Jawaharlal Nehru: Tough To Judge
Jawaharlal Nehru is and will remain central to our national narrative. We will continue to study his benign and malign legacies for centuries to come.
Despite being about the past, history is never static. There are revisionist versions and then these attempts get revised all over again. Oliver Cromwell has gone from liberator to tyrant to liberator to well… just a great man. Nehru is nearer our times and we might be living with the immediate consequences of his actions. Nevertheless, we have had multiple revisions around our 20th century Panditji.
Before Independence, Nehru was very important as a symbol. The fact is, he had been to school and university in England and was for all practical purposes an Englishman. This made him popular with many groups who were not convinced that British departure would be good for India. This included not just ethnic communities like Parsis, Indian Christians and Anglo-Indians, but also those Indians who had prospered under British rule—be they businesspersons, ICS officers or judges.
These groups put together were not large in numbers. But they were disproportionately important and influential. Many of them drew comfort that the future would not be too bad, with a brown Englishman at the helm. Nehru was also very important from Gandhi’s perspective in order to tame and co-opt the small but very noisy and influential left wing socialists who were beginning to make their presence felt. The so-called socialists within the Congress Party could look up to Nehru as their protagonist and defender.
Strangely enough, Nehru was also very critical for Gandhi in dealing with a certain type of Briton. Those who had flirted with socialism or had been Communist fellow-travellers, who tended to come from all classes of British society, tended to be charmed by Nehru. This included people like Stafford Cripps, the Mountbattens and Clement Attlee.
Nehru’s unique understanding of international affairs should not be underestimated. He may have made some mistakes. But on many occasions, his judgment was quite reliable. During the Munich crisis, he had the insight that the weak-kneed Allies could not stop Germany without an understanding with the Soviets. Unfortunately, this understanding emerged only in 1941. Nehru refused to meet Mussolini, despite a warm invitation from the Fascist leader. In that decision, he demonstrated greater prescience than the Mahatma, who met the Duce, and Subhas Bose who actually shook hands with both Mussolini and Hitler.
Nehru’s insistence on taking his young daughter Indira shopping in Jewish shops in Badenweiler, even when the Nazis were noisily and violently boycotting these shops, shows him as a sensitive person, well ahead of his time. In fact, in the late 1930s, Nehru suggested to the leadership of the Congress that we should invite persecuted German Jewish scientists to come to India. The unimaginative Congress turned down this bold idea. Just think what could have happened to Indian universities, laboratories and our overall human capital development if we had only listened to Nehru!
Gandhi must have felt comforted in his choice when he saw how effortlessly Nehru got along with Attlee, and more importantly, with Mountbatten. And while many criticize this friendship, we should never forget that India benefited. We tend to not think of possible counterfactuals in history. What if Attlee had compromised with Churchill and introduced the India Independence Bill in the British Parliament with a simple and bland clause granting independence to Hyderabad? What if the British had invited the Nizam to formally join the UN as an independent sovereign? I do not think free India and Sardar Patel would have had much elbow room. Our history would have been considerably different.
It was Gandhi who understood that friendship with the departing British rulers could help us and it was Nehru who executed this strategy. And remember, this was at a time when the residual British ICS officers and Army officers were very ill-disposed towards India, Indian freedom and the Congress, which they considered as being a Hindu organization.
After Independence, Nehru’s symbolic value for the new republic actually increased. I remember as a boy in the 1950s that we as South Indians frequently reassured ourselves that Nehru being the elegant cosmopolitan that he was, would never allow northern language fanatics to “impose” Hindi on us. On this count, Nehru delivered.
Nirad Chaudhuri noticed the fact that Nehru who wore dhotis till 1947, almost overnight switched to the churidar and achkan. This was clearly a not-so-subtle message of reassurance to India’s Muslims, many of whom felt that they had been left stranded high and dry by the Muslim League. The sartorial message plus the general impression of large-hearted sophistication worked. Nehru dealt with the Communists and crypto-Communists of India very intelligently. There was a ruthlessness in ensuring that there was no equivalent of an Indian Great March North out of Telengana. There were some subtle and overt invitations to leftists to join the tea party. They got nice sinecures in various Councils and the newly constituted akademis. And then the most brilliant move in retrospect was to reach out to the Soviet Union even during Stalin’s time and certainly energetically after Stalin’s death. When India became the first non-Communist country to be visited by Bulganin and Kruschhev, there was a clear message sent out to the Indian comrades not to create trouble for Nehru.
It is difficult to look at historical counter-factuals all that easily. But a case can surely be made that without Nehru, the early years of the republic could easily have witnessed a civil war between language groups or a series of Communist insurrections. The young fragile country could easily have fallen apart. The very presence of Nehru—in many cases merely his symbolic presence, averted this.
