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Why Modi is the new Nehru for the Indian cultural right

Modi may be the opposite what Nehru stood for, but the changes he’s heralded and impact he’s had on politics are Nehruvian in scale, argues a new book

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with tribal artists at Parliament House in New Delhi in November 2021. Modi offers his supporters the vision of a radical break with the past and of a future new Bharat, says a new book.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with tribal artists at Parliament House in New Delhi in November 2021. Modi offers his supporters the vision of a radical break with the past and of a future new Bharat, says a new book. (Arvind Yadav/HT PHOTO)

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[Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s political ascendance, and what it means for India, is as impactful and far-reaching as the political imprint left by the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Modi may be the mirror opposite of most things Nehru stood for, but in terms of impact, the tectonic shifts he has heralded in Indian politics are Nehruvian in scale. So deep and wide-ranging is the societal impact of Moditva that, of all Indian prime ministers, he can be compared with only Nehru.

This may seem like a strange comparison to make. Nehru, after all, is the most reviled name in the Indian Right’s political lexicon. He is often lampooned as soft, wimpish and placatory, as opposed to Modi, who embodies, for his political supporters, strength, manliness and resoluteness.

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So, what are the similarities? At a fundamental level, just as Nehru created the Nehruvian order—championing a new idea of India as a modernist, reforming and rights-based society after Independence, one that came to be accepted by both the elites and most mass voters as the dominant narrative of what it meant to be Indian—Modi’s two successive national electoral triumphs in 2014 and 2019 embody an alternative idea of India: soaked in a hard nationalism and an unapologetic espousal of Hindu identity wrapped within the idea of a more efficient welfare-focused state.

Ideationally, Indira Gandhi did not represent a radically new narrative of the nation from her father’s. She inherited the Nehruvian template on secularism and socialism but significantly altered it by centralising power as part of a hard-nosed realpolitik approach. Indira’s India, in many ways, was a negative mutation of Nehru’s foundational ideas of the Indian republic. It hard-coded into the earlier ideology of developmentalism a new socialist rhetoric, an insidious leadership cult, the principle of dynastic succession in politics and a severe reduction of inner-party democracy. It may, in practice, have hollowed out and made redundant many of the key principles of Nehruvian India—but it did so in the name of those same ideals. Indira did lead India to victory in the 1971 war, which reshaped the map of South Asia. Among her other achievements, she also heralded the drive to food self-reliance with the Green Revolution. On balance, though, her record, which included the imposition of the Emergency, is chequered. Her political positioning was always framed within a narrative of continuing the legacy of Nehru’s India. Other Indian prime ministers, Congress and non-Congress, had vastly differing approaches to governance, but in terms of big ideas, they too largely worked within the same broad framework of nationhood that was formulated at Independence. They did not upend it.

The Modi era, by contrast, represents a radically different attempt at a moral reordering of the nation. In another era, Nehru too single-handedly went against the dominant thinking in the post-Gandhi Congress, led by party satraps who were steeped in Hindu traditionalism, to frame the first Indian election primarily as a contest between what he called ‘communal organisations’ like the ‘RSS and the Jan Sangh’ and the forces of progress. He framed communalism as the ‘foremost question’ before the country in that election, at a time when the Jan Sangh had been born only four days before voting started, the Hindu Mahasabha had only recently turned into a political party and the RSS was not contesting elections. The major Opposition parties of the time were not Hindu nationalist; they were socialist. The Jan Sangh only won 3 per cent of the votes in 1952, the Socialist Party 10.5 per cent and the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party 5.7 per cent. …

The New BJP Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party  by Nalin Mehta, published by Westland, Rs999
The New BJP Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party  by Nalin Mehta, published by Westland, Rs999

I reconstruct the politics of independent India’s first election in 1951-52 to show that Nehru defined his position in this manner not necessarily because he thought that the Jan Sangh was politically strong—it was not—but because the ideals it represented enjoyed deep support within the Congress leadership itself, specifically on the question of the Hindus who still remained in Pakistan and the Nehru government’s policies towards them. After Jan Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s exit from the Nehru cabinet to form his own party, the objections he raised to Nehru’s policies on Hindu cultural grounds19 enjoyed such support within the Hindu-traditionalist wing of the Congress that it led to the most serious internal challenge that Nehru faced to his own leadership until the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

This challenge was exemplified by the stunning election of Congress’ UP chief Purshottamdas Tandon as Congress president on 2 September 1950, when he defeated Acharya Kriplani, whom Nehru supported. Not since Mahatma Gandhi took on Subhas Chandra Bose after his victory as Congress president at the Congress’s 1939 Tripuri session had the party seen such a schism at the top. Tandon’s elevation was specifically seen at the time as a signal from the Congress to Nehru for a ‘reorientation of policy’, especially on ‘India–Pakistan relations’, ‘refugees’ and ‘propagation of Hindi’. Nehru responded by asking his party for a renewed mandate on his Pakistan policies and the ‘communal question’ in a specially convened Nasik session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) on 21-22 September 1950. 

