This Independence Day is different. For the first time in 70 years, the high constitutional positions are all held today by individuals subscribing to a non-Congress ideology. When NDA 1 was in power, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat became the vice president and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister. But this time around, the president, vice president and prime minister are all from the same ideological fraternity that is broadly, not necessarily correctly, described as the Conservative Right.
The jostling is discernible. The outgoing vice president had observed in an interview that Muslims in the country are feeling insecure. The incoming vice president responded by calling it a political view. The leader of the government, welcoming the new vice chairman of the Rajya Sabha, underscored the fact that Indian democracy has matured, with people from humble backgrounds occupying the top constitutional posts. The leader of the Opposition rose to his feet to contest that view, claiming that the contribution of people with affluent backgrounds like Motilal Nehru shouldn’t be forgotten.
So, we have a new scenario where the ruling party would champion the cause of the “humble” citizens and the Opposition that of the “affluent”. But it will be a mistake to assume that the new difference is such a narrow one. It goes much deeper. It symbolises a more profound and fundamental transition of ideas and ideals.
In their thought-provoking book The Right Nation, editors from The Economist magazine, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, describe America as essentially a nation with a conservative ethos. It might alternately throw up Republican and Democratic governments, but the core of America is right, the authors argue.
In a way, this is India’s case too. Many eminent leaders, from Swami Vivekananda to Anne Besant to Mahatma Gandhi, viewed India in ideas that a westerner would perceive as conservative right. Swami Vivekananda described India in beautiful terms as “Dharma Praana Bharata (Dharma is the soul force of Bharat)”. Gandhi always spoke in his discourses and dissertations about Ram Rajya. They were not theological ideas promoting a theocratic polity in the country. They represent the genius of our country, which is rooted in its religio-social institutions like state, family, caste, guru and festival. There is even an economic idea centred round work, sharing, happiness and charity.
These ideas are quintessentially Indian. Naturally, at the advent of independence, we ought to have had a leadership that understood and appreciated the value of this Indian genius and built institutions in the light of native wisdom. David Ben-Gurion did it in Israel, Mao did it in China and Kemal Ataturk did it in Turkey. All of them had an opportunity to guide the destinies of their respective nations at a critical juncture in history. And they chose to uphold their native genius.
Unfortunately, at the dawn of our independence, conflict arose between the ideas that have their roots in this country’s age-old wisdom and those that were transmitted by the colonisers from the west. Jawaharlal Nehru represented the colonisers’ view, while Gandhi became the voice of native wisdom. The conflict reached a flashpoint a couple of years before independence when a sharp exchange of letters took place between the two tall leaders of our freedom movement.
“The first thing I want to write about is the difference in outlook between us,” wrote Gandhi in a sharply worded letter to Nehru on October 5, 1945. He reiterated in that letter his belief that village life in India should get more focus as “crores of people will never be able to live at peace with one another in towns and palaces”.
Nehru replied from Allahabad four days later on October 9. His retort was also strident. “I do not understand why a village should necessarily embody truth and non-violence. A village, normally speaking, is backward, intellectually and culturally, and no progress can be made from a backward environment. Narrow-minded people are much more likely to be untruthful and violent,” he wrote.
“If the difference (in our outlook) is so fundamental, then the public should also be made aware of it,” pleaded Gandhi. Nehru knew the pitfalls of letting people of the country know that he and Gandhi had fundamental differences in their outlook about the direction of our nation. He requested Gandhi not to insist upon making the differences public at this juncture and let them be resolved by the people after independence.
Sadly, no discussion happened after independence. Nehru sought to take the country in the direction of the ideas he had inherited from the colonial masters and from his personal experience in Europe. The crucial formative years after independence were thus dominated by a western liberal discourse that had very little Indian content.
History shows that even the Congress party was never at ease with that discourse. After Nehru, its politics oscillated between right of centre and left of centre, largely catering to its power interests. Micklethwait’s description of the American Democrats as LINOs — “Liberals In Name Only” — fits the Congress as well.
But for the first time in 70 years, the idea with a reference point in India’s genius has become the dominant idea under Prime Minister Modi. Just as Nehru never shied away from exhibiting his fascination for western ideas, Modi is ever ready to wear quintessential Indian ideas on his sleeve.
The liberal unease is palpable. Their plight is best described by Edward Luce in his book through a less-used Greek word demophobia — fear of the mob. The mob, humble people of the country, are behind Modi. They are finally at ease with a government that looks and sounds familiar. They are enjoying it.