|PM Narendra Modi addresses the nation from Red Fort on August 15, 2014|
Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya
August 15, 2014 symbolically marks the beginning of India’s full emergence as a postcolonial nation-state.
This is the first time, in the 67 years of independent India, that the Prime Minister’s traditional address from the Red Fort has been given by an individual born after independence, who, furthermore, heads a political party that also was created after independence.
When Nehru delivered his famous “tryst with destiny” speech on the eve of independence in 1947, he bid farewell to two centuries of colonisation in a rarefied English that was spoken — even in England — by a small, privileged minority who had attended elite “public” schools and universities.
In India, those who understood Nehru’s circumlocutions — to say nothing of enjoying the nuances of his rhetorical style — were a tiny fraction of the population in 1947 and would still be a small proportion today.
What’s more, Nehru himself was a product of elite British institutions (Harrow, Cambridge, Inns of Court) and had imbibed the social democratic values of his peer group of Fabian socialists in England, which he then proceeded to transplant to India. The party which he led, the Indian National Congress, of course had its roots in the struggle for freedom from British rule.
Thus, when Nehru addressed the newly born nation, he was speaking very much as a figure rooted in its recent colonial past. India, legally, became a post-colonial state in 1947, but intellectually, culturally, and socially remained tied umbilically to its colonial parent.
Fast forward to today’s speaker standing on the ramparts of Red Fort. Narendra Modi, a self-made “outsider” who has stormed the bastion, has a life experience which Nehru and his successors could never relate to, nor scarcely even understand. Yet Modi’s life experience,not Nehru's, accords with that of the vast majority of the Indian population.
He spoke to the nation, in an earthy and “vernacular” Hindi, peppered with zesty English expressions, which arouses the disdain and contempt of the Anglicised commenting class, but which resonates with the average Indian.
What’s more, in contrast to the stilted, prepared speeches that one had come to expect (or dread) during the tenure of Manmohan Singh, Modi delivered without the protection of bullet proof glass —both actual and metaphorical—speaking ex tempore, without a prepared text.
Another marker of the postcoloniality of the moment is that Modi didn’t shy away from the specific cultural and geographical roots from which he hails. The colourful Gujarati feto (turban) he sported, along with his signature half-sleeved kurta, bore the stamp of his own personality and where he comes from.
Nor can one gloss over Modi’s overt religiosity, itself an important manifestation of the post-colonial transition.
The Anglicised elite in India, much like Nehru, are acutely uncomfortable, even squeamish, with public displays of religious affiliation — in particular when it comes to the majority faith — but, as a form of “affirmative action”, are willing to embrace the religious symbols of minority faiths.
In part, this official disdain of the overt trappings of one’s Hindu faith reflects a philosophical belief in a utopian yet non-existent idealised form of Western secularism, in which there’s total separation of “church” and “state”. It also reflects an antipathy towards Hinduism itself, stemming perhaps from having imbibed some of the colonial disgust at this most “pagan” of religions.
Of course, even in the West, this idealised form of secularism doesn’t exist, for even after centuries of modernity, religion remains intertwined with everyday life and the functioning of the state. The French Revolutionaries realised correctly that expunging Christianity from their revolutionary state would require radical reform of the state’s institutions, including its calendar. After all, Sunday is a holiday in western countries for a reason explicitly tied to Christianity.
It’s significant that Modi ended his Independence Day speech as he ends all his public addresses, with a call to the crowd to join him in a chant of “Vande Mataram”. This naturally aroused the ire of Modi-hating commentators, who, without so much as being asked, ventriloquize the apparent dislike of minority communities to a hymn which, inconveniently for them, forms part of the tale of the independence struggle.
Scholars of decolonisation highlight how the first generation of post-independence rulers perpetuate the intellectual and cultural world views of the colonisers they’ve just displaced.
But an authentic postcolonial moment arrives only when a new generation, sufficiently removed from the colonisers and the intellectual baggage they left behind, is able to articulate a genuinely indigenous viewpoint.
Modi’s victory, and his speech today, is about much more than the defeat of the exhausted, corrupt and entrenched incumbent party of the independence movement.
Even during the campaign, Modi forced onto the agenda important and “inconvenient" questions which challenged the cosy consensus — whether by refusing to wear a Muslim topi, suggesting that Patel might have made a better leader than Nehru, and by imbuing his speeches and actions with an unashamedly “desi” inflection and ethos.
The campaign forced Indians, especially the young, and those excluded from the elite discourse, to revisit, question and debate an orthodox, received narrative which had gone largely unchallenged since independence.
The orthodox narrative is no longer sacrosanct: India, and Indians, have stepped out into a larger, postcolonial world.
Vivek Dehejia is an economics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. On Twitter @vdehejia . Together he and Rupa Subramanya (@rupasubramanya ) co-authored Indianomix:Making Sense of Modern India (Random House India, 2012).