At that session, in a masterful speech delivered at a rain-soaked ground full of slush, the prime minister threatened to resign if his policies were not endorsed. He said he would ‘go out and fight independently for the idea of the Congress’.22 This battle between the ‘secular’ Nehru and the ‘Hindu traditionalist’ Tandon, who termed it a ‘fight to decide whether Congress will live or die’, led to a year-long internal power struggle for the control of the party structure, primarily on the ‘Hindu’ issues raised by Mookerjee. Nehru’s victory was not certain, and for a while, there was a distinct possibility of either a split within the party or the Congress, without Nehru as the helm, taking a turn rightwards. It culminated in Nehru’s resignation from the Congress Working Committee on 9 August 1951 and a final show of strength that Nehru won, becoming party president in addition to prime minister.

Tandon resigned. Chapter 9 of this book shows that the alternative ideas of the Hindu nationalists were not represented only by them—they enjoyed deep sympathies within the Congress leadership and were fought for as much within the party as outside.

Modi is both the outcome and harbinger of these ideas.

For one, like Nehru, [Modi] is uncompromising and unambiguous about his party’s ideology and ideals. As he emphasised in a victory speech after his second national election win in 2019, his party’s journey from do se dobara (from two to once again) stood out because ‘we never stepped back from our path, never let our ideals dim. … We will never leave our ideals, nor our sanskaar.’ This stout defence of ideas is not that different from Nehru’s stringent insistence in the 1952 election campaign on what he called ‘an all-out war on communalism’, against ‘sinister communal elements’ that would ‘bring ruin and death to the country’.

Second, Modi is unambiguous on the secularism question and what his party sees as its cynical manipulation. ‘For thirty continuous years especially,’ he has argued emphatically, ‘it was such a printout, such a tag that had become so fashionable. That whatever you do, you put it on. It was like doing a Ganga bath to get good credit [punya]. The name of this tag—and it was totally fake—was secularism.’ As he later told his National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners, minorities were made to live in fear because of vote-bank politics and this must end with sabka saath, sabka vikas being extended to sabka vishwas.

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Third, like Nehru’s conception of an Indian ‘tryst with destiny’ and India awakening after a ‘long slumber’—as he outlined in his famous speech on the eve of Indian independence in 1947—Modi offers to his supporters the vision of a radical break with the past and of a future ‘new Bharat’. This is unlike Indira, whose politics was largely about fixing the present, continuing the skeletal outline of the Nehruvian dream and retaining power. The conception of a new Bharat is a recurring theme in Modi’s discourse. As he stressed in his 2019 victory speech, ‘You will have to leave the thought process of the twentieth century. This is the twenty-first century, this is a new Bharat.’ If the Nehruvian order and idea of development was represented by Nehru’s characterisation of big dams as the ‘temples of modern India’, in Modi’s India, outside the realm of identity politics, this is best symbolised by toilets as the new vehicle of upward mobility and progress.

PM Narendra Modi addresses the World Economic Forum in January 2022 as WEF president Borge Brende and WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab listen. For no other prime minister, since Nehru, has the narrative and image of being a global leader been so crucial to their domestic persona as it has been for Modi, writes Mehta.
PM Narendra Modi addresses the World Economic Forum in January 2022 as WEF president Borge Brende and WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab listen. For no other prime minister, since Nehru, has the narrative and image of being a global leader been so crucial to their domestic persona as it has been for Modi, writes Mehta. (PTI)

Fourth, just as Nehru saw economics essentially as a tool for development and delivering millions out of poverty, so does Modi. His declaration that there are only two castes of Indians now, those that are poor and those engaged in alleviating poverty, is intellectually not dissimilar to the Nehruvian idea of a welfare state and what came to be known in the 1940s as the ‘Bombay Plan’ to harness private capitalism for nationalist goals.

Fifth, if Nehru was ‘chacha’, or uncle, to an entire generation of Indians and appealed especially to newly empowered women voters, Modi too has assiduously courted students and a new generation of young voters with his direct outreach to exam-taking students and an aggressive new wave of women voters. 

My generation grew up in India of the 1980s with the legend of the republic’s first prime minister who loved kids. We read children-oriented collections of his, like Letters from a Father to His Daughter, which were sold in all government publishing outlets, and celebrated his birthday on 14 November each year as Children’s Day. (India switched from the UN-mandated date of Children’s Day to Nehru’s birthday after his death in 1964.) The result was that several generations of Indian children grew up with Nehru embedded in their mental maps as an icon of political life.

