Being Nehruvian in these difficult times

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on May 27, 2020

On his 56th death anniversary, Nehru is best remembered for his leadership, vision and capacity to spot talent across sectors

To many, the term ‘Nehruvian’ has come to symbolise all the great qualities that India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was known for in his lifetime — decency in public life, an immense capacity to recognise and harness talent beyond boundaries, and the audacity to have a grand and rounded vision for his country.

On the 56th anniversary of his death, we’ll do well to ask ourselves what made Nehru the foremost Nehruvian of all time. We could start with decency in public life. He had a remarkable capacity to reach out to his ideological rivals, even inducting the die-hard Rightist and founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, into his Cabinet. Sheikh Abdullah, whom Nehru had incarcerated for over a decade, rushed back to New Delhi from a mission to Pakistan to personally mourn his passing away.

Honing talent

To be Nehruvian is to have a tremendous nose for ferretting talent, and on that count, Nehru was an ace. No Indian Prime Minister matched his capacity to reach out to the very best in every field and give them the freedom to create great things. True, Indira Gandhi came close, but could never really match her father in this respect.

There was Homi Bhabha for atomic energy, and Vikram Sarabhai for space; Nehru brought them in. India’s Northeastern States were saved from an inundation of people from the rest of India, thanks to the advice Nehru sought from Verrier Elwin, a remarkable Britisher with an unmatched understanding of the place and its people, and also the first foreigner to become an Indian citizen.

The famous artist, Nandalal Bose ,was brought in to embellish the original manuscript of the Constitution beautifully with artwork drawn from India’s past. It was Nehru who got Le Corbusier to design India’s first planned city, Chandigarh. The famous husband-and-wife design team, Charles and Ray Eames, were invited to tour India at his behest. On the basis of a report they presented, the iconic National Institute of Design came up in Ahmedabad.

At no time in India’s history had so much been created as in the 17 years Nehru was Prime Minister. The IITs and IIMs owe their existence to him. The massive Hirakud Dam — the longest and second-largest in the world — came up across the Mahanadi under Nehru’s watch, as did the Bakra and Nangal Dams. Within five years of India becoming a Republic, the Bhilai Steel Plant was up and running. One could go on for the list is long and stunningly impressive.

Tumultuous times

One can only marvel at how Nehru, with hardly any administrative experience when he took over as India’s Prime Minister at 58, could see so many projects through, and that too in such unpropitious times and terrible circumstances. This came out of his ability to look beyond immediate challenges and dream big for the future.

If the Covid crisis looks terrible to us today, we need only visualise what India was going through at Independence. The country Nehru inherited from the British was impoverished, near illiterate and hopelessly broke. It had just emerged from a horrendous famine that had devastated Bengal, killing millions. Partition hit the country hard with millions of refugees, who had witnessed the most horrific killings of their loved ones in newly created Pakistan, flowing into India and overrunning the capital, New Delhi.

In a moment like that, anyone in Nehru’s place would have found it convenient to pander to majoritarian sentiments and cast India as a Hindu state. Instead, displaying a courage that could, in the light of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination have cost him his life, Nehru steered the Constituent Assembly to draw up and adopt the most secular and socially-sensitive constitution in the world. It gave a tremendous leg up to the country’s historically discriminated sections — its Dalits — while leaving the minorities, especially the frightened Muslims, at ease.

To be Nehruvian is to have a capacity to overcome personal prejudices and dislikes. Faced with a rival as formidable as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, it would have been natural for Nehru to marginalise him. The differences between Nehru and Patel were real enough, and it is common knowledge that it took Gandhi to broker a peace between them.

However, such differences hardly mattered to Nehru, who left it to Patel to oversee the integration of India’s princely States into the Indian Union, something which, as the historian Ian Copland observed, swelled “the area of the new Indian state by over half a million square miles and its population by nearly 90 millions; redrew the political map of the sub-continent and overthrew an entire governing order.”

Economic order

The economy was a major concern for Nehru. His chosen method to make it grow through planned development came from expert support from the eminent statistician, PC Mahalanobis. It was remarkably successful. As the economist Pulepre Balakrishnan, writing in The Hindu, noted: “the acceleration of growth achieved in the 1950s has not been exceeded since. Also, that India grew faster than China in the Nehru era.” Contrary to popular perception, India under Nehru was no wasteland.

In Covid, the Indian Republic faces the greatest of existential challenges in its short history. At such a moment of terrible economic and social upheaval, the government would do well not to attempt to manage the crisis all on its own. By itself, the Indian government lacks the capability to do so, as even the US under President Donald Trump is discovering much to its horror. Rather, it should take a leaf from Nehru and access the best talent available to put the country back on its feet again, rather than let it grasp at straws from the sidelines.

There is plenty of talent available out there, not just in India but also elsewhere in the world too, which can make a big difference. Faced with a challenge as humongous as Covid, in a quintessentially Nehruvian gesture, the government under Narendra Modi should bring them in. Nehru would not have hesitated.

The writer teaches at IISc-Bengaluru

Published on May 26, 2020

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