By Haider Nizamani
JAWAHARLAL Nehru’s record of remaining elected prime minister for 17 consecutive years is yet to be matched by any other leader of South Asia. As prime minister and leader of the Congress party, Nehru left his indelible mark on India’s political system and economic and foreign policies.
He died while serving as India’s prime minister 44 years ago on May 28. But Nehru is politically a little out of fashion these days in India.
The deaths of M.K. Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah within 13 months of Partition contributed, to some degree, to the persistence of their charisma without being subjected to the pressures and critical scrutiny that came with governing newly minted countries in 1947.
Nehru’s 17 years of prime ministership did not offer him that privilege.
In the popular imagination of Pakistanis, Nehru is a guileful person. A classic example of this is Akbar S. Ahmed’s movie ‘Jinnah’ in which Nehru is mostly shown in the bedroom with Lady Mountbatten realising his political wishes through the means of an extra-marital affair. Was that the real Nehru? What was his role in shaping India’s ‘tryst with destiny’? Why is Nehru out of fashion in India today?
“I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile’s feeling.” That is how Nehru at one stage described himself.
This blend made him, simultaneously, a champion of modernisation in India and a loyal disciple of Mohandas Gandhi whose views on matters of economy he found quite dated.
On the home front, Nehru’s family life suffered because of his involvement in the nationalist movement which inevitably meant little time for his household.
Nehru, at one level, was the epitome of high culture of the northern Indian plains which partly explains his close friendship with individuals like Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai. Both were members of his cabinet once India became independent and held important portfolios like education and communications.
Nehru managed to balance ‘contending interests within the broad coalition of ruling forces’ as he was ‘not identified with any specific group yet had the charismatic power to reach the people directly’.
He led the Congress party to three electoral victories following independence. The Congress knew that Nehru was their prime vote-getter.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, summarising Nehru’s political qualities, wrote: “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s charismatic personality swayed the people of India. He exercised compulsive power over the crowds. People flocked to hear him. Nehru was like opium to them; he drugged them into total submission. He enchanted them and from their adoration he drew his strength. At his best, he could make them believe anything.” It was Nehru who championed the idea of secularism in a deeply religious society.
His great gamble of putting India on the road of electoral and constitutional democracy has worked reasonably well for the country. Interestingly, the architect of parliamentary democracy in India mainly consulted three unelected individuals when it came to devising policy frameworks and allowed them to set up institutions in the areas of India’s economic, foreign and atomic policies.
P. Mahalanobis, a Bengali trained as a physicist and statistician, played a key role in the planning commission which drafted five-year plans to serve as a guiding framework for the Indian economy. The economic model aimed at creating an industrial base in India with a vibrant public sector and growth with an element of equity.
It was also during Nehru’s early years that absentee landlordism was eliminated with varying degrees of success in different parts of the country. Changes in landownership patterns laid the foundation for the creation of a class of rich farmers termed bullock-capitalists.
Krishna Menon, a south Indian who had lived mostly in England, was Nehru’s point man when it came to India’s foreign and defence policies. The India of the 1950s under Nehru’s personal guidance played a prominent role in the creation of what came to be known as the Non-Aligned Movement. Homi Bhabha, a Parsi from Mumbai, was the man who the prime minister entrusted with the task of creating India’s atomic infrastructure.
Many of the pledges made in the ‘tryst with destiny’ speech delivered on the eve of Indian independence proved far more difficult to meet with the means employed by Nehru.
The limits of his policies dawned both in the domestic and international arena. Linguistic nationalism was on the rise, domestically forcing Nehru to redraw the political map of much of India.
Incidentally, when Nehru’s popular government was striking compromises with regional political forces, Pakistan’s central government chose to deny regional differences by slapping One Unit on the country. The Congress party now faced credible opposition in a number of provinces of which the victory of the communists in Kerala in 1957 was an example. Nehru’s credentials were tarnished when he ordered the dismissal of the duly elected provincial government in 1959.
In the field of foreign affairs, a volley of errors led to India’s ignominious defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. Nehru never recovered from this defeat. He became more withdrawn from public life. He lacked the sprightly energy that was his hallmark.
Nehru who had cast aspersions on Pakistani leaders in the mid-1950s for leaning on the US militarily was now requesting US military assistance himself. ‘The hero had lost his magic touch; he was old, tired, disillusioned, embittered, no longer in control of things’.
Why is Nehru out of fashion in India today? His ideas about economic, foreign, atomic and democratic set-ups are out of sync with the dominant discourse of present-day India. In foreign policy, it is in closer alignment with the US and does not maintain the equidistance Nehru sought. The economic model of Manmohan Singh subscribes to the neo-liberal belief of leaving most things at the mercy of the market and is a far cry from the activist role of the state envisaged by Nehru to create a somewhat level playing field for the different social castes and classes of India.
Lastly, the new India is a champion of nuclear weapons whereas Nehru considered such weapons as evil.
In Pakistan, Nehru does not cut a sympathetic figure mainly because he is considered responsible for ensuring the questionable accession of Kashmir to India in 1947 and then not fulfilling his historic pledge to hold a plebiscite to solicit the views of the Kashmiris in determining the future of their region. Secondly, for Pakistanis the man who made India stand on moral high grounds on various issues of global politics was not averse to relying on realpolitik tactics when it came to relations with India’s neighbours.
Haider Nizamani teaches at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada.