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 to be devised for an electorate that was composed mostly of illiterates. A viable foreign policy had to be drafted amid the threatening circumstances of the cold war. And an economic policy had to be forged to take a desperately poor and divided society into the modern age.
Fortunately, Nehru had some highly gifted colleagues. His cabinet included such distinguished figures as Vallabhbhai Patel, BR Ambedkar and C Rajagopalachari. They were helped by the remaining officials of the Indian civil service; the steel frame that was one of Britain’s greatest gifts to free India.
For all the assistance he got, Nehru was most responsible for the success or failure of his government’s policies. For one thing, the other giants all departed early. Patel died in 1950; Ambedkar and Rajagopalachari left the cabinet in 1951. For another, in the popular mind it was Nehru who was directly identified with the philosophy of the new state; ideas such as democracy, non-alignment, socialism and secularism, ideas to which, in his writings and speeches, he gave such eloquent expression.
By the mid-1950s, Nehru’s reputation was as high as high can be. He was Gandhi’s chosen political heir, and free India’s first freely elected prime minister. After the death of Vallabhbhai Patel, he towered above his colleagues in the Congress party. 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 religious 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 men and women, low caste and high caste, Hindu and Muslim, north and south. A distinguished Tamil diplomat who grew up in the capital in the 1950s told me: “To us Pandit Nehru was a great golden disc shining in the middle of New Delhi.”
The admiration for Nehru was evident during free India’s first general election, held in 1952. In campaigning for the Congress party Nehru travelled 25,000 miles in all: 18,000 by air, 5,200 by car, 1,600 by train, and even 90 by boat. He addressed 300 mass meetings and many smaller ones. He spoke to about 20m people directly, while an equal number flanked the roads to see him as his car whizzed past. Those who heard and saw him included miners, peasants, pastoralists, factory workers and agricultural labourers. Women of all social classes turned out in numbers for his meetings. This is how a contemporary account describes the interest in Nehru: “Almost at every place, city, town, village or wayside halt, people had waited overnight to welcome the nation’s leader. Schools and shops closed: milkmaids and cowherds had taken a holiday… In Nehru’s name, stocks of soda and lemonade sold out; even water became scarce… Special trains were run from out-of- the-way places to carry people to Nehru’s meetings, enthusiasts travelling not only on foot-boards but also on top of carriages.”
Even the most hard-boiled sceptics were swayed by his charm and charisma. Consider this encomium by Nirad Chaudhuri from the Illustrated Weekly of India in May 1953, a year after Nehru and his Congress had won a comfortable victory in the first general elections. The writer was by this time a moderately well-known Indian, but his subject still towered over him. Nehru’s leadership, remarked Chaudhuri, “is the most important moral force behind the unity of India.” He was “the leader not of a party, but of the people of India taken collectively, the legitimate successor to Gandhiji.” However, if “Nehru goes out of politics or is overthrown, his leadership is likely to be split up into its components, and not pass over intact to another man. In other words, there cannot, properly speaking, be a successor to Nehru.”
As Chaudhuri saw it, the Nehru of the 1950s harmonised the masses with the ruling classes. “Nehru is keeping together the governmental machine and the people, and without this nexus India would probably have been deprived of stable government in these crucial times. He has not only ensured co-operation between the two, but most probably has also prevented actual conflicts, cultural, economic, and political. Not even Mahatmaji’s leadership, had it continued, would have been quite equal to them.”
“If Nehru is the… link between the governing classes and the sovereign people,” continued Chaudhuri, “he is no less the bond between India and the world.” He served as “India’s representative to the great western democracies, and… their representative to India. The western nations certainly look upon him as such and expect him to guarantee India’s support for them, which is why they are so upset when Nehru takes an anti-western or neutral line. They feel they are being let down by one of themselves.”
Nirad Chaudhuri always prided himself on his independence of mind, on always being ahead of the herd. But even he could not escape the glow of the great golden disc then shining in New Delhi. (It is noteworthy that Chaudhuri never allowed this essay to be reprinted.)
A future historian, assessing the decline and fall of Nehru in the Indian imagination, might reckon 1977 to be the watershed. That was when the Janata government came to power after 30 years of Congress rule. The Janata party was forged in the prisons of northern India, by men jailed under the emergency imposed by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi. It brought together three political groupings, united in the first instance by their opposition to Mrs Gandhi. These were the Hindu chauvinist Jana Sangh, the socialist (non-communist) left, and the old style, so to speak, “Gandhian” Congressmen.
