- The myth of the ‘Nehruvian consensus’
POLITICS AND PLAY - RAMACHANDRA GUHA
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.