Political shifts have challenged the reputation of Jawaharlal Nehru as the beacon of modern Indian nationhood. As Independent India approaches 70, many of the fundamentals that defined the Nehruvian consensus have been questioned and discarded. This in itself is not a regressive development. The post-1945 world that defined Nehru’s outlook has changed inexorably. Consequently, it is only natural that attempts to convert Nehruvian thought into a national dogma have faltered.
Yet, there are themes that endure. Nehru’s intellectual vanity and his disdain for those who didn’t share his European modernism helped suppress many indigenous currents of political thought that had shaped the nationalist awakening. However, Nehru never succeeded in killing off all challenges to his Reformation; his undeniable political dominance merely drove awkward alternatives underground, from where they emerged only after his death.
The near-unchallenged political dominance of some six decades led to the Nehruvian consensus becoming common sense among the intelligentsia, particularly those in the liberal professions. This section has guarded its echo chamber fiercely and denied institutional space to those that don’t quite fit into the Left-liberal mould. Consequently, the challenge to the Nehruvian order has come from quarters that have a marked anti-intellectual bias, not least because their relevance stemmed from electoral politics. A caricatured view of the other has often prevented a meaningful conversation between two sides of a cultural and political divide. The tendency to talk at each other has been reinforced by media interventions: the English-language media revelling in condescension and insolence, and the social media falling back on conspiracy theories and outright abuse.
Nowhere are the fault lines more marked than on the touchy question of secularism that has divided India sharply for the past three decades. However, the problem of how best to define national identity and negotiate relations between different religious communities is as old as the Republic itself.