Narendra Modi was a fourteen-year-old boy when Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964. Therefore, he had no reason to understand how Nehru governed India, no sense of the fundamental challenges he faced as the country’s first prime minister, nor of his major strengths and weaknesses as a leader and individual.
Nehru’s early years as prime minister were spent in the shadow of the partition. The arrival of millions of refugees from Pakistan, who sought shelter and rehabilitation, stretched an already impoverished and insecure nation. Thanks to the Second World War, the national economy was already in shambles. How did Nehru cope with these challenges? Young Narendra Modi doubtless had no clue about these.
Any appreciation Modi may have had for Nehru’s travails was likely further hamstrung by a lack of proper schooling. From what we know, straitened family circumstances meant young Modi was forced instead to eke out a living by selling tea with his father at a railway station. By the time he began wielding political power as Gujarat’s chief minister in 2001, Nehru’s ghost had lain dormant for 37 years and was seemingly well past its prime.
Of course, for a ghost, 37 years is a perfectly good age to start a career as mischief-monger. In our childhood, we heard many stories in Bengali of Lord Clive’s ghost or Lord Wellesley’s ghost haunting the old mansions of Calcutta. But the question remains, why should Nehru’s ghost choose Narendra Modi and no one else? After all, he had several potential subjects to prey upon over the years, each of whom was no less important as prime minister in their time than Modi is today.
There have been six non-Congress-non-BJP prime ministers to rule India before Modi. They are Morarji Desai, Chaudhary Charan Singh, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, IK Gujral and HD Deve Gowda. We might even include PV Narasimha Rao (1991-96) on the list. Although Rao belonged to the Congress, he was known to be an eyesore for Nehru’s legatees, most notably his grandson, the late Rajiv Gandhi’s wife, Sonia Gandhi, who was then preparing to emerge as the godmother of the grand old party.
Nehru’s ghost, quite strangely, spared even Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the only other BJP prime minister of India who governed from 1998 to 2004. Rather, Vajpayee rarely missed an opportunity to recall his days with Nehru with fondness. At that time, he was an up-and-coming Jana Sangh politician who eventually became the party’s MP in the Second Lok Sabha (1957-62) from the Balrampur constituency in Uttar Pradesh. After the massive dent in Nehru’s image following India’s defeat to China in 1962, Vajpayee did become a staunch critic. Even so, political criticism did not degenerate into personal disrespect of the man.
This is what Vajpayee said on Nehru’s death: “Bharat Mata is stricken with grief today—she has lost her favourite prince. Humanity is sad today—it has lost its devotee. Peace is restless today—its protector is no more. The downtrodden have lost their refuge. The common man has lost the light in his eyes. The curtain has come down… In the Ramayana, Maharishi Valmiki has said of Lord Rama that he brought the impossible together. In Panditji’s life, we see a glimpse of what the great poet said. He was a devotee of peace and yet the harbinger of revolution, he was a devotee of non-violence but advocated every weapon to defend freedom and honour.”
All this naturally evokes a simple curiosity: Why does Modi bait Nehru with such pathological fervour? It is unlikely that Modi will oblige us with an answer. All we can do is hazard some guesses instead.
In the first place, the ideological hiatus between Nehru and Modi is total. Modi may not have any academic knowledge of Nehruvian India, but as an RSS pracharak (i.e., propagandist) from his young days, he has drunk the anti-Congress Kool-Aid, which regards the party as the key impediment in turning India into a Hindu rashtra (nation) along the lines of Islamic Pakistan. And, of course, the lynchpin of the Congress was Pandit Nehru, for whom India’s commitment to secularism was simply non-negotiable. So much so that he did not consider it necessary to incorporate this self-evident commitment into the Constitution of India. The overall thrust of the document would take care of it, Nehru was sure.
Second, there is a massive intellectual disparity between the two. It is my sense that Modi suffers from an inferiority complex. How else might one explain the drama surrounding Modi’s university education or lack thereof? For a democratically chosen leader, and that too one with such a huge mandate, possession of a university degree should hardly matter. And yet, witness the drama that has been enacted in the public domain to manufacture a fake Delhi University MA degree—in ‘entire political science’ no less—in his name. Not only did the farce needlessly focus attention on Modi’s education, but it also tarnished his image.
