A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist I met a few months ago told me that the correct way to look at Indian political history over the last century was by judging where various national leaders stood on the issue of modernity. He said there was then a lot similar between M.K. Gandhi and M.S. Golwalkar and between Jawaharlal Nehru and V.D. Savarkar. The former were traditionalists while the latter were modernists. His sympathies lay with the latter duo, he added.

It was an unusual observation, and one that is essentially correct. The mediocrity of contemporary Indian political debates can be traced back to one problem: The obsession with the communal question over all else. So the assessment of a person is based on where he or she stands on the (undoubtedly important) problem of Hindu-Muslim relations. Such a simplistic thumb rule allows the chattering classes to take convenient moral positions, rather than coming to terms with the more complex set of issues that any nation grapples with. Political debate has degenerated into a shallow morality play.

It was not always so. The national movement saw rich debates on the future of India. Four of them stood out, in my opinion. The first was fought on the question of what should come first: social reform or political independence? It flared up in Pune in the last decade of the 19th century. The reformers believed that Indian society must first shed its inequities, because a premature transfer of power to a country with caste discrimination and religious superstition would lead to political chaos. Their opponents argued that social reform would create divisions at a time when a mass movement based on religious symbols was the need of the hour.

The next major debate was on political strategy. The radicals wanted to use the popular discontent after the partition of Bengal in 1905 to raise the stakes in the battle against the British government. The moderates wanted to stick to more constitutional methods and keep negotiating with the colonial power. The Congress split on the issue at Surat in 1907. The moderates won the day, but they lost the support of the younger lot of nationalists.

The third big debate emerged as the British began sharing power after World War I and independence seemed to be on the horizon. There were differences of opinion on what free India should look like. A whole host of brilliant men such as M. Visvesvaraya, Subhas Chandra Bose, Savarkar and Nehru believed that India should build modern industries. Gandhi, Golwalkar and their respective followers wanted to rejuvenate the traditional village industries. One part of this debate was on urbanization. B.R. Ambedkar told his followers that villages were cesspools of superstition and oppression, and that they should migrate to cities.

The last of the great debates among the giants of the national movement took place after independence. It focused on the role of the state versus the role of the market in Indian economic policy. The Congress under Bose had taken the first step towards national planning in 1938; it was the Nehru government that made it central to Indian economic policy after 1956. The pushback was led by liberals such as C. Rajagopalachari, Minoo Masani and N.G. Ranga who wanted a far greater role for private property and the market, not only on grounds of economic efficiency but also as a means to protect individuals against rampant state power.

The inclusion of issues such as social reform, political strategy, constitutionalism, modernity, urbanization, planning and markets creates a complex political matrix rather than the simplistic linear thinking that befuddles our political thinking right now. Should all protest be constitutional? Should the poor be encouraged to migrate to cities? Should markets coordinate most economic activity? Should we seek to replace traditional social arrangements with new laws that recognize individual rights? Should rapid industrialization be the most important goal of economic policy?

Suddenly, there is no simple thumb rule to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, no cheap formulas to hurl at audiences, no ideological cover for opportunistic political alliances based on faux secularism and faux cultural nationalism.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns

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