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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 47 New Delhi, November 14, 2015

India Needs Nehru Again

Monday 16 November 2015


by L.K. Sharma

This is no usual anniversary for paying tributes to Nehru. He and his principles are under attack by those wanting to drag India into a direction not envisioned by the freedom fighters nor sanctified by the secular India’s Constitution.

A debate on Nehru’s failures as the Prime Minister has been there for long and his record is a legitimate subject of criticism or praise. But today some basic principles, that Nehru, other Congress leaders and most Opposition leaders stood for, are under assault.

There are attempts to diminish Nehru’s iconic status and devalue the Nehruvian institutions. The statements and decisions coming from the ruling political formation make such institutions controversial. Old idols are sought to be replaced with the newly manufactured ones or those appropriated from other faiths.

Sardar Patel is propped up as a calculated move to diminish Nehru. It was the nascent nation’s great good fortune to have its two top leaders with complementary talents. They worked in harmony for the shared objectives. But the dead too must be divided in order to lower one of the two in public esteem. Patel, being claimed by those whom he blamed for spreading the communal poison, would have been quite amused!

Terms such as anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements, non-alignment, Afro-Asian solidarity, South-South cooperation have become somewhat unfashionable but more than one visiting leader at the recent Indo-Africa Summit in New Delhi paid tributes to Nehru. Their host, the Indian Prime Minister, made no reference to Nehru.

It is not enough to ignore Nehru, denigrate the Nehruvian ethos and to criticise his policies. Nehru, the person, is being abused by some newly empowered social media-savvy fringe elements-turned-cyber bullies. The sectarian forces hate Nehru because his modernisation drive thwarted their political ambition and plan to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra. Nehru has to be denigrated because the Congress still reaps electoral benefits from Nehru’s name. His legacy continues to win mass support for the basic principles enshrined in the Constitution.

Nehru’s policies had many domestic and foreign critics. Such criticism has been countered by experts not driven by narrow political ideologies. Leading a newly independent nation of this size with it inherent problems was no easy task. Naturally, Nehru could not have been an all-round success. However, it is difficult to question his status as the prime builder of modern India.

What the new nation needed most it got in its first Prime Minister. Gandhi knew that when he chose Nehru. Others in the Congress, including Sardar Patel, also knew that. Nehru was a leader with a pan-Indian appeal who could not be categorised or pigeon-holed. India needed a charismatic leader, not just an efficient administrator. Nehru had the capacity to carry with him rival factions in the party and differing social section in the country. He sent reassuring signals to various castes and tribes and linguistic, religious and regional communities. The Nehru Government shunned the politics of “rewards and revenge” that crippled some African nations.

The nation was recovering from the trauma of the partition and the new Prime Minister was there to remind it of the Gandhian message of tolerance and non-violence. