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- The myth of the ‘Nehruvian consensus’

In recent weeks, there has been much talk of a growing challenge to the ‘Nehruvian consensus’. Influenced by this chatter, two journalists, one Indian, the other Western, asked me to comment on whether Narendra Modi becoming prime minister would mean the end of this ‘consensus’. I declined to answer, since the topic required more than a short sound-bite. Indeed, the question itself needed to be seriously interrogated. For the Nehruvian consensus — if there ever was one — broke down a very long time ago.

Nehru’s vision for India rested on four pillars — multi-party democracy on the Westminster model; State guarantees for the equality of all citizens regardless of gender, class and religion; a mixed economy, with the State playing a ‘commanding role’ in promoting industrial development; a foreign policy based on pan-Asianism and equidistance from the two superpowers (the United States of America and the Soviet Union). As a gifted writer and speaker, Nehru articulated his ideas with an uncommon eloquence. Since he served as prime minister for 17 continuous years, he also was able to get his vision — or at least large parts of it — enacted into practice.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Nehru and Nehruvians played a dominant role in Indian political discourse. Yet even at the height of their influence they were by no means unchallenged. From the right, Nehru was opposed by the Jana Sangh, which insisted that Hinduism defined the essence of the Indian nation, and therefore Hindu faith and sentiment must guide the State’s programmes and policies. From the Left, Nehru and his Congress party were challenged by the communists, who advocated a thoroughgoing nationalization of private property, a closer relationship with the Soviet Union, and active opposition to American policies everywhere.

The Hindu Right and the communist Left had both stayed away from the Congress-led national movement. Interestingly, among the most effective of Nehru’s critics were former Congressmen who had broken ranks with him. There was C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), who, in 1959, at the age of 80, started a new party, Swatantra, that promoted free-market economics as well as better relations with the Americans. There was Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), who opposed to Nehru’s top-down model the virtues of political decentralization, and the revival of the village economy. There was Rammanohar Lohia, who argued that Nehru represented an alien, English-speaking, upper-caste sensibility and was thus out of touch with the ordinary folk. A true Indian democracy, he believed, would only come to pass when lower castes, tribals, and other oppressed groups acquired effective political power themselves.

These critics of Nehru had wide influence among the intelligentsia. Some of India’s best historians (think D.D. Kosambi and Irfan Habib) were Marxists. Some of India’s best writers (such as the novelists R.K. Narayan and Masti Venkatesh Iyengar) venerated Rajagopalachari. JP’s ideas on village self-rule attracted the attention of some fine political scientists and sociologists. With his sparkling wit and polemical style, Lohia was an intellectual’s delight — across north, south and west India, there were many writers and scholars happy to describe themselves as ‘Lohia-ite’.

One scholarly discipline that remained somewhat in thrall to Nehruvian ideas was economics. When the draft Second Five Year Plan was circulated to a panel of 24 economists, as many as 23 agreed with its broad thrust. (The one dissenter was the Ahmedabad-based scholar, B.R. Shenoy).

Economists apart, Nehruvian ideas were by no means hegemonic among the intellectual class. And of course they were vigorously opposed in the political sphere, by the communists and the socialists, by the Jana Sangh and Swatantra. So, even when Nehru was prime minister and the Congress controlled the Centre and most state governments, there was no such thing as a ‘Nehruvian consensus’.

I write about the 1950s and 1960s as a historian. And I can write about the 1970s and 1980s from personal experience. These decades saw an intensifying challenge to Nehru and his legacy, within politics, and within the academy. In 1977, the Janata Party came to power. Janata was a united front of anti-Nehruvians: Lohia-ites, Swatantra-ites, Jana Sanghis. In the same year, communists won state elections in Kerala and West Bengal. The political and intellectual climate was shifting substantively away from Nehruvianism. Even the economists had come around, with free trade advocates such as Jagdish Bhagwati and T.N. Srinivasan now enjoying enormous respect among their peers.

In 1980, I started a doctorate in Calcutta. The city’s culture was suffused with an intense dislike of Jawaharlal Nehru. Its intellectual hub was the Centre for the Studies of Social Sciences, where I got my first job. The Centre’s rising star, the political scientist Partha Chatterjee, had just written a book savaging Nehru as a weak-kneed reformer unable to bring off anything other than a ‘passive revolution’.

Later in that decade, I moved to Delhi. Here, the critical edge of humanistic scholarship was the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Its presiding deity was Rajni Kothari, an admirer of JP and an enthusiast for the Janata experiment. Kothari chastised Nehru on many counts — for disregarding civil society, for centralizing economic power in the state, for being too close to the Soviet bloc.

Also at the CSDS was the sociologist Ashis Nandy, whose criticisms of India’s first prime minister were even more fundamental. Nandy dismissed Nehru as an arrogant elitist who had little interest in the culture and traditions of the aam aadmi. Nehru’s belief in the ‘scientific temper’, argued Nandy, disregarded the rich traditions of indigenous knowledge that had sustained peasant agriculture, indigenous medicine, and craft traditions. Meanwhile, the anthropologist, T.N. Madan, argued for a ‘Gandhian secularism’, which — unlike its Nehruvian counterpart —would respect rather than reject folk traditions of faith and of inter-faith understanding.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there were, to be sure, some solidly Nehruvian redoubts in the academy: such as, the Delhi School of Economics and Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Historical Studies. However, most of the sociologists, historians, literary scholars, and political scientists I knew or worked with were lukewarm about Nehru. And there were no ‘Nehruvian’ scholars remotely as influential as Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy, academic rock stars with a large and devoted following.

The retreat of the Nehruvians was hastened by two other groups now growing in significance: the Ambedkar-ites and the environmentalists. Unlike Gandhi, Nehru had never paid serious attention to caste, thinking that particularistic identities would dissolve through economic growth. The new Dalit intelligentsia foregrounded this blind spot; they also recalled that Ambedkar had resigned from Nehru’s cabinet. Meanwhile, the environmental movement also had Nehru in its sights. Activists such as Medha Patkar and scientists such as Madhav Gadgil argued that Nehru’s model of capital-intensive, energy-intensive economic development had dispossessed peasant and tribal communities and led to large-scale ecological devastation. Large dams, Nehru’s modern temples, were a particular target of their criticism.

This talk of a breakdown of the ‘Nehruvian consensus’ is therefore many years out of date. At a political plane, the Emergency, the Ayodhya controversy and the opening out of the economy had already undermined three pillars of Nehruvianism: constitutional democracy, religious harmony, and national self-sufficiency. And at an ideological level, Nehru had been challenged much earlier. From the 1950s itself, intellectual trends opposed to Nehru and Nehruvianism had been alert and vigorous. From the 1980s, they have been in the ascendant.

Why then this continuing talk of a ‘Nehruvian consensus’? One reason is the pervasive historical illiteracy of our popular culture. Another reason is the self-interest of Hindutva ideologues. They think most easily (and naturally) in black-and-white; thus their reduction of all those who oppose them as representing an intellectual consensus, allegedly deriving from Nehru, and hence, by implication — or insinuation — from the Congress. Now that they have political power, the projection of this false duality shall be used by Hindutvawadis to extend their control into the domains of culture and the academy.

Some who speak of a ‘Nehruvian consensus’ are merely ignorant; others, instrumental and even malevolent. The term itself is misleading, and even offensive. It diminishes the work and ideas of many fine and original thinkers of a distinctly un-Nehruvian persuasion — such as Lohia, Ambedkar, Rajaji, D.D. Kosambi and JP among the dead, and Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee and Madhav Gadgil among the living.