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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 48

Temper of Tolerance

Sunday 25 November 2007, by C.N. Chitta Ranjan


There can be, and will be endless debate on the achievements and failures of Jawaharlal Nehru, as politician and statesman, as Prime Minister and Congress leader, as democrat and socialist.

But whatever the controversies and whatever the arguments, it is irrefutable that the democratic consciousness of our people, their capacity to express their social and economic aspirations despite the massive illiteracy among them, the emergence of viable popular institutions that continue to withstand onslaughts by vested interests of all kinds; the formulation of economic aims which, if still distant, remain valid; the shaping of foreign policy that has more than stood the test of time. All this and more we owe to that one man, a giant among men, a giant who would not use his giant strength to have his way but would make compromises and seek consensus for the sake of preserving parliamentary democracy and democratic values, a socialist whom sheer gentleness and tolerance prevented from taking the drastic steps that he knew could transform Indian society in the space of a few years.

Critics there will be, and criticism of a leader like Nehru is easy, but it would be well to remember that all that has been done in the direction of social and economic reforms in the years after his death has flowed from the policies and plans shaped by him, through a well-understood process of consensus, keeping in mind the viewpoint of even a poorly or wrongly articulated Opposition. This much can be said without belittling the bold leadership we have had since and without entering into discussion on differences in styles of functioning or on the qualities of Congressmen at different periods of time. Herself a leader of world stature now, the Prime Minister has carried on from where Nehru left off, and it is believed by all democrats and genuine socialists in the country that the Emergency represents a passing phase, an inevitable interregnum, in the eventful, forward, looking saga of the Indian Revolution given recognisable shape and purpose jointly by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the years before freedom and by the latter in what have been described as the years of power.

It would be presumptuous to attempt to take a look at all or even many aspects of Jawaharlal Nehru’s contribution to the construction of the sold base of democratic, secular, socialist India. We shall merely touch upon a few aspects which have continuing validity and which will remain the sheet-anchor for a long time. It may be recalled that he said, not long before the Avadi session, that “we have to aim deliberately at a philosophy which seeks a fundamental transformation of the structure, a society which is not dominated by the urge of private profit and individual greed and where is a distribution of political and economic power”. We must aim, he said, at “a classless society based on cooperative effort, where there is opportunity for all”.

This approach must be remembered in the context not only of the recent amendments to the Constitution but of the heated debate that had been going on for long regarding the Directive Principles and the Fundamental Rights, judiciary and Parliament, rights and duties, and so on. Nehru did not fail to foresee these problems. In fact the prospect was referred to by him as well as by Ambedkar and some others during the Constituent Assembly, and Nehru often raised the question himself in Parliament in later years. For example, in May 1951, he described the Directive Principles as “a dynamic move towards a certain objective”, and the Fundamental Rights as “something static”, drawing the conclusion that “sometimes it might so happen that the dynamic movement and the static concept do not quite fit in with each other”. So, had he lived, the Subba Raos and the Palkhiwalas would not have caused him any surprise, and it may be said that Rajagopalachari and his Swatantra Party in the late fifties gave Nehru sufficient indication of what lay ahead.

Even his critics will have to admit it was Nehru’s endeavour to make the people understand the primacy of the Directive Principles: “The whole purpose of the Constitution, as proclaimed in the Directive Principles, is to move towards what I may call a casteless and classless society.” When the Constitution was framed there were limitations, imposed not only by the character of the Constituent Assembly as a whole but by the post-partition atmosphere in the country and by the massive nature of the problems of poverty and unemployment, apart from backwardness of the vast majority and the backwardness of the economy. It must not be forgotten that the Congress itself, inheriting the partly dissimilar and partly integrated approaches of Gandhi and Nehru, and made up of a variety of elements ranging from big industrialists and big farmers at one end to dedicated socialists at the other, was a limiting factor.

It is familiar to hear Nehru being criticised for not doing this or that after the death of Sardar Patel, during the dozen years when he was the undisputed leader of the party and of the country. Those who so criticise him forget two things: that the composition of the Congress remained more or less the same, and that Nehru was not one to impose his will on others but was a firm believer in discussion and consensus, even if the ultimate goal remained clear in his mind.