The Janata party is long dead, and its constituents have gone their separate ways. Yet an examination of the political styles of these three groupings in the years since reveals that aside from the emergency and Mrs Gandhi, they were and are also united by their hatred of Nehru. The Jana Sangh, now metamorphosed into the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), takes its cue from its mother organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that seeks to build a Hindu state in India. Following the RSS, the BJP too trains its fire on Nehru’s secularism, which they claim rests on the “appeasement” of the minorities. Nehruvian “pseudo-secularism” is said to have shown grave disrespect to Hindu sentiments while promoting Muslim ones, resulting in a wave of communal and ethnic conflict, not least in Kashmir.
By contrast, the non-communist left takes its cue from the work of the maverick intellectual Ram Manohar Lohia. Lohia took a PhD in political science in Berlin, fleeing the city just as Hitler came to power. After his return he worked ceaselessly to root socialism in the cultural soil of India. Lohia and his modern followers—who exercise much influence in north India—have seen Nehru as the symbol of the upper-caste, upper-class English-speaking intelligentsia that has held sway since independence. This elite, they contend, has manipulated political and economic power to its advantage and to the detriment of the low-caste, non-English speaking majority whom the Lohiaites seek to represent.
The Gandhian critique takes a different line altogether. Where Gandhi fought for a free India based on a confederation of self-sufficient village republics, Nehru is said to have imposed a model of industrial development that centralised power in the cities. Those who attack Nehru in the Mahatma’s name have argued that planned industrialisation has fuelled both environmental degradation and social conflict.
Outside of the three Janata fragments, Nehru has also been targeted by the communist parties and their intellectuals. For the Marxists, Nehru was a confused idealist, full of high-flown rhetoric. If he really was a socialist, they say, he would have followed Lenin and Mao by more vigorously nationalising industries and promoting land reform.
Where the Marxists claim that Nehru’s socialism did not go far enough, the liberals claim it went too far. After the cold war, and the onset of economic reforms in India, free-market liberals emerged as among the most strident Nehru critics. Had he not allowed the state to dominate, they say, India would have become the biggest of the Asian tigers. As a leading free-marketeer remarked recently, the derisive phrase, the “Hindu rate of growth,” should be renamed the “Nehru rate of growth.”
The criticisms of Nehru are now so vast and varied that they contradict each other. Just before the general elections of 2004, the Delhi monthly National Review interviewed two stalwarts of the political scene: Lal Krishna Advani, then home minister and deputy prime minister in the government of India, for many years the leading ideologue of the Hindu right; and Ashok Mitra, the former finance minister of the government of West Bengal, and a still serving ideologue of the Marxist left. This is what they said about Nehru’s practice of secularism.
Lal Krishna Advani: “We are opposed to Nehruvian secularism. We accept Gandhian secularism. Nehru started off with the assumption that all religions are wrong. For Gandhi, all religions are true, and they are different paths to the same goal. We thought many of Gandhi’s political policies were not sound, but we accepted his idea of secularism.”
Ashok Mitra: “Nehru turned the meaning of secularism upside down. Secularism, he thought, was embracing each religion with equal fervour… which he exemplified by frequent visits to mandirs and mosques, to dargahs and gurdwaras, to churches and synagogues. But once you embark on this slippery path, you end up identifying the state’s activities with religious rituals such as bhumipuja and breaking coconut shells to float a boat built in a government workshop. This was inevitable because since Hindus constitute the majority of the state’s population, Hindu rituals came to assert their presence within state premises.”
Which of these assertions is correct? Did Nehru hate all religions equally, as Advani suggests? Or did he love all equally, as Mitra claims? It does not really matter, for these statements tell us less about Nehru’s actual beliefs and more about the political preferences of his contemporary critics. On the one side, there is Advani, who considers “Hindutva,” or Hindu nationalism, the most promising political movement in modern India—and worries that it has not progressed further. Whom does he blame? Nehru. On the other hand, Mitra considers Hindutva to be the most pernicious political movement in modern India—and is angry that it has progressed so far. And whom does he blame? Nehru.
It would be intriguing to develop the Advani/Mitra contrast in other directions. Consider their views on economic and foreign policy. Advani probably thinks that the Nehruvian epoch was characterised by excessive state intervention; Mitra certainly believes that the state did not intervene enough. Advani holds that, in the formative decade of the 1950s, India aligned too closely with the Soviet Union; while Mitra thinks that we did not cosy up to Moscow enough. Old political adversaries though they may be, these Indians are joined in a lifelong fight against a common enemy—Father.
