Workers labor at the construction site of a railway bridge in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, India, on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power almost two years ago on a platform that promised economic development and resurgent Hindu nationalism, known as Hindutva. If he is to achieve the first, he may need to keep the second under control. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg
Workers at a construction site of a railway bridge in Uttar Pradesh two years ago. Narendra Modi last week looked back on his premiership and urged citizens to create a new India © Bloomberg

When India marked the 50th anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule in 1997, I joined the sea of Indians who thronged Rajpath, the wide ceremonial boulevard in New Delhi’s heart, for jubilant celebrations.

Ageing freedom fighters who had struggled against the British raj led a festive parade, followed by spectacular fireworks. On giant screens, the crowd watched black-and-white footage of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, deliver his renowned “tryst with destiny” speech. 

The mood was upbeat. After a severe financial crisis, India was opening to the outside world, creating a sense of optimism and possibility. As Nehru’s stirring words — “at the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” — rang out over the crowd, shivers ran up my spine. 

Last week, India marked its 70th independence anniversary differently. From the ramparts of the Red Fort, Narendra Modi, prime minister, looked back not at seven decades of freedom, but his own policies of the past three years, especially his battle against corruption and tax evasion. Then, he urged citizens to pledge to create a “new India” by 2022, likening it to the Quit India movement mobilised against colonial rule. 

The muted occasion was apt reflection of the profound political juncture at which India finds itself, as it goes from a ruling establishment influenced by western liberal ideals to a conservative new order that claims to embody more authentic Indian values, such as family, faith and community. 

For nearly seven decades, India’s public life was dominated by the Indian National Congress, the anti-colonial umbrella group that became a political party, led first by Nehru then the dynasty he started. In Nehru’s view, India’s essence lay in its complex “composite culture”, with diverse religious faiths, including Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian and others, making up the whole. 

Today India’s levers of power — in New Delhi and over vast swaths of the country — are firmly in the grip of Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party. They want to create a majoritarian society shaped by conservative Hindu cultural norms, in a clean break with the past. 

The past 70 years have seen remarkable achievements: doubling life expectancy; binding a diverse, multi-lingual nation; allowing democracy to take root; resettling millions of refugees; and promoting science, technology and innovation.

There were severe shortcomings too. In his 2014 election campaign, Mr Modi repeatedly derided Congress for decades of “mis-governance”, implying that Nehru’s legacy was not a solid foundation to build on but a time of major mistakes to erase. 

Ram Madhav, the BJP’s general secretary, made that view explicit this independence day, as he took direct aim at the British-educated Nehru, calling him a representative of “the colonisers’ view”, whose core values were at odds with “native wisdom”.

“Nehru sought to take the country in the direction of the ideas he had inherited from the colonial masters,” Mr Madhav wrote in the Indian Express. Today, “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.” 

This disdain for Nehru is rippling through society. In the BJP-ruled state of Rajasthan, Nehru is being erased from school textbooks, which are being revised with chapters that glorify Mr Modi and his policies. Other BJP-ruled states are following suit. Ram Nath Kovind, India’s president, who was handpicked by the BJP, omitted Nehru from a list of prominent freedom fighters mentioned in a speech before the independence day holiday last week 

It is hard to imagine how India will mark the 75th anniversary of its freedom from British rule in 2022. Mr Modi evidently expects to preside over the occasion, a likely prospect given his personal popularity and the state of the opposition.

If that is the indeed the case, it’s a pretty safe bet that celebrants won’t be paying homage to Nehru, the towering leader who guided India through its first 17 turbulent and trying years as a fledgling nation.

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