In the mid-1950s the reputation of Jawaharlal Nehru, free India's founding prime minister, was unassailable. But from the mid-1970s, thanks in part to the actions of his daughter, Indira Gandhi, it began to tumble. In recent years he has been widely reviled, although a revaluation may finally be under wayby Ramachandra Guha / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
One of the privileges of democracy is that it allows you to excoriate politicians who are long dead as well as those who are still living. After years of living under one kind of dictatorship or another, Afghans can now openly criticise those who rule them. But will the legacy of Hamid Karzai still be debated in public 50 or 60 years hence? And what will the Iraq of 2050 be saying about the record of Iyad Alawi or Ayatollah Sistani?
These questions are prompted by the deeply contentious legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India for its first 17 years as a free nation. In 1957, when Nehru was at the height of his powers, the Canadian diplomat Escott Reid wrote that “there is no one since Napoleon who has played both so large a role in the history of his country and has also held the sort of place which Nehru holds in the hearts and minds of his countrymen. For the people of India, he is George Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower rolled into one.” Half a century later, one savours these words with an ironic amusement. For a man so greatly venerated in his lifetime has been comprehensively vilified since his death. Once, Nehru embodied all of India’s hopes; now, it seems, he merely represents its disappointments.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s place in the Indian imagination is complicated by the fact that no fewer than five generations of his family have been active in politics. His father Motilal was a prominent nationalist leader; while his daughter Indira and grandson Rajiv also served as prime minister. At the time of writing, Rajiv’s wife Sonia is president of the Congress party, while her son Rahul is an MP and very possibly a future prime minister. That the history of his country is so interwoven with the history of his own family has made the questions of Nehru’s legacy and reputation all the more contentious.
It is safe to say that no modern politician has had as difficult a job as Nehru. At independence, riots had to be contained, food shortages overcome, as many as 500 princely states integrated, almost 10m refugees resettled. This was the task of firefighting; to be followed by the equally daunting task of nation-building. A constitution had to be written that would satisfy the needs of this diverse and complex nation. An election system had…