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Sanjaya Baru
Sanjaya Baru


India’s cultural revolution

When P.V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister, he was advised by one of his Hyderabadi friends to get rid of some of the advisers he had inherited from the Rajiv Gandhi establishment. Rao rubbished the thought saying: “These people influence the intellectual discourse in Delhi. It is better I keep them on my side.” He was wise. He was also utterly pragmatic. And, intellectually, he had much in common with the upper caste ‘Nehruvian elite’ who inherited power from the British.

Interestingly, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, too, shared many of the values of the post-colonial Nehruvian elite. He followed Rao’s strategy of coopting the members of the ‘Delhi durbar’—the power elite of bureaucrats, diplomats, academics, artists, writers, journalists and business leaders who had benefited from their proximity to political power through the Nehru family era.

When Vajpayee put out his Kumarakom Musings, I wrote an editorial in The Financial Express that was titled ‘Atal Bihari Nehru’, drawing attention to the ‘Nehruvian’ undertone to Vajpayee’s thoughts. In fact, a senior journalist close to the BJP criticised Vajpayee at the time, accusing him of pandering to Delhi’s “IIC elite”—the leading lights of the India International Centre who were seen as beneficiaries of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Both Rao and Vajpayee chose to run their governments with the ‘Nehruvian elite’ on their side.

During Jawaharlal Nehru’s own time, both ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ intellectuals were outside this charmed circle. After 1969 some on the Left were coopted into the ‘Delhi Durbar’. But, both the Lohia socialists, at one end, and the Maoists, at the other, remained the outsiders. With the rise of the BJP and its hindutva ideology, many liberal and left-wing critics of the Nehru-Gandhi regimes closed ranks with the Nehruvian elite.

The elections of May 2014 marked a turning point. After storming the Delhi Durbar, Narendra Modi chose to marginalise the Nehruvian elite rather than coopt them. The consequent Left-Right divide in India’s intellectual discourse is now out in the open. While Vajpayee sought to win over the ‘liberal centre’, Modi has pushed them away, allowing them to move closer to the Left. Modi seems to view his electoral victory as the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Nehruvian elite in India’s intellectual discourse.


That this intellectual regime change should impact so many institutions, ranging from an institute to train film and television talent to one aimed at promoting research in recent history, is a reflection of the enormity of the role of the Nehruvian State in shaping post-colonial intellectual discourse in India. In how many modern democracies does the government run a film and TV institute or a school for journalists? The Nehruvian State was involved in manufacturing not just scooters and bread but also culture. While other post-Nehruvian prime ministers began the process of getting the government out of the business of manufacturing scooters and bread, none of them, not even Modi, has tried to end governmental grip over cultural institutions.

It is not surprising that the first salvo against Modi’s attempted intellectual regime change in the Delhi Durbar should have come from none other than Jawaharlal Nehru’s own niece. Several generations of the Nehruvian elite and members of the Delhi Durbar are now up in arms. This will go on. In many institutions they may well be replaced by less accomplished people. Such is the nature of cultural revolutions.

In China, Mao Zedong sent the Beijing elite to farms and factories during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Most Chinese view that period as the darkest chapter of their history. The danger and the downside to anti-elitism is that it can spawn anti-intellectualism, which India cannot afford. As the new inheritors of power in India seek their due, they should take care not to weaken institutions, even as these come under new ideological leadership.

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