Rulers who have long reigns, if nothing else are considered important by historians. Think Akbar, Aurangazeb, Victoria. By modern standards, 17 years is a long time. Nehru was our leader for that many years and arguably, for 12 years from 1950, when Patel died, till 1962, when the Sino-Indian conflict erupted into a full scale war, he was pretty much the country’s undisputed ruler. Being undisputed did not mean that he had his way in everything. But he did tower over the Indian State. He was a very busy leader. He founded cities and towns, set up institutions, drafted laws, fought elections, travelled extensively within the country and abroad and even found time to personally interview many foreign service recruits. His achievements are unfortunately not too well-understood by so-called Nehruvian admirers and his failings too are often misinterpreted by his critics. Nehru and for that matter, his contemporaries (shall we call them Nehruvians?) need a future historian of the rank of Andrew Roberts to get the colourful hearing that he and they deserve.
Let us start with Foreign Policy, simply because that is an easy place. Nehru had an exaggerated view of India’s importance or what he probably fondly hoped was India’s emerging importance. Even before August 15, 1947, when he was still only the head of an interim government, he hosted an Asian Conference in Delhi and tried to take on the mantle of being the leader of the somewhat nascent nation states of Asia. The British, who in fact were still the real rulers of India, looked at him with a combination of scorn and amusement.
The largely self-appointed and self-important delegates from assorted countries, many of which were countries still in the making, must have wondered how a country as poor and backward as India could pretend to lead anyone or anything. Perhaps they were too polite to say so. Having said that, you must give it to Nehru that once again he demonstrated a bold and unusual imagination.
From Palestine (which was still very much a Mandated Territory within the British Empire) he invited both Jewish and Arab delegates. This might have been a unique first and for that matter a unique last in the history of Jewish-Arab relations. Nehru opened too many embassies, which a poor country could ill afford. He interviewed and selected many Foreign Service officers himself. Neither of these steps were smart. We should have confined our attention to international relationships that mattered to us in real, not in symbolic terms. For a CEO to select mid-level officials never results in productive outcomes. Your bias tends to be operative. And you get on board unimaginative acolytes who do not provide sufficiently objective inputs.
The appointment of Asaf Ali, a leftist and possibly a Communist fellow-traveller as Ambassador to America was one of the less sensible decisions. The assumption that the UN resembled a fair and honest Cambridge University Debating Club was disastrous. The pro-Pakistani British delegation at the UN was successful even in overruling Attlee and making sure that India’s strong case got lost in British chicanery. The scholarly study by former diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta captures these intrigues well.
The excessive reliance on Krishna Menon was probably prompted by Mountbatten, who had his own reasons to favour Menon. But Menon and the attendant Menongitis certainly did not serve India well. Nehru wasted a lot of time and effort getting India an exaggerated positioning in distant conflicts and issues like Korea, Laos and Congo. In retrospect, Bandung, Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai and the comical Non-Aligned Movement all seem quite pointless.
These indulgences were not benign wastes of time. They resulted in the Indian elite starting to believe that India could be internationally important despite being piss-poor. This illusion proved fatal in many ways. Nehru has been criticized for not understanding the Chinese threat and dealing with it poorly. This author has a different view—after all, is that not the privilege of historical revisionism? The Indian State simply did not have the wherewithal to prevent the imposition of a tight Chinese grip on Tibet. We had enough headaches in places like Kashmir and Nagaland. To support a Tibetan liberation struggle would have required overwhelming American involvement and assistance. And despite being very pro-American in many ways, this author remains wary of an American embrace.
When their agenda was achieved, or what is worse, when their energies were exhausted or attention diverted, India might have been left on its own trying to support a Tibetan liberation struggle with all the consequences of overreach that a poor new country could ill afford. Acquiescing in Chinese control of Tibet in the 1950s, was in all probability a good decision. What remains a puzzling move, is that having so acquiesced, why did we irritate the Chinese by extending hospitality to the Dalai Lama? Could we not have shipped the Dalai Lama quietly to Switzerland and let the CIA and the MI6 worry about him? This is where I think Panditji’s innate sense of generosity, sensitivity and decency (the same sense that made him pro-Jewish in the 1930s) became a weakness in the tough realpolitik world of diplomacy.
My brother had this to say: “Not to extend hospitality to the Dalai Lama, in India, the Land of the Buddha, would have been viewed as a crime by Nehru. After all, remember Panditji had written the ultimate romantic coda to India—his book The Discovery of India.” Methinks there is something in this argument. Of course, Nehru was also faced by a very noisy parliamentary opposition which was given to hysterical hyper-patriotism. These MPs made patriotic and matriotic speeches insisting that not an inch of the motherland should be given up and that grass not growing in Akshai Chin was no different than hair not growing on the Prime Minister’s head.
