Discourses are like communities. As the community fades away, the discourse withers. Today if mass media is to be believed, the Nehruvian era is dead – dead as an aspiration, dead as discourse, dead as a way of life. Given the fate of the family that inherited India’s first prime minister’s legacy, one cannot even say, “Nehru is dead, long live Nehru.”
Eras and discourses die, but what fascinates me is the insistence with which people demand the death of Jawaharlal Nehru all over again. It is as if the new intellectuals feel Nehru was a banyan tree who did not allow any other thought to flourish under his vast shadow. There is also a sense that the everyday disappointment with the fate of the Congress has also been attributed to Nehru. It is as if Nehru as gene and as genealogy is to be wished away.
This idea – of Nehru as the scapegoat for the first decades of independent India – has been the one ideological contribution of the Narendra Modi regime. Since Nehru cannot be declared a non-person, Stalinist style, he has to be uprooted and blamed for all the ills of contemporary India.
Nehru vs Modi
Who is this Nehru we are blaming?
If Modi is a brand, Nehru was an icon. But then Modi also becomes the icon breaker. Modi is a strange kind of iconoclast. He appropriates Vallabhbhai Patel by harnessing him to hyperbole, to what is being advertised as the world’s largest statue. He doubles up for Gandhi with disastrous results – after all the skills of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakha are not those of Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram. He discovers that Nehru, whom he found irresistible, is irreplaceable because he literally wrote the alphabet of modern India. Destroying a whole language is not easy, so Modi creates a creole-like language of development, a bowdlerised modernity we call Make in India.
Make in India is not about materiality of goods. It is a script seeking to destroy Nehru as force, an idea, as an aspiration. So India’s defeat against China in 1962 must be blamed on him. Nehru has to be portrayed not as decadent but as weak. His ideas lack muscularity. His nationalism was not masculine enough so the Chinese and Palestinians took advantage of him. Now 1962 is not repeatable. When Defence Minister Arun Jaitley says the India of 2017 is not the India of 1962 in response to a comment by China on the ongoing Doklam crisis, it is as if Indian virginity has been restored.
Neither Nehru nor his Jeeves, VK Krishna Menon, knew much about security. So security becomes the key word in the post-Nehruvian script. Security is Modi’s hedgehog to the Nehruvian fox of nation-building. Security creates a sense of panopticon and enclosure. What security challenged was the word “diversity”. The word that described the Nehruvian aesthetic of nation-building was now anti-national. Minority, margin, dissent did not wear the uniform of the nation state. Nehru becomes the modern Indian who did not have the capacity for modernity, the will to power that Modi demanded.
End of an era
Nehruvian democracy had a touch of the aristocratic in it. This had to be corroded by populism, the myth of the chaiwala, the myth of a lower-class India that pulled itself up by the bootstraps. Mobility instead of nobility, competence instead of inheritance rule the imagination now. The sleight of hand that made Rahul Gandhi substitute for Nehru explained all. When people said Rahul Gandhi must go, what they implied is that Nehru is gone – an era, a discourse is over.
Rahul Gandhi speaks for no one, not even himself. He is aphasic, his words make little sense as they tumble, collapsing before they form Nehruvian sentences. Between erasure and aphasia, a discourse, a dream of nation-building was destroyed. Once the style was gone and the words lost their magic, one could spoof them with abandon.
Nehru’s tryst with destiny speech, delivered on the eve of independence, had a magic to it. It was the dawn of a new nation. Modi destroyed it by playing out the same words while rolling out the Goods and Services Tax on the night of June 30, and hardly anyone objected. I wondered who the chatur baniya was at that moment.
Now, pidgin has become a national style. Pidgin is what Modi speaks. It is the dominant speech form today, as regional elites moved into Delhi erasing the last remnants of Nehruvianism’s nation-building elites. The popular idiom is now Modi-esque. It is a disappearance of a language form, where word and world connected, where textuality was critical. By appealing to digitality, and using information as metaphor, Modi destroyed Nehruvian India. He destroyed a grammar before he attacked speech, which is why he was successful. When classical Nehruvians speak, they sound alienated and alien. Now even if they use the same words, like “development”, “nation”, “culture”, they have a new corpus of meanings.
Modi realised that one could cite Gandhi, appropriate Patel, but only when Nehru as a paradigm and exemplar of nation building was erased, could his era begin. He is the Mahmud Ghazni of the Nehruvian nation state.
Pushed into irrelevance
I sensed this not just in politics but in social science and literature. When many critics say our work is not relevant to this era, they are suggesting that the values and the vocabulary that marked their world have lost potency.
One saw it in a more paradoxical and poignant way at the release commemorating National Herald, once a great newspaper. The function, in June, was tastefully conducted; it had the right touch of ease and decorum. One felt home in it. Sitting around me were some of India’s most seasoned journalists. One of them said “these guys are good, professionals like us but they have too much of Delhi in them. They would last five minutes against an Adityanath or a Shivraj Chouhan. They belong more to India International Centre than the party battles, suave and cosmopolitan as they are”.
Another added brutally that it was a pleasure listening to Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and historian Romila Thapar – classic Nehruvians – but they make sense only at the Asiatic Society or at the history conference. They are quotable but not followable. They do not belong to politics as we see it. It is almost as if they are disqualified for being sensible and sensitive. The idiom has changed from national to vernacular. The BJP speaks a parochial nationalism. It has no vision of the Panchsheel, they have no sense of the political world that separates a Donald Trump and a Fidel Castro.
It is as if Nehruvianism belongs to a different jigsaw puzzle, a different framework of memory. As a student of mine thoughtfully said, Nehru is an abstract person: “He is someone you meet in an NCERT book, the object of a quiz, real but too distant to be every day”. On the other hand, Modi, Adityanath and Amit Shah smell of the real world, its sensoriums of violence, power and corruption. The Nehruvian discourse has faded away, almost irreversibly. There is a moral luck to Modi’s era because the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Rashtriya Janata Dal sound as dated as the Congress. The challenge before us is that we cannot appeal to history. We have to invent a new imagination.
One needs the truth of storytelling to admit that the Nehruvian discourse providing the terms of reference to our nation is over. Nehru lingers around like a phantom limb when it is time to heal our nation and revive democracy in more creative ways. Here, Nehru as a heuristic might be important – as an example might be critical but as catechism might be disastrous. One needs a map of new possibilities so that a cartography of hope comes alive for the Congress and India.