Compared to Modi, Nehru was a genius. He wrote five books, Letters from a Father to His Daughter (1929), Glimpses of World History (1934), An Autobiography (1936), The Discovery of India (1946), and Letters for a Nation: From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers 1947-1963 (available in four volumes, edited by G. Parthasarathi). The erudition, intellectual suppleness, and catholicity of mind that they embody are the envy of even the most accomplished of academics. Nehru’s interactions with the intellectual luminaries of his age, figures like Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Romain Rolland, among many others, are also well documented.
The third point of divergence can be ascribed to Modi’s insolence in contrast to Nehru’s sophistication. Modi’s public speeches often taunt and ridicule those who ruled India before him. In one go, he reduces his predecessors to nought, as if nothing worthwhile happened during the past seventy years. Curiously, this infantile dismissal even includes the Vajpayee years, although Modi is careful not to single him out by name.
Unlike Modi, Nehru had to deal with all kinds of political powerhouses, both within his party as well as in the Opposition. His equanimity while doing so was par excellence and perhaps best demonstrated in his handling of the mercurial VK Krishna Menon. Anyone who has read Jairam Ramesh’s biography of Menon would appreciate Nehru’s patience and balanced outlook. One must also remember that his first Cabinet contained figures with diametrically opposed politics. On the one hand was someone like the Hindu Mahasabha leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee, among the Hindu right’s founding figures; on the other, someone like the Scheduled Castes Federation leader BR Ambedkar, whose views on Hindu law reform were even more radical than Nehru’s.
The fourth dissonance pertains to conflicting orientations in respect of science and rationality. Nehru took great pains to emphasise and promote a scientific temper. Today, under Modi, that term and what it represents is a matter of ridicule. Pride in past achievements is certainly natural, but to attribute every great scientific achievement to ancient Indians, meaning Hindus, be it plastic surgery, remote sensing, computer technology, or even pen drives, is quite simply absurd. All one has to do is travel abroad to discover how much laughter such claims elicit, barring, of course, amongst Modi’s NRI cheerleaders.
The fifth difference is between Nehru’s liberalism and Modi’s illiberalism. Since the question is subjective, its answer cannot be objective. The evidence from films produced during the two eras is suggestive because films often reflect the social atmosphere better than other forms of media. Having done some work on the films of the 1950s and 1960s, I can state that it would be unthinkable for the Nehruvian state to endorse a movie like The Kashmir Files.
Most riot situations, or factors that lead to mass exodus under duress, are full of gruesome stories. Fiction is a particularly powerful medium through which this pain is memorialised and processed, as the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Khushwant Singh, Bhisham Sahni, and many others have shown us. Film-makers and historians, too, carry the burden of telling these stories. But the one entity that should steadfastly maintain its distance from such activities is the state. In the interests of societal harmony, it should instead rise above partisan politics, and it should be especially careful not to promote the commercial interests of authors and film-makers, no matter their ideological hue.
For example, should the state spread stories about how the Bengali Hindus of Sylhet had to face majoritarian ethno-religious ire twice during their lifetime? If the first was at the hands of Sylheti Muslims from whom they fled, then the second was in Shillong at the hands of the Khasi majority.
Following the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the demands of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) became the demands of the Khasi Students Union (KSU). Their now common demand was that all foreigners should leave. But there was a hierarchy of hatred: first came the Bengalis, then Nepalis (of Indian origin), and finally the Biharis. Soon the cosmopolitanism of Shillong was in tatters.
History teaches us that politicians try to perpetuate their rule by hook or crook. In moments of excess, such strategies can end up doing significant damage to the body politic. I fear we are at such a moment. We are destroying the very idea of India upon which the entire fabric of the Indian state rests. That idea is underwritten in its constitutional imagination, the three central pillars of which are: Secularism, Federalism and Pluralism.
If Modi wants posterity to remember him as a great prime minister, he cannot ignore this small piece of advice from this unknown Indian. Let him note that Nehru was an assemblage of ideas. By attacking the man, Modi attacks that assemblage, and in so doing, he runs the risk of destroying what we are proud of as Indians.
Let Narendra Modi understand that in the history books, it is he on whom chapters will be written, not the RSS. The latter may pompously celebrate their upcoming centenary and remain influential for another 100 years, yet no separate chapters will be devoted to them. They will figure only in the context of the prime ministers of India. The ball, therefore, is entirely in Modi’s court.
The author is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He was an ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.