In defence of Jawaharlal Nehru

Many critics do not seem to have understood what he set out to do


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Jawaharlal Nehru died 52 years ago. In a sentimental obituary, C. Rajagopalachari described him as a beloved friend, a most civilized person and a man dear to the nation. Earlier, in 1949, Vallabhbhai Patel wrote in an essay that he saw Nehru as a lifelong friend, idol of the nation and that he knew from close quarters how hard he laboured for the country.

This trio was part of a stellar cast of patriots that did not equate political differences with enmity—an important nuance that seems to have been lost in our shallow contemporary political debates. Patel clashed with Nehru on several issues during the early days after independence. Rajaji bravely tried to keep the flame of economic liberalism alive during the high noon of Nehruvian socialism.

All three of them never let their differences degenerate into personal animosity. Patel and Rajaji would undoubtedly have been shocked to see the ongoing vicious campaign against Nehru, and especially the way their names are cynically dragged in as useful props.

As Rajaji wrote: “I have been fighting Sri Nehru all these ten years over what I consider faults in public policies. But I knew all along that he alone could get them corrected. No one else would dare do it, and he is gone, leaving me weaker than before in my fight.”

The removal of any mention of Nehru from school textbooks in Rajasthan is but one example of the insidious campaign against the memory of our first prime minister. It is easy to point out the mistakes Nehru made. This newspaper has often written against his economic policies. His Chinese blunder is widely accepted. There are other examples as well.

Any leader should be seen in the context of his times. The Nehruvian project was part of the wider liberal nationalist project—to begin the overdue economic regeneration of India through industrialization led by the state, to seek strategic autonomy in a Cold War world through the principle of non-alignment, to build a new nation-state within a constitutional framework, and to create new institutions for a modern India emerging from several centuries of foreign rule.

It is far easier to attack Nehru for specific policy errors than it is to question his overarching concerns. The horrible personal assaults on the Internet are not even worth a response. There is nothing like the benefit of perfect hindsight plus a Twitter account to sit in judgment of towering historical figures.

Many contemporary critics of Nehru do not seem to have either understood what he set out to do or read his voluminous writing. They would rather use his mistakes to tar his legacy. They should ponder these parallels. The enthusiasm for industrialization led by the state can be found in the later writings of B.R. Ambedkar. The readiness to go out of his way to accommodate Muslim demands was no better or worse than what Subhas Chandra Bose thought should be done to maintain communal peace. His passionate disagreement with the subnationalism inherent in the demand for linguistic states was very similar to the view of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Nehru is also under attack because the Congress used his name for narrow political ends. The Nehruvian Congress died in 1969. It was replaced by a family firm that has used Nehru as cynically as his critics have.

The commissars of the post-1969 Congress airbrushed most other towering leaders of the national movement out of history books. Some like V.D. Savarkar have been demonized. The Congress should see that Nehru has suffered collateral damage because of the way it usurped nationalist history. There is no point accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party of appropriating someone like Patel. It was the Congress that left him out in the cold.

There is no doubt that the Indian nationalist history should not just accommodate a wider galaxy of leaders from across the political spectrum, but also have a deeper understanding of the international events that helped in the cause of Indian independence. Belittling the patriotic achievements of Nehru through vicious personal attacks or deleting his name from textbooks is quite another matter.

Has Nehru been treated unfairly by contemporary critics? Tell us views@livemint.com

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