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 (Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Opinion | Now that the Nehruvian idea of India seems overshadowed

The challenge is to ensure that an ideational shift currently underway transfigures rather than disfigures the nation

Writing in this space on 12 August 2018 (From Nehru’s “Idea Of India" To Modi’s “New India"), and drawing on an earlier blog post co-written with Rupa Subramanya (India’s Postcolonial Moment, 15 August 2014), I had argued that a fundamental ideational shift was occurring in India, set in train by Narendra Modi’s monumental election victory of May 2014. Briefly, I had argued that the ascent of Modi encapsulated and accelerated the disintegration of the Nehruvian “idea of India" and its replacement by what Modi himself has called “new India".

Earlier this year, Modi led an even more successful election campaign for the Lok Sabha that was notably not premised on the economy nor on governance, but on core Hindu (or, if you prefer, “Indic") values. The result was a blowout victory and a further large step away from the liminal space between Nehru’s and Modi’s ideals towards the latter’s. Indeed, one could well argue today that the old “idea of India" is entering rigor mortis, and the “new India" is a rambunctious youngster, well on the road to gaining maturity.

To add analytical substance to this by now an almost clichéd narrative, we need a conceptual framework and a comparative perspective—spatial, temporal or preferably both. Writing recently in the Financial Times (China, India And The Rise Of The “Civilisation State", 4 March 2019), Gideon Rachman invoked the “civilization state"—which he defined as a “country that claims to represent not just a historic territory or a particular language or ethnic-group, but a distinctive civilization". Indeed, this is a logical extension of the notion of disparate (and potentially warring) civilizations in the influential “clash of civilizations" thesis of Samuel Huntington, which gained currency after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Rachman cites China, India, Russia, Turkey and the US as exemplary in this category, and in a later article adds Israel by implication. One could equally add Iran and a few other countries to this list.

What is fascinating is the arc of the civilization state in the post-colonial period. While running the risk of appearing schematic and deterministic, note that regions as diverse as Turkey, India and Iran at different times emerged from the remnants of empire and colonization, and created modern nation-states patterned largely along Western lines. Thus, from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created a modern Turkish nation-state in 1923, serving as its first president, and imposing secularism as a founding doctrine. By now, it is abundantly clear that this conception of the Turkish state has failed, and today’s strongman ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has ambitions of recreating a modern-day Ottoman Empire replete with strongly Islamic characteristics.

Meanwhile, in Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah, decreed an enforced westernization and secularization from the time he ascended the peacock throne in 1941, until his overthrow in the revolution of 1979 spearheaded by religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It is sometimes argued that Iranians revolted at the brutality, repression and corruption of the Shah’s US-sponsored regime, but this is a facile telling. Just as in Turkey more recently, a significant segment of the populace rebelled against what I have elsewhere termed, taking a cue from Faisal Devji, a sense of despair and ennui engendered by “godless secularism" (The Faustian Bargain We Have Struck With “Godless Secularism", 31 December 2018).

The Indian case we know well, but let us remind ourselves that Jawaharlal Nehru and independent India’s other founders explicitly imposed the triple conceptions of socialism, secularism and non-alignment on the nascent nation-state in the 1950 Constitution and beyond. That concept lies in ruins, emphatically so after Modi’s massive re-election victory. Nehruvian secularism has been all but replaced by an (as yet) undeclared Hindu (or Indic) state, in which an overarching ethos of those religions born and nurtured on the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism and its offshoots, provides the groundwork for cultural, social and political interactions.

Some observers expect Indira Gandhi’s add-ons “socialist" and “secular", which were inserted in the Preamble to the Constitution during the Emergency, to be replaced by the term “Hindu" or “Indic" at some point. While no such intent has been declared, it’s not in the realm of the impossible. Caution here is advisable. Substantive constitutional changes that seek to accord de jure status to Indic primacy would require more thought, and more care. If extreme dangers are avoided, and hard political hindutva morphs into its softer cultural sibling, akin to cultural Zionism, one could perhaps be more sanguine.

In any event, in the three cases we have briefly studied, the common pattern is this: A form of secularism imposed by a westernized, post-colonial elite, which was at best superficially absorbed, has fallen away, and an organic religiosity has surfaced again as the binding civilizational glue. It would appear that the human condition under post-modernity cannot bear godlessness for very long, and change is in the offing the world over. If so, the real trick would be to ensure that this transition is beautiful and transfiguring, rather than ugly and disfiguring.

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