He had an amazing ability to tolerate criticism and admit his mistakes
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It was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s 132nd birth anniversary yesterday. Despite what social media trolls say about him, let’s take a trip down memory lane. In August 1947, North India was in flames. Partition had resulted in a million deaths. Millions were forced to flee their homes. Those who had been fighting together for freedom suddenly turned against each other. The treasury was in a mess. The fraternity, peace and resources needed to rebuild this large country were nowhere to be seen. When Nehru delivered his famous “tryst with destiny" speech, many wondered what kind of destiny would these circumstances lead to.
As the first prime minister of independent India, Nehru’s responsibilities were manifold. Apart from tackling the communal violence, there were more than 550 princely states that were bargaining with the Indian state. From the integration of the country to fulfilling the daily needs of the common man, the situation seemed impossible. But Nehru managed to revive all hopes. In five years, the growth rate rose from 0.72% to 3.6%. Soon, the princely states became a thing of the past; the dream of one India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari finally took a permanent shape.
Nehru knew that to give India its rightful place in the changing world, it would have to adopt a scientific approach. When there were not even enough trains and roads, he laid the foundation for space and nuclear institutions. Top-tier educational institutions such as IITs and AIIMS were founded. All this was achieved in a country where the literacy rate was only 12% on the eve of independence. Nehru had a habit of dreaming big.
This is the reason why, together with leaders such as Marshal Tito and Gamal Abdel Nasser, he conceptualized the dream of the Non-Aligned Movement. They founded an organization that was not as radically communist as the Soviet Union, but also avoided being assimilated into US capitalism. These countries were not poor but called themselves third world. With this, India was able to achieve a different status for itself. Nehru was among leaders of the countries that had recently gained independence and was popular across geographical boundaries. Did this make him a victim of overconfidence? Was this the reason why he believed in the slogan ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’? The defeat of 1962 was the culmination of that dreamlike belief.
In Jammu and Kashmir also, he failed to assess the situation properly. It was a blunder to promise a plebiscite. The situation worsened after Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest. However, Nehru later publicly admitted that the arrest was a wrong decision. He had an amazing ability to tolerate criticism and admit his mistakes.
Even on the Hindu Code Bill, was he the only one to blame? It should not be forgotten that the Congress had strong leaders back then. Nehru used to face challenges within the cabinet as well as on the party forum. There was discord between him and Purushottam Das Tandon. Tandon had become the Congress president without Nehru’s consent and was forced to step down. In protest against his policies, Syama Prasad Mukherjee also resigned from the cabinet and went on to start the Bhartiya Jana Sangh, the forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Nehru’s differences with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Govind Vallabh Pant were well known. Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was a member of his cabinet, also later parted ways. The Congress of that time was a democratic party in the true sense and within it, Nehru was like an elder leader in a tribe. He was the leader of the party, but did not always have the last word.
Nehru considered himself accountable to the common man. During an election speech in Kanpur, a person got up and told him that he had given the ticket to a corrupt person. Nehru listened patiently and said that he may have made a mistake, but the person will not make the mistake of voting for a dishonest person.
Perhaps with this intention, he established the Panchayati Raj system. Today 31,87,320 people are elected from more than 250,000 panchayats. A large number of them are women and Dalits. This provides an opportunity for the downtrodden of the society to empower themselves through democracy. Another thing we have to keep in mind is that the military coups in Pakistan had no chance of happening in India. Can anyone forget Nehru’s contribution to establishing and nurturing democracy?
We often make the mistake of looking at someone’s legacy through a contemporary prism. An honest assessment of Nehru should take into account the circumstances that prevailed during that time, which his critics conveniently ignore.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.