India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru defined the philosophical debate in Indian politics till his death in 1964. The worldview he espoused has come to be known as Nehruvian. It entailed pervasive state control over the economy, an idealistic stance in foreign affairs, and special consideration to certain communities in domestic policy.
But the Congress was far from a one-man or one-ideology party in the 1950s—it was a big tent with a vibrant right wing, too. Its decline as a political institution began under Nehru, who was the first prime minister to abuse Article 356 and dismiss Kerala’s elected state government in 1959. Even if Nehru was not inclined to take this position, he reportedly allowed himself to be overruled by the Congress president, his daughter Indira Gandhi, whom he had gotten installed as party president. This Stalinist template, where no distinction is made between party and state, and the executive is debased at the expense of the party, was pioneered by Nehru and has been followed by almost all successive Congress prime ministers: Manmohan Singh has only elevated it to a new high. The emasculation of inner-party democracy accelerated under Indira Gandhi, was continued by her son Rajiv Gandhi and has been dutifully carried forward by his wife Sonia Gandhi.
Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani opposed Nehru vigorously on the issue of allowing separate personal laws for Muslims in 1955, charging him with communalism on the floor of Parliament. C. Rajagopalachari quit the Congress at age 80 in 1959 to establish the Swatantra Party, espousing economic liberalism. “The Congress Party has swung to the Left, what is wanted is not an ultra or outer-Left...but a strong and articulate Right,” Rajaji wrote in his essay Our Democracy. The Swatantra Party was later hounded by Indira Gandhi, who nationalized industries to decimate Swatantra Party’s financial backers. It was a classic case of destroying economic freedom to kill political freedom.
But Nehru’s most formidable ideological opponent was Vallabhbhai Patel, and it was Patel’s death on 15 December, 1950, that accelerated India’s tilt towards the left.
Patel’s worldview was substantively different from Nehru’s in many important spheres. Despite opposition from Nehru, Patel got a mosque shifted—whether one agrees with it or not—to rebuild a temple at Somnath that had been repeatedly destroyed over the centuries by Muslim invaders. Mahatma Gandhi gave his blessings to Patel but wanted no public funds to be used for the construction of the temple. On China, their views differed with Patel advocating help to Tibet when it was invaded—and Patel turned out to be right. On Kashmir’s accession to India, Patel’s realism was again overruled, and Nehru needlessly internationalized the issue by inviting intervention from the United Nations.
On economic issues too, they had significant differences, with Patel repeatedly opposing Nehru’s demand for establishing the Planning Commission. It was on Patel’s insistence that the Commission was given an advisory role only, with its policies subject to the Union cabinet’s review and approval. Nehru wanted to define the purpose of planning as the elimination of “the motive of private gain in economic activity or organization of society and the antisocial concentration of wealth and means of production.” Patel prevailed over him and got this language deleted.
That Nehru sought to endow an unconstitutional body with such sweeping powers only betrays his affinity for a centralized, anti-market, if not communist, approach to economic development.
Their positions on zamindari abolition and the use of eminent domain for land acquisition further illuminate their philosophical leanings. Patel wanted compensation as market price plus 15%, while Nehru favoured no compensation. Patel also successfully supported Rajendra Prasad for President of India, and Purushottam Das Tandon for Congress party president in 1950, not just for ideological reasons but also to show Nehru that he couldn’t always dictate terms. Only Patel commanded the political heft to counter Nehru, and with his demise, the right wing within the Congress lost its strongest ballast.
Just as with Swami Vivekananda, leftist intellectuals are confused whether to re-appropriate the legacy of Patel, or to escalate their attacks to make them toxic for the right. They are tempted to try re-appropriation because of the titanic stature of these individuals, but at the same time they are unable to reconcile the liberal views of Patel and Vivekananda with their own collectivist dogma, which they have managed to label as liberal.
In such a political-historical context enters Narendra Modi. His economic record has been debated threadbare. There have been cases where newspapers have published false data, perhaps in their eagerness to bring down his record, and then retracted. Nobody credible doubts that Modi’s tenure as Gujarat chief minister has accelerated Gujarat’s economic progress.
Modi’s critics argue that he may be a good administrator, but he isn’t inclusive and is autocratic. He has been said to be insufficiently reformist. Above all, Narendra Modi is not secular—he is painted as someone who is too divisive and obdurate to lead a diverse nation like India.
This is an inaccurate narrative. The word inclusive has become a euphemism to justify irresponsible government spending, often based upon identity, and it is parroted by all who believe in the type of socialism that kept India impoverished for decades. Even the darling of the self-described secular crowd, JDU’s Nitish Kumar, is a dyed-in-the-wool socialist from the Ram Manohar Lohia school of thought.
Kumar’s government already receives over 75% of its revenue from New Delhi, yet he agitates for more. The sustainability of his Bihar model will be determined by his ability to extract taxpayer funds remitted from other parts of India. Essentially, Kumar is willing to barter political support in exchange for even more funds from New Delhi.
This kind of parasitic growth is unsustainable and undesirable. Not only does it hurt the poor, it weakens India’s federal structure by centralizing power in New Delhi and by making states dependent on Union government handouts. To quote economist Frédéric Bastiat, Kumar seems to believe in the fiction that everyone can live at the expense of everybody else.
In stark contrast, Modi stands out as the only major Indian political leader since Atal Bihari Vajpayee to advocate that government has no business to be in business. No mass leader in recent times, even from the BJP, has been as explicit in expressing this view on the role of government. India has witnessed economic growth since 1991 because the government stepped back from areas where it had no reason to be in the first place. It is economic liberalism that has catalyzed economic growth in India, and strong doses of it are the need of the hour. Modi has spoken unequivocally in favour of federalism and decentralization, too, calling for flexibility to state governments in designing welfare schemes.
In India, one is branded communal if one doesn’t support state welfare of citizens based on religious criteria. This is a hideous perversion of secularism. Can UK’s prime minister or the US president get away with saying that any one community has the first right over the country’s resources? Yet, in India, Manmohan Singh said exactly this for Muslims, and is considered secular. The hideousness of secular politics has plumbed new depths in recent times. During a rally at Azamgarh at the time of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, Congress parliamentarian Salman Khurshid said that the Congress president “wept bitterly” on seeing images of the encounter that took place at Batla House. Congress leaders like Digivijay Singh insisted the encounter was fake before a judicial verdict was delivered. Tears were shed for the terrorists killed in the encounter, but apparently there were no tears shed for policeman Mohan Chand Sharma, who was murdered by the terrorists at Batla House.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government has gone so far as to advocate special courts for Muslims to expedite trials for them. Don’t members of other communities deserve speedier justice?
Patel had severe disagreements with Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad over the allocation of housing in Delhi that used to be occupied by Muslims who, after partition, migrated to Pakistan. Nehru and Azad insisted that only Muslims should stay in those homes, whereas Patel held that no secular government could take such a stand. The gatekeepers of secularism would have charged Patel as communal today, just as they attack Modi as communal for upholding the same principle.
Patel unreservedly condemned the methods adopted by communists as being against the rule of law - he said that “their philosophy is to exploit every situation, to create chaos and anarchy, in the belief that, in such conditions, it would be possible for them to seize power.”
The same charges - fascist, communalist, capitalist—made against Patel during his lifetime and since his demise have been levelled against Modi. This only shows that the Nehruvian consensus has never been so threatened in India as it is today—and those wedded to Nehru’s ideas will do everything they can to prevent the implosion of this consensus.
Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta are co-founders of the India Enterprise Council.