Jawaharlal Nehru’s acts of omission are remembered more often than his acts of commission. A grateful nation is sizing him up on its standards.
Very few icons have relevance beyond their national boundaries and their time. The intense scrutiny of history reduces them to mere statues that millions of their countrymen walk past every day. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is no exception. In a country with a tradition for hero worship, it is surprising that the first Prime Minister of India has been dragged into a legacy controversy and therefore remains relevant. Ironically, the resolve of the Narendra Modi government to observe the 125th birth anniversary of Nehru with fanfare has compelled the Congress to dust him out of its history shelf. Nehru’s own generation saw him as a deviationist and visionary at the same time, for almost the same reasons.
Controversies seem to stick to Nehru more easily than the successes that should ideally be attributed to him. His ascendency as Prime Minister is still being debated. Sardar Patel was the official choice of the then Congress but Mahatma Gandhi prevailed over Nehru’s choice. But going through some of the records, the camaraderie between Patel and Nehru is more evident than rivalries.
Mahatma Gandhi’s letters to Nehru on governance speaks volumes on Gandhi’s emphasis on Hind Swaraj, rural economy and the cultural component in governance. He and Nehru had diametrically opposite views on the economy. Gandhi advocated an agro-based, rural-oriented economy to cover 85 per cent of the population when the Colonial power left. Nehru seemed to have contempt for rural folks whom he referred to as “mired in self-inflicted poverty and superstition”. Nehru wanted the neo-Indian model to be a synthesis of Western and Indian models, the British soul in Indian body.
Nehru promoted the idea of strong central institutions and a powerful administrative system. But unlike the British or American democratic traditions, Nehru did not want to limit the term of Prime Minister’s post and remained PM for 17 years. Almost seven ministers quit his cabinet before the first general elections. With both Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel not around after 1950, there was no one to rein in Nehru’s autocratic decision-making nature. So much for his democratic functioning, letting meritorious colleagues leave the Cabinet but never admit his failures.
Nehru was known to admit some of his erroneous judgements publicly and make amends, if necessary. In 1957 he was invited to unveil a statue of Shivaji Maharaj at Pratapgarh fort amidst protests for his remarks in Discovery of India. Nehru admitted his assessment was wrong and even apologised and a 17 feet high equestrian bronze statue of Shivaji was unveiled by him on November 30, 1957.
The first prime minister was also the first foreign minister. Nehru conducted India’s foreign policy singlehanded, giving it a direction that he thought was right. He strongly believed that the test of independence is to have control over foreign relations and hence foreign policy should be the prerogative of the PMO.
Nehru was determined ‘not to make India a pawn of super powers’. His concept of nonalignment sold very well domestically but ironically both the US and erstwhile USSR constantly suspected him. In the changed geopolitical situation, Nehru’s nonalignment looks old-fashioned and redundant. A balance sheet of what we lost and what we could have gained by not being neutral could be a realistic assessment of Nehru’s foreign policy.
Nehru wanted Independent India to be founded on the principles of non-alignment, Panchsheel and the Gandhian idea of peace and nonviolence, as opposed to a new and emerging post-Colonial world order which was looking to a newer economic paradigm different from Marxism. Soviet writers like Modeste Rubinstein and Ulyanovsky were impressed by the ‘scientific and socialist outlook of Nehru’ and hoped for a socialist India. But ironically, many among the Indian Communist movement saw him as a champion of western liberalism.
There is a marked difference between “Socialist Nehru” of the Karachi congress (1931), a supporter of Congress Socialist Party, and Prime Minister Nehru after 1947. Post-1947 Nehru’s advice to the trade unions was to shun the path of conflict and focus on increasing productivity. The Communists criticised his sympathy for working class as nothing more than a baggage he carried back from England.
Shortly before independence, none other than Gandhi himself made a prophetic remark when he wrote to Nehru: “You have no uncertainty about the science of socialism but you do not know in full how you will apply it when you have the power”.
Nehru’s half-hearted application of socialism produced a hugely chaotic situation, the burden of which the country carried for over half a century. His initiatives of planned economy, rapid industrialisation and refining political culture through parliamentary democracy rather than Gandhian panchayati raj, and his emphasis on the scientific temper through education can be acclaimed as path-breaking. But he could still be criticised for his utopian ideas, continuing features of British Raj as a result of “transfer of power”, emphasis on western paradigms, penchant for government over party to reach out to people and ultra-centralism bordering on authoritarianism, as against federalism and collectivism decision making process.
The party-Government conflict resulted in Acharya Kripalani’s resignation from the Congress presidency in November 1947. In a moving speech before AICC delegates, Kripalani usaid: “If there is no free and full cooperation between the governments and the Congress organisation, the result is misunderstanding and confusion such as prevalent today in the ranks of the Congress and in the minds of people... It is the party from which the government derives its power”.
Nehru’s differences with Acharya J.B. Kripalani reached a crisis when the latter publicly disapproved of the government’s ‘timidity’ towards Pakistan, advocated an economic blockade of Kashmir, and demanded revocation of ‘standstill agreements’ with the Nizam. Nehru had his own ideas of federalism, probably more realistic, and was very firm on his views. Yet he was misunderstood as someone who favoured greater power for an ‘authoritarian’ Prime Minister.
The centre-state relationship, with its decisive tilt in favour of central authority, led to distortions in the functioning of the Constitution and concentration of power in the hands of the Centre, leading to inequalities in economic advancement, commented veteran Marxist leader B.T. Ranadive. Criticism of Nehru grew louder after the 1962 debacle and the later generation of Congress leaders found little relevance of Nehru to win elections. After a short stint of Lal Bahadur Shashtri, it was Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi who restored the primacy of the Congress but not before a showdown with Nehru era Congressmen who had dismissed her as “goongi gudia”. Little wonder that later generations of Congressmen, non-Congress parties and the Left pitched their tents in the political arena as staunch anti-Nehruvians, though Nehru himself stood for nothing in particular, yet represented the collective confusion that pervaded the ideological space in the post-independence national polity.
Nehru carried his non-violence to the extent of suggesting that India needs no army, as we have no enemies. This, even after the bitter experience of the Pakistan-sponsored attack in Kashmir. His blind trust in the then Kashmiri leadership, leading to a virtual handing over of the state to one family, and his unshakable faith in the goodness of the Chinese leadership, leading to the conversion of the Indo-Tibet border to India-China border, are a few of the blunders that his critics use to silence his dutiful, albeit dwindling, worshippers.
Very few iconic heroes have been able to sustain their reputation in the aftermath of strict scrutiny and re-interpretation by history. Nehru is no exception. A grateful nation may still find a hero in him, yet has thrown his party into the dustbin of history. The conflicting identities of India and Bharat within Nehru were never resolved. His legacy of conflict continues in the struggle for identity and in our polity till date in Nehru’s India that is Bharat.
(The author is former editor of Organiser, and a regular commentator on security, strategic and foreign affairs).