By Anish Gawande
To see Nehru so viciously denounced today signals the end of an era and the crumbling of the idea of India.
On the 27th of May, fifty years ago, millions of Indians cried as the radio announced the woeful news of the death of a man who had steered the nation for seventeen long years. Jawaharlal Nehru was dead, and a grieving nation could not imagine life without the towering persona who dominated the political and social landscape of the nation till his last breath.
In many ways, Nehru was a remarkable man. An Oxbridge-educated scholar, he was more a statesman than a politician and while he may not have risen to power from the dusty soil of the plains of Central India, one could certainly never doubt that he was a patriot. A skilled orator whose speeches are remembered till today (who can forget his historic address to the nation on the eve of Independence?), Nehru commanded not just respect but also admiration.
A Fabian socialist at heart, Nehru had an unceasing desire to uplift India’s poor from their misery. While his ideals may today seem redundant and even regressive, one must remember that history is portrayed very differently in retrospect. In an age where the Great Depression had led capitalist nations to war, and wherein socialism and economic planning had saved the Soviet Union from financial collapse, Nehru’s protectionist and socialist leanings ensured that in its early years India did not fall prey to foreign economic domination and neo-imperialism, and (unlike many other African nations) avoided becoming a banana republic.
Swapan Dasgupta, a man who leans more towards Nagpur than New Delhi, claimed that “India has been too kind to Nehru”. Can a nation ever repay the debt it owes to a Prime Minister who not only successfully steered India towards becoming a leader in the Non-Aligned Nations sphere (successfully drawing benefits from both the United States and the USSR) but also raised the prestige of a nation which was left poor, hungry and undeveloped after a long period of British colonisation? There has been no Indian leader who commanded as much respect in the international sphere as Nehru, as is evident by this quote in the Guardian on Nehru’s visit to London in 1957 (which Ramchandra Guha reproduced in his fascinating piece on Nehru in the Hindustan Times1) –
A hundred men and women of the West were being given a glimpse of the blazing power that commands the affection and loyalty of several hundred million people in Asia. Put in its simplest terms, it is the power of a man (Nehru) who is father, teacher and older brother rolled into one. The total impression is of a man who is humorous, tolerant, wise and absolutely honest.
Yet, Nehru’s greatest accomplishment was the upholding of Indian democracy. Despite knowing that the Congress was virtually unchallenged in the early years post-Independence, Nehru insisted on holding timely elections and galvanised the machinations of the State to ensure that the nation remained a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic. While neighbouring Pakistan plunged into chaos with a military dictatorship soon after it became independent, India has till today continued its tradition of democracy and the rule of the people. Nehru was a man who believed in the ideals that this nation is built upon – he encouraged political opposition and welcomed criticism, going as far as to compliment RK Laxman for his caricatures of the Prime Minister.
One must remember, however, that despite the hero-worship that was and is so characteristic of Indian society (as became evident in the recently held General Elections), Nehru was a mortal just like you or me. The sahib from Trinity who could give rousing speeches in the Queen’s English was also one who failed miserably in predicting the true intentions of neighbouring China, leading to a humiliating defeat for India in 1962. His ambitious plans of using PSUs as the “temples of modern democracy” backfired when they were ineffectively run by bureaucracy that lacked the technical expertise to harness their full potential. His decision to take the Kashmir issue to the UN and his repeated altercations with Sheikh Abdullah damaged ties with the state.
Yet, it is disheartening to see that these are not the issues that Nehru is criticised for. He is vilified for being a philanderer and a womaniser – claims that are not only unsubstantiated but also irrelevant to his role as leader. He is criticised for being the patron of dynastic politics when in reality his daughter, Indira, never came close to any sort of public office till his death (after which opportunistic Congressmen placed her on a pedestal wrongly expecting her to be a puppet which could be manipulated). In fact, had Nehru been alive today, he would have scorned his own successors, who time and again threw to the wind the very ideals he’d stood for all his life and who pandered to vote-banks rather than to the collective consciousness of the nation. In fact, AM Rosenthal, an American journalist, visited India during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and lamented that were Nehru alive he’d be in jail writing letters to the Prime Minister on the importance of democracy and democratic institutions!
It is not a coincidence that a man who ascends the throne of the Indian Prime Ministership has chosen to be crowned just a day before the fiftieth death anniversary of India’s tallest leader. Narendra Modi will ascend to India’s highest public office on the same day that Nehru breathed his last and vacated it. An era, defined by the Nehruvian consensus (which was broken, incidentally, in large measures by Indira and Rajiv) which advocated respect for democratic institutions and the precedence of ideology over issue-based politics, has come to an end.
Let us remember Nehru’s words on the eve of Independence. While Modi claims “Acche din aane waale hai”, Nehru wistfully proclaimed that “The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over”.
Narendra Modi’s tryst with destiny has just begun. Whether he will be able to reconcile the ideologies that built this nation with his own brand of personality politics, and whether he will be able to deliver upon an agenda of not just economic development but also inclusive social welfare, will determine whether the India that 33 crore Indians envisioned and fought for in 1947 will be the same India that 120 crore Indians voted for in 2014.