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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

What Narendra Modi has Jawaharlal Nehru to thank for

Like Nehru, Modi's attempt to position his party to stand in for the country is part of realizing an ideological vision

When the Constituent Assembly of the then-united India met in December 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru declared, “A free India can be nothing but a republic." Nehru’s immediate concern was the sovereignty of a state, uniting India’s numerous territories under the law and deriving its constituent power from the people rather than the inherited sovereignty of the Indian princes. Like Nehru, Narendra Modi and Barack Obama came to power hailed as transcendent figures, ones who would make a break with established forms of power and unleash the pent-up energies of their people. While Obama came to India humbled by the tyranny of unrealized (or unrealistic) expectations, Modi is enjoying an extended honeymoon, unusual in Indian politics and seemingly detached from his actual ability to deliver on his campaign promises. Yet Modi needs Obama to succeed. With Europe moribund, stagnation in Japan, and economic uncertainty elsewhere, the success of his signature Make in India project largely depends on the ability of the US economy to serve as the engine of global economic growth. While Make in India may be a few decades too late, as the governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan recently pointed out, the substantial trade delegation led by John Kerry preceding Obama’s visit alerts us not only to the interest of the US government and capital in India, but of the curious relationship shared between India and the US since the middle of the last century.

In 1949, at a critical juncture in independent India’s history, with a food crisis threatening the legitimacy and stability of his government, Nehru set off to meet US president Harry Truman. Nehru was insistent that India’s relationship with the emerging global superpower not be one of a supplicant, even when literally begging for food. He struggled to develop a rapport with the farmer from Missouri and came home empty-handed. Yet it was with Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom Nehru shared much in common. Both were leaders of aristocratic comportment from privileged backgrounds who loomed large over the politics of their respective countries for more than a decade on the back of broad coalitions of the poor and middle classes. Nehru’s Congress, like Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, was home to a range of ideological persuasions, balancing communalism and social conservatism, respectively, with a progressive Keynesian statism. More importantly, both laid the foundations of new normative and institutional frameworks that have endured since.

Nehru rejected a US-style presidential system as dangerously concentrating power in a single individual. But he saw certain aspects of the US as instructive for many questions facing India. It was a large federal republic of continental scale and Roosevelt’s New Deal offered a model of the welfare state that didn’t eliminate, but at least alleviated the conflict and violence that Nehru saw as inherent to capitalism. “Something in the nature of President Roosevelt’s New Deal," he wrote to the Planning Commission, “is essential." Essential not only in terms of infrastructure and other productive works but to, “produce a new psychological atmosphere in the country, one of aggressive forward action instead of one of timid defence."

The big dam projects that were emblematic of the Nehruvian state were modelled on Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley project. American expertise was a prominent feature of Nehru’s technocratic apparatus, with the Ford Foundation having a hand in some of the period’s signature developmental efforts. Not only was socialism subordinated to the legislative and procedural processes of parliamentary democracy, but the developmental state he sought to implement—with its respect for private property, unwillingness to effectively discipline Indian capital, and refusal to nationalize extant industries—was part of the postwar phenomena in the US and Western Europe of saving global capitalism through state moderation of its excesses.

Nehru was clear, however, that the West, in the wake of Hiroshima, the Holocaust and two cataclysmic global conflicts, had not only lost its normative dominance but was experiencing a state of civilizational crisis. The universal promises of Western liberalism and humanism had always been compromised by racism and imperialism. But decolonization offered a chance not to discard these promises, but to give them genuine realization. His use of the United Nations to censure South Africa was not only a transformative moment in the life of that institution, but reminds us that the struggle against racism was never a purely domestic one, even in case of the US, and was always linked to movements for self-determination in the colonial world. While much has been made of Gandhi’s influence on Martin Luther King Jr and the latter’s visit to India, the Third World movement spearheaded by Nehru to rid the international system of its racial hierarchies and forge international solidarities helped make the struggle against racism a truly global one. With the present devaluing and diminishing of national sovereignty around the world, Nehru’s insistence that the sovereign state was the most effective tool for delivering economic progress and guaranteeing political freedom, is no longer true. This is the major reason that Modi can parlay with Obama on equitable terms. The same cannot be said, of course, for Pakistan, who early on in the Cold War cast its lot with the Americans.

With the resurgence of race back into the national debate in the US, Obama has realized the difficulty, if not impossibility of making the break with the past that he so eloquently articulated in 2008. Modi too bears a similar burden.

His developmentalist rhetoric as the dominant language of a national politics, for example, was Nehru’s innovation. And like Nehru, his centralizing of power and attempt to position his party to stand in for the country are part of a project of realizing an ideological vision. The success of this ideological vision can be measured by the extent it will succeed in establishing “a new psychological atmosphere in the country", in aggressively delivering the future, and in altering the normative fabric of Indian society and political life. The future course of the Republic hinges on it.

Sunil Purushotham is a lecturer in Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge.

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