13 November 2014

The Legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru

Bipan Chandra

All of us in every generation, have to decide with which values of the past we want to identify, and which values will sustain our endeavours and we therefore intend to develop. And there is little doubt that the goals that Jawaharlal Nehru strove for are still our goals, the values he cherished are still our values, his vision of India to-be still inspires us, and the legacy he left behind is in many respects a sheet-anchor for us who are being buffeted about in a sea of despair. Jawaharlal Nehru represented the finest in our freedom struggle. It was therefore not accidental that in 1942 Gandhiji declared him to be his successor, the person who “when I am gone… will speak my language”. Jawaharlal’s name is associated with so much that is positive in the heritage of the national movement as also the heritage of the post-independence years. From his multi-faceted legacy, let me choose some basic aspects.
Jawaharlal was above all, and in the finest and broadest sense of the term, a nationalist. After independence, his nationalism took several broad forms. In the economic field, he set out to build the structure of a self-reliant society. Emphasis on planning, public sector, relative exclusion of foreign capital, and development of capital goods industries were seen by him to be necessary parts of independent economic development. In foreign policy, Nehru insisted on India’s right to frame her own policies which would safeguard her independence and promote her national interests, even while serving the cause of peace and anti-colonialism. The policy of non- alignment was formulated in order to assert India’s will for national independence.
Jawaharlal gave total commitment to democratic values. To him democracy was not a means for the ends of social development and social change; it was an end itself. If India has gone the way of the other Third World countries- and of our neighbours- it is due in no small part to Jawaharlal who helped root in India parliamentary democracy based on adult suffrage to be exercised at due intervals. He was moreover a passionate defender of the freedom of thought and expression in general and of the freedom of the Press in particular. Let me give two quotations from the pre-independence period. In 1936: “If civil liberties are suppressed, a nation losses all vitality and becomes impotent for anything substantial”. And in 1940: “The freedom of the Press does not consist in our permitting such things as we like to appear. Even a tyrant is agreeable to this type of freedom. Civil liberties and freedom of the Press consist in our permitting what we do not like, in our putting up with criticism of ourselves.”
Nehru’s commitment to democracy was rooted in his deep faith in and respect for the common man. He was willing to back fully “the free market of ideas” because he believed that in the long run people could discriminate between ideas and that their incapacity to read and write was no barrier to political literacy. And so he constantly toured the land shaping his ideas with the people, trying to educate them in the ways of rational thinking, popular consent and political participation. As he put it: “I go (to the people) as a colleague and a comrade and I credit them with intelligence to understand the most intricate problems”. And when Norman Cousins asked him what his legacy to India would be, he replied, “hopefully, it is four hundred million people capable of governing themselves”.
Nehru was, of course, also fully aware that a diverse country like India could be held together only by a democratic structure of society where democracy also becomes an instrument for the achievement of social and gender equality and the drastic reduction of economic inequalities.
Secularism is another major legacy of Nehru which we are, unfortunately, using up rather fast. Keeping in view India’s specific conditions, he defined secularism in the dual sense of keeping the state, politics and education separate from religion, making religion a private matter for the individual, and of “equal respect for all faiths and equal opportunities for those who profess any faith”.
Secularism in India could not be, as in Europe, just a positive concept. It had to involve active struggle against communalism, the most powerful contemporary Indian ideology after nationalism. And, here there was no peer to Jawaharlal. To use a hackneyed, but the only appropriate, phrase, he stood like rock against the enveloping darkness of communal riots, the spreading hatred and large-scale migration in the years 1947-1951. He also practiced what he preached almost daily to the Chief Ministers: secularism was one issue on which “there can be no compromise”.
Nehru had, of course, many weaknesses as a political leader; and the tragedy is that while we have been frittering away his enormous positive legacy, we have done little to overcome his weaknesses. To the contrary, we have tended to further aggravate them. Nehru was no organizer of men and women. He completely neglected party-building. Earlier, before 1947, the task of rearing cadres was left to Gandhiji, and of party organization to Sardar Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Rajendra Prasad. After 1947, the older, idealistic cadres were neglected and no new cadres were formed. Congress party-politics already veered towards machine-politics. No machinery or structure and institution were created or developed for the implementation of his own ideas and objectives. Reliance was, instead, placed on the unreformed colonial bureaucratic structures.
As a political leader and nation-builder, Nehru suffered from another major weakness. He could set goals and objectives, he could formulate people’s desires, he could inspire people with a vision, but he lacked the capacity to design a strategic framework and to devise tactical measures to achieve the goals set. While strongly appeased to political opportunism and manipulation, he could replace them only with ad hoc political and administrative measures. This often left the field to manipulators. And so, acting as his own leader of opposition, Nehru constantly observed and denounced the many emerging ills of a developing ex-colonial society, but was unable to take, or point to, the necessary concrete steps to combat them. To point to three large areas of neglect which have today assumed monstrous properties: the entire educational system was left untouched and unreformed; no worthwhile political and ideological struggle was waged against communalism as an ideology; the failure to properly implement land reforms has left a legacy of economic inequality, social oppression and political violence in rural India.
But has any society, any people, the right to ask a leader, however great, to solve all its problems once for all? In evaluating Nehru’s legacy, we cannot perhaps do better than quote his biographer, S. Gopal: “Nehru made certain objectives so much a part of the general consciousness of India that they can today be taken for granted even if they have not been as yet fully attained-unity, democracy, secularism, a scientific and international outlook, planning to realize the vision of socialism”.

(From Essays on Indian Nationalism, Har-Anand, New Delhi, 2012)         

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