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Business News/ Opinion / Legacies and limitations

Legacies and limitations

Legacies are far from being debates with objective conclusions

Where you stand on Jawaharlal Nehru probably has more to do with you than with Nehru. Photo: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty ImagesPremium
Where you stand on Jawaharlal Nehru probably has more to do with you than with Nehru. Photo: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The last few weeks have given many people reasons to think about, and reflect upon, the political legacies of at least three notable leaders. Last weekend marked the centenary of Indira Gandhi’s birth. Then there was the news that Robert Mugabe has, finally, been ousted from power in Zimbabwe (or so it appeared when this column went to print). And finally, this is November.

If it is November, it must be Nehru.

Political legacies, on the one hand, seem like fairly uncomplicated things. Someone occupies an office for a period. They pass away. And after a suitable amount of time for their impact to achieve a certain fullness, you estimate the pros and cons of their time in office. And thus, legacy.

Yet on the other hand, and especially so for political leaders, legacies are rather more complicated than just being an act of biography or patient memorializing. At the very least estimating a leader’s legacy involves doing two types of things.

First, to figure out someone’s legacy is to commit an act of limitation in time. In that you draw a line in time and say: “It is now 2017 and we now know enough to estimate Jawaharlal Nehru’s/Indira’s/Mugabe’s legacy." It also involves an act of topical limitation. Unless this legacy is being studied and published at book-length, chances are that these legacies are usually presented through a few select prisms: economic prosperity, political stability and so on.

If limitation is the first thing that makes up the manufacturing of legacy, then estimation is the next. This is straightforward. If you have decided to estimate Nehru’s legacy in terms of economic prosperity, then how do you measure this? Absolutely, in terms of per capita GDP growth? Or relatively, in terms of per capita GDP growth vis-à-vis similar countries? Or some other metric altogether? Thus estimating a legacy also involves choosing a metric, even if it is a qualitative one, to do this estimation with.

So why all this verbosity Mr Vadukut, as an editor of this newspaper used to frequently ask. In this fortnight’s conversation I hope to help interested readers see why estimating the legacies of leaders are complicated things, lead to so much debate, and so often end in vitriol. Because most estimations of legacy are anything but objective.

As we have seen, they involve choices. Choices that not only reflect the politics of the leader in question, but also the politics of the writer, the politics of the time in which these legacies are being written, and, the politics of the reader.

Let me take three Nehruvian examples. Earlier this month, Sadanand Dhume wrote in The Wall Street Journal about Bolshevism’s long shadow over India, and how Nehru’s admiration for the revolution in Russia was to ultimately condemn the Indian economy to years of misery:

“After independence, with Nehru at the helm, India enthusiastically embraced state planning. As the theory went, high-minded bureaucrats would make better economic decisions than grubby entrepreneurs. Nehru decreed that lavishly funded state-owned companies would control ‘the commanding heights’ of India’s economy... In 1955 the ruling Congress Party declared its intent to establish ‘a socialistic pattern of society’ in India."

Sarvepalli Gopal’s entry for Nehru in the Oxford Dictionary Of National Biography, understandably, takes a different tone. Gopal freely concedes that Nehru’s socialistic pattern led to the “licence raj" and a strangled economy. But, he says, “it should be remembered that Nehru was dealing with the burdensome economic inheritance of an imperial regime at a time when the main examples of radical economic change and growth were the industrialization patterns of the Western world and of the Soviet Union, long before the dramatic successes of the export-led economies of South-East Asia in the later twentieth century provided alternative models."

Concurrently with Dhume’s piece, Sushant Singh of the Indian Express wrote a review of Nehru’s legacy purely from the perspective of civilian-military relations. It makes absolutely no mention of the economy but notes, quoting the historian Srinath Raghavan, that Nehru “converted a garrison state into a post-colonial state with firm civilian control of the military. That was an unusual achievement of the times and we must give due credit to him".

Assuming all of these are reasonable arguments, then the question is not so much which of these is the “real legacy" of Nehru, all of them can be, but which aspects of India are most important (to you) in 2017? And in what priority? The thing to keep in mind is that both of these can change. India can have a whole new set of priorities by 2025, which can then radically transform legacies.

A final reminder of the essentially subjective nature of legacies is Pranab Mukherjee’s tribute to Indira Gandhi recently published in these pages that somehow managed to make no reference at all to the Emergency declared between 1975 and 1977. An event that Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, among many others, consider a turning point in Indian governance. Neither Gandhi nor other officials involved, Kapur and Mehta write in their book, Public Institutions In India, were ever held accountable. When she returned to power afterwards, the nature of Indian elections had changed forever. The “people’s mandate" now was the ultimate imprimatur. Any upside of malicious campaigning accrued to the winner, while the losses were socialized.

Is that Indira Gandhi’s real legacy?

Thus legacies are far from being debates with objective conclusions. Because where you stand on Nehru probably has more to do with you than with Nehru. Outrage accordingly.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at Comments are welcome at

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Published: 23 Nov 2017, 10:59 PM IST
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