hindu variant of Pakistan – was not on anyone’s agenda. The RSS may have echoed V.D. Savarkar in insisting that India was a Hindu Rashtra but it never extended its idea of the core of nationhood to a demand for a Hindu state. Likewise, the entire nationalist leadership, cutting across parties, was one with the belief that separate electorates for Muslims and other minorities must be discarded. Indeed, there was a visible exasperation in the early years of the Republic with what in contemporary parlance has come to be debunked as ‘minorityism’.

Although Nehru chipped in with a very sensitive speech at Aligarh Muslim University – the nerve centre of the Pakistan movement – with a plea to Muslims to own up to a common inheritance,18 it seems that he was seriously discomfited by the general drift towards a Hindu-ised polity that would eventually ‘threaten democracy and liberty by strengthening the forces of fascism.’ In the assessment of Nehru’s biographer, ‘The old stalwarts of the Congress… such as Patel, Rajendra Prasad, with the backing of the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, believed not so much in a theocratic state as in a state which symbolized the interests of the Hindu majority.’19


Nehru addresses this political drift, particularly after the death of Patel in 1950 and the elevation of Prasad to the ceremonial role of President of India the same year, in two ways. First, in line with his decision to put off any changes in the personal laws of Muslims as a gesture of India’s commitment to the protection of minorities, Nehru tried to redefine the parameters of Indian secularism. His decision to delay any reform of Muslim personal laws until the demand came from the community itself was over the years translated into an ironclad guarantee of absolute non-interference of the state in the internal affairs of Muslims.

Since this hands-off approach was not accompanied by a similar restraint in modifying the personal laws governing other communities – indeed, Nehru pushed through the Hindu Code reforms in the 1950s with a spectacular display of single-mindedness and political determination – an expedient display of secular exceptionalism was elevated into a larger philosophy of differentiated citizenship.

In assuaging the fears of the Muslims that remained in India after Partition that national integration didn’t imply integration, Nehru, however, fostered the ghettoization of India’s Muslims. After Independence, Rajeev Bhargava has argued, ‘India needed a coherent set of intellectual resources to tackle inter-religious conflict, and to struggle against oppressive communities not by disaggregating them into a collection of individuals or by derecognizing them but by somehow making them more liberal and egalitarian.’ The state was conferred the right to balance aloofness from religious affairs with the ‘demand for equality and justice which necessitates intervention in religiously sanctioned customs.’ Indian secularism was, therefore, based on maintaining a ‘principled distance’ from matters of faith and custom.’20


In the case of the Muslim community, however, ‘principled distance’ has come to mean absolute distance. The fierce resistance in the Muslim community to the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Shah Bano case in 1986 appears to have established a new political norm: the Muslim personal laws will be untouched by wider concerns of gender justice. Despite the BJP’s long-professed commitment to the enactment of a civil code applicable to all Indians, it is unlikely that the Modi government can make even modest moves in that direction. The new social conservatism that has come hand in hand with the global radicalization of Muslims has made the project virtually impossible.

In warding off the drift towards a Hindu-ised political culture, Nehru also fell back on the inexorable logic of electoral politics: the weight of numbers. Thanks largely to the reassuring presence of Nehru at the helm of affairs, the Muslim community that had hitherto reposed faith in the Muslim League, transferred its allegiance en masse to the Congress in the general election of 1951-52. Coupled with the fact that Muslims largely reside in denominational clusters and have a record of high turnout, the strategic weight of the community’s support for the Congress was enhanced significantly. Regardless of personal inclinations, pragmatic Congress politicians became disinclined to act in a way that was seen to be inimical to Muslim interests.

As political competitiveness increased and the Congress had to encounter real opposition, expediency was once again converted into a rule of politics. In the Nehruvian world view, ‘the problem of minorities was basically one for the majority community to handle. The test of success was not what the Hindus thought but how the Muslims and other communities felt.’21


It was this approach that guided some of the most contentious facets of policy under Congress governments: the benign neglect of widespread illegal immigration into Assam and West Bengal, the ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the repudiation of the Shah Bano judgment and an attempted communal violence bill that put differential weightage to witness statements from majority and minority communities. So strongly had this pro-Muslim bias become ‘secular’ common sense that in December 2006, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s declared to a gathering of chief ministers that ‘minorities, particularly the Muslim minority …must have the first claim on resources.’22

The Congress-Muslim political understanding hasn’t outlived the larger political crisis of the party. Since 1977, the Muslim community appears to have voted tactically and has often preferred regional parties with a winning chance to blind support for the Congress. However, this asymmetric secularism has often fuelled a Hindu disquiet that, when combined with larger problems of governance, has often fuelled the rise of the BJP, a party that in the public imagination is regarded as a ‘Hindu party’.

