He was also a compelling figure on the international stage, a champion of pacifism and a strong supporter of the United Nations. Today it is elements of this legacy of his which have drawn the most flak. Had the dispute and war with China not happened and we humbled, it would have been a considerably more impressive legacy. The latter was perhaps the biggest failure of Nehru as a prime minister and the leader who was the tallest after Gandhi in the minds of the people. For many the debacle also was a turning point, when criticism of Nehru began to catch wind first.
In the decades that ensued after his death in 1964, the criticism, although neither completely false nor illegitimate, is constructed by reducing him to a caricature- sized figure, as seen through the inverted binoculars of a demanding new consuming class. Some part of the problem lies with the manner in which the dynasty has been perpetuated, though his niece, the writer Nayantara Sehgal did point out that it was his daughter Indira Gandhi not him who created the Nehru-Gandhi “dynasty”. But it doesn’t help since the party that he led too has played a role in his diminution, turning him into a symbol. Naming institutions or running ads is a sign of power, not significance; India is full of MG Roads without the Mahatma anywhere in sight. It is truly ironical that too much remembrance, most of it shallow and insincere, has made the Nehru- Gandhi name appear as an interloper into history rather than as a legitimate resident. Though the family name is everywhere — Nehru’s and Indira and Rajiv — there is a little sense of the meaning that the name provides.
Nehru is the man invoked by everyone, as heroic nationalist, state philosopher, supplier of homilies: the symbol of modern India. In this symbolism, many argue, Nehru loses all characteristics and becomes an empty signifier.
This is perhaps as much responsible for the demise of Nehru’s reputation as the attacks of those who swear by a different ideology. It has perhaps even given strength to their contention that he is the architect of all that was wrong about India.
But despite his occasional failure Nehru displayed a trust in India and Indians that was far deeper than those who challenged him in the name of the people or tradition. Throughout the long years of his premiership he retained his almost magical grip on the masses. The Congress party might forfeit much of its original authority; hopes of swift economic advance might fade; the Chinese invasion in 1962 might shatter the illusions of the panchsheel policy; yet, while less than half of the electorate gave their votes to the Congress, the ordinary Indian’s reverence for “ Panditji” was still one of the main factors in the political equation.
As The Guardian put it, to see Nehru is to “get a glimpse of the blazing power that commands the affection and loyalty of several hundred million people in Asia… put it simply it is the power of a man who is a father, teacher, older brother rolled into one… The total impression is of a man who is humorous, tolerant, wise and absolutely honest.”
We as Indians may have disagreed with him on many accounts, but we also know that in elevating him, we elevate ourselves. In pulling him down, without understanding his achievements, we reveal our own smallness. The past should not be a foreign country.