By late 1980s, there was a growing feeling of frustration in India. A number of countries that India considered backwater, were far ahead of her in terms of economic growth and social indicators. Initially Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were shrugged off as ‘city countries’ which didn’t matter. But by 1985, South Korea and Malaysia were racing ahead. Then these were followed by Thailand and Indonesia. India still followed Nehru’s socialist legacy, while each of these successful examples had done the opposite.
It would be a difficult job to evaluate Nehru’s performance, probably until another 50 years. But that hasn’t stopped us from making relentless judgments on Nehru’s political output and administrative performance, launching attacks on his philosophies and personal life.
The British handed over to us a nation that the reeled under utter chaos of partition and a landmass that barely resembled today’s India. Millions of people with hundreds/thousands of years of roots on Indian soil were being hacked. Muslims were being evicted out of India and Hindus out of Bengal in the East and in the newly formed Pakistan. This was the world’s largest mast-migration and also the most violent. The women were raped, killed, retained (on the violator’s side of the border) as sex slaves and forced wives. And their men and children were slewed and roasted-alive in large numbers. People had lost everything—their families, belongings, pride, honour and belongingness. The survivors of this holocaust were fleeing in large numbers. Millions. Setting out on bullock-carts and on foot—shattered and traumatized, hungry and tired. And were attacked intermittently by bloodthirsty mobs from the opposite faith.
For centuries Delhi stood as the centre of Islamic culture in the East. The inhabitants of Delhi were the royal descendants, children of the biggest generals, artists and administrators. Its populace also held tightly the collective output of a long and powerful civilization. Its cuisine, its fragrance, its spoken language, its sweets, its medicine, its poetry and above all a population that was gentle and learned. The murderers erased it all. The opposite happened in the cities of Lahore and Nanaka Sahib. Long trails of refugees, running into tens of kilometers and visible from the skies, was the pain of partition. The British had done a half-hearted job at deploying the Armed Forces and police to contain this violence. Post partition, the government and the political leadership in Pakistan wasn’t doing any better job. Senior leaders of the Muslim League including Jinnah, paid solitary visits to these former centers of civilization, now being ravaged and erased by extreme violence. And of course, at the height of violence the leaders like Jinnah were themselves covered by heavily armed security. In stark contrast was our own Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. One evening, he rushed into an area torn by violence unarmed and unescorted. He stood atop a Morris and lectured the bloodthirsty mobs on the virtues of restraint. He managed to avert blood that day. This may seem heroism. This may even sound symbolic in a country where tens of such riots were erupting every hour. But this gives insight to the mind of a man emboldened by his ideas, not a gush of bravado. In comparison to his counterparts elsewhere, Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed a huge reputation and confidence of the people. He also seemed to be a man of conviction. Today’s India is in many ways a product of those convictions.
Historian Ramchandra Guha helps dispel the popular myth that Jawaharlal Nehru inherited a nation that was cohesive, homogenous, organized and groomed to listen to its master. The British left behind a country in multiple pieces. 500 odd princely states were not part of India that was handed over to the government of Jawaharlal Nehru. Furthermore, the British encouraged the princely states to believe that now they were sovereign. The states were integrated with India one by one, sometimes by wit and sometimes by force. The hero of this is well-known and well recognised—Vallabhbhai Patel. And this is where comparisons with Nehru begin. The only state which Nehru took responsibility of integrating with India, was the state of Kashmir—a state that remains a controversy, and an issue that remains unresolved. Patel also handled two difficult states, namely Hyderabad and Junagadh. However, I think that this comparison suffers from oversimplification. Both of these states did not share a border with Pakistan, and both had the strength of Hindu majority population. Kashmir was a state, the majority of whose population was Muslim and it bordered Pakistan. The conflict was natural even if Patel handled the case. In fact, Patel is reported to have been of the view that Kashmir should have been merged with Pakistan, believing that the merit of the case was weak. If the comparison needs to be drawn, then probably it would make more sense to compare Patel’s exploits with Nehru’s integration of Goa with India.
While the British left us a railway network and an administrative setup, the fact also is that the people running it from the top were native British. All of them left India in just a few months following India’s independence. If Indians were complete novices, the nation would have ended in complete chaos. But, India functioned. We resolved violence that the British were not confident of handling themselves and had decided to "leave it" to the "native government of India". And this government was led by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nehru also faced enormous political opposition, from within Congress and from outside, starting with Patel himself. And for the first time in his long career, he could not look at the Mahatma for support. He was his own contact with the people of India and was successful in drawing unprecedented support. He won elections after elections.
In his lifetime, Nehru produced enough evidence that his abilities were not limited only to the political sphere. As a nation builder, he also concerned himself with education and social development. The Indian Institutes of Technologies (IITs) were the creation of his passion — a brand name which even today remains India’s best known brand internationally. Also created was the whole new range of universities. India of today as an IT and Research power could not have emerged without these engines of higher education. This also powered India into just about every domain which is knowledge-intensive. These are also India’s only comparative advantage against China.
Nehru also promoted scientific thinking and temperament. He fought against superstition, something which plagued Hindus and Muslims in India equally. The Indian cinema (private owned) and television (state owned) carried his ideas.
In his election campaigns, Nehru toured the nation extensively and appealed to the women of India to give up the purdah and vote. He reformed Hindu law. At the time of the partition, women in India were almost wholly limited to domestic labour. More than half a century later, the participation of women has seen marked improvement across India.
Nehru’s biggest failures pertain to his economic philosophies. His significant leaning towards the socialist thinking, was probably in part also with a view to steal the agenda from the communists who were growing in influence among the peasantry in South and West Bengal. Even then, the model seemed to work fine. In 1960, the World Bank lauded India’s effort and progress and its report card stated that its performance was the best among the newly liberated countries and the developing countries.
Jawaharlal Nehru passed away in the middle of 1960s. The nation squabbled, and yet persisted with his ideologies on the surface. But by 1975 it was becoming more and more clear that India’s economic model was faltering. The bureaucracy and red-tapeism was turning out to be claustrophobic, strangling the enterprise and innovation. Export pessimism was a misplaced idea. And so was the idea of limiting the size of businesses. We had become inward looking as a nation. Contrary to Nehru’s vision of an India powered by its masses (he chose universal franchise – a utopian idea in those days), India was put through an autocratic rule during the emergency. Many intellectuals fled, including Shashi Tharoor.
By then, it was up to the successive leadership to change things that didn’t work. After all, there is no given success formula of nation building — it has to be attained by trial and error. But we failed in changing the direction and replacing those socialist ideas that didn’t work, with the more contemporary ones of export and globalization --- which was working elsewhere.
In some of these matters, we are perhaps naïve. We as people do not have the confidence of being able to change things, by judging them on their merit. We prefer status quo — the way of the Hindu. We would much prefer that Jawaharlal Nehru should have had the impossible ability of being able to see the future and therefore should have chosen the capitalist model in the 1950s. We have obviously not changed a bit since then. For everything that we want to set right, we demand a law to that effect. We believe that virtuous behavior can be legislated. Naïve. As a consequence, we have the world’s largest and most voluminous constitution. And also a constitution that is poorly implemented.
Probably we should stop finding faults with Jawaharlal Nehru (a gifted leader before independence and beyond) and look at ourselves. An indicator of our own abilities as a nation is perhaps the quality of politicians that we have chosen. You get governance that you deserve.