What’s Left of Nehru – Ramchandra Guha


In the last months of 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru was due to make a tour of the United States of America. Before his departure, Nehru was uncharacteristically nervous. “In what mood shall I address America?” he asked his sister Vijayalakshmi. “How shall I address people etc? How shall I deal with the government there and businessmen and others? Which facet of myself should I put before the American public—the Indian or the European…I want to be friendly with the Americans but always making it clear what we stand for.”

This last objective Nehru certainly achieved. In three weeks in North America, he travelled across the continent, delivering a speech a day, to audiences as diverse as the US Congress and a congregation in a Chicago chapel. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Columbia University, and listened to by a crowd of ten thousand at the University of California at Berkeley. He displayed the common touch, being photographed with a taxi driver in Boston; but also made clear his membership of the aristocracy of the intellect, as in a much publicised visit to Albert Einstein at Princeton.

On his American tour, Nehru was fe#ted by workers and capitalists, Republicans and Democrats, men as well as women. The only people who didn’t warm to him were the mandarins at the State Department, who complained he did not explicitly recognise the United States as the Leader of the Free World. But non-official America took him to its heart. The Christian Science Monitor described him as a ‘World Titan’. When he left, a columnist in the St Louis Post Dispatch observed that “Nehru has departed from us, leaving behind clouds of misty-eyed women”. But these women, and some men too, continued to think of him, aided by the publication by a leading New York firm of Nehru’s speeches in the US.

Six years later, Nehru visited the Soviet Union. He had been here before, in 1927; but then he came as a wide-eyed fellow traveller, whereas this time he was a world statesman. The reception exceeded all expectations. “Wherever Nehru went in the Soviet Union,” wrote one observer, “there were large crowds to greet him. In all the factories, workmen gathered in thousands to have a glimpse of him.” At Moscow University, “the students left their classes and gave him a great ovation”. One of these students was Mikhail Gorbachev; years later, Gorbachev was to recall in his memoirs the impact made on him by Nehru and his idea of a moral politics.

A final indication of Nehru’s stature overseas is the case of the now great Italian publishing firm, Feltrinelli, of Milan. When the firm began operations in 1955, one of the first two books it published was Nehru’s Autobiography, which it celebrated both for its “consistent and coherent anti-Fascism” and as an authentic voice of “the countries that were emerging from colonial domination…to take their place forcefully in the global political system”.

At this time, the mid-’50s, Nehru’s domestic reputation was comfortably at par with his international one. He came as close as anyone has, or ever will, to becoming the People’s Prince. He was Gandhi’s chosen political heir, and free India’s first freely elected prime minister. After the death of Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950, he towered among his colleagues in the Congress. His vision of an India fired by steel plants and powered by dams was widely shared. He was seen as a brave man, who fought chauvinists; as a selfless man, who had endured years in jail to win freedom; and above all as a good man. His appeal cut across the conventionally opposed categories of low caste and high caste, Hindu and Muslim, North Indian and South Indian. Representative here are the recollections of a now distinguished Tamil diplomat who grew up in the capital in the ’50s. As he put it to me, “to us Pandit Nehru was a great golden disc shining in the middle of New Delhi”.

When, in the early ’70s, the historian S. Gopal began working on his biography of Nehru, one of the first people he interviewed was Lord Louis Mountbatten. The last viceroy offered the opinion that if Nehru had died in 1958 he would have been remembered as the greatest statesman of the 20th century. Sadly, among Indians of the present day Nehru is chiefly remembered for what happened to him, and us, after 1958. In 1959, the Communist government in Kerala was dismissed with his consent. In the same year, the Dalai Lama fled to India, leading to a chilling of relations with China. There was also a major scandal in the share market, which led to the resignation of Nehru’s trusted finance minister, T.T. Krishnamachari.

Worse shocks were to follow. Nehru’s decency, once so admired, was now widely perceived as masking an inability to act against errant colleagues: as for instance his loose cannon of a defence minister, Krishna Menon, or the corrupt Congress chief ministers of Orissa and Punjab. The Kashmir problem would not go away; and not the Naga problem either. The social peace of the past decade had been broken by a wave of religious riots in northern India. The invasion of Goa in December 1961 seriously undermined his international reputation; the invasion by China in October 1962 almost destroyed his national reputation. In his last years, wrote the Australian scholar-diplomat Walter Crocker, “Nehru looked on a prospect littered with ruins—the ruins of his hopes, and the ruins of a prestige seemingly so impregnable for a dozen years or more.”

