In Robert and Anne Drew’s documentary, Life and Death of a Dynasty, there is a captivating scene. India’s 1962 elections are round the corner. Nehru is asked why he was not campaigning in his own constituency. Wasn’t he afraid of losing? His four-decade-long political life, replies Nehru, was an open book and if his own constituency was unsatisfied with it, it should elect his opponent. Given the rise of the Akali Dal, his party needed him more in Punjab, so he was going there to campaign. “Main aapke sarhadi subey mein aaj phir aayaa hoon, lekin main aaj aapse bijli aur paani ki baat karne aayaa hoon (I have once again come to your border province, but I will talk today about electricity and water),” says Nehru. The camera then zooms in on the faces of the farmers who had gathered to hear him. In a way that only pictures, not words, can capture, their eyes show unmistakable love and gratitude. It almost did not seem to matter what Nehru said, though water and electricity were central to farming. They are so grateful Nehruji came to their village.
Eyewitness stories about how India’s masses, rural and urban, adored Nehru are simply too many to recount. Nehru used to say that Delhi stifled him and mass contact was a source of invigoration. He would often leave Delhi to be with the masses. That he had a patrician background and, unlike Gandhi, never displayed religiosity made him a truly unlikely figure to receive mass adulation. But the 10-12 years he spent in jail during the freedom movement and an untiring effort to connect with the masses convinced millions that he could be their arch representative.
To appraise Nehru in a purely abstract manner, while necessary, would constitute an analytic insufficiency. Great leaders always go beyond the purely intellectual or the rational. They touch emotionally. They construct an invisible bond. They become the embodiment of a nation. For two generations of Indians, if not more, Nehru was one such political leader, second only to Mahatma Gandhi.
There were adversaries, of course. Three principal adversaries emerged within: the Hindu nationalists, who found his commitment to minorities, especially Muslims, thoroughly misguided; the communists, who in their inimitable phraseology called him the running dog of imperialism, even though Nehru was no great admirer of capitalism and wanted to tame its excesses with state direction; and the Gandhian socialists, who thought Nehru’s view of industry and modernity was a betrayal of Gandhi’s commitment to Indian villages and tradition.
The pitch these criticisms acquired was sometimes dismaying, but Nehru was never fully undermined. Significantly, most Gandhian socialists remained inside the Congress. The reason was simple, though never explicitly articulated. Gandhi had a great theory of protest and mass mobilisation, but a wholly inadequate theory of governance. The former led to India’s freedom, but without the latter, a modern polity could not function.
Institutions and constitutional rules are the lifeblood of modern governance: how the government would be elected; how the roles of the executive, legislature and judiciary would be conceptualised; what the respective powers of Central and state governments would be; which level of government the civil service, police and army would report to; would individuals have rights or communities, etc. Governance is, of course, more than these questions, but no democratic polity can work without clarity about such basic issues. By 1947, Gandhi was far above these mundane institutional matters. His energies were concentrated on preventing mass violence, not institution-building.
Dealing with these questions, India’s Constitution was a product of nearly four years of collective deliberation, to which Gandhi’s contributions were minimal and Nehru’s infinitely greater. Gandhi knew how to create a nation, not how to run it. In Letters for a Nation, an abbreviated recent assemblage of Nehru’s fortnightly communication with India’s chief ministers, Madhav Khosla notes that India’s constitutional polity is virtually inconceivable without Nehru. Others like B.R. Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad undoubtedly played very significant roles, but Nehru’s contribution to India’s constitutional democracy was unparallelled.
The modern Indian polity is imperfect, but India nonetheless remains a constitutionally based democracy. Over time, virtually all post-colonial democracies and constitutions collapsed in the developing world. Despite sharing the same British colonial history, Pakistan could not, in its first two decades of independence, even develop a constitution, which was subsequently overthrown several times. By the mid- to late-1960s, as Samuel Huntington argued, democracies all over the developing world had begun to unravel. In contrast, India’s constitutional democracy acquired legitimacy and longevity.
Despite his intense disagreements with Nehru, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a child of Nehru’s political institution-building. His election would not have been possible without the polity that was put in place in 1950 and an electoral process instituted against all odds in 1952. That ought to be recognised. It was right of Modi to continue with a committee for the commemoration of Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary; it is wrong of the Congress party to eject Modi’s government from its own celebrations. Nehru is a national treasure to be shared, not a mere partisan political figure. Democrats in the US do not wage life-and-death battles over Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. They debate him.
Nehru’s economics should be and, since 1991, has substantially been undone. His decision to take Kashmir to the United Nations, in hindsight, was wrong, though one should note that Article 370 of India’s Constitution was Patel’s contribution (Letters for a Nation, page 218). Nehru was too romantically committed to India-China brotherhood, hoping ideals would triumph over realism. But these imperfections do not sully Nehru’s contributions to India’s democracy. Disputes over economics, secularism, Kashmir and China are analytically separable from democracy.
“Whereas in the West, liberal democracy had developed gradually, leading… to the… theory that it could endure in its purest form only in a setting of capitalist industrialisation,” argues Sarvepalli Gopal, “Nehru was making the superhuman, anti-historical effort” of institutionalising democracy in an economically poor India. Gopal adds that Nehru was “not as much a profound as a pioneering thinker”. Gandhi inverted the conventional meanings associated with courage, masculinity-femininity, freedom and power. If the British called prison a site of punishment, Gandhi turned it into a site of pilgrimage for freedom fighters. If the British called Indians feminine, Gandhi’s civil disobedience turned “taking blows” into a source of strength. Gandhi simply undermined the British cognitive frame.
Nehru could not theorise so deeply, but he was a pioneer in that he established democracy in a highly unlikely setting. Later scholarly work in political science confirms that India’s democracy is a great exception to democratic theory. Nehru is not the only figure to be credited with this achievement, but to write a history of Indian democracy without Nehru as its central figure would be an exercise in intellectual deception and futility. Nehru should not be confused with his progeny. He should be assessed on his own record.
In 1956, after a decade of Nehru’s rule, The New York Times said he was the only leader of the world who ruled by love, not fear. “Since the end of the Churchill-Stalin-Roosevelt era,” added Harper’s Magazine, Nehru “is the most arresting figure on the world political stage”.
Why has this “most arresting figure” fallen on bad times? In the 125th year of Nehru’s birth, India needs to debate this question with an open mind, not with ideological blindness. In a therapeutic year, the nation could learn a lot about itself.
The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’