In the first two decades after India gained independence, Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru dominated the affairs of the new state. The so-called Nehruvian Consensus that emerged operated around three major issues: parliamentary democracy, state-led economic development and secularism.

As of today, the debates around the first and the second issues have been settled quite comprehensively. Parliamentary democracy has succeeded in India better than most would have predicted and conversely, state-led economic development has been junked almost entirely. The fate of the third issue – secularism – is more contentious, with powerful political groups arranged against it, even as it somehow manages to maintain itself in the political discourse.

Given the near monopoly of the Nehruvian Consensus during its time, it is often forgotten just how precariously placed Nehruvian secularism was when it started out in 1947. There was, of course, the bedlam of Partition and the passions it gave rise to, making secularism look fantastic – even woolly-headed – at the time. Moreover, the Congress of 1947 was a largely right-wing party. Time and again, whenever the party’s left and right factions clashed, the right won.

Socialists were sidelined

In 1949, sidelined completely within the party, the socialists led by Jayprakash Narayan had to leave the Congress. The next year, Vallabhbhai Patel’s candidate PD Tandon became president, alarming Nehru to the extent that he refused to participate in Tandon’s Working Committee. Moreover, even within the Congress’ right wing, the Hindu conservatives led by Patel had outflanked the secular right led by C Rajagopalachari.

Rajagopalachari and Nehru concurred on the issue of secularism and this was one of the reasons why Nehru supported Rajagopalachari’s candidature for India’s first president. However, in the end, Patel managed to get his candidate Rajendra Prasad elected instead. True to form, one of Prasad’s first major acts as president was to inaugurate the Somnath temple – hardly the best start for a state that was struggling to define itself as secular.

Nehru, however, used his immense personal popularity to overrule the party machine and push his agenda. When violence broke out in Bengal in 1949, members of the Hindu right, led by Patel and SP Mukherjee wanted a forced communal exchange of populations to “settle” the issue, thus taking the unprecedented step of denying natural citizenship to people on the basis of religion. Thankfully, Nehru ensured that modern, liberal notions of citizenship prevailed in India. In April 1950, Nehru signed the “Delhi Pact” with Pakistan’s prime minster, guaranteeing that religion would not bar a person from citizenship.

Women's rights

Later on, Nehru would take on the Hindu right, within and outside of his party, on the Hindu Code Bills, a series of measures modernising Hindu Law, targeted mainly at guaranteeing women’s rights. So bitter was the opposition from the conservatives that President Prasad refused to support his own cabinet on the matter, causing a minor constitutional crisis. Again, Nehru used his popularity to get the bills through, at one stroke modernising the personal laws of 80% of the population – easily his most monumental achievement.

Of course, the Nehruvian Consensus on secularism has been on the retreat for more than four decades now. It first frayed at the edges in the states, where laws restricting religious freedom were passed in the shape of anti-conversion laws. Theological considerations also snuck into criminal legislation as cow slaughter was banned across large parts of the country. Matters reached a head when the Hindutva demand to build a Ram temple in place of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya became the central political issue of the day in the late 1980s and ’90s. Of course, today the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh, is the largest political formation in the country. While the later Congress has let Nehruvian secularism atrophy due to neglect and political expediency, the BJP places itself in direct ideological opposition to it.

Nevertheless, much attenuated as it is, Nehruvian secularism is still a factor in the way our politics is played out. For one, secularism is still a legitimate rhetorical peg in public debate and discussion. Both the BJP and Congress might default on it in practice, but it is still held up as an ideal. Even in the Ram mandir salad days of the early ’90s, the BJP never thought of replacing secularism in its rhetoric – it just claimed that its secularism was better and that of the Congress’ “pseudo” or fake.

Rhetoric shapes actions

This might seem like a minor quibble but in a democracy public rhetoric has a major part to play in shaping the actions of the state. As long as secularism is an ideal that the republic aspires to, it can act as a check against the actions of politicians who might not agree with the concept per se.

Therefore, the secular bedrock that Nehru laid down in the 1950s and ’60s means that it is unthinkable for, say, the Hindu Code Bills to be turned back now or for anyone to propose that Indian citizenship be now based on religion. Modi has himself toned down his communal rhetoric from his days as chief minister, the Nehruvian influence at the Centre still being far stronger than in the states. Overall, the BJP seems to have followed a similar trend after capturing the Centre: 25 years ago, it was sure that the construction of a “Virat Ram Mandir” was its goal. But now that the goal is within its grasp, it does not seem so keen on actually going through with it.

Of course, there is nothing permanent in such an arrangement. Socialism was also, till less than three decades back, a universal rhetorical tool employed by almost the entire polity but it has vanished quite comprehensively from the landscape. Nevertheless, for today, on Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary, while his legacy of secularism might be much weakened, it is still a significant factor in India’s political discourse – and, hopefully, will be for some time.