Nehru: For and against

Never before in Indian political discourse has Jawaharlal Nehru — and his idea — been so pilloried or celebrated depending on which side of the faultline you are on. On his 128th birth anniversary, Indian Express captures the debate around the man and his legacy.

Written by Ashutosh Bhardwaj | Updated: November 12, 2017 6:43 am
While many of the politicians leading the present discourse against Nehru were not born or were children when he steered India through its initial years of Independence, several of their predecessors, such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who shared the Lok Sabha floor with Nehru in the 1950s, are known to have admired him. (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)
  • Months after coming to power in 2014, the NDA government scraps the Planning Commission, the most visible symbol of Jawaharlal Nehru’s economic legacy
  • The Ministry of Culture decides to convert the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library at Nehru’s official residence, Teen Murti Bhawan, into a complex showcasing lives of all Indian prime ministers
  • The Department of Youth Affairs proposes to drop his name from Nehru Yuva Kendras
  • In an address in Bengaluru, BJP president Amit Shah says Nehru “borrowed western ideas, tried to reinvent India by dismantling existing culture and systems”
  •  A National Archives of India exhibition omits Nehru among top leaders of the Quit India movement

Is this about one man versus his political opponents? Or is this a contest between the idea of India as the country’s first Prime Minister saw it and the New India as the present dispensation sees it? What space does Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who reminded the nation on a midnight 70 years ago of its “tryst with destiny”, have in this new India? As the NDA government or individual voices in the BJP/RSS talk of an India decoupled from its first PM, Nehru, one of the three triumvirates of India’s freedom struggle, is, for the first time, under question.

“2014 marked the political death of Nehru. Whatever future the RSS sees for the country, Nehru has no place in it,” says Ram Bahadur Rai, former ABVP secretary and now chairperson of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, emphatic in his assessment of Nehru’s relevance at a time when the Congress is at an all-time low and the BJP resurgent.

While many of the politicians leading the present discourse against Nehru were not born or were children when he steered India through its initial years of Independence, several of their predecessors, such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who shared the Lok Sabha floor with Nehru in the 1950s, are known to have admired him. So what accounts for Nehru’s ‘political death’ now?

‘No love for Indian culture’

The Indian political right has always thought of Nehru as too sophisticated, too European for a country that had fought hard for freedom from the British. “After Independence, Nehru was primarily responsible for perpetuating colonial rule in the form of European political culture and social philosophy. He himself confessed that he knew India from the prism of Europe,” says RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha.

Like Sinha says, Nehru was always open about his European influences. In his autobiography, Nehru lists European authors who influenced him. Besides works of Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll and Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes, he writes: “I remember reading many of the novels of (Walter) Scott, (Charles) Dickens and (William Makepeace) Thackeray, H G Wells’s romances, Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes. I was thrilled by The Prisoner of Zenda, and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat was for me the last word in humour.”

“Can the identity of India be rootless? Can it be based purely on certain abstruse Constitutional doctrines?” says Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta. “You have (Nehru’s) Constitutional patriotism versus a far more rooted nationalism, which is a direct inheritance of the freedom struggle. This is where the Nehruvian legacy is being contested,” he says.

Yet, some historians are baffled at this charge against the author of Discovery of India, which Nehru wrote in jail during the Quit India movement. It’s a book that marks the journey of a man who sets out to explore the nation, its history and geography, its myths and legends, epics and ancient texts.

“Culture has been extremely important to Nehru. He is a unique secularist who is intensely in love with Indian culture. His love for Indian culture is not an intellectual love. One could not have spoken about the country’s geography and tradition in the manner he did without this love,” says historian Sudhir Chandra.

Chandra adds that while both the RSS and Nehru speak highly of Indian culture, their “notion of past, present and future is fundamentally opposite”. So while the RSS strives to invent India’s lost ‘golden Vedic period’ and considers Islamic invasion to be among the country’s darkest phases, Nehru believed Islam brought a significant cultural diversity to the nation.

Nehru’s days in Trinity College, Cambridge, deeply influenced him, and was evident in the positions he took. When Nehru entered politics, he strictly kept out religion, unlike Mahatma Gandhi, for whom spiritualism was an integral part of politics. This angered the political right, who branded Nehru anti-Hindu.

“After Gandhi’s death, we went in the direction of Nehru, sometimes to the extent of being irreligious, or anti-religious,” says BJP general secretary P Muralidhar Rao. Veteran RSS ideologue M G Vaidya agrees. “The RSS’s opposition to Nehru is over his notion of the Hindu Rashtra. He thought it was a narrow idea, but there is no narrowness in Hindutva.”

Adds Sinha, “Nehru used his clout, State power to suppress Indian realities and introduced a carbon copy of the West and choreographed it as the idea of India.” To that, Nehruvians would turn the pages of Discovery of India to his description of India’s geography and its resemblance to the RSS’s Akhand Bharat concept. Nehru writes, “The diversity of India is tremendous… Yet, with all these differences, there is no mistaking the impress of India on the Pathan, as this is obvious on the Tamil. This is not surprising, for these border lands, and indeed Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia before the advent of Islam were largely Buddhists, and earlier still, during the period of Epics, Hindus.”

Could this have been written by an anti-Hindu?

But, the RSS’s Delhi vice-president, Alok Kumar, argues, “His actions were not based on Bharatiya cultural values. It may be that intellectually he understood Indian history and its spiritual literature but his description of himself as being ‘accidentally a Hindu’ was probably appropriate.”

Other Sangh leaders term Nehru’s love for Indian culture paakhand (fake), a practical necessity. “He could not have been a popular prime minister without displaying love for Indian culture,” says RSS ideologue Devendra Swaroop, who edited Panchjanya in the 1950s.

Historian Ramachandra Guha strongly counters this “character assassination”. “Discovery of India is suffused with profound love and understanding of this country. How can this book be paakhand?” says Guha, adding that it is absolutely wrong to “say that Nehru hated India”.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh finds a plan in this assault. “The RSS has a two-track policy — denigrate the individual and delegitimise the legacy,” he says, asking, “So what if Nehru smoked? There are BJP leaders who smoke. So what if Nehru had a relationship with Edwina Mountbatten? What about Vajpayee’s relation with
Mrs (Rajkumari) Kaul? These are personal matters.”

‘Flawed idea of socialism, secularism’

The second accusation against Nehru is that, as Muralidhar Rao says, his “secularism of western import” and “socialism of Russian import” were “not in tune with the realities of India”. Nehru’s economic strategy rested on strong State control, a model not yet completely disowned. Rai of the IGNCA says Nehru “viewed India from the perspective of Marxism and implemented the Soviet model of development”.

On his secularism, Dasgupta questions Nehru’s “idea of cosmopolitanism with specific guarantees for minorities”. “You have a cosmopolitan identity for a majority of people, but the minorities would be allowed to have their own sectional identities… So while the Hindu identity eroded quite substantially, you had a very firm Muslim identity which has stuck on,” he says.

Congress leaders admit it may have not fared well on this front. “Perception has gained ground that we are quick to condemn majority communalism but are slow to condemn minority communalism,” Ramesh concedes, adding, “Nehru was dead opposed to minority communalism. In retrospect, the Congress should have spoken out more forcefully against it.”

Another major reason for the RSS’s animosity is the ban it had faced following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. “Nehru wanted to prove the RSS communal. He forced Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to ban the RSS. He was waiting for an opportunity,” says Swaroop, who closely witnessed the ban.

Rai of the IGNCA also accuses Nehru of “establishing” that “the RSS is communal, anti-Muslim”. “Gandhi and Ambedkar were open. If the Sangh committed a mistake, they pointed it out. If the Sangh did well, they praised it. Nehru had fixed ideas,” he says.

Guha explains the ideological opposition, “reciprocated by both”, between Nehru and the Sangh. “Nehru detested the RSS, saw them as dangerous and divisive. His cosmopolitanism, which was opposed to the xenophobia of the RSS, his emphasis on modern science, as opposed to their glorification of Hindu knowledge….”

But what explains the Sangh’s recent embrace of Gandhi and Ambedkar? “They can spin the facts with Gandhi and Ambedkar, can be economical with the truth. They can misrepresent their opposition to Gandhi and Ambedkar, but with Nehru, it is much deeper and much more fundamental,” Guha adds.

Chandra agrees. “Gandhi once spoke at a Sangh gathering. Nehru could not have done that,” he says.
The RSS too agrees. “The Sangh has deep allergy for Nehru. It has continued for generations,” says Swaroop, while admitting that it’s political expediency — “a political game” — that dictated the Sangh’s shift in approach to Gandhi and Ambedkar.

“Ambedkar and every Ambedkarite is anti-Hindu,” he adds, “(But) the problem before us is that since the Dalit movement has adopted Ambedkar as an icon, we cannot avoid him. Gandhi is relevant even today. Gandhi’s total personality is a Hindu personality.”

