By a remarkable coincidence, 2014 turns out to be the year of Jawaharlal Nehru’s 50th death anniversary today and his 125th birth anniversary on November 14. Of all his great contemporaries in the second half of the 20th century, he is among the very few who are remembered so fondly and with such reverence, even at this distance in time. Yet it must not be overlooked that — in sharp contrast to the overwhelming adoration he evoked among almost all his countrymen during his long and luminous political career — many Indians today hold him responsible for all that has gone wrong with the country. Indeed, it seems to be open season on Nehru. He is sometimes demonised. More on this subject presently, but let me first say that no amount of vilification can erase from the pages of history his yeoman’s and incomparable service as independent India’s first prime minister for 17 long, unbroken and formative years, or his enviable popularity with the masses.
To put it most briefly, the Mahatma was India’s liberator, Nehru its moderniser and untiring builder of its parliamentary democracy. Secularism, equality before the law, making Parliament a highly effective and respected institution, unflinching observance of every democratic norm (except once in 1959 when, under pressure from his daughter Indira Gandhi, who was then Congress president, he wrongly sacked Kerala’s duly elected Communist government), and modernising India’s colonial economy and feudal society through the use of science and technology, as well as economic planning, constituted his creed. His policy of non-alignment — nowhere has one man dominated foreign policy so completely as he did here — gave India and him personally a much greater role on the world stage than this country’s economic and military power warranted. India’s, indeed his, contribution to ending the wars in Korea, Indochina and the Congo brought us kudos. The Nehru-Liaquat pact on the treatment of minorities in the two countries in April 1950, which took a week and 11 drafts to be concluded, saved the subcontinent from what would have been a protracted and hellishly destructive India-Pakistan war.
What a terrible tragedy it is, therefore, that Nehru’s greatest failure was also in the area of his prime expertise. It was his heavily flawed China policy that led to our humiliating defeat in the brief but brutal border war with China in 1962, which shattered him both personally and politically. Unfortunately, none among his close advisors, civilian or military, ever questioned his naïve belief that the Chinese “would do nothing big”. For the governing doctrine then was, “Panditji knows best”.
Before proceeding further, one must look at something with which Nehru has nothing to do but for which the party he led so eminently, now in the stranglehold of his descendants, must accept full responsibility. Ten years ago, 11 days before Nehru’s 40th death anniversary, the Congress was voted back to power after eight years in the political wilderness. On May 16 this year, there was a staggering reversal of this situation. The Congress party’s share of seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha was reduced to a pitiable total of 44. The big winner was Narendra Modi, rather than the Bharatiya Janata Party whose prime ministerial nominee he was.
There is no doubt that Prime Minister Modi has got a massive mandate. Also, he has been emphasising development and governance, and not any unacceptable item in the Sangh Parivar’s agenda in pursuit of Hindutva. In any case, no one’s performance should be pre-judged. At the same time, it is impossible to shut one’s eyes and ears to the very widespread concern about what might happen to the country’s plural and diverse society under the “Modi sarkar”. After all, during the foul election campaign, the likes of Bihar’s BJP leader Giriraj Singh merrily got away with repeated declarations that all of Modi’s opponents would have no place in India and “must go to Pakistan”. This is very germane to the discussion on Nehru, because one of the two sources of the campaign to vilify him is the phalanx of Hindutva hotheads. The more they have failed to overturn his legacy on this score, the angrier they have become. What they will do during Modi’s rule remains to be seen.
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This said, one must to hasten to add that Nehru’s soul must be disturbed also because inheritors of his legacy, even when entrenched in power, chant the secularism mantra but make appalling compromises with communal forces. The building up of that Frankenstein’s monster, Jarnail SinghBhindranwale in Punjab in the 1980s, is one example. Rajiv Gandhi blundered when he amended the Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court’s sound judgment in the Shah Bano case and then compounded this mistake with concessions to the Ram Mandir votaries, thus falling between two stools. In December 1992, when the goons of the Shiv Sena and the BJP were demolishing the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in Delhi was either busy “in puja” or “sleeping” and could not be disturbed. Nor did Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s private meeting with the Imam of the Jama Masjid enhance secularism’s appeal.
In this context, it is no surprise that when Andre Malraux, French culture minister, asked Nehru what his “greatest difficulty” since Independence was, he had replied: “Creating a just state by just means.” After a brief pause, he had added: “Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country. Especially when its religion is not founded on an inspired book.”
The second major source of Nehru-bashing is within the burgeoning population of the young, for whom Nehru is a remote historical figure. Most of these innocent souls believe that the “joys of the free market” and of “globalisation” would have been available to them long ago had Nehru not embarked on his “wrong-headed” policies of socialism, egalitarianism and growth with just distribution. This bespeaks of total ignorance of the dire state of the colonial economy of India, aggravated by Partition; nor was the post-World War II world economy any better. Some Nehru-baiters have described his economic policy as “Stalinist”. This is stupid. The “socialistic pattern of society”, adopted at the AICC session at Avadi in January 1955, which I covered, was not Soviet communism.
State control of the “commanding heights of the economy” that Nehru believed in was also the policy of most west European governments then. What went wrong here was that it lasted too long. Even in Nehru’s time the system had become what C. Rajagopalachari, better known as Rajaji, rightly described as “licence-permit-quota raj” that inevitably bred corruption. This system should have been ended preferably by 1970. Sadly, Indira Gandhi stretched it too long primarily for political, not economic, reasons, as I.G. Patel, economic affairs secretary at that time, has recorded in the case of bank nationalisation.
Despite all these shortcomings, more and more observers are recognising that in recent decades, India could build modern industries and services because Nehru had laid firm scientific and technological foundations, and had had the “wisdom to retain English as the language of higher education”.
Let me mention just one more crucial fact. No feminist could have done as much for women as he did. Despite opposition by a large section of the Congress party and even the republic’s president, Rajendra Prasad, Nehru got the Hindu Code Bill passed. When Taya Zinkin of The Guardian asked him about his main achievement, he replied: “I could do something for Hindu women. I couldn’t do so for Muslim women because the community did not agree”.
Finally, some wise men’s assessments of Nehru are worth quoting. No one has been a stricter judge of men than famous writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Nehru’s leadership, he wrote in 1952, “is the most important moral force behind the unity of India… He is the leader not of a party but the people of India collectively, the legitimate successor to Gandhiji”. Years later, when Nirad babu had become sharply critical of Nehru, the worst he said of the prime minister was: “He is our ineffectual angel.” John Kenneth Galbraith, an economic guru, former US ambassador to India and a personal friend of Nehru, has put it more succinctly: “With Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru was, indeed, India: Gandhi was its history; Nehru, after Independence, its reality.”
Another distinguished American, Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state during Nehru’s first visit to the US in 1949, has recorded in his memoirs, Present At The Creation, that he found Nehru to be “prickly”, “arrogant” and “one of the most difficult men… to deal with”. Yet, he added: “India was so important to the world and Nehru so important to India that — as Voltaire said of God — if he did not exist, he would have to be invented.” My humble submission is that in the glittering galaxy that marches in the multi-coloured procession of modern India history, Nehru walks a few steps behind his mentor and master, the Mahatma, but much ahead of all others.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator