A mixed legacy

The current generation has little awareness of the liberal foundations Jawaharlal Nehru nurtured in independent India.

The 123rd birth anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) is being celebrated today. Often called the architect of modern India, Nehru left behind a rich and mixed legacy that needs unbundling. This is a modest effort to identify the different and often conflicting elements in India’s inheritance from this undoubtedly influential leader in recent history.

K S Sudarshan (1931-2012), the RSS leader, called Nehru the last Englishman to rule India. Coming from a Hindu nationalist, the reference was obviously pejorative. Yet there is unconscious truth in the label. Growing in up in early 20th century England, Nehru imbibed the liberal values that prevailed in UK at the time. He lacked the parochialism that marked most Indian leaders of the time. Clearly, Nehru did not feel ‘Hindu’ identity, either in the more superficial sense of RSS-BJP or in the deeper sense of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore who derived their identities from an understanding of India’s history and philosophy.

Quite possibly, life in England and getting education there shaped Nehru’s ideas on democratic institutions and acceptance of pluralism. With this foundation and his personal authority in Congress, then the largest and only national political organism, Nehru could mold India into a liberal democracy that embraced pluralism and multiculturalism.

This was remarkable considering the intensity of Indian nationalism during the independence era and partition along religious lines accompanied by massive communal violence. Another contribution was Nehru’s promotion of rule of law, democratic institutions and free media. These were equally remarkable in a society characterised by feudal tendencies, religious orthodoxy, and authoritarianism.

We can only speculate how a leader who was less liberal and more parochial might have set the path for the newly-independent country with its long and hoary lineage. It is important to remember this aspect, especially for the benefit of the younger generation among whom many have a disparaging attitude towards Jawaharlal Nehru.

The current generation, more cosmopolitan and less orthodox than the previous, has little awareness of the liberal foundations Nehru nurtured in independent India or their value.

Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore once commented, rather presumptuously, that Nehru did not attempt a more radical transformation of India.

There are several problems with this statement. It is authoritarian and treats the society as clay to be molded by the government or a powerful leader. Secondly, it unwittingly equates Singapore, a tiny city-state, with India with its infinite complexity and diversity. Third, it overlooks Nehru’s liberal values and his desire to promote pluralism and democratic institutions, with of course their clatter and din.

Moving on, there are some questionable elements in Nehru’s legacy. Perhaps the most important was the model of economic totalitarianism and central planning, inspired partly by post-World War II Britain and partly by Soviet Russia. Other than large-scale government takeover of economic activity and vesting of powers in ill-trained politicians and bureaucrats, it excluded citizens from important economic spheres. Large-scale government intervention in the economy weakened innovative and entrepreneurial spirits in the society and also hampered economic growth.

Unsuccessful effort

A preferable option would have been for the government to supplement the citizenry to address specific weaknesses, rather than supplant private initiative and industry. Ironically, the liberalism that Nehru displayed in politics and culture became less prominent in economic thinking. The efforts of Swatantra party headed by C Rajagopalachari to question the ‘license-permit raj’ engineered by Nehru proved unsuccessful.

A second issue is with the ‘dynasty.’ To be fair, Nehru was always used to having his family members in active politics. This included his father Motilal Nehru who made a late entry into politics and his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit who was elected to UP legislature in 1939, before independence.

Considering this background, possibly Nehru did not consider it unnatural that his daughter, Indira Gandhi, became the president of Congress in his lifetime. In discussing dynasty politics, we must be sensitive to the deep-rooted feudal habits in India, which is evident from the election of family members of several politicians, big or small. It would be unfair to single out Nehru for criticism. In any event, Nehru did not openly groom his daughter to take over from him – unlike Indira Gandhi did with her son Rajiv.

Truth remains that Jawaharlal Nehru did not groom a second line of leadership. Rather, he relied largely on his personal authority to run the Congress party and the government. Indeed, Nehru reportedly remarked that any efforts to groom a successor would deepen factional conflicts in the Congress party. Whatever the reason, this was unfortunate. Nehru continued in office till death, without developing any plan of succession. This has since become the trend with most leading politicians. Quite possibly, the situation might have been different in this respect if Nehru had been more willing to lay down office and groom others.

A more generous view would be to interpret Nehru’s continuance in office as personal commitment. During the independence struggle, a frequent complaint from the British was that India will disintegrate after their departure. Nehru, a strong proponent of united India, was apprehensive about national unity and stability. From here, he could have unwittingly believed that his continuance as prime minister was essential for India’s unity and stability. Some complaints against Nehru can also make better sense from this perspective.

One was Nehru’s receptiveness to sycophancy which Feroze Gandhi pointed out and another was his tolerance of corruption about which C N Annadurai complained. Possibly Nehru equated affirmations of personal loyalty to him with support for India’s unity. Living amidst the faction-riven Congress party and the turbulent polity of India, Nehru perhaps felt comforted by expressions of loyalty. In any event, the consequences of such trends have been unhappy. They strengthened highly personalised style of politics and failed to check the evil of corruption.

(The writer teaches at the University of Ottawa, Canada)

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