India’s first and longest serving Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, was a man of vision. Having participated in the long struggle for freedom from the British, Nehru, fondly called Pandit Nehru, a reference to his Kashmiri Pandit community roots, was a firm believer in nation building, as he understood that the young Indian nation had a tryst with destiny.
A foreign-educated barrister and a close confidante of Mahatma Gandhi, he came as close as anyone has, or ever will, to becoming the People’s Prince. He was Mahatma Gandhi’s chosen political heir, and free India’s first elected Prime Minister. After the death of Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950, he towered amongst his colleagues in the Congress. His vision of an India fired by educational institutions, steel plants and powered by dams, was widely shared.
He was seen as a brave man, who fought chauvinists; as a selfless man, who had endured years in jail to win freedom; and above all as a visionary. His appeal cut across the conventionally opposed categories of low caste and high caste and was undoubtedly, the darling of the masses.
Nehru realised that the country, cobbled together from a loose confederation of princely states, that both owed their allegiance to the British as well as opposed them, needed to work hard to unleash its potential and energy into a nationalised channel that would help build India as a truly democratic nation where every citizen matters.
Nehru’s first commitment was to make India a self-sufficient economy. As a result, he set up temples of modern learning and giant public sector industries that catered to the needs of a growing nation and its people. His efforts to create a scientific temper can be seen from his zeal to establish higher centres of learning.
Many Indians believe that the credit for India being a vibrant democracy, an industrial powerhouse, a knowledge partner, a globally respected military power and a technology and space innovator, should go to Nehru; that he had laid strong foundations upon which the institutions built themselves with strong and focused targets.
To understand Nehru better, one needs to see his other side, where he inspires children or the ‘future citizens’ as he called them. Hailed as Chacha (uncle) Nehru by children, his birthday on November 14 is celebrated as Children’s Day.
Looking back, we can see that Nehru was at a juncture where he fought the very people who had empowered him with education. His perfect sense of right and wrong and his Indian upbringing despite a western education, gave him the opportunity to join and rise up the ranks of the Congress party in its freedom struggle. After he became Prime Minister, he maintained equal distance from both the superpowers, America and the Soviet Union, without fear or favour, even as he charted a Non-Aligned course for the country based on the policy of Panchsheel.
A socialist at heart, he signed the Panchsheel Agreement between China and India that was to serve as the five guiding principles of the relationship between these two sovereign nations. Not surprisingly, he felt betrayed when the Chinese attacked India even as he spoke about ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’. An underprepared Indian army took on waves of Chinese soldiers, fought valiantly and paid a heavy price.
Nehru’s meticulous nurturing of India’s democracy during its troubled birth and childhood stands out. Scholars are convinced that democracies cannot be established at low levels of income. Thus, India’s democratic longevity is unique. It is perhaps due to the country having a popular anti-colonial movement. More importantly, Nehru, though all-powerful, did not fritter away pre-independence legitimacy. In fact, he strengthened it to the last root and set the agenda for inclusive growth. Nehru understood and practiced it.
During the seventeen years he was the Prime Minister, Nehru strode the Indian political stage like a colossus. But he never imposed his political will and always had an ear for what others had to say. Though not in favour of linguistic states, he adhered to popular wishes. He did not choose chief ministers, but allowed the party organisation at the state-levels to elect their leaders. When courts challenged his land reform programmes, instead of being critical of the judges, he chose to undertake constitutional amendments. A liberal and a true democrat at heart, Nehru wanted a healthy political debate.
In 1952, during free India’s first general elections, nearly 175 million voted. As three-fourths of citizens were illiterate, candidates were given symbols such as bicycles, lanterns, lamps, animals, flowers and symbols of everyday usage. It was a six-month process where those deputed for election work rode camels, took boats and even trekked to remote corners. The general elections in 1957 and 1962 deepened the legitimacy of the electoral process on the Indian consciousness.
Crafting democracy was hard work as Sarvepalli Gopal, Nehru’s foremost biographer recalls: “Receiving, throughout the years of his prime ministership, about 2,000 letters every day… Nehru spent four to five hours every night dictating replies. And “there were the years when the Prime Minister was… putting in twenty-hour days with hardly even breakfast as a private meal.” Such was the commitment.
Today, citizens gleefully point to the Indian democracy’s various weaknesses, but the very edifice of democracy and the freedom we enjoy as a sovereign democratic republic would not have been possible without Nehru’s unwavering commitment to such institutions. It is an enduring legacy. Otherwise, power would not have touched all sections of people and made ours a broad-based democracy.
Nehru’s greatest contribution was the clear establishment of a vision to lift India from the 18th to the 21st century. It spoke of the impoverishment inflicted on India by the imperialists. So the leaders who inherited the mantle of leadership had to tackle centuries of neglect. But, aided in their leadership was a vision. For example, when Nehru was making his first trip to America as the prime minister, some members of his cabinet suggested that he ask that country for food to tackle shortages at home. He refused: “I am not making my first trip to America with a begging bowl. We have to sort this problem ourselves.”
The Bhakra-Nangal multipurpose river valley project on the Sutlej, India’s first and one of the biggest dams in the world was flagged off in 1954. Nehru, while inaugurating the completed project, describes it as the “greatest and holiest” of India’s modern shrines.
Nehru and most of his contemporaries believed that only large-scale industrialisation could really change the economy and enable India to be a player on the world stage as well as helping its own citizens.
In his Presidential Address at the 1951 Congress Session in New Delhi, he spelt out his vision:
“The only way to build for the future is to put aside or save something each year, and use this saving for some kind of progress. This may be improved agriculture, more river valley projects, more factories, more houses, more education or better health services. Our resources are limited and the most that we may hope to save has been indicated in the plan. Because of this limitation of resources, we have to make hard choices at every step and priorities become important.
We have to choose sometimes between a river valley scheme and more housing or more schools. Unfortunately we cannot have all that we want at the same time. The plan recommends one set of priorities. This may be varied, but we cannot go beyond the limits set by our resources as well as the social and political conditions and the Constitution.”
Nehru helped to ensure the deep rooting of fundamental values in the Indian polity, and tried to work out ways in which these could be expressed. His most positive influence and what he valued most of all, was the attempted construction of a plural, open, and democratic polity working for change in the lives of all citizens. He used to speak of India as a composite nation, and of the ground-breaking experiment of trying to achieve socio-economic change by democratic processes and consent, in contrast to state-directed revolution with its risk of profound violence.
Nehru faced the most difficult situation in Independent India, as he had to immediately quell the fires of Partition. Nehru told his home minister that it must be quelled:
“For India, if it was anything at all, was emphatically not Pakistan. Over there they might ill-treat or persecute their minorities; over here, we would protect and respect ours. There was a constant cry for retaliation and vicarious punishment of the Muslims of India, because the Pakistanis punish Hindus. That argument does not appeal to me in the slightest.”
For India was not a mirror image of Pakistan, a Hindu State to its Islamic State. “Our secular ideals,” insisted Nehru to Patel, “impose a responsibility to our Muslim citizens in India.”
There’s the story of how during the 1947 riots, he was travelling in his Ambassador car as Prime Minister and he suddenly saw a Muslim tailor being attacked in Chandni Chowk. He asked the driver to stop the car and charged out of the car to save the man.
He also refused a request to replace Muslim cooks from his kitchen, because of the Partition.
He didn’t just preach secularism, but practiced it to the hilt. Pandit Nehru not only imbibed democratic and secular values in every citizen, but also taught a young and independent India to be self confident and self-reliant. If Mahatma Gandhi is the Father of the Nation, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the Father of the Constitution, then Nehru could be rightly called, the father of Indian Democracy.