While Swaroop and Rai talk about Nehru’s “contribution” to Partition, Alok Kumar notes that once Gandhi too was held responsible for it, but no longer. “That generation (which disliked Gandhi) has practically gone,” he says.
Yet, these “reservations” exist against Nehru, to which Guha contests: “As (sociologist) Ashis Nandy would say, he is their intimate enemy. He is inside them.”

The family legacy

Yet, it appears that if not all, at least some animosity against Nehru might have disappeared if it was not for the Congress’s dynasty rule. Dasgupta agrees: “There’s Nehru the individual, and then there’s Nehru the legacy. Lot of criticism is not so much against Nehru the individual, it’s how the Nehruvian legacy has played out.”
“In the last 40-50 years,” points out Rao, “public space has been monopolised by the Nehru family. This monopolisation is not in the interest of the country.”

Guha believes Indira Gandhi’s imposition of Emergency, during which many of the Sangh leaders were jailed, did a lot of damage to Nehru’s legacy. “The Emergency undercut the Nehruvian commitment to democracy,” agrees Ramesh. “It gave respectability to the RSS and brought them into mainstream politics.”

Ramesh also blames Nehruvians for “freezing him in time”, arguing that the former PM was far less rigid than many believe. “If Nehru had faced the kind of challenges we faced in the last 25 years, his instruments might have been different. He might not have the same degree of commitment to the public sector,” he says. Ramesh points out, “On big dams, the Nehru of 1950s was a great believer, but Nehru of the 1960s was beginning to get a little sceptical about big dams. The Nehru of 1950 was sceptical about panchayats, but by 1960, he was getting enamoured by them.”

Chandra believes Nehru became a victim of the iconography perpetuated by his successors, but adds “the damage caused by our leftist scholars is no lesser”. “Many of our leftist historians became Congress historians. These history writers have done a great disservice. They focused only on Nehru, ignored even Patel,” says Chandra, suggesting that this lopsided narrative provided fodder to his opponents.

Guha too regrets this “unfortunate glorification”. “There was a cult of Nehru (and) you could not acknowledge his mistakes… A time will come when we will make a fair assessment of Nehru. He was a flawed leader, who made serious mistakes,” he says.

Yet, Nehru’s legacy seems inescapable. Recently, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj boasted of IITs and IIMs to taunt Pakistan, she only affirmed the vision of the first PM. And if Dasgupta acknowledges Nehru’s “very large hand in creating the institutions on which the government rests”, the BJP’s Rao admires him for establishing “parliamentary democracy”.

Several BJP-Sangh leaders of the previous generations openly admired Nehru. A popular anecdote from Vajpayee’s days as a new external affairs minister during the Janta government is that when he first entered his office in South Block, he found that Nehru’s portrait had been removed, perhaps by an overzealous official. “Yahan Panditji ka photo hua karta tha (Nehru’s photo used to be here),” Vajpayee is said to have asked his staff, ordering them to immediately restore it.

“Vajpayee repeatedly affirmed that he was deeply influenced by Nehru. It is Modi government that has been trying to degrade him,” says Mani Shankar Aiyar. Congress leaders also recount instances of veteran BJP leaders L K Advani and Bhairon Singh Shaikhawat fondly remembering Nehru. “Modi does not belong to that generation,” says Ramesh.
Yet, the criticism of Nehru sometimes baffles.

Of the three principles on which the Nehruvian Consensus was based — primacy of public sector, non-alignment and secularism — the first two have been gradually dismantled by Congress governments themselves post-1990s. Theoretically, the only pillar under contest now is of secularism.

On Nehruvian secularism, Dasgupta gives Nehru some benefit of doubt. “Every idea has a time. Probably at that time, partly because you were recovering from Partition, you needed to be little more circumspect,” he says. “When Nehru said we must make sure that Muslims must feel specially welcome in India, maybe he had a point. Maybe then. Certainly not now,” he adds.

But there seems little space for such nuanced assessment as some of the Sangh’s opposition seems more “emotive” than intellectual. Agreeing that that “we do not read Nehru”, Swaroop defends that “the Sangh is not an intellectual movement… The Sangh represents emotions, nationalism”. Guha says he believes, “Only when the last member of the Nehru-Gandhi family retires from politics can you have a dispassionate assessment of Nehru.”

Till then, Nehru must wait.

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