On the final day of the India- Africa summit in New Delhi in October 2015, many heads of states and leaders from Africa heaped praise on Jawaharlal Nehru, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat quietly. His silence, however, was eloquent. Later, in November, Modi surprised many by praising Nehru during a speech in Britain.
This blow-hot-blow-cold attitude towards India’s first prime minister has become a hallmark of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. In fact, the BJP -led government has been accused of selectively praising Nehru abroad while totally ignoring him at home, if not actually trying to dilute his swollen legacy.
Today the memory of Nehru is vastly diminished. Looking for national heroes it can call its own, the BJP government has attempted at various times to appropriate leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and, these days, even BR Ambedkar. But Nehru remains an anathema, because he is so at odds with their ideology of cultural nationalism and majoritarianism, to be tolerated only when he cannot be ignored entirely. The appropriation of Patel by the BJP and his deification as a stronger counterpoint to the somewhat effete idealism of Nehru is part of the reshaping of the memory of Nehru that has been taking place.
While it is fashionable to trash elements of the past especially when new regimes are flexing their long atrophied muscles, respect for it is right unless we want to repeat the follies of the Taliban and demolition of the Bamiyan statues, and for the victims to recall the Spanish writer-philosopher George Santayana’s words “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Respect must, of course, be entwined with both review and reverence. More than 50 years after his death is a good time to assess Nehru and his legacy.
To be fair, Nehru’s current deflated image has not happened overnight; it has eroded gradually since the 1980s and 1990s. Successive governments tried to put distance between their own modernity and Nehru’s giant legacy. As market-economics found voice, he has been attacked for his socialist, economic and foreign policies. Then came attacks on his secular vision of society and a rationalist approach to ideas in general. One way of bringing down Nehru is to use the cute description ‘the last Englishman’, an aristocrat out of tune with Indian realities. It is perhaps too easy to point out the gap between Nehru’s ideals and the realities of Indian society, as if Nehru represented some kind of usurpation of the Indian space. Indeed, much of the contemporary right-wing criticism of Nehru implicitly accuses him of usurping India, taking it in a direction its history does not warrant. But of that later.
John K Galbraith, the noted US economist who also served as his country’s ambassador to India during Nehru’s time, who once famously called India a “functioning anarchy”, offers the most succinct assessment of Nehru: “With Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru was, indeed, India: Gandhi was its history; Nehru, after independence, its reality.”
There can be little dispute that among the knowledge creators of modern India it is Nehru who towers over every other contemporary leader who emerged from the freedom struggle and got involved in building the nation we know today. They got down to the daunting challenge that confronted them: dragging India’s backward economy which was the legacy of colonial rule, with its humungous challenges like poverty, illiteracy and ill health, low agricultural and industrial productivity to becoming a vibrant secular functioning democracy.
Nehru’s image, as cultivated by pro-Congress newspapers during those days (freedom struggle), was that he was a liberal, a Western educated scholar and a progressive politician. But in 1959 he ruthlessly dismissed a democratically elected government of EMS Nampoothiripad in Kerala on untenable grounds. In my adult life I never felt the need for another Nehru. If the EMS Communist regime was left undisturbed it would have been a sociological revolution in ushering changes in our society. Why Nehru was inimical towards a progressive leftist regime is a matter that no longer bugs me, as I no longer think about him.
- KP Nirmal Kumar, Writer, Kerala
Nehru was the face of this modern political and economic outlook. During his tenure as prime minister, India created the framework for its modernisation: the Constitution, elections, Parliament, planning, elimination of zamindari system, land distribution, setting up the bureaucracy, institutions of higher education and R&D laboratories, agricultural universities, IITs, promotion of heavy industry, the initial flush of nationalisation of airlines, banks and petroleum and so on. The nation that we know today was built on this latticework of vision and policy.
Though now reviled for his “socialistic” thinking, it should not be forgotten that Nehru’s ideology was completely in tune with much of the rest of the world at the time. The mixed economic strategy did result in boosting industrial growth in the 1950s and 1960s, leading to improvement in public services, spread of literacy and improved living standards.