For the first 17 years of India’s independence, the paradox-ridden Jawaharlal Nehru — a moody, idealist intellectual who felt an almost mystical empathy with the toiling peasant masses; an aristocrat, accustomed to privilege, who had passionate socialist convictions; an Anglicised product of Harrow and Cambridge who spent over 10 years in British jails; an agnostic radical who became an unlikely protégé of the saintly Mahatma Gandhi — was India.
Incorruptible, visionary, ecumenical, a politician above politics, Nehru’s stature was so great that the country he led seemed inconceivable without him. A year before his death a leading American journalist, Welles Hangen, published a book entitled After Nehru, Who? The unspoken question around the world was: “after Nehru, what?”
Today, more than five decades after his death, we have something of an answer to the latter question. As an India still seemingly clad in many of the trappings of Nehruvianism marches into the 21st century, a good deal of Nehru’s legacy appears intact — and yet hotly contested. India has moved away from much of Nehru’s beliefs, and so (in different ways) has the rest of the developing world for which Nehruvianism once spoke. As India completes its seventh decade of independence from the British Raj, a transformation — still incomplete — has taken place that, in its essentials, has changed the basic Nehruvian assumptions of postcolonial nationhood.
Nehru himself, as a man with an open and questing mind, would have allowed his practical thinking to evolve with the times, even while remaining anchored to his core beliefs. That is why I undertook my 2003 biography, Nehru: The Invention of India. I sought to examine this great figure of 20th-century nationalism from the vantage point of the beginning of the 21st. Nehru’s life is a fascinating story in its own right, and I tried to tell it whole, because the privileged child, the unremarkable youth, the posturing young nationalist, and the heroic fighter for independence are all inextricable from the unchallengeable prime minister and peerless global statesman. At the same time I sought to analyse critically the four principal pillars of Nehru’s legacy to India — democratic institution-building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home, and a foreign policy of non-alignment — all of which were integral to a vision of Indianness that is fundamentally challenged today.
How did Nehru construct these four pillars and what do they mean today?
First, democracy. It was by no means axiomatic that a country like India, riven by so many internal differences and diversities, beset by acute poverty and torn apart by Partition, would be or remain democratic. Many developing countries found themselves turning in the opposite direction soon after independence, arguing that a firm hand was necessary to promote national unity and guide development.
Upon the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948, just five months after independence, Nehru became the keeper of the national flame, the most visible embodiment of India’s struggle for freedom.
Gandhi’s death could have led Nehru to assume untrammelled power. Instead, he spent a lifetime trying to instil the habits of democracy in his people — a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system. He himself was such a convinced democrat, profoundly wary of the risks of autocracy, that, at the crest of his rise, he authored an anonymous article warning Indians of the dangers of giving dictatorial temptations to Jawaharlal Nehru. “He must be checked,” he wrote of himself. “We want no Caesars.”
And indeed, his practice when challenged within his own party was to offer his resignation; he usually got his way, but it was hardly the instinct of a Caesar.
As prime minister, Nehru carefully nurtured the infant democratic institutions. He paid deference to the country’s ceremonial presidency and even to its largely otiose vice-presidency; he never let the public forget that these notables outranked him in protocol terms. He wrote regular letters to the chief ministers of the States, explaining his policies and seeking their feedback. He subjected himself and his government to cross-examination in Parliament by the small, fractious but undoubtedly talented Opposition, allowing them an importance out of all proportion to their numerical strength, because he was convinced that a strong Opposition was essential for a healthy democracy. He took care to not interfere with the judicial system; on the one occasion that he publicly criticised a judge, he apologised the next day and wrote an abject letter to the Chief Justice, regretting having slighted the judiciary.
And Nehru never forgot that he derived his authority from the people of India; not only was he astonishingly accessible for a person in his position, but he also started the practice of offering a daily darshan at home for an hour each morning to anyone coming in off the street without an appointment, a practice that continued until the dictates of security finally overcame the populism of his successors.
It was Nehru who, by his scrupulous regard for both the form and the substance of democracy, instilled democratic habits in our country. His respect for Parliament, his regard for the independence of the judiciary, his courtesy to those of different political convictions, his commitment to free elections, and his deference to institutions over individuals, all left us a precious legacy of freedom. The American editor Norman Cousins once asked Nehru what he hoped his legacy to India would be. “Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves,” Nehru replied.
The numbers have grown, but the very fact that each day over a billion Indians govern themselves in a pluralist democracy is testimony to the deeds and words of this extraordinary man and the giants who accompanied him in the march to freedom.
Second, secularism. Nehru strived to prevent Partition but when it occurred, he never accepted the logic that since Pakistan had ostensibly been created for India’s Muslims, what remained was a State for Hindus. He lived up to his lifelong conviction that India belonged to all who had contributed to its history and civilisation, and that the majority community had a special obligation to protect the rights, and promote the well-being, of the minorities.
In both governmental policy and personal practice, Nehru stood for an idea of India that embraced those of every religion, caste, ethnicity or language. Nehru saw our country as an “ancient palimpsest” on which successive rulers and subjects had inscribed their visions without erasing what had been asserted previously. In India, multiple religions not only coexist, but thrive; our diversity is our strength. It was this view that made “unity in diversity” the most hallowed of independent India’s self-defining slogans.
Even with caste and social relations, the country has moved forward significantly since Nehru’s time. We have witnessed convulsive changes: who could have imagined, for 3,000 years, that a woman from the Dalit community, once considered outcasts, would rule India’s largest State, Uttar Pradesh, as Mayawati has done four times?
It’s still true that in many parts of India, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. But that too has brought about profound alterations, as the so-called “lower” castes have taken advantage of the ballot to seize electoral power. And in cultural affairs, with the notion of Hindutva being proclaimed from the rooftops in recent times, we have had a searching re-examination of identity.
But throughout it all, India has hewed to Nehru’s secular vision, insisting that all these identities only remained safe under the sheltering carapace of an Indianness that embraced all equally. It is this secularism that is being questioned today in an effort to redefine nationalism in more sectarian terms. As dutiful citizens we must resist any attempts to reduce India to a Hindu version of Pakistan. That would be a betrayal of Nehru’s vision and of his life — as well as of the very essence of what it means to be Indian.
Third, socialism. It is fashionable today to decry Nehruvian socialism as a corrupt and inefficient system that condemned India to many years of modest growth levels.
We do not deny, as Nehru’s grandson himself said three decades ago, that over time the socialist model as practised in India developed many flaws. But at the core of Nehru’s socialism lay his conviction that in a land of extreme poverty and inequality, the objective of government policy must be the welfare of the poorest, most deprived and most marginalised of our people. In his day, the best way to accomplish that was by building structures of public ownership and State control of national resources, as well as enhancing the nation’s economic capacity through government intervention. Today Nehru’s own Indian National Congress, of which I am a member, welcomes, indeed encourages, the involvement of the private sector in the generation and distribution of wealth.
We are proud of our role in liberalising our country’s economy and in making possible so many new opportunities for our young to succeed in a globalising world. But we remain profoundly wedded to Nehru’s concern for the weakest sections of our society. This is why we still claim to be socialist today.
Our socialism is not anti-growth; rather, it aims to ensure that benefits are given principally to the deprived masses, who need it most. Whether we grow by nine per cent, as we once did, or by just about six per cent, as we are doing now, our fundamental commitment must be to the bottom 25 per cent of our society.
In the long run, I am certain that Nehru will be remembered for not abandoning vast sections of society to hanker after a notion of growth that favours a select few.
It is a commitment that allowed for an updated version of Nehru’s idea of India to develop in the 21st century — one that has widened the scope of its democracy through such innovations as the Right to Information Act; one that has defended secularism in the face of violent threats to our diversity; one that has deepened socialism through the creation of a framework of rights, including the right to work, the right to food, the right to education and the right to fair compensation for land, all of which have empowered the poorest of our people; and one that has remained a proud and independent nation in the community of nations.
Those who decry Nehruvian socialism say it subjected progress to the stranglehold of the State. Few will disagree that our excessively process-oriented and often rent-seeking bureaucracy has often impeded India’s growth. But in many areas the Nehruvian state gave India a capacity it did not have and that the private sector would have been unable to create. It was Nehru who built the scientific base for India’s space and engineering triumphs today. Without his establishment of what is now the Indian Space Research Organisation, there would be no Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan space probes; without the Indian Institutes of Techology he established, Indians would not have a worldwide reputation for engineering excellence or have established 40 per cent of the startups in Silicon Valley. Today, we are world leaders in information technology, digital services and launching of rockets and satellites.
In all this, we are upholding and continuing the legacy of a remarkable human being whose vision soared well above the poverty and misery that colonialism had reduced his country to.
Finally, foreign policy. Nehru was a convinced internationalist. For him, non-alignment was the only response to the bipolar divisions of the Cold War era. After two centuries of colonial exclusion from the global system, Nehru was determined to protect the country’s strategic autonomy; his India was not about to mortgage its independence by aligning itself to either superpower in the Cold War. In that form, it might be argued that his vision is no longer relevant in the changed 21st century. Today, there are no longer two superpowers to be non-aligned between.
But in its essence, the power of non-alignment was to ensure that India was free to take its own positions without allowing others to decide for it; the Nehruvian vision was about safeguarding India’s independence and self-respect against potential encroachments on its sovereignty. Thanks to him, all Indians can be proud of the role we play in the international community. We are non-aligned in the sense that we are aligned with no one nation or bloc, and we remain free to conduct our foreign relations according to our own lights and national interest.
Nehru was also a skilled exponent of soft power, much before the term was even coined: he developed a role for India in the world based entirely on its civilisational history and its moral standing, as the voice of the oppressed and the marginalised against the hegemons of the day. This gave our country enormous standing and prestige across the world for years, and strengthened our self-respect as we stood, proud and independent, on the global stage.
Indeed, we are still drawing from these traditions. After all, in the information age, it is not the side with the bigger army that wins, but the side which tells the better story. India must remain the “land of the better story”.
As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals. This is not about propaganda; indeed, it will not work if it is directed from above, least of all by government. But its impact, though intangible, can be huge. This soft power, too, is Nehru’s legacy; he created a standing for India out of all proportion to our military strength or economic might.
Yet soft power is not just what we can consciously put on display; it is rather how others see what we are. It is not just material accomplishments that enhance India’s soft power. Even more important are the values and principles for which India stands, and I do believe Nehru would have applauded this evolution of his approach to world affairs.
India has in recent years undergone profound transformations in its politics (from the dominant Congress system to a proliferation of regional parties to the dominance of the newly-ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party), its economics (from a controlled “socialist” economy to a thriving free-enterprise system), its trade (from protectionism to globalisation), and its social relations (from a rigidly hierarchical caste system to a more egalitarian policy affirming opportunities and outcomes for the “lowest” castes, and from a secular political culture to one in which a party of the Hindu majority is overtly asserting its strength).
Now, any of these transformations could have been enough to throw another country into a turbulent revolution. But we have had all four in India and yet we have absorbed them, and made all the changes work, because the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India, an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity. That was Nehru’s vision, and this is his vindication.
The truth is that Nehru’s extraordinary life and career is part of the inheritance of every Indian. The very term “Indian” was imbued with such meaning by Nehru that it is impossible to use it without acknowledging a debt: our passports incarnate his ideals. Where those ideals came from, whether they were brought to fulfilment by their own progenitor, and to what degree they remain viable today are all legitimate issues for debate. Nehru’s impact on India is too great not to be re-examined periodically.
His legacy is ours, whether we agree with everything he stood for or not. What we are today, both for good and for ill, we owe in great measure to one man. That is why his story is not simply history.
Shashi Tharoor is a Lok Sabha MP and prize-winning author of 16 books