It was Nirad Chaudhuri who made the point that left to himself, Nehru could have and probably would have resolved Sino-Indian differences. But throughout his career, Nehru was repeatedly intimidated by hyper-nationlists. One understands that there are many nuances to Nehru’s China policy: the ill-fated “forward” posts suggested by Intelligence Chief B.N. Mullick, the clumsy handling of Chou En Lai and many other matters. But it is worth considering revisionist views on Nehru’s policy via-a-vis the Dalai Lama and his “democratic” cravenness in the face of jingoists who from Delhi kept insisting on defending every inch of Bharat Mata, even if some inches were patently indefensible.
While the so-called Non-Aligned Movement had a comic and pathetic side to it, the idea of “neutrality” vis-a-vis great powers seems to be almost a geographical necessity for India. With the exception of a brief period in 1971, when America was led by a lying, possibly psychopathic President and his cunning and completely amoral advisor, India under different successors of Nehru has remained neutral and has gained from it. Those countries and rulers in Asia and Africa, who were embraced too tightly by Cold Warriors John Foster Dulles or Alexie Kosygin, have fared pretty miserably. On this count, Nehru was correct—both instinctively and consciously.
Nehru’s attempt to build India as a country not of rulers (somewise like Sher Shah or Rajaraja, some questionable like Mohammed Tughlaq or Ramaraya), but of institutions was not a casual one. He openly and repeatedly said that the British Parliamentary traditions were what we needed to emulate. He was criticized for not understanding the Indian “genius”, whatever that means, and not investing in panchayats—something which his grandson attempted with limited and questionable success. But on this one, our brown Englishman got it right. Whether it was appointments to the judiciary or the Election Commission, whether it was mediating in controversies between his ministers and the CAG, whether it was in perhaps over-emphasizing civilian control of the military, whether it was in taking much too seriously the sparse opposition benches in Parliament, whether it was in giving too much elbow room to state chief ministers, who may or may not have deserved their autonomy—in all of these—Nehru worked consciously to “change” our inherited historical paradigms.
Even within his own party, there were different party presidents each year. The idea of one party president for two decades is a recent and novel one as far as the Congress goes. Has Nehru been successful? The answer is “On balance, yes”. Going back to the black and white photographs of Nehru with Nasser, Tito, Sukarno, Makarios and Nkrumah, one must admit Nehru’s astonishing focus on institutions in his country and not on personal self-aggrandizement (given his popularity, he probably did not need it) and the consequences of this focus, several decades later, must stand out as a really worthy accomplishment.
When it comes to the domestic sphere, Nehru again left his imprint in so many areas that it is very difficult to know where to begin and where to end. To my mind, Nehru’s handling of the Hindu Marriages Act and the Hindu Succession Act stand out as extremely significant achievements. In 1950, Nehru realized that his government did not have the legitimacy to push through these legal changes—something that Ambedkar was keen to do. Nehru waited to win hands down an election based on full adult franchise and then proceeded to make the greatest changes to Hindu (and as is the ironic case in India, to Jain, Sikh and Buddhist) society since antiquity.
The outsider Percival Spear perceived this. He has gone on record that centuries from now, Nehru will be remembered as a great Hindu law-giver. At one stroke, Hindu women were liberated (at least legally) and untold opportunities were opened up for all Hindus. It remains a significant failure among Nehru’s many achievements that he could not or did not liberate Muslim women the way he liberated their Hindu counterparts and the way Kamal Ataturk liberated Muslim women in Turkey.
It is easy to criticize him from today’s perspective as a “pseudo-secularist” or as a chaser of vote banks. I think that the problem is deeper. Even collectives of humans have agency. And if major changes do not come from within the collective, they are not easy to enforce. And even when enforced, they are difficult to sustain. The reappearance of the hijab in modern Turkey would indicate that a social change that has not been sufficiently internalized within the collective consciousness, can be reversed. The intellectual elite among Muslims in India and elsewhere need to introspect as to why they do not have a Ram Mohan Roy or a Mahadev Govind Ranade among them, for without the foundations of these intellectual precursors, Ambedkar and Nehru would not have been able to achieve what they did.
Nehru’s handling of the language issues showed him at his brilliant best. Given the attacks against him for being a brown Englishman, it was difficult for him to openly defend English. So he indulged in a series of sleights of hand. In agreeing to linguistic states, his “democratic cravenness” actually turned out to be a positive. We have avoided the Ceylonese (sorry Sri Lankan) linguistic quagmire.
In the area of education, Nehru identified early in the game that populist state governments were going to ruin the universities that the British had established. This happened to Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Allahabad universities. Rather than confront the silly state governments (again democratic cravenness at work!), he simply set up centrally sponsored institutions like IITs, IIMs, NIDs and CSIR Laboratories. My one disappointment is that he followed the French model of separate institutions for different disciplines, rather than inter-disciplinary universities. I believe, as a result, India lost out in the area of original research.