Although overtly ‘Hindu’ issues played little role in securing the incremental votes that propelled the BJP to win a majority in the 2014 general election, there is considerable interest and concern in both India and the rest of the world over the extent to which the Nehruvian secular consensus of the past will be remoulded. It is fairly obvious that the hard core of Hindu nationalists have interpreted the verdict in fairly extravagant terms: as a restoration of Hindu rule after a thousand years of servitude.


This triumphalism has been evident in the utterances and activities of a small section that seeks to push the envelope on issues that define their activism: the rewriting of Indian history, ban on cow slaughter, curbs on religious conversion and barriers to illegal (Muslim) immigration from Bangladesh. It is interesting that neither the long-standing demand for the enactment of a uniform civil code nor the complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union through a repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution feature in the short-term wish list. Equally, there has not been any serious move to resurrect the Ayodhya dispute that, through a bipartisan consensus, is experiencing the unhurried pace of Supreme Court adjudication.

Overall, and despite the disproportionate coverage in the media, the strategic weight of the Hindu radicals in the ecosystem of the Modi government is nominal. Their potential for embarrassment remains enormous – witness the activitities of overzealous gau rakshaks – but their ability to influence the course of government decisions is minor.


On his part, Modi seems to be focused primarily on creating an appropriate environment for rapid economic growth, the financing of which necessitates making India attractive to international capital. His first Independence Day speech from Red Fort contained a plea for a 10-year moratorium on ‘divisive’ issues, a euphemism for controversies centred on identity. This theme has been repeated under more awkward circumstances in Parliament where he has stressed the importance of both religious freedom and tolerance and linked these with India’s plural tradition.

To ensure a measure of accommodation for some of the BJP’s pet themes, there have been changes made in the composition of bodies such as the Indian Council of Historical Research, National Book Trust, Prasar Bharati, Board of Film Certification and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. However, while these reshuffles did create understandable resentment among notables who felt left out of the state patronage network, they can hardly be said to have altered the essence of the secular consensus.

That the loyal core of the BJP has a distinctive understanding of India’s history, its civilizational ethos and the post-Independence experience, is undeniable. Nehru too grappled with these issues unendingly and some of his tentative conclusions shaped the outlines of the secular consensus as it prevails. The BJP leaders, whose perceptions of India’s civilizational ethos stem from a blend of Sri Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Savarkar and Golwalkar, often as imparted through the boudhik sessions of the RSS, have unsurprisingly divergent perspectives.

At the risk of some oversimplification, the departures focus on the centrality of Hinduism – both as the belief systems incorporating the Sanatana Dharma and as a way of life – in the ‘idea of India’. According to his biographer’s description, Nehru felt that India’s heritage transcended faith: ‘If all Indians had been converted to Islam or to Christianity, their culture would still have remained the same.’23 This assessment was sharply different from Savarkar’s insistence that nationhood flowed from the association of the pitribhu (fatherland) with the punnyabhu (sacred land) – an idea that, taken literally, would make Indians who follow non-Indic religions lesser citizens.


To those who have grown up offering a prayer to the bhagwa dhwaj (saffron flag) in RSS shakhas each morning, Hindutva or Hindu-ness is at the core of India’s nationhood, not necessarily as religion but in cultural terms. The BJP has never seen itself as committed to religious nationalism but to cultural nationalism. Its disagreement with the ‘secular fundamentalism’ of the Nehruvians was not over the freedom of faith and the nondiscriminatory principles of the Constitution but on the centrality of Hindu cultural forms in the symbolism associated with the state. This was coupled with unrelenting opposition to any affirmative action for religious minorities and other double standards in public life.

The party was perhaps the only sustained voice against the squeamishness over the ethnic cleansing of Pandits from the Kashmir Valley in 1990. Likewise, the BJP’s stated hostility to the ‘vote bank politics’ practiced by the ‘secular’ parties was also an invitation to Hindus to assert their numerical clout and vote as Hindus. This was put into practice in the Assembly elections in Assam (2016) and UP (2017) where the BJP demolished the theory of a Muslim veto by achieving a spectacular degree of Hindu consolidation.

To this divergence on the features of nationhood was a belief that India had been in a state of permanent servitude since the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. Like the early Indian nationalists, the BJP’s pantheon of national heroes include Maharana Pratap, Shivaji and Guru Govind Singh who had waged valiant wars against Moghul rule. Whereas the Nehruvians were inclined to view the Moghul experience as the fountainhead of a syncretic and composite culture, BJP loyalists have yearned for an Indian resurgence that never quite happened with Independence.


