Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Opinion | From Nehru’s ‘idea of India’ to Modi’s ‘new India’

On Independence Day, 15 August 2014, Rupa Subramanya and I had written a blog post (India’s Postcolonial Moment) in which we argued that with the advent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s postcolonial moment had arrived. We had in mind both the literal—first prime minister born after independence, leading a political party created after independence—and, more importantly, the metaphorical—a farewell to former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “idea of India", which was both rooted intellectually in the colonial past and whose articulation shaped the elite-driven decades immediately following the emancipation from colonial rule.

The Nehruvian conception involved three fundamental ideas in three key issue areas: socialism (economic policy); non-alignment (foreign policy); and secularism (social policy). Of this tripod, the first two elements had been knocked away well before Modi: socialism, by economic liberalization beginning in 1991 under then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and continued by successive governments of various ideological persuasions; and non-alignment, inevitably following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and then more fully after the embrace of the US under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in the late 1990s. Indeed, while the Manmohan Singh government did little, if anything, to further economic reform during its 10-year reign from 2004-14, the India-US civil nuclear accord of 2008 marked the acme of India’s explicit tilt towards the US.

Thus, the last remaining leg of this three-legged stool was Nehru’s particular conception of secularism. This was founded upon the notion that minority rights must be protected and enshrined in law, if necessary at the expense of absolute equality under the law. Its core impulse was that any drift towards Hindu majoritarianism—a distinct possibility in a democratic polity in which the majority are Hindu—must be prevented at any cost. If necessary, this would be done by constraining the majority community, legally and otherwise, in ways in which minorities were not. That was the theory. In practice, Nehruvian secularism had degenerated into identity-based, “vote bank" politics and the politics of special deals for minority communities. Its cultural aroma was an elite disdain for the religious, social and cultural practices of adherents to the majority religion.

It is this last leg of the Nehruvian tripod that has been in the process of being dislodged since 2014. That is the sense in which one might have said that, with Modi’s arrival, India’s postcolonial moment had arrived. When Subramanya and I made this argument exactly four years ago, we imagined that an elite-driven narrative that had dominated intellectual discourse in India since independence would be replaced by a more authentic and more inclusive discourse, in which the celebration of the plurality of Indic identities, including those of the majority faith, would no longer be seen as ipso facto problematic. Our vision was that of a hegemonic, elite narrative being supplanted by a democratic multiplicity of new, competing narratives: indeed, of a new discourse which truly empowered all the subalterns to speak, rather than being ventriloquized.

Four years on, Modi’s “new India" is taking shape, and some of what we had conjectured is showing inchoate signs of coming into existence. A new intellectual current, feeding nascent new narratives, is attempting to upend the received telling, and cast a self-consciously Indic stamp on the understanding of Indian history and culture, ancient and more recent. Further, Modi’s policy actions have allowed us to fill in some of the blanks in how his new India differs from the Nehruvian idea.

On foreign and security policy, despite significant rhetorical differences—in particular, a more muscular assertion of the Indian national interest—the situation is more a matter of “compare and contrast" with what came before, rather than any sort of clean break with the immediate past.

On economics, the differences are less pronounced than some of Modi’s pre-2014 free market acolytes might have wished. He seems to be attempting to fashion an East Asian brand of state capitalism and efficient government administration. This is at once distinct from the Nehruvian socialist model that was jettisoned in 1991, and distinct equally from the Anglo-American laissez faire mantra of his campaign slogan, “maximum governance, minimum government": a model, in fact, that approximates quite closely the Gujarat experience during his long tenure as chief minister.

Indeed, it seems plausible that were Modi to come back big next year, the main thrust of his second term in office would focus more on the cultural than the economic dimension of policy. In other words, economic reforms may well have run their course, and a second-term Modi is more likely to focus on building a welfare state than on dismantling regulations: to wit, more a social democrat’s nirvana than a libertarian’s.

Thus, where the greatest difference may be, and is likely to be, observed is in social and cultural policy, where Modi’s new India involves a more or less overt embrace of the Hindutva agenda—if not yet in law, then in an emergent ethos. How the theoretically caste-free Hindutva doctrine fares when confronted with the reality of a caste-ridden Hinduism may well determine the shape of new India.

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist and resident senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, Mumbai. Read Vivek’s Mint columns at Livemint.com/vivekdehejia.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com.

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