Why has Nehru’s reputation fallen so far and so fast? One reason is that as the first prime minister he was in a unique position to shape his nation’s destiny. He did a great deal, but there is always the feeling that he should have done more. As his biographer Sarvepalli Gopal pointed out, 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.”
Allied to this is Nehru’s nearness to us in time. We live in a world shaped by him and his colleagues. And no modern man has had such an influence on the laws and institutions of his country. Adult suffrage, a federal polity, the mixed economy, non-alignment in foreign policy, cultural pluralism and the secular state—these were the crucial choices made by the first generation of Indian nation-builders. The choices were made collectively, albeit led by Nehru, but instead of asking why India chose, say, the Westminster model over the French presidential system, we ask why Nehru did so.
It is only 41 years since Nehru died. Because Indians still live with the consequences of decisions taken by him and his colleagues, some of them presume that they could have done better. And so they pass judgements on Nehru the like of which they would never pass on other Indian rulers, on Akbar or even Lord Curzon. Of course, the judgements are anachronistic, made on the basis of what we know in 2005 rather than what Nehru knew in 1955. That does not stop them being made. Over the years, I have spoken often about Nehru to audiences in different parts of India, to audiences composed variously of businessmen, students, scholars and activists. Everywhere I have met people who know that they could have done Nehru’s job better than he did; they know that they could have “saved” Kashmir, put India on a 10 per cent growth path, solved the Hindu-Muslim problem, eliminated corruption in government and so on.
To illustrate how anachronistic these judgements are, consider the claim that Nehru “imposed” a socialist economic model on India. In fact, there was a widespread belief that a poor, ex-colonial country needed massive state intervention in the economy. The leading industrialists issued the “Bombay plan” that called for the state to invest heavily in infrastructure and protect them from foreign competition. This document approvingly quoted the claim of the Cambridge economist AC Pigou that socialism and capitalism were “converging.” When the draft of the second five-year plan—the manifesto, so to say, of the heavy industry strategy finally adopted—was shown to a panel of 24 economists, 23 endorsed it. Behind the mixed-economy model, therefore, was a consensus shared by economists, technocrats, politicians and not least, industrialists.
A third reason for the fading of the Nehruvian sheen is political—the decline of Congress hegemony. Since the Janata party came to power in 1977 there have been eight non-Congress governments at the centre; and more than 50 in the states. The composition of these governments has been non-Congress; their beliefs often anti-Congress.
A fourth reason for the fall of Nehru’s reputation lies in the misdeeds of his family. Perhaps the greatest paradox of modern Indian history is that every act of Nehru that nurtured a liberal democratic ethos was undone by his own daughter, who held the office of prime minister for almost as long as he did (1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984). He promoted a political opposition, she squelched it. He respected the press, she quashed it. He allowed autonomy to the executive, she preferred to rely on “committed” civil servants and judges. His Congress was a decentralised, democratic organisation, her Congress was a one-woman show. He kept religion out of public life, she brought it in.
Indira Gandhi was followed as prime minister by her son Rajiv. His regime, based likewise on cronyism, further undermined the institutions and processes of liberal democracy.
In truth, Nehru had nothing to do with this “dynasty.” He had no idea, or desire, that his daughter would become prime minister of India. In 1960, the columnist Frank Moraes wrote: “there is no question of Nehru’s attempting to create a dynasty of his own; it would be inconsistent with his character and career.” Nehru chose not to nominate a successor at all. After his death, an otherwise bitter critic DF Karaka saluted his decision “not to indicate any preference with regard to his successor.”
After Nehru the Congress chose Lal Bahadur Shastri to become prime minister, a post on which he quickly stamped his authority. Mrs Gandhi herself might never have become prime minister had not Shastri died unexpectedly. She was chosen by the Congress bosses as a compromise candidate who (they thought) would do their bidding. But once in office, Mrs Gandhi converted Congress into a family business. She first brought in her son Sanjay and, after his death, his brother Rajiv. In each case, it was made clear that the son would succeed Mrs Gandhi as head of Congress and head of government. Thus, the “Nehru-Gandhi dynasty” should properly be known as the “(Indira) Gandhi” dynasty.