Similarly, since 2014, Modi has spent several episodes of his monthly All India Radio show Mann ki Baat focused on students, youth and especially on the stress of examinations. In a country with the world’s largest youth bulge and arguably one of the most competitive systems of school examinations anywhere, this specific outreach to pre-voting age students has been so far understudied by political scientists and journalists. However, it is clear that the power of India’s biggest mass medium—radio, simulcast in multiple regional languages and on private radio networks—combined with the digital reach of the government’s interactive has made it a fundamental outreach tool for reshaping the mental maps of a new generation.

A good example is Modi’s book Exam Warriors, which was published in 2018 in multiple languages and became India’s number one non-fiction bestseller for a while.31 The book itself emerged out of an early episode of Mann ki Baat in February 2015 on how students in grades X and XII should deal with the stress of annual board examinations. Anyone growing up in India knows how these examinations are perceived to be make-or-break events for students’ careers. When Modi first addressed these issues like a school counsellor on his radio show, many critics dismissed it as yet another publicity venture. That was a mistake. 

His book systematically took this gambit forward, subliminally combining the role of psychological counsellor, intimate friend and guide. Exam Warriors, an e-version of which is available on the Narendra Modi app, combines activities for children with a space for building their own timetables and their own ‘personal diary’, seamlessly interwoven with personal thoughts on how the prime minister himself handles stress in his daily work and has dealt with it during key political milestones in his political journey. So, Modi advises students in these pages on how they can use ‘PlayStation’ as a ‘refreshing element’ while they study, even as he tells them that he himself ‘never accesses a mobile phone or any other gadget’ during meetings.

Political messaging also forms a subtle backdrop to advice on yoga asanas or how to remain stress-free. As Modi wrote, ‘Like you have exams, I had one of my own exams—the Gujarat elections of 2012. The day polling ended and the votes were cast, I moved ahead and began to work on the tasks at hand. I still remember going to oversee preparations for the upcoming Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit and reviewing an irrigation project. For me, the vote, like your answer sheet, was a one-way ticket. Prepare, write, move ahead.’

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Sixth, if Nehru was Gandhi’s anointed heir, Modi has explicitly sought to appropriate the Mahatma’s legacy. Take, for instance, his call for a national renewal mission coinciding with the seventy-fifth anniversary of Gandhi’s Quit India movement. When Gandhi died in 1948, Nehru turned to the radio to deliver one of his most emotional speeches, saying that the ‘light has gone out of our lives’. Modi has used his radio programming in particular to drive home his appropriation of Gandhi. It is not an accident that his signature Swachh Bharat programme was symbolically launched on 2 October 2014, Gandhi’s birth anniversary. The very next day, Modi launched his Mann ki Baat radio show, telling Indian viewers that ‘when it comes to cleanliness, the most inspiring icon is Mahatma Gandhi’. This is why, he said, he had launched his clarion call to make India ‘dirt-free by the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi’.

Similarly, it is significant that the first episode of the show also featured a clarion call to Indians to start wearing khadi, the home-spun cotton that was synonymous with Gandhi and the freedom movement, again. As Modi put it, ‘Whenever we think of Mahatma Gandhi, we are reminded of khadi … I am just requesting you to use at least one khadi product, like a handkerchief, or a bath towel, a bed sheet, a pillow cover, a curtain or anything of that kind.’ As an aside, the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) reported that, following this appeal, khadi sales went up by three times over a five-year period from 2015-16 to 2020. The KVIC attributed this rise in sales to the prime minister.36 In case anyone missed the point, it also issued evocative calendars in 2017 featuring Modi in a Gandhi-like pose, spinning the charkha.37

Finally, for no other prime minister, since Nehru, has the narrative and image of being a global leader been so crucial to their domestic persona as it has been for Modi. Foreign policy has seldom been a vote-winner in Indian politics. Yet, for Nehru, his pivotal role in global affairs, his creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and his outsized role as spokesperson for the postcolonial developing world were inseparable from his influence at home and his irreplaceability as a domestic leader. Of course, globalism was a key part of Indira Gandhi’s politics too. She used the pageantry of NAM summits and domestic events like the 1982 Asian Games to play statesman. Rajiv Gandhi’s youthful image symbolised a new India, and Manmohan Singh’s erudition led to US President Barack Obama praising him as a ‘man with uncommon wisdom’, who even appeared ‘holy’ to the ‘Western eye’. But no one since Nehru has made the perception of foreign clout as central to their local imagery as Modi has. …

Whether you believe in Narendra Modi or firmly oppose his politics, the point is that he represents a new epoch in Indian politics. No prime minister since Nehru has embodied so much political power. Modi has not only led his party to two successive victories at the national level, he also presided over its replacing of the Congress as India’s predominant national party, ushering in a new era of party politics.

The Congress under Nehru and Indira dominated Indian politics for decades … The BJP, committed to ushering in a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, Congress-free India, has filled the vacuum created by the decline of the Congress with its own BJP system. The how and why of that is the story this book tells.

Excerpted with permission from The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World's Largest Political Party by Nalin Mehta, published by Westland

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