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Jawaharlal Nehru and his troubled legacy

Jawaharlal Nehru could have set an example and kept his daughter out of politics instead of making her the Congress President. This was the first big nepotistic step in Indian politics which was later justified on all kinds of specious grounds by many Nehru acolytes. Photo: Getty ImagesPremium
Jawaharlal Nehru could have set an example and kept his daughter out of politics instead of making her the Congress President. This was the first big nepotistic step in Indian politics which was later justified on all kinds of specious grounds by many Nehru acolytes. Photo: Getty Images

Nehru's contribution would have had a much longer life had not members of his family systematically tarnished it

Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution would have had a much longer life had not members of his family systematically tarnished it. From breaking the Congress organization in 1969, to the declaration of Emergency, to the initiation of caste wars, to the encouragement of Sikh militancy, to the decision on Shah Bano, to the opening of the Babri Masjid, and the list goes on, it was Nehru’s bloodline that most effectively downgraded his memory. Experts and commentators connived in this for they were blindsided by the family connection and failed to see the break that was being repeatedly wrought on Nehru’s memory first by his daughter, then his son and then his daughter-in-law and great grandson. So when the time came, and come it would, the haters and baiters of the first prime minister easily positioned his memory in the short hairs of their blunderbusses and shot it down.

As it is, Nehru tripped himself up on a number of policies he had staked his reputation on. In times of economic crisis or border threats—as from China—he sidestepped non-alignment and turned to America first. Or, when it came to socialism, he made it known that he would never stand for the Soviet model and preferred the mixed economy instead. That this position was supported by India’s fledgling entrepreneurs of the time only made Nehru’s claim to be a socialist"’ somewhat contrived. Even if socialism were to be interpreted as “welfare statism", he did precious little on issues like universal health and education.

Nehru, however, played a sterling role in keeping India together in its most critical years after Independence. He was not alone in this, but without his whole hearted support to the making of the Indian Constitution, we would have been a poorer Republic. He weighed in heavily in favour of anti-untouchability, minority rights, and the abolition of feudal privileges which, together, make our Constitution so outstanding. India was a young Republic in 1950, but it looked, talked and walked like a seasoned democratic nation-state. True, he was not alone in this, but as Prime Minister, it was Nehru, more than anybody else, who fleshed out these most singular aspects of our Constitution. It would have been the easiest thing to renege on them given the tensions and uncertainties India faced in the early post-Independence years, but Nehru remained firm.

What made Nehru stand out was his insistence on the principle of fraternity. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to undermine him on this score as fraternity is fashioned on intangibles; it is not made of brick and mortar, nor can it be measured monetarily. Yet, without this all important attribute, neither liberty nor equality makes much sense—they actually ring hollow. Nehru’s contribution to fraternity came through in his insistence on secularism which went all the way from anti-casteism to anti religious sectarianism. He made no compromises on any of these but, unfortunately for him, these can easily be shafted in the name of political expediency. And this is exactly what his daughter, grandson and the succeeding generation did. Secularism has been the single greatest casualty in the five decades of Congress rule after Nehru. It is for this reason that ‘secularism’ today has become the butt of ridicule, and even half literates have a field day in mocking it.

Nehru’s industrialization programme required a long gestation period which people, with a limited time horizon, found difficult to accept. Further, for the mixed economy to succeed, state enterprises had to be super efficient in infrastructure creation. Without laying out this groundwork it would be difficult for the other half of the mixed economy to come of age. This was the true meaning of self-reliance as Nehru saw it and all autarkic versions of it put out by his enemies, and some admirers too, are contrary to this vision. None of this could be accomplished overnight by token gestures and oratorical flourishes; they all required careful calculation, and hard core research and development. Mistakes were made, plans recalibrated, Constitutional impasses overcome and before any of these could be firmed up, Nehru was gone.

Perhaps his record as prime minister would have been different had he lived longer. True, he had set himself a gigantic task by standing up for India’s economic sovereignty and battling ceaselessly against traditional prejudices. Yet, sadly and oddly, he failed most monumentally in his lifetime not so much on these grounds as he did because he was an extremely prickly nationalist. Whenever India’s physical integrity faced a threat, even imaginary ones, he was unable to take a proper democratic decision. He blundered on Kashmir and we are still paying for it; he totally miscalculated on China; he did not understand the Sikhs or the sentiments that had been stirred up in the North-East. One could possibly excuse him for these sins for India had just emerged as a nation-state and the fear of Balkanization was very real in the minds of many. In fact, he feared the breakup of India so profoundly that he was even against the formation of Maharashtra and Gujarat as well as the unilingual state of Punjab.

That is not quite all. Nehru could have set an example and kept his daughter out of politics instead of making her the Congress President. This was the first big nepotistic step in Indian politics which was later justified on all kinds of specious grounds by many Nehru acolytes. The other unpardonable thing he did was to choose Teen Murti, the biggest house in the capital, as his official residence. This encouraged pomp and splendour among ministers and bureaucrats, and this strain has only become worse over time. The subsequent conversion of Teen Murti as Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has also set up a negative precedence. Since then, children of many departed prime ministers and political heroes have turned their dead ancestor’s home into public monuments.

In balance, Nehru’s legacy is on its way out. It is, however, in our national interest to keep alive his devotion to the cause of “fraternity". This can best be done if we do not see the regimes of Indira or Rajiv or Rahul as a continuation of what Nehru stood for. If ever fraternity truly becomes relevant in our country again, nobody will remember that Jawaharlal Nehru was its prime mover once upon a time.

Dipankar Gupta is a distinguished professor at Shiv Nadar University and Director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory. He was formerly professor in the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Article courtesy blog.oup.com (Oxford University Press’ Academic blog)

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