A fifth reason we Indians tend to give Nehru less credit than his due is that he appears to have lived too long. Lord Mountbatten once claimed that if Nehru had died in 1958 he would have been remembered as the greatest statesman of the 20th century. Writing in 1957, Escott Reid remarked that Nehru’s “tragedy may be the tragedy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: to remain leader of his country for a year or two after he has lost his grip and thus damage his own reputation and his country’s interests.”
This was prescient, for it was only after 1957 that the clouds began to descend on Nehru. In 1957, and continuing into 1958, there was the “Mundhra affair,” a stock market scandal which first revealed the growing corruption in government; in 1959 was the unfortunate dismissal of the legally elected communist government in Kerala; in 1960, rising tension on the China border; in 1961, the conquest of Goa (which marred both Nehru’s non-alignment and his professions of non-violence); in 1962, the disastrous war with China. These setbacks emboldened critics to speak of other failures of Nehru’s regime: such as the continuing conflicts in Kashmir and Nagaland, the lack of attention to primary education, the hostility to business, the failure to effect land reforms.
Finally, Nehru’s posthumous reputation has also suffered from the neglect of scholars. There is an intriguing contrast here with Mahatma Gandhi. In his lifetime, Gandhi was looked down upon by intellectuals who, although they admired his ability to move the masses, thought little of his ideas which were so alien to, and often at odds with, the progressive currents of the day. But since his death the intellectuals have rediscovered Gandhi. In Nehru’s case the trajectory has been the reverse; while he lived the world’s intelligentsia crowded around him; after his death they have neglected him.
This contrast is manifest in the continuing production of books about the two men. The best Indian minds have thought deeply about Gandhi—consider the fine recent studies of the Mahatma by Ashis Nandy, Bhikhu Parekh, Rajmohan Gandhi and others. So have able foreign minds—Dennis Dalton, David Hardiman and Mark Juergensmeyer, all authors of insightful works on Gandhi and Gandhian thought. By contrast, a cast of rather ordinary Indians has written about Nehru. We can say the same about the foreigners. For none of the works on Nehru that now pour off the presses remotely matches, in empirical depth or analytical insight, the far older works of Sarvepalli Gopal and Walter Crocker.
Popular ideas about Nehru will continue to be shaped by propaganda and political prejudice rather than scholarship. Still, had there been a slew of sensitive, empathetic, elegantly written books on Nehru—like those on Gandhi—it might have promoted a better understanding of the problems he faced and allowed for a clearer appreciation of his achievements.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote a piece in the Indian Express called “Nehru is out, Gandhi is in.” This was my first foray into the question of Nehru’s reputation. I said there that “today few other than the career chamchas [sycophants] are willing to defend Nehru, and fewer still to understand him.” Yet I had “no doubt that in time Nehru’s reputation will slowly climb upwards, without ever reaching the high point of the 1950s.”
When I wrote this Nehru was a figure of ridicule rather than reverence. He still is—for the most part. Yet there is some evidence of a clawing back. When in the last months of 2004, the Week magazine ran a poll to choose “India’s best prime minister,” Nehru ranked fourth, below Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Atal Behari Vajpayee. This result must have embarrassed the last-named, as it might also have embarrassed Indira Gandhi and Shastri had they been alive. But it was noteworthy that some 13 per cent of those polled had Nehru as their choice. In a similar poll some years earlier a mere 2 per cent of respondents chose Nehru.
There have also been appreciative noises about Nehru recently from those who have historically opposed him. The Marxists, for so long among his fiercest critics, now defend his public sector socialism against privatisation. The software entrepreneur NR Narayana Murthy has conceded that without Nehru’s emphasis on high-quality technical education there might have been no Indian IT revolution at all. And there has been praise that is even more unexpected. At home, the BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani rarely speaks positively about Nehru, but on a tour in North America he spoke warmly of him as the “architect” of India’s democracy.
Many years ago, the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl published a remarkable book called Napoleon: For and Against. This analysed what several generations of French scholars had said about Napoleon. Nehru has perhaps been to India what Napoleon was to France: a larger than life statesman whose work and legacy embody the hopes and fears of his nation. And his reputation has been subject to a similar oscillation.
If India still exists and is still a democracy a century from now, Indians will still be debating what Nehru meant to the history of their country. Perhaps in the year 2100 someone will be in a position to track authoritatively these shifts in reputation, to write a book with the title Nehru: For and Against.