Political anniversaries – Mr Nehru and Mr Modi

By Mukul Kesavan, The Telegraph India | June 6, 2016

The near-coincidence of Jawaharlal Nehru’s 52nd death anniversary (May 27) and the Modi government’s second birthday (May 26) is an opportunity to look at the state of play in the contest between two rival ideas of India.

Nehru and Narendra Modi can be fairly said to embody two different conceptions of the republic. While both men are charismatic leaders who dominated the political discourse as prime ministers, they are also representatives of large political movements dedicated to defining India as a nation.

The Congress, being both the older movement and the main vessel of anti-colonial nationalism, had the historical advantage over the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates when it came to constituting the republic. The Constituent Assembly was dominated by Congressmen and while the contributions of men outside the Congress fold in designing the republic were crucial (notably B.R. Ambedkar), the Constitution, as it emerged, expressed the secular inclusiveness that the Indian National Congress had historically aspired to even when it fell short of this goal.

Even as the nationalism of the Congress – a kind of ideological pluralism – was embodied in the Constitution, the hegemonic Hindu nationalism imagined by the RSS was thwarted by it. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s earlier political avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, established by the RSS and Syama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951, the year after the Constituent Assembly was disbanded, is best understood as a long-haul project to reclaim the estranged republic for the Hindu nation.

A republican Constitution is an attempt to give the nation-state an explicit, rule-bound form. Once its founding charter is written, the republic is irrevocably constituted; a Constitution calls time on the imagining of the nation-state. The written republic can only be incrementally changed and, in the case of India, the Supreme Court has ruled that the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution can’t be altered.

Through much of its career, the Jana Sangh’s rhetoric was explicitly at odds with the symbols and substance of the newly constituted republic. For decades, the sangh parivar saw the bhagva dhvaj, the saffron standard as the true emblem of their nation, their imagined community. The tiranga, the national flag with the Ashokan wheel in the middle, was too close in design and symbolism to the Congress’s tricolour with the charkha, to be embraced by a party that loathed Nehru’s party and everything that it stood for. The explicitly communal and parochial outlook of the Jana Sangh, wholly at odds with the republic’s pluralism, was summed up in the reductive bigotry of the party’s favourite slogan, ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’.

The transition from the BJS to the BJP was more than a name change: it was a strategic recalibration. The aim was no longer to confront or reject the symbols and substance of the republic; the object now was to cut and paste as much of the anti-colonial struggle into the BJP’s own political genealogy as was ideologically possible without compromising itsHindutvavadi core. While all genealogies are invented to a greater or lesser degree, the BJP’s fabrications are remarkable for their effrontery. The party chose to appropriate all the militant bits of the anti-colonial struggle which was ironical, given the political supineness of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS through the lifetime of the raj. So Bhagat Singh, Subhas Bose, anyone who symbolized armed resistance to the Raj was assimilated to the saffron brotherhood’s fantasy of a virile Hindu nationalism. These borrowed heroes were bracketed by Veer Savarkar and Nathuram Godse. There’s a reason why Sakshi Maharaj, one of the BJP’s Lok Sabha MPs, wanted to elevate Godse to the nationalist pantheon alongside Gandhi, the man he murdered. Godse is the saffron brotherhood’s not-so-secret hero because he didn’t just kill the Mahatma, he symbolically murdered the non-violent effeminacy that he represented.

Thus the tricolour, Netaji’s valour, Sardar Patel’s consolidation of the princely states were assimilated to a heroic, Hindu nationalist past. The anti-colonial struggle was cherry-picked for posthumous recruits no matter how much at odds these appropriated figures were to the Sangh’s ideology. Bose’s scrupulous secularism as the leader of the INA, Bhagat Singh’s Marxist understanding of revolution were no obstacles to the BJP’s bid to invoke as ancestors men who would have been repelled by its communalism. Even Ambedkar, despite his root-and-branch hostility to Hinduism, was painted on to Mr Advani’s chariot during his rath yatras in the 1990s.

So instead of confronting the republic’s pantheon, the BJP set out to co-opt its heroes, to see if they could be harnessed to its understanding of nationalism. Instead of railing against the principles of the republic, it chose to possess them in spirit. Instead of trying to constitute a second republic, it decided it would try to colour the existing one saffron.

In this venture, the BJP has made some progress. Part of this has been achieved via the judiciary, the most notable advance being Justice J.S. Verma’s judgment, where he ruled that an appeal to Hindutva could not be construed as an appeal to religious sensibilities because Hindutva represented nationalism, not a particular faith.

In the two years of Modi’s prime ministership, the BJP’s principal achievement has been to make the unsayable, sayable. Godse used to be ‘he who could not be named’ till Sakshi Maharaj decided he ought to be admitted to Indian nationalism’s Hall of Fame. In the same spirit, the BJP’s spokespersons and ministers and MPs and MLAs set about dispelling other taboos: they made excuses for the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaque, classified citizens as Ramzadas and ha*****das, and asked for Muslims to be disenfranchised unless they acknowledged they were Hindus first.

Subramanian Swamy, Sakshi Maharaj and V.K. Singh aren’t mavericks. They are substantial men: members of parliament and, in V.K. Singh’s case, a sworn minister of the government of India. Their rhetoric isn’t extremist noise, it is a way of normalizing prejudice, of making it part of mainstream conversation. It’s why none of them is sanctioned or punished or even chided. This is, if you like, the Trumpian gambit, a way of making what is taboo today, ordinary tomorrow.

Modi’s dramatically expressed loyalty to the Constitution, his rhetorical commitment tosabka vikas is necessary cover for the agenda that has V.K. Singh campaigning to erase Emperor Akbar’s name from Delhi’s road maps and the Rajasthan government moving to delete Pandit Nehru’s name from school textbooks. Singh might be one of the BJP’s rough diamonds, but his ’cause’ is bigger than him. A much less abrasive party spokesperson, the demure Shaina NC, was quick to compare Akbar with Hitler in support of Singh’s proposal to rename Akbar Road. The Modi government’s cumulative achievement has been the gentrification of bigotry.

Powerful prime ministers become iconic. Nehru and Modi differ not just ideologically, but in their style. They are connected and separated by costume. Their waistcoats, theirchuridars, their kurtas are generically similar, with important differences: Modi’s waistcoats and kurtas are more colourful and Nehru’s khadi has yielded to linen. The first prime minister invariably wore a red rose in his button-hole; the current one sometimes sports a white plastic lotus. Their personas are different too. For children growing up in the early 1960s, the prime minister was Chacha Nehru. Despite his many qualities, Mr Modi is not, as uncles go, a natural chacha. More a tau.

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