A vision for India: Nehru’s idea of modern nationhood

It is necessary to revive the four key dimensions of Nehru’s vision for a modern nationhood—democracy, secularism, socialism and non-alignment.

Published : Nov 26, 2014 12:30 IST

January 24, 1950: Nehru signing India's Constitution at the final session of the Constituent Assembly. He established the democratic ethos, the democratic institutions and the democratic practices that other powerful leaders of newly independent countries found so easy to abandon.

January 24, 1950: Nehru signing India's Constitution at the final session of the Constituent Assembly. He established the democratic ethos, the democratic institutions and the democratic practices that other powerful leaders of newly independent countries found so easy to abandon.

THE FOUR KEY DIMENSIONS OF India’s modern nationhood, as conceived and implemented by Jawaharlal Nehru, were democracy, secularism, socialism and non-alignment. They were interpreted by him in the light of our requirements, as he saw them in the mid-20th century, that is, in the aftermath of the horrors of Partition and in the glow of the first few years of Independence. As national compulsions altered, the interpretation of these four dimensions also underwent change—a change to the point where these came to be either distorted beyond recognition or abandoned altogether. Indeed, at times and in some quarters, their continuing relevance also came under challenge. What needs examination is whether 50 years after Nehru passed away, these are still the defining parameters of India’s contemporary nationhood and, if so, how they should be interpreted in the light of the present circumstances.

Democracy is clearly an unalterable dimension. There is no serious challenge to this, perhaps because those who would prefer a more authoritarian form of government have been kept sufficiently far from the centre of power to entertain no more than pipe dreams. That, however, is changing with the ascent to power of the saffron forces in May 2014. As they have reached where they have through the electoral route, and at least so long as they continue on a high electoral trajectory, they are likely to remain democratic. If they slip, they might be tempted to consider an alternative route but that, at present at any rate, appears unlikely.

So, the Constitution, our fundamental rights thereunder, Parliament and the State Assemblies, an independent judiciary, and free media appear to have come to stay. However, we have got so used to the fact of being a democracy that it often escapes our attention as to what a miracle this has been. For, of approximately 150 nations that have come to liberation of one kind or another since 1947, ours is almost the only one, and certainly the only one of such size and diversity, to have not only forged a democracy but sustained it for 67 years.

Of course, the Emergency was a major deviation, but even that dark period was proclaimed under the Constitution, and validated by the Supreme Court, as also removed under the provisions of the same Constitution. The danger is that there is an inherent fragility in the achievement in view of its not having proved replicable, at least on a sustained basis, anywhere in our neighbourhood or around the world. Therefore, we cannot be complacent—but we can be confident that, barring an unlikely catastrophe, we will, as a nation, succeed in persisting on the democratic path, provided we remain ever vigilant and, as a people, resist authoritarianism when it rears its ugly head.

Thus, by insisting on a democratic polity and “nurturing it like a mother nurtures her child”, as Congress president Sonia Gandhi remarked at Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary celebration, Nehru established the democratic ethos, the democratic institutions and the democratic practices that other powerful leaders of newly independent countries found so easy to abandon. We did indeed become the “world’s largest democracy”.

But because Mahatma Gandhi’s wise counsel was pushed to one side immediately after he was assassinated, the Constitution facilitated democratic institutions in New Delhi and the State capitals, on the model of Westminster and Capitol Hill, with a few features borrowed from other countries, but remained quintessentially, to quote Dr B.R. Ambedkar, “a Union of States”. Institutions of local self-government, without which there can be “representative democracy” but not “participatory democracy”, were initially left entirely out of the purview of the draft Constitution but subsequently allowed to survive on the margins of the Constitution, in a paragraph of four lines, in the Directive Principles as the remnant of an eccentric Gandhian view of the Constitution.

Democratic ethos

In Gandhi’s conception, encapsulated in a 1946 publication, by Sriman Narayan Agarwal, fulsomely validated and endorsed by the Mahatma himself in his Introduction, elected village panchayats were to be the very foundation of the Constitution. Indeed, Gandhiji went so far as to suggest that with village panchayats as the basic “units” of democracy, direct elections with universal suffrage being held only at the village level, with higher echelons of the system, at State and national level, being elected indirectly by the immediately lower level. In today’s idiom, Gandhiji had foreseen the role of “money-and-muscle power” in distorting the representative nature of the democratic polity. However, Ambedkar insisted that the individual, not the village community, must be the basic unit of democracy, and denigrated villages as “cesspools” and, therefore, unqualified for democracy without safeguards for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. A Gandhian Constitution for Independent India

However, by thus casting off elected community institutions, Ambedkar did not answer the question of how to make our democracy participatory on a continuous basis, instead of the individual having little role in governance beyond the right to vote once every five years. He also did not address the conundrum of the Westminster model being based on constituencies with an average voting population of about 30,000, while in India it stretches for Parliament from 1.5 million to over two million.