Big dams (Bhakra, Hirakud, Tungabhadra) were his passion. It is easy for today’s ecological fundamentalists to criticize these dams. But let us not forget that the best knowledge available then supported these actions. Incidentally, because Nehru along with other Congress leaders had so little administrative experience prior to 1947, he did not have Mirza Ismail’s insight that big dams rarely, if ever, deliver the gains that they promise. Focusing on minor irrigation projects would have paid off much more.
But let us not forget that we are all driven by the prevalent ideas of our times. The anti-malaria enthusiasts hated small water bodies, which of course today we know are vital for the water table. Yet, there is one underlying fact. Nehru loved gigantism. His hero among Americans was FDR—he of the Tennessee Valley Authority fame. Our own Damodar Valley Corporation was consciously modeled after the TVA.
Nehruvian economic policies have in retrospect turned out to be his worst legacy. He was seduced by the technocratic, mechanistic notions of planning and optimization. In this, one must admit, he was only going along with the zeitgeist. The Soviets, with their Gosplan, had avoided the worst of the Depression of the 1930s. They had transformed a backward agricultural country into a scientific and industrial powerhouse. In the 1950s, they were seen by many as being ahead of the capitalist west. They had sent a Sputnik into space. There seemed an inexorability about Communist progress.
Many fashionable economists in the West also came up with odd mathematical theories on capital-output ratios and subscribed to the idea of a “central planning” commission. And our resident statistical genius Prashanta Chandra Mahalanobis, was quite certain that inputs created outputs and that pricing considerations or consumer choices or investor preferences were irrelevant. Nehru, tragically for India, bought into these theories.
To be fair, there was a political background to this. Nehru came from a rural landlocked state where landed wealth was respected and mercantile activities looked down upon. These childhood prejudices must have been reinforced by his Fabian friends in London who had disdain for trade, commerce and capital. But these necessary conditions were the substructure. The superstructure was the political fact that in the faction fights within the Congress Party, the Gujarati and Marwari and even the Parsi capitalists were seen as supporters of Patel. Nehru’s position could get strengthened if he neutralized these capitalists and substituted them with public sector bureaucrats who would be beholden to none but him. This, I would submit, was the political undercurrent that helped sustain Nehru’s preferences for the leftist fashions of his times.
Luckily for us, the Swatantra Party and Charan Singh blocked Nehru’s desires to have collective farms in India. Otherwise, we too could have experienced 20 and 30 million deaths that accompanied the Maoist famines of China. We must also keep in mind that the worst excesses of socialistic economics happened after Nehru’s time. In his days, there was no MRTP, there was no FERA; there was no bank nationalization; Shell, Exxon and ICI still operated as 100 per cent foreign-owned companies even if their growth was curtailed.
The empirical facts on the ground were deceptive. Growth rates from 1951 through 1961 as we moved from one Plan to another were reasonable and the super growth rates of the Far East were yet to start. There is a case to be made that the evidence of massive economic failure was just not there. It was to emerge in the years to come, largely as a consequence of the actions of Nehru, his minions and his successor.
So where does that leave us with Jawaharlal Nehru, 51 years after his passing” Not a universal figure like the Mahatma, who has turned out to be a Guru for Mandela, King and Walesa.
A person though, who was, is and will remain central to our national narrative. We will continue to study his benign and malign legacies for centuries to come. I think of Chandigarh, a desiccated and cold city that smacks of so many of Nehru’s weaknesses—gigantism, the State knows best, human beings can be planned for and programmed.
I think of Fatehpur Sikri, another city that was badly conceived by another ruler. I think of Curzon, building the Victoria Memorial just six years before his successors moved their imperial capital away. I think of Sher Shah insisting that he be buried far away from Delhi in his native Sasaram. I think of Vikramaditya, abandoning Pataliputra for Avantika or Ujjaini. I think of Rajendra trying to get over his rivalry with his father by running off from Tanjavur and building in the Gangaikondan village, which has since reverted to wilderness. I think of Shivaji oscillating between the warmth of Poona and the austerity of Raigad.
Panditji’s story clearly is one that goes back and forth between Allahabad and Chandigarh. Allahabad may be dirty and chaotic—but it is completely Indian in its history, geography and of course its share of legends. From Allahabad came the Pandit who wrote The Discovery of India. Chandigarh is clean and sterile and it is in the planned and programmed metaphorical country where Nehru wanted to lead India.
The attempt at Planning failed—as it inevitably and inexorably had to. But even while failing there, just like the other rulers I have referred to above, Pandit Nehru had so many successes that his country will always remember him with a mixture of pride and gratitude overlaid with a bittersweet patina.
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