That was the view from 1963; in 2003, the prospect seems bleaker still. In the decades since his death, Nehru’s reputation has sunk lower and lower. Free marketeers despise him as the architect of a ‘license-permit-quota-raj’ that kept chained the forces of entrepreneurship and innovation. From the other side of the economic spectrum, Marxists deplore his failure to implement effective land reforms or to undertake a more thoroughgoing nationalisation of industry. But by far his most strident critics are the advocates of Hindutva. They take aim at his social policy, which they claim ‘appeased’ Muslims; at his foreign policy, which they claim ‘appeased’ Pakistan, China and the Soviet bloc all at once; and at his worldview in general, which they see as dangerously alien to the essence of India.

What, now, is left of Jawaharlal Nehru? What should be left of him? Is there anything in his life or political practice that remains of relevance to India? Any answer to these questions must, first of all, distance itself from the common tendency to lump our first prime minister along with the daughter and grandson who also held the same office. The latter duo’s faults and mistakes were their own; let them not be retrospectively assigned to Nehru.

I like to call myself a ‘Nehruvian Indian’. This, I hasten to clarify, does not mean that I agree with all that he said or did. I see his economic policy as moderately flawed. State support and direction were crucial in those early years of independence (as Indian industrialists themselves recognised); still, he could have shed his Brahminical disdain for commerce, and he should have pressed harder on land reforms. I see his dismissal of the Communist ministry in Kerala as unwise; as setting a precedent for the later misuse of Article 356. I see his underestimation of China and the Chinese as naive; he should have listened more here to Patel, and less to Krishna Menon. And I see his neglect of primary education as shocking. He could have created the iits and yet led a movement to remove illiteracy. Back in 1947, we had a class of capable politicians and bureaucrats; as also a vast reservoir of committed activists left over from the freedom struggle. The two, working in tandem, could’ve removed illiteracy in a decade, creating real equality of opportunity, thus pre-empting the bitter caste conflicts of recent years.

I see much that was wrong in Nehru’s approach. Yet I still call myself a Nehruvian Indian. For, in some key respects, I stand where Nehru did. I admire his practice of social tolerance, his respect for diversity and for democratic procedure, his refusal to reduce India or ‘Indianness’ to a dominant religious or linguistic ethos. Nowhere is this more poignantly illustrated than in an exchange of letters between Nehru and Sardar Patel immediately after Independence. The refugees pouring in from West Punjab were calling for retribution against the Muslims who remained in India. Their voice was loud, and for many, compelling. But Nehru told his home minister and close co-worker that it must be quelled: for India, if it was anything at all, was emphatically not Pakistan. Over there they might ill-treat or persecute their minorities; over here, we would protect and respect ours. There was, wrote Nehru to Patel, “a constant cry for retaliation and vicarious punishment of the Muslims of India, because the Pakistanis punish Hindus. That argument does not appeal to me in the slightest”. For India was not a mirror image of Pakistan, a Hindu State to its Islamic State. “Our secular ideals,” insisted Nehru to Patel, “impose a responsibility to our Muslim citizens in India.”

But Nehru was catholic with respect to more than matters of faith. Altogether, he was the least chauvinistic of political leaders. Like the Mahatma, he transcended divisions of race and religion, caste and class, gender and geography. He was a Hindu who was befriended by Muslims, but also a Brahmin who did not observe the rules of caste, a North Indian who would not impose Hindi on the South, a man who could be trusted and respected by women. As a contemporary wrote, Nehru was to be “numbered amongst the small band of rulers in history whose power has been matched with pity and mercy”—pity and mercy for the weak, the unfortunate, the forgotten and the persecuted among humankind.

Modern middle-class Indians are as a rule very judgemental, especially when it comes to passing judgement on politicians. And, as S. Gopal once pointed out, Jawaharlal Nehru’s “very achievements demand that he be judged by standards which one would not apply to the ordinary run of prime ministers; and disappointment stems from the force of our expectations”. Thus, in the context of the recent denigration of Nehru from all sides, it was refreshing to come across a report on a speech made in the United States by another Indian leader visiting those shores. This was L.K. Advani, who told an audience in California that he admired Nehru for his work in building democracy in India.

The admission was unexpected, coming as it did from one sometimes regarded as a hardcore Hindutva wallah; one, besides, who will very likely be the next prime minister of India. I wish however that Advani had added Nehru’s simultaneous celebration and nurturing of that other critical ‘D’ word: Diversity. Democracy and diversity, or better still, democracy with diversity—that is Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy to India. We should defend it to the last.

(Guha’s books include Environmentalism: A Global History and A Corner of a Foreign Field. He is working on a history of independent India. He can be contacted at ramguha@vsnl.com)

(First Published in Outlook)

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