It is fashionable too to criticise him for not using the word “socialism” at this place or that, for not defining “socialism” at this place or that, for not defining socialism precisely. Such criticism overlooks two factors: first, if he did not use the word frequently during a certain period, he did not make his purpose any less clear on that account; secondly, socialism is a dynamic concept, and a dictionary definition is not the best way of understanding it. The “mixed economy”, which has not proved a blessing, was meant as a half-way house between status quo and socialism. It was also a chance given to the private sector which, instead of proving its worth, has taken advantage of it to advance the profit motive which Nehru repeatedly condemned in no uncertain terms. Nehru indeed saw the private sector even in this stage as a controlled sector, not as a free-for-all sector. The final aim of “economic democracy” was never left in doubt. And Nehru’s secularism, which no one can challenge today because of the solid foundations he laid, remains the approach, for secularism and economic democracy go hand in hand and you cannot have discrimination and equality at the same time.

Nehru was fond of talking about inculcation of the “scientific temper” in our people. This was no obsession with a phrase but the expression of what he felt to be one of the foremost needs of the country in order to make it modern and the equal of the developed nations in the shortest span of time. Even democracy meant to him “self-discipline of the community”. It is a framework, whatever the details, that “promotes the growth of human beings and of society”, combining high standards of living without losing “all those fine things of life which have ennobled man throughout the ages”.

It was not to him merely a question of elections, important as elections are in any democracy, parliamentary or other. His faith in parliamentary democracy was not a dogma but the result of comprehension of advantages as compared to other forms of democracy, tested or conceived. He believed in “peaceful methods of action, peaceful acceptance of decisions taken, and attempts to change them through peaceful ways again”.

DEMOCRACY meant tolerance. It was the temper of tolerance that elevated him high above his contemporaries. His tolerance was such that a renowned leader, professing both Gandhism and socialism as his creed but not hesitating to encourage violence aimed at the destruction of democratic institutions with the help of vested interests and even communal reactionaries, was said to have suggested that Nehru should build up an Opposition! Nehru has been quoted as having said in a speech: “When … says that I should build up an opposition, does he want me to build up a bogus thing to oppose the Congress?” Such then is the stuff that the “total revolutionaries” who created conditions for the clamping of the current Emergency are made of.

The question of right to property, a concept that has come under big challenge and has caused many of the constitutional amendments, was haunting him. Once he told the Lok Sabha: “It is a monstrous thing that property should be made a god, above human beings. (This) is a view of property which the Government is not prepared to accept at all.” All his life, and especially from the late twenties onwards, he spoke repeatedly of socialism, and those who claim he was vague should go through all he had said on the subject.

Once he said that the capitalist structure is based on an acquisitive society and that “a socialistic society must try to get rid of this tendency to acquisitiveness and replace it by cooperation”—a change that cannot be brought about “by a sudden law” but only by “long processes of training the people”. The “final aim can only be a classless society with equal economic justice and opportunity for all” and “everything that comes in the way will have to be removed, gently if possible, forcibly if necessary”.

The inheritors of Nehru’s mantle should bear this goal constantly in mind. The nationalisation of banks, the abolition of privy purses, the elimination of the Syndicate from the Congress, the emphasis on raising the living and social standards of Harijans and others, the firm stance against Big Business and defiance of vested interests that marked the Congress leadership’s and the government’s functioning after 1969 roused great expectations, many of which remain unfulfilled, largely because the Congress organisation has once again tended to become flabby, accommodating all kinds of elements at the State level particularly, and because the bureaucracy has not been recognised rationally to ensure efficient and honest implementation of policies clearly enunciated.

In fact a new kind of politician is emerging-the variety that substitutes sycophancy for cerebration. With this type holding office in some places, the bureaucrat has a field day, for the latter becomes the decision-maker at certain levels, apart from being able to intensify efforts at subversion in the course of implementation. This the Congress leadership must once again guard against.

