Farewell Panditji: Modi takes power on Nehru's 50th death anniversary

The ghost of Jawarharlal Nehru could well be an uninvited guest at the banquet marking the swearing in of Narendra Modi last night. Tuesday 27 May marks Modi’s first official day as the prime minister of India. It also marks the 50th death anniversary of Jawarharlal Nehru.

The ghost of Nehru might be a little rueful. Had his great-grandson managed to lead the Congress to victory in the elections this month, tomorrow might have seen a very different kind of commemoration of Nehru’s death anniversary. Instead it is Modi who will have his tryst with destiny as the first Indian prime minister born after Independence. That too makes for a tonal shift. As the inheritor of Independence, Modi promised “acchey din” or “good days” while as one of the architects of Independence, Nehru promised a future that was “not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving.”

Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi in file photos.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Narendra Modi in file photos.

Modi will surely acknowledge the first prime minister of India on his 50th death anniversary, and it will surely be more than a respectful tweet. But make no mistake, he is also very decisively turning a page in India’s history. This election was not just a slap in the face of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, it was in many ways a rejection of the sort of top-down socialistic welfare economy he has come to represent.

As Swapan Dasgupta writes in The Times of India “For a man who left the country ‘not better fed, clothed or housed,… more corruptly governed, with higher taxes, ever-rising prices, acute foreign exchange difficulties, and more unemployment than when he took charge’ India has been too kind to Nehru. It’s time we took the mythology out of history.”

Many, however, would argue it’s a corrective that’s long overdue. The story of Indian Independence, in fact the story of modern India, cannot be one parivaar’s family album. But the ascension of Modi represents much more than a dose of de-mythologisation – the construction of a giant Sardar Patel statue to counter Nehru’s larger-than-life image in the national consciousness.

It is actually a paradigm shift in the type of politics and politicians we have been taught to revere even though it comes with all the trappings of a usual state dinner – a unity in diversity menu of galouti kebabs, Birbali kofta curry and mango shrikhand.

Nehru’s economic policies are one thing. The persona of Nehru is another. What Nehru had done was create the archetype of a certain kind of Indian politician. He was England-returned, cosmopolitan, wrote serious books, gave lofty speeches in the Queen’s English. In post-Independence India, he was a sahib but in the best sense of the word. He could out-English the English if needed and in that sense gave colonised Indians a sense of self-esteem. Even Vajpayee, the poet prime minister, says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, in some ways tried to play Nehru.

In 2014, all those qualities are regarded as effete, out of touch with the aspirations and frustrations of a much more confident country which does not seek validation from the old colonial masters in the same way.

“But there is one similarity between the two,” says Rachana Chakraborty who teaches history at Calcutta University. “Both are very articulate and passionate speakers and give soul-stirring speeches in their own domain.”

The idiom, however, is very different.

Nehru spoke very much from a pedestal, an aristocrat trying to very consciously uplift a poor country with rhetoric about building “the mansion of a free India where all her children may dwell”. Modi projects himself as one of the people even if his supporters put him on a pedestal as well. His USP is he does not need to do a “Discovery of India” since he has served tea on its railway platform while the heirs of Nehru have lived rarefied lives. His campaign speeches exhort the audience to respond back to him. Suniye (Listen), he says. Kahiye (Tell us), the audience replies. He jokes with his audience, banters with them about shehzada and daamaad-ji which Nehru would have considered infra dig.

Nehru’s audience did not, could not, aspire to be Nehru. They were just expected to be grateful that someone of his erudition and blue blood was leading them with Gandhi-ji’s blessings. Modi’s audience can actually aspire to be Modi. And they see him as the outsider who will lead the charge in at least figuratively demolishing the Lutyens bungalows whose doors were always closed to them. “Although I have worked in Delhi, I have never belonged there,” Modi told Tavleen Singh. That has become his plus point, something unimaginable to the descendants of Nehru who saw power as a plant that could only thrive in Lutyens Delhi.

In that sense, Modi and Nehru represent two sides of a culture war in India, writes Santosh Desai. Desai says the inheritors of Nehruvian liberalism see themselves as liberals who want to “challenge and even dismantle what are seen to be the ‘natural’ building blocks of society – gender, class, caste, region and religion.” That is how they want to level the playing field, working from the margin inwards – focusing on issues like treatment of minorities, gender and caste discrimination and social justice.

But Desai says there is a larger “cultural mainstream” that feels constantly judged, criticized and found “regressive, communal or chauvinistic” by this liberal worldview epitomized by something like Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council. Modi taps into that “simmering sense of rage” but also tells them “acchey din aanewala hai”. He reassures that majoritarianism can be a benign force that promises sabka saath, sabka vikas (development with all, for all).

Whether he can deliver it or not, and indeed for all, is a different matter.

But the contrast between the two could not be clearer. Nehru refused to ban cow slaughter by law because in his mind that would have made India the Hindu version of Pakistan and he told Sardar Patel categorically “India, if it was anything at all was emphatically not Pakistan.” Modi comes to power as the unapologetic standard bearer of a party whose Cow Development Cell sent out thousands of text messages with the slogan “"Modi ko matdan, gai ko jeevadan [Vote for Modi, give life to the cow], BJP ka sandesh, bachegi gai, bachega desh [BJP’s message, the cow will be saved, the country will be saved].”

To those who vote for Modi, the word 'Nehruvian' has come to represent a sort of genteel weakness that finds little favour with an impatient India which has opted for the more muscular earthy promise of a Modi. Nehruvian is non-alignment. Modi is India First. Now says Visvanathan the “deeper and more poignant question is how would you invent a Nehruvian politics which can match what everyone crudely calls the ‘Modi’-fied India. In fact is there any place for a Nehruvian politics today?”

It’s unlikely Narendra Modi will be dwelling on that existential question as he prepares for his big moment. A moment "which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends." Nehru's words once resonated with pride, then with nostalgia as the promise of freedom gave way to the compromises of post-independence India. On his 50th death anniversary and the dawn of Modi's India, they have acquired an unintentional irony.

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