Nehru – Trapped in Dichotomy


India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, along with Gandhi maybe, is the one of the most provocative personality of modern Indian history. He is either eulogized or outrightly denounced. There are Nehruvians and Anti-Nehruvians. Most of the contemporary literature is full of one-sided narratives and rarely do we find a balanced view of Nehru and his legacy. This is thus an attempt to present a dispassionate and critical account of Nehru’s legacy. To begin with, let us be clear that like any other human being Nehru evolved with time and in order to make a fair judgment he must be contextualized. His ideas and theories have to be seen in a context and should not be extrapolated to be seen through a prism of current socio-economic and political systems and beliefs. In short, Nehru was a product of his time and this fact must not be forgotten. Also, he undeniably possesed a vision for India. What that vision was, and how far has it been realised are the real questions that matter.

Nehru – A complex personality

Nehru is often accused by his critics as being “less-Indian” or of not relating to the struggles of the common masses. The fact that he attained modern english education in europe, which influenced his cosmopolitan outlook and political ideals, is generally regarded as being elitist. The main flaw with this line of argument is succinctly captured by Avijit Pathak, who writes, ” We have lost what made his ‘discovery’ possible – a spirit of nuanced dialogue , decolonized cosmopolitanism and cultural syncretism”. A closer look at Nehru’s readings give a firm impression that even though he was a staunch believer of the force of reason and scientific temper but his belief in science was very different than how it (science)is perceived now as mere technological efficiency. With scientific temper – a process of thinking, acting and associating with others to fight the dead weight of the past he wanted to bring modernity to India. Nehru was secular to the core and was open to religion being open to scrutiny of reason and public good. His faith was not in religion but in spirituality.

Institutions are not built and consolidated overnight, they are the result of a continuous process of democratization. The biggest contribution of Nehru to India is that he laid the string foundations of modern political institutions in their formative years. India is one of the rare exceptions among those countries who decolonized in late 1940s, 1950s and 60s that have continued to survive as a functioning democracy. Most of the countries that were born then either slipped into authoritarian and despotic military junta rule or a single party rule. But India continued to flourish as a free and fair democracy. This when combined with the fact that in those times, Nehru who was a charismatic leader and the poster boy of freedom movement, enjoyed unprecedented mass support, compels even his most vehement critics to concede to his democratic spirit. Also the external and internal security and politico-social challenges that India faced then, made a perfect recipe for a leader to assume absolute power. Yet, Nehru remained not only accommodative of diversity but even took criticism with dignity. A leader with that great a stature could very easily have become a ‘king’ in a newly born nation. Thus, Nehru must be credited with initiating and consolidating the institution building process. His contribution to India’s foreign policy as manifested through the Non-Aligned Movement, is testimony to his genius in this domain.

Like no human being is perfect and each has his/her own predicaments, Nehru too had his own share of weaknesses. A major criticism laid against him is of being too ideologically inclined towards socialism and Marxism. His naive assessment of Chinese intentions and decisions like appointing “like-minded” people such as VK Krishna Menon ( He was the Defence Minister before and during1962 war ), which led to humiliating defeat in 1962 war are examples of his ideology adversary affecting the policies. He was an idealist in a world characterised by realism, he could not anticipate hostile behaviour from a huge neighbour. Besides, his secularism is often targetted which is regarded by many as pseudo-secularism that is the practice of appeasing minorities.

A great deal of damage to Nehru’s personality and his legacy has actually been done not by his critics but by the post-Nehru Nehruvians and congress historians who rather than critically appraising the genius of the man’s vision, degenerated into glorification and personality cult creation. Instead of emphasizing on the thoughts and ideas of Nehru, they chose to eulogize him at times undermining or neglecting the contribution of others like Sardar Patel, etc whose contribution was equally significant.Today, the challenges that India faces especially internally, if are tried to be resolved through resorting to Nehruvian approach and spirit, a lot could be acheived. His idea of inclusive, tolerant and just India is what we need to embrace today in letter and spirit. And lastly, we must not fall in the trap of seeing Nehru in a dichotomous manner, a balanced picture has to be internalized.

-Contributed by Kunwar Suryansh

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