As the Prime Minister herself recently pointed out, the impact of the Emergency, which in its early months brought about discipline and consequent efficiency in the administration and a sense of purpose in most walks of life, has been wearing off as a result presumably of lack of vigilance on the part of Congressmen and progressive forces. One point that must be emphasised here is that the Twenty-point Programme which, even if it does not cover some aspects of life, represents the quintessence of Congress policy and ideology, has been imperfectly understood and inadequately implemented. The fundamentals have not received as much attention as the frills in many States, probably because vested interests are still powerful.

We can go on writing about Nehru’s ideas on industry, science and technology, education, land reform, and other aspects of national life. The inscription of secularism and socialism in the Preamble is indeed acknowledgement of the Nehru inspiration which has taken this country forward, even if socialism still remains a distant goal. As for the amendments, Nehru never thought of the Constitution as a static document. Long before Independence he wrote that “many of our politicians, learned in the law, think and talk of constitutions and the like, forgetting the human beings for whom constitutions and law are made”. Speaking in the Constituent Assembly itself he said:

We should not make a Constitution so rigid that it cannot be easily adapted to changing conditions.

Years later he said that the rule of law must run close to the rule of life. Justice Gajendragadkar recently quoted a telling passage from Nehru in this connection:

Laws are meant to fit existing conditions…If conditions change, how can the old laws fit in? They must change with changing conditions, or else they become iron chains keeping us back, while the world marches on.
Any survey, however brief and inadequate, of Nehru’s ideas will be incomplete without a reference to India’s foreign policy which he shaped, almost single-handed, notwithstanding the assistance rendered by men of the stature of Krishna Menon. Every passing year seems to strengthen the validity of this policy whose essence is nonalignment and whose purpose is peace combined with economic and other cooperation among all nations.

The events in Africa and in West Asia, in Latin America and in South-East Asia, and even in Europe, have all vindicated the Nehru policy which in international forums was shaped jointly by Nehru, Tito and Nasser. Indira Gandhi continues that policy, and, as at the Colombo summit most recently, has been trying to impart new dimensions to it. The foreign policies of many world stalwarts have been forgotten, and the mere fact that the Nehru policy gains increasing relevance and validity with the passage of years is the highest tribute to his wisdom and vision.

A word about the Opposition. Nehru wanted the Opposition to grow and become mature, playing a constructive role in national life, and if possible offering a viable, progressive, democratic alternative. The Opposition has proved unequal to this task. The energies of most Opposition parties have been frittered away in blind opposition to everything on the one hand and in senseless violence on the other, leaving them exhausted and useless so far as the people and their interests are concerned. This is a kind of situation in which those in authority at the Centre and in the States should display an even greater sense of responsibility and greater restraint than in normal times.

It is true that the mischief-making elements are still at work, and they have to be fought. They can be fought effectively only by the people as a whole under wise guidance. The Prime Minister has shown herself capable of courage as well as wisdom, but the same cannot be said of many stalwarts in the Congress camp, or in the smaller CPI camp.

The Emergency is over sixteen months old but it cannot be said that the best use has been made of it to get every one of the Twenty Points implemented properly. There have been gains here and there, but what was expected was a change in the quality of life of the poor and the downtrodden. Bonded labour has been freed by law, rural indebtedness has been abolished by law, surplus land has been distributed, house sites have been allotted. There is no dearth of statistics, which float from the base to the top, but there is no effective machinery, even-official, to check the claims and present an authentic picture. Here is where the Congress and CPI could have jointly played a part. They have not. At the State and district levels there has been more showmanship than positive action.

A recent Reserve Bank survey referred to glaring inequalities in the rural economy—in the ownership of assets, in the distribution of the tools of production. It is not enough for the AICC General Secretary to proclaim that the people are not worried about elections but want a square meal a day. It is not enough for Sri Chavan to say that elections alone do not mean democracy. These are self-evident truths. They should instead tell the people what is being done to provide the square meal, to take us nearer the economic democracy that Nehru dreamt of, in line with Gandhiji’s thinking.

The Nehru legacy is not a heirloom to be preserved intact in a museum. It is a living legacy, a constant challenge to the people and the leaders of the country to struggle tirelessly for equality and social justice. Constitutional amendments, enactment of laws, administrative reorganisation, party work—all these are but the means. The goal is socialism raised on the solid base of participative democracy, secularism, cooperation with other countries.

(Mainstream, November 13, 1976)

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