Business Standard

<b>Shekhar Gupta:</b> Modi is our most Nehruvian PM since Nehru

If Narendra Modi's worldview is truly at variance with Nehru's, we are still looking for evidence, at least on economic and foreign policies


Shekhar Gupta New Delhi
Let’s begin with what new media would call click-bait: that Narendra Modi is our most Nehruvian prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru. Even now, when the Modi establishment seems to have a single-point agenda of destroying Nehru’s legacy, wiping his name from textbooks, and encouraging the old RSS thought that he is responsible for all of India’s ills, from Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination to Kashmir to Tibet to poverty. And just when a BJP state government has transferred an IAS officer for the serious misdemeanour of a Facebook post praising Nehru. On Nehru’s 52nd death anniversary, this establishment sounds like it has declared war on demon Nehru and Nehruvianism.

Let’s check out the substance behind this sound. Nehruvianism can broadly be defined in terms of its four key pillars: hard secularism, social liberalism, socialism (more fairly, mixed economy), non-alignment and internationalism. Which ones of these does Mr Modi look at odds with?

Two of these were greatly weakened by the Congress’ own prime ministers.

P V Narasimha Rao redefined Nehru’s hard, agnostic secularism in a much softer version. Nehru/Indira socialism was dismantled by Rao — and with him as finance minister, and later as prime minister, by Manmohan Singh, even under the watch of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Even on foreign policy, the essential turn was made in Rao’s time with establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel. It left the Congress party’s in-house Nehruites, including Mani Shankar Aiyar, furious.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had sparred with Nehru often as a young parliamentarian, would never say a rude thing about him. But you wonder if the most reformist thing he did in his six years, the privatisation of so many prominent public sector companies and hotels, would have been possible if the Rao-Singh duo had not already distanced India from Nehruvian economics. Nehru made socialism our national economic ideology and Mrs Gandhi used it to demolish much of the private sector — particularly foreign-owned — that remained.

The Janata Party (which included the BJP’s parent, the Jana Sangh) government that replaced her after the Emergency finally took away the Right to Property, agreed to retain the two illegitimate amendments adding “secularism” and “socialism” to our Constitution’s Preamble (illegitimate because these were made by a sixth-year Lok Sabha with most of the Opposition in jail) and threw out Coke and IBM. It even launched a sarkari, public sector cola, called “77” (Double Seven) to honour its ascent to power in 1977. Morarji Desai might have had the reputation of being more pro-market, but he wanted desperately to convince the world he was more Gandhian than Nehru. In fact, in his talks with US President Jimmy Carter, he is recorded as having said that the difference between him and Nehru was that “my idol is Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru’s was Machiavelli”.

Now run your eye over Narendra Modi’s interview to The Wall Street Journal. It’s been almost four decades since we heard an Indian prime minister make such a strong case for a mixed economy and the public sector. And Mr Modi has a track record. Even when Mr Vajpayee was feverishly selling off public sector companies, Gujarat did not privatise any of its own PSUs. We know that Mr Modi spent a great deal of energy and used the state’s clout to support these companies — particularly in the oil and gas sector, notably Gujarat Gas Ltd and GSPC. Mr Vajpayee even tried to get rid of Air India, besides the big oil companies. But Mr Modi is letting even Hindustan Photo Films be.

A real repudiation of Nehruvianism would have been a quick dismantling of giant, wasteful PSUs that Nehru saw as the “temples of new India”. Instead, this is the first government in three decades to be investing in them significantly again. Please note that ICICI quietly became a private company from a state-owned financial institution and Unit Trust of India gave birth to two mostly private offspring, a bank and an asset management company, under Mr Modi's predecessors. No such initiative is yet on the cards from this government, not even a reduction of government equity in banks.

In the same interview, Mr Modi reinforces India’s commitment to non-alignment. You could argue that he is saying it only for political correctness. But where is the need for that? Why not say that the essential postulate on which Nehru founded our foreign and strategic policies was flawed? While as a commentator I welcome larger continuity in foreign policy, the Modi government’s voting record on the Palestine-Israel issue harks back to “non-aligned” times even more than did Dr Singh’s. And while he has visited every major Islamic capital (which is again a positive), Israel is not on the radar just yet. The Israelis are getting frustrated with their inability to get dates from South Block for their own titular president’s visit to India. Even Mani Shankar Aiyar might applaud this.

Much has been made by the so-called Right- and Left-Wing intelligentsia of the Modi establishment’s name-change campaign. But nothing named after the Nehru dynasty, or even its ideas, is being changed. Lutyens’ Delhi avenues had been named after the Mughals by the British, on the principle that they ruled Delhi. That’s why Jahangir (who reigned from Lahore) isn’t there, and Prithviraj Chauhan, who ruled Delhi before Muslim dynasties stepped in for 700 years, is there. Replacing Aurangzeb with Kalam is no insult to Nehru. Especially as roads named after his “non-aligned” allies — most of them despots — remain. So no bothering with Nasser, Tito, Nkrumah. In fact, Nehruvianism is reflected not in the landmarks of Lutyens’ Delhi, but in the diplomatic enclave built by him subsequently. There is no argument with that.

You can find other similarities: frequent public speeches, personalised leadership, total control over foreign and strategic policies, even stylised dressing. The Modi Jacket now sets fashion trends as Nehru’s did all these years. Narendra Modi’s loyalists say he has no personal issue with Nehru. It is just that his worldview is exactly to the contrary of Nehru’s. If so, we are still looking for evidence of it in his economic and foreign policies.

Twitter: @ShekharGupta
Disclaimer: These are personal views of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of or the Business Standard newspaper

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First Published: May 27 2016 | 9:31 PM IST

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