In 1993, L.K. Advani stated that Hindutva was the BJP’s ‘permanent ideological mascot’. However, the extent to which the mascot was unveiled has depended on political compulsions. As a general rule, the party has stressed its anti-Congress credentials while in coalition with other parties that have a following among Muslims and Christians, and been less inhibited when it stands either isolated or in a commanding position. In 2014, although still heading a coalition government, the BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha on its own but needs the cooperation of other parties outside the NDA if it is to secure important legislation in the Rajya Sabha. This situation has changed but not significantly.

This awkward imbalance is likely to ensure that the Modi government will attach the greatest priority to another facet of the BJP’s politics: its strong commitment to economic modernization that forms an indispensable feature of its quest for national resurgence. It is not that the larger critique of a ‘distorted’ secularism will be abruptly forgotten. The BJP will ensure interventions in the cultural sphere that showcases anything that is calculated to raise the hackles of a hostile intelligentsia and upholders of the Nehruvian legacy.

Just as Nehru shifted the terms of the culturalist discourse after 1947, Modi is acquainting Indians with an alternative approach that is essentially a cocktail of pre-Nehruvian nationalism and BJP’s cultural nationalism. There is a questioning of the Nehru legacy, but it is implicit and mainly effected through symbolism.


There is, of course, a larger questioning of Nehruvian principles in the directions being set for the economy and foreign policy. But these legacies of the first prime minister had already been whittled down by others, most notably P.V. Narasimha Rao, Vajpayee and even Manmohan Singh. Of Nehru’s three pillars, his secular consensus was the last one that, despite ugly embellishments, remained broadly intact, not least because it belonged essentially in the realm of ideas and approaches. Modi is unlikely to want to demolish it altogether, as he may well do in the realm of the economy and foreign policy, but he will certainly be inclined to change some of its outward appearance.

Change in India has always proceeded at an unhurried pace. Nehru was able to nudge India away from a Hindu-ised polity because he ruled without any opposition for 14 years and was succeeded by members of the family who ruled either directly or indirectly for another 30 years. Modi has just begun his innings and will need more time before India can acquire an alternative common sense. However, the process has begun hesitantly but without any clear road map.


* This is a revised version of a paper originally presented at a conference in the University of Leiden, April 2015.


1. Madhav Godbole, The God Who Failed: An Assessment of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Leadership. Rupa, Delhi, 2014, pp. 266-7.

2. cf. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist. Viking India, Delhi, 2004, pp. 129-30.

3. Madhav Khosla (ed), Letters for a Nation from Jawaharlal Nehru to his Chief Ministers 1947-1963. Viking India, Delhi, 2014, p. 33.

4. See letter in The Guardian, 10 April 2014.

5. ‘Preserve the Idea of India’, The Hindu, 26 May 2014.

6. Quoted in K.E. Meyer and S.B. Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. Counterpoint, Washington DC, 1999, p. 285.

7. Rajeev Bhargava (ed.), Politics and Ethics of the Indian Constitution. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2014, p. 7.

8. Bhikhu Parekh, ‘The Constitution as a Statement of Indian Identity’, in Bhargava, op. cit., pp. 46-7.

9. Ibid., pp. 46-7.

10. Interestingly, in one of his election speeches, Modi referred to the Constitution as his only ‘holy book’. He repeated this in the Lok Sabha on 27 February 2015.

11. Sarvepalli Gopal, Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats: The Collected Essays. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2014/Orient Blackswan, 2013, pp.171-2.

12. Girilal Jain, The Hindu Phenomenon. UBSPD, Delhi, 1994, p. 99.

13. Ibid., p. 104.

14. S. Gopal, The Collected Essays, op. cit., p. 171.

15. T.N. Madan, Modern Myths, Locked Minds. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1997, p. 245.

16. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, The Intellectual in India. Associated Publishing House, Delhi, 1967, pp. 36-7.

17. S. Gopal, The Collected Essays, op. cit., p. 221.

18. Quoted in Girilal Jain, op. cit., p. 93.

19. S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol 2, 1947-1956. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1976, Loc 155.

20. Rajeev Bhargava, The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2010, pp. 26-7.

21. S. Gopal, The Collected Essays, op. cit., p. 346.

22. Press Trust of India Report, 9 December 2006.

23. S. Gopal, The Collected Essays, op. cit., p. 217.