Everybody wants to chacha

Modi wants to be the new Nehru, but what is his plan for a new republic?

Ironically, Modi is less like his role model Patel and much more like the first prime minister, whom he detests.

"Deftly blending the political with the personal, the Prime Minister utilised this school holiday to reach out to schoolchildren directly. In a function organised by the Union government, the PM delivered a speech and interacted with children from across the country. The event was widely seen as a PR success, with the media showering praise on the outreach."

This is a good summary of Prime Minister Modi’s Teacher’s Day initiative. However, it is also a perfectly accurate description of a function held at the National Stadium in Delhi on November 14, 1956 presided over by Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru. At the function, children paid tribute to Nehru with a PT display and a march past. Nehru went around the arena in an open jeep so the children could get a closer glimpse of him.

In 1952, the Indian Council for Child Welfare, an influential non-governmental organisation (one of its founding members was Indira Gandhi), decided to celebrate the Prime Minister’s birthday as Children’s Day and use that to raise funds. This idea was taken up with rare enthusiasm by Nehru himself and by various Congress state governments. The result of this propaganda is the image with which he is now bestowed, that of an avuncular statesman, a natural leader who appealed to every member of the nation, young as well as old. So powerful is this image that it survives even today; every child is taught in school that Chacha Nehru loved children and that they loved him right back.

Some dissonance

Modi’s Teacher’s Day interaction with students across the nation suggests he is doing his best to become the new Nehru, trying to burnish his image in much the same way the Pandit did. This is somewhat ironic because it is quite clear that Modi is not fond of Nehru. He has done his best to play down Nehru’s legacy, forwarding the claim of fellow Gujarati Vallabhbhai Patel as a counterweight. Modi does not mention Nehru in his speeches, and his move to disband rather than reconfigure the Planning Commission is indication of how he views Nehru’s legacy.

In reality however, Modi is more Nehru than Patel: a popular vote-catcher, not a backroom party man. Patel made seminal contributions to India but his work involved working with the nuts and bolts of the Congress party and, later, the Union government. Nehru, on the other hand, was the charismatic darling of the masses and had won elections for the Congress since 1937. The Congress was so dependent on him electorally that as Prime Minster the simple threat of a resignation was enough to get dissidents to fall in line.

Many Modi supporters expect him to fundamentally change the political consensus of country, much like Nehru did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It is sometimes forgotten that until 1947, the Congress was by and large a Right-of centre organisation. The one bid for power by the Congress Left – the 1939 Tripuri session in which Subhash Bose decided to stand for re-election as President – was crushed effortlessly by the old guard. And while Nehru’s economic Leftism is often overstated – he simply followed the accepted consensus in development economics at the time – he had significant impact as a social progressive.

Nehru marginalised conservative thinking, bringing concepts such as secularism and social equality firmly into the mainstream. One of Nehru’s key achievements as prime minster was pushing through the Hindu Code Bills, giving most Indian women a large measure of equality in marriage and inheritance. These bills were opposed tooth and nail by the Right, both within and outside of the Congress, but Nehru saw the legislation passed.

The course this set India on is so emblematic of the nation that, five decades after Nehru’s death, the so-called Nehruvian consensus remains a significant driver in our politics, an idea formidable enough for Modi to feel threatened by and want to dismantle.

What's the plan?

But if Modi is to dismantle the Nehruvian ideas that have for so long seemed embedded in our political culture, we must ask what he will replace these with – what will be the new consensus? We know very little of the direction Modi wants India to move in, other than chasing “development”, a mantra so generic it is meaningless by itself. If Modi wants to build a new republic, he is yet to outline a plan.

Modi’s link with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has guided his political philosophy. He has written admiringly of MS Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak of the RSS. Golwalkar’s ideas are problematic, to say the least: he speaks of denying citizenship to non-Hindus and expresses admiration at the way Nazi Germany purged its Jews, claiming that it was “a good lesson for Hindusthan to learn and profit by”. The intellectual core of the RSS is so far from current versions of modernity that they seem almost comic. Wisely, Modi does not speak publicly of matters like this, though he does not seem averse to foot soldiers such as Yogi Adityanath using these divisive ideas when it comes to winning state elections – a decidedly short-term goal.

Modi’s interaction with some of the nation’s children indicated that he wants to fashion himself as the new Nehru, but without building a concrete set of ideas that he can call his own – a “Modivian consensus”, so to speak – and thinking only of short-term political gains, he could end up being more like Indira or Rajiv: a powerful leader with hard political power but one who does little to change the intellectual paradigm of the nation in a meaningful way.

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