As Rahul Gandhi set out on his journey to ‘discover India’, I found that somehow he had also set my pulse racing. Admittedly, that lasted only for a while, but I was surprised at my response. It defied decades of my training as a political scientist. Even worse, it defied common sense.
What could possibly explain this extravagant response? Was it that there still lived within my deep recesses a naïve, young man who had been brought up in the heady, early years of Independence? A man who lay buried under the debris of cynical and callous politics of later decades, but was somehow still alive.
Born six years after Nehru’s Discovery of India was published in 1946, I read it some years later in college, as also his famous midnight speech about India’s tryst with destiny. Together, they had set my pulse racing. Here was a leader, who had discovered for himself and for all of us the soul of an eternal India. Here was a leader who gave us a vision of where we, an ancient people, were headed as a modern nation.
I cannot possibly count the number of times I went back to these two most magical pieces of writing. Last week, I picked up the book again. While the magic had faded a little, there was no denying the power of his words. The words were steeped in his immense faith in the land, in its people, and in their collective wisdom to build a better future for themselves. Above all, the words reflected his unyielding resolve:
“I was not interested in making some political arrangements which would enable our people to carry on more or less as before, only a little better. I felt they had vast stores of suppressed energy and ability, and I wanted to release these and make them feel young and vital again. India, constituted as she is, cannot play a secondary role in the world. She will either count for a great deal or not count at all. No middle position attracted me.”
The first few decades of independent India were imbued with Nehru’s deep convictions and resolve. No wonder that the period came to be remembered as the ‘Nehruvian era’. Nehru sought rapid industrial growth of the country. He initiated the Five Year Plans and set up elaborate public-sector structures to help the process. His zeal for economic development was matched by an equal commitment for the spread of science and scientific temperament, liberal democracy, civil rights and welfare.
Of course, not everything worked to perfection as he had envisioned. His vision produced its own set of paradoxes and ironies. But there was no question that the country was on the move. India had discovered itself and, at the same time, it was reinventing itself.
As a professional political scientist, I am only too aware that in recent years the Nehruvian era has come to be judged very differently by scholars. His developmental plans have been critiqued from all sorts of chic, ultra-radical and post-modernist positions. The India that Nehru discovered has itself been dismissed as a mere invention, an imaginary construct, a product of ‘nationalist historiography’.
I find most of these reassessments rather harsh. My view is that the disillusionments experienced in the later years are being read back into history. Nehru is out of fashion in the present day academic discourses. But while there is no denying that some of the Nehruvian ideals have soured, we also need to question what we have in their place.
The language used by modern day academia may be fancy and seductive, but what are the messages it conveys? The increasing assertion of caste politics is often seen as ‘deepening and widening’ of democracy. Equally often, the rising practice of communal politics is justified in the name ‘cultural nationalism’. Fragmentary forces are celebrated as ‘people’s movements’. A lot of this has always puzzled and troubled me, so that as I read the Discovery of India this time, a passage I had previously missed struck me with poignancy:
“The ideals and objectives of yesterday were still the ideals of today, but they had lost some of their lustre and, even as one seemed to go towards them, they lost the shining beauty which had warmed the heart and vitalised the body. Evil triumphed often enough, but what was far worse was the coarsening and distortion of what had seemed so right.” The writer is professor of political science, Panjab University, Chandigarh firstname.lastname@example.org