The United Kingdom, in consequence, has 100 MPs more than the Lok Sabha with an electorate that is one-twentieth the size of India’s, besides being backed by a plethora of well-established local bodies ranging from the parish to the county councils to the boroughs and the metropolitan corporations, older and, therefore, stronger than Parliament in their designated spheres, to meet the daily requirements of the populace. The reconciliation of a distant representative democracy with the imperative of a neighbourhood participatory democracy was thus left unresolved in the Constitution adopted in 1950. That task was left to State governments whether or not to proceed.

Nehru kept himself out of the argument. There is a passing reference in the closing pages of his to the village as a basic unit but he took no active part in the debate between the Gandhians and the Ambedkarites on panchayati raj. But very soon into the development process, he found that rural governance was a gaping lacuna in the system adopted on Republic Day in 1950. He thought he had found an answer in community development, espoused principally by S.K. Dey with assistance from an American precedent, but found within a decade that while community development had spawned a vast rural bureaucracy, it little involved the people in decision-making. The mass of the people remained as removed from governance as before we had become a fully representative democracy. In language used decades later by his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, India was, indeed, the world’s “largest democracy” but also the “least representative”.

Therefore, the veteran Gandhian, Balvantary Mehta (who later went on to become the Chief Minister of Gujarat), was commissioned to head a Study Group that recommended at the fag end of 1957 that a three-tier system of panchayati raj be introduced all over rural India to bring the masses into the processes of governance. The enthusiasm with which Nehru embraced this concept left his principal biographer, Dr S. Gopal, a little bewildered by Nehru’s “magnificent obsession”, but it did give the country seven years of spreading democracy downwards and outwards over the whole land. Tragically, with Nehru’s death in 1964, panchayati raj withered on the vine. Rajiv analysed the cause as the result of panchayati raj having been left to State legislation instead of being given constitutional status, sanction and sanctity. The Discovery of India

Such constitutional safeguards and more have been accorded to panchayati raj since the amendments of 1993, the longest and most detailed amendments ever, now incorporated in the Constitution as Part IX (The Panchayats) and Part IXA (The Municipalities), thus rendering panchayati raj ineluctable, irremovable and irreversible. We now have close to 2,50,000 rural and urban institutions of local self-government to which we have elected no fewer than 3.2 million representatives, of whom nearly 1.3 million are women, and the S.Cs and the S.Ts (and in many States the Other Backward Classes) are represented at every level in proportion to their population at that level.

Equally, there are around 80,000 S.C./S.T. presidents of panchayats and close to one lakh women presidents at all three tiers. We thus have more elected women in India than in the rest of the world put together! This is an achievement without precedent in history or parallel in the contemporary world. We have made India not only the world’s largest democracy but also the world’s most representative democracy.

Yet the achievement remains unsung because the panchayats have been left empty shells without real power or authority in many States. In some States, there has indeed been a significant measure of empowerment, and there has been some progress in all States, but after nearly a quarter century of the passage of the amendments, panchayati raj remains a largely incomplete story. Completing that story by ensuring that panchayats and urban local bodies, and most particularly their community assemblies in gram sabhas and ward sabhas, are genuinely empowered to make their own lives and control their own destinies is the great unfinished Nehruvian task before democracy in the 21st century.

Nehruvian secularism faces challenges in the 21st century, which are in many ways the same as he faced but in some significant respects different. The massacres and displacements of Partition had placed before the nation the stark choice of becoming, like Pakistan, a state based on religion or retaining our composite heritage as a secular country for all our people, whatever their religion. Nehru, and most Indians, chose secularism. But a significant minority remained proponents of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s “Hindutva”, a word translated by Savarkar himself as “Hindudom”, with the same implications as “Christendom”, that is Hindu Rule. Little wonder then that Savarkar publicly endorsed Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory in a speech in Nagpur on August 15, 1943.

In this construct, a Muslim Pakistan made a Hindu India even more imperative. This widened and deepened the rift between the concept of a Hindu India and that of a secular India. It remains, 67 years into Independence, as the unbridgeable divide between most Indians and some Indians. At Independence, the Muslim minority had to be reassured that India would be home to all, notwithstanding Partition. That point has since been made but the rise of Hindutva to political power, largely by suppressing but not eliminating the Hindutva element from their political platform, poses a far subtler challenge to those who espouse secularism as not only a political construct but quintessentially a way of life.

Secular activism

With Hindutva made into an ulterior rather than an overt political objective, secular India should not be relieved but should remain vigilant. The Hindutva agenda was not politically convenient at election time but as the Sangh Parivar is clearly involving itself in all aspects of government and governance, and as Hindutva remains the ideological anchor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the saffron forces are merely awaiting their Godhra moment to bring their real agenda into focus. For the secularists, to lower their guard at this juncture, as some are inclined to do, and become complacent that the leopard has changed its spots, would be quite the wrong approach to take. Our secularism should be on red alert. This is the moment not so much for cerebral secularism, arguing the pros and cons of secularism, so much as for secular activism—being ready at a moment’s notice to rush to hot spots as soon as they arise without waiting for communal incidents to become a spreading rash.

This calls for the revival by the Congress of its Sadbhavana Sena, which appears to have died with the untimely death of its first chairman, Sunil Dutt. It was nowhere to be seen when Saharanpur went up in flames; it was not present at Trilokpuri or Bawana. We need highly trained activists who, in the manner of a Rapid Action Force, will rush to the scene as soon as trouble is scented. Politically too, a one-point secular front that is as active in Parliament as it should be outside needs to be promoted.

Thirdly, those who suggest ducking as the appropriate response to the charge of “appeasement” should not be heeded. The Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee has convincingly established that while equal rights to the Muslim minority have been constitutionally guaranteed, at several levels the community is seriously disadvantaged. It is disadvantaged in terms of feeling under siege by those who deride its efforts to remain themselves; it is disadvantaged in terms of its sense of personal security; it is disadvantaged in terms of economic, educational and social progress as a community.

Special, focussed action is required to deal with such community-level disadvantage. The Constitution allows for affirmative action. Such action must be taken without fear or favour. The integration of the Muslim community into the mainstream of Indian life is a work in progress of key importance to the integrity of the nation. Faltering because we might be accused of “tushtikaran” amounts to letting down 15 crore fellow citizens. Any fears that the majority community might entertain about such action needs to be patiently explained in terms of how such steps do not disadvantage the Hindu but merely restore the balance of advantage. We must end the salience in some minds between Pakistan and Indian Muslims. They are a precious part of India’s life and heritage, who have consciously decided to throw their lot in with our country when they had the choice of finding another home across the border. Nehruvian socialism desperately needs to be given a fresh lease of life.

The Congress has said nothing about it for the past 25 years, the very word having been abolished from our vocabulary. It needs to be revived to give the Congress an anchoring in a well-tried ideology that has long served us well. Nehru’s socialism was influenced by Marxism but was not an imported thought. Arising from India’s social and economic conditions, it was a practical response to the social reality, not a blind dogma. The longer version of the word was the “socialist pattern of society” but Nehru often used the shorthand word, socialism.

In Nehru’s conception, the expression socialist pattern of society comprised a hard political shell, democracy, within which was preserved a soft economic kernel, socialism. I call it the hard outer shell, for in full-scope democracy there was no room for compromise. But when it came to the kernel, right from the start there was no fixed ratio between the public and private sectors. In 1955, when the expression came into general use, the private sector was left to flourish in agriculture, overwhelmingly the main segment of the economy, and in industry and services the private sector was largely left to its own devices. Only the railways and the airlines were nationalised.

The only other nationalisations were of British firms leaving behind the departing imperial flag. Where the public sector came into its own was in pioneering new avenues of growth in areas where the private sector either did not have the financial resources to invest and sit out the gestation period, or lacked the will to go into backward areas, or did not have the technological aptitude to enter into uncharted territory. The consequence of the heyday of the public sector was that whereas at Independence, over 90 per cent of India’s machinery requirements, even simple hand tools, were imported, by 1974 that percentage was brought down to 9 per cent. The gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate was raised from the pre-Independence annual average (1914-47) of 0.72 per cent to over 3.5 per cent, an increase of five times, which, if maintained subsequently, should have led to our economy growing at 15 per cent annually and not the miserable average of 5-6 per cent attained in the years of liberalisation.

Of course, such massive changes in the profile of the economy required course changes in the economic policy. The tragedy was that the course changes were portrayed as the consequence of the problems of failure when, in fact, they were occasioned by the problems of success. The disproportionate benefits conferred on the rich have given us a kind of industrial feudalism and led to the distortions and dissatisfaction that characterise the present domestic economic order. A return to the Nehruvian vision would restore the balance in favour of inclusive growth, combining accelerated GDP growth rates with an unflinching focus on equity and social justice.

Non-alignment was a word devised to meet the then extant reality of the world being divided dangerously into two bitterly opposed rival blocs. Nehru ensured that India was the first emerging country—and, at the time, the only one—to resist the blandishments and worse of both blocs to carve out an independent path that reflected to the world at large the sovereignty that India had won back from colonial enslavement. He had no intention of making it a movement, but pressure from scores of newly liberated countries, later numbering over a hundred, led to the launching of the movement of non-aligned countries.

The end of the Cold War has rendered the term non-alignment somewhat obsolete (although recent developments centred on Ukraine threaten to take the world back to the brink), but the philosophy behind that expression remains unaltered. Non-alignment in an unaligned world simply means independence and sovereignty in foreign policy.

In India’s case, that freedom of thought and action in foreign policy is circumscribed by our quarrels with Pakistan and China. That opens the wedge to interference in our affairs by outside powers, especially by those who have taken out a contract for themselves to be the arbiter of other people’s destinies. For us to become truly independent, the Nehruvian imperative in the 21st century is to compose these quarrels through uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue so that our neighbourhood becomes truly peaceful and cooperative and based on Nehru’s Five Principles of the Panchsheel.

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress.
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