This year we celebrated the 125th birth anniversary of our first PM Pt. Nehru amidst widespread concerns over his legacy and a condescending look on his political career. It is being feared that Nehru’s position in Indian history will be reduced to being as a mere children’s icon – a day in November marked for his veneration owing to his love for children. Although, I do not have a vivid memory of my first Children’s Day celebration but I do remember that I felt happy to know that there was a day marked specially for us children just like there was a day earmarked for Father, Mother and even lovers. My school used to have a non-working day occupied with cultural activities culminating with distribution of sweet boxes. Alas, I no longer fit into days named after any of the human entities!
Keeping in mind the sweet memories I and many other adults (who in their time enjoyed the perks of that lovely day) have, it is troubling to see that how has there been a sudden shift in the public perception of Nehru. It is well evident that there is a conscious attempt to undermine Nehru. There seems to be a constant effort to associate Nehru with all the problems we have but history seems to suggest otherwise. Of course, history is open for all to interpret and I have my reasons for drawing a different understanding than many.
Nehru and Gandhi are the two most celebrated and criticized figures in Indian history. The two always invite opinions of various hues and color like some even suggesting that it would have been better if Nathuram Godse had shot Nehru!! [link] Such degree of hate for the man who laid the foundations of India we live in today is surprising. Time and again questions are raised over his handling of the Partition, Kashmir issue, China and his economic policy. Some of them feel legitimate but then it reminds us that Nehru was a mere mortal like us and I am sure a flawless political leader exists only in utopia.
There has been a growing disillusionment with Nehru perhaps because we Indians had decorated and deified him all these years and are now trying to get him out of our national conscience. It is very easy to criticize him sitting in the 21st century with 1.877 USD trillion GDP without realizing the mammoth task he had before him when he took the reins in 1947 inheriting a country with 17% literacy rate and a life expectancy of 32.5 years. To help put it into context, now we are a country with a life expectancy of 62.4 years - almost double.
A popular accusation against Nehru was his economic policy which had a dominant Socialism flavor in it. Nehru didn't have many economic models to choose from when India got independence. At that time, Soviet economy – a socialist economy was prospering and it strengthened further in the 1950s, 60s before disintegrating in 1989. The American economy had adopted a mixed model of Capitalism and Socialism after getting a huge setback by the Great Depression in 1930s. Rightly so, Nehru opted against Capitalist model as it was simply not viable and decided on an extensive involvement of the State in providing services in the social sector. Criticism against him that he didn't place agriculture in focus is unwarranted. Many forget that in the 50s, international bodies like IMF, WB were encouraging industrialization and were happy to provide funds for such activities. At the same time, they associated agriculture with backwardness and were not easily doling out money for it. India had almost no investible capital and had to depend on outside help. Besides, traditional methods of farming were being employed and to bring in the new, modern methods backed by enough power and water supply – Nehru felt that India better focus on Industrialization as it will address all needs – attract capital, improve the basic infrastructure and then divert the surplus to agriculture.
Also, many despise the State involvement in India’s formative years but they forget that laissez-faire style of economy was simply not feasible then as majority of people didn't have purchasing power and whatever few had would have led them to being paupers’ in a free economy. In fact Nehru’s decision was vindicated when World Bank in its report in 1999 titled Entering the 21st Century – out rightly rejected both Capitalist and State economy models, acknowledging the need for a mix of the two[link]. India was among a few countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea which adopted the mixed model of economy post Second World War.
Another allegation that is raked up against Nehru is that he didn't let Patel be the PM and even after assuming Prime Ministership didn't llaissez faireet him have a free hand in integrating India. Differences over issues between Patel and Nehru are well documented but having said that both shared such a degree of mutual respect which is simply unthinkable in today’s times – allowing each other space to disagree and still work together. I feel that in a government it is healthy to have disagreements and the way both Nehru and Patel worked together discussing their opinions and keeping their disagreements aside is a testament to their greatness.
If we had to talk about only one achievement of Nehru – it was to establish an India which was secular and not a theological state as a mirror image of Pakistan. This single act of Nehru eclipses all his shortcomings/failures in my opinion. During partition, communal feelings were high as never before with neighbors killing each other in the name of religion and Nehru did well to curb the rising vengeful feelings to be a “Hindu Pakistan”. He felt religion had no place in nation building and in a letter to all Chief Ministers in 1952 he said –
the nation must not be allowed to 'go astray in the crooked paths of provincialism, communalism, casteism and all other disruptive and disintegrating tendencies'.
However, he very well recognized the need for inculcating scientific temper amongst a population comprising majorly of - in the true sense -snake charmers and superstition believers. He laid foundations for the premier educational institutions IITs and space exploration programme. Here too he perhaps missed a trick by not focusing on basic primary education but maybe we should realize that it is easy to list all these improvements in hindsight as if writing an essay on “If I was a Prime Minister …”. He didn't have such a benefit and was actually fighting his way through problems and enabling the feeble nation to gain strength.
On foreign policy front, his decision to keep India equidistant from the two polar powers of that time via Non Aligned Movement has now been proven to be a masterstroke. He understood correctly much earlier that for a fledgling nation it was not reasonable to flirt with either of the super powers without the risk of antagonizing the other. He managed to generate a fair amount of support in Asian and African countries actively working alongside Indonesian President Sukarno and Egyptian President Abdul Nasser for this cause. Also, his handling of the Suez crisis was deft earning respect and plaudits for a newly born nation holding its own amongst the big boys. Inspite of these brilliant achievements, Nehru’s foreign policy can be called a mixed bag. His involvement of the UN on Kashmir issue promising plebiscite and then later as India had to go back on it leaves a small blot on his legacy. His constant on-off relationship with Sheikh Abdullah also did no good in finding a quick solution to the Kashmir problem. Also, he failed to judge the intentions of China – even backing China for a permanent place in the UN Security Council! He was broken after the backstabbing of China in 1962 and it rapidly deteriorated his already failing health.
In recent years, there have been a few books which have targeted his personal space – particularly his relationship with Lady Mountbatten. Although no one knows the truth what they attempt to do is actually muddy the water about Nehru. To me it should be of no relevance how a leader leads his personal life, they are rated on the work they do/fail to do in public. But again it very well depends on the person who is looking back at history as to what does his principles allow him to concede.
To sum up my opinion on Nehru I would say that as a child we look up to our parents, teachers, and idols as simply impeccable with no blemishes whatsoever. It is only when we grow up we realize that the ones we were looking up to are not as clean as we thought. It is akin to gazing at a painting from a distance and finding out a few blotches on it as we go nearer. Of course, Nehru had his own share of blots but if we look at a broader picture we will realize that his contributions are bigger than the sum total of his imperfections. Inspite of the attempts to undermine and imitate him, his legacy is unparalleled and he will hold his own special place in history. His “Tryst with Destiny” speech on the midnight of 14th-15th Aug, 1947 still fills me with hope that we as a nation have a bright future.
P.S - I stumbled upon a letter by Nehru to children where he hopes that they take a long time to grow up – perhaps to become smart enough to put the blots in context. :-)