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It was afternoon in India, forty years ago on May 27, when news came of Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. Few things have stunned India in a similar manner, before or since. For seventeen years, the Prime Minister had led India with a mixture of vision, charm, bombast — and some tilting at windmills. Since he fostered a democracy, there were plenty of people to criticize his policies, but it was clear that everyone, including his detractors, liked him personally.
It was an expansive era in Indian politics when Nehru reigned. Indian political parties were yet to become as venal as they have since, and because most were offshoots of the Congress, the standard-bearer of the Freedom Movement under Mahatma Gandhi, there was an element of collegiality even in the fiercest debates in Parliament. Almost everyone who has lived through that era remarks how parliamentary debates meant something in those days, unlike the chair-throwing and slipper-waving spectacles for which Indian legislatures have become world-renowned in the recent past. Indeed it is the era itself, of greater courtesy, generosity and gallantry, that many miss most when they reminisce about the Nehru age.
Nehru’s achievements were many, as were his failures. For good or bad, however, his foundations shaped the India we see today.
For the thousands of engineers, doctors and scientists that India turns out today, we have the huge investments Nehru made in primary and higher education to thank. When we look at India’s gigantic and rambunctious press–not always readable but unquestionably free, we once again must acknowledge Nehru’s faith in, and implementation of, plurality in governance. When India exploded the bomb in 1998, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee paid tribute to Nehru’s foresight in setting up the Atomic Energy Commission. In just two-and-a-half years after freedom, India had a constitution. This month, India just finished her fourteenth general elections. This functioning democracy is, in many ways, as much a product of Nehru’s architecture as it is of India’s unique non-violent struggle to wrest freedom from Britain.
Critics will point to the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, the conspicuous consumption habits of the Indian elite, the spreading culture of waste, the depradation of the forests, the nexus between organized crime and the political class, the continuing problem of Kashmir, the scourge of pervasive and ever-expanding corruption, a bloated government bureaucracy, all growing out of Nehru’s grandiose schemes, his blind faith in the western-socialist model of industrialization and central-planning, his turning away from Gandhi’s prescriptions of simple living and focus on economies, and Nehru’s own romantic notions, far removed from realpolitik.
And both would be right. But merely to conclude, therefore, that his legacy is mixed, would be to miss the wood for the trees. For, while most of Nehru’s positive contributions are directly attributable to him, his negative contributions were, to a large degree, inchoate in his time, accentuated more by his successors, chiefly his daughter Indira and grandson Rajiv, both of whom acquired a reputation far less unsullied than their illustrious progenitor–Indira for introducing her particular brand of Willie Horton politics where everything was in play if it could win that extra seat in Parliament–and Rajiv for interfering in the Shah Bano case and his mischief at the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, thus lending a legitimacy to the politics of communalism of the just-deposed BJP.
Nehru ruled for seventeen years–he was prime minister from the day of India’s independence till the day he died. There was never a direct challenge to his leadership, and his party’s position in parliament, though steadily declining in the three elections during his lifetime, was always a majority. He was considered indispensable, for he was a figure above everyone else in the polity. The people of India adored him personally–his elite background and his pompous ways notwithstanding, he could connect with the common man’s heart through some magic which can only be compared to the appeal Kennedy wrought in America.
He was in every way a remarkable personality (see, A Stroke of Good Fortune)
When Nehru died, an British newspaper wrote that "hereafter, India will be ruled by an Indian", meaning that he was the last Englishman to rule India. (Something Indians might reflect upon when they were outraged by his grandson Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, an Indian citizen of Italian origin, daring to dream of becoming India’s prime minister).
On this last matter, I’ve tried to imagine what Nehru, a lifelong opponent of colonial rule, would think of a white woman presiding over a nation of 1 billion brown, black and yellow people. I like to think that he would treat her as just another Indian, deserving to be judged on her own merits, not on her origins. However, he did have an eternal answer to such conundrums (I paraphrase), "He who tries to predict the India of tomorrow would be a bold man. He who would predict the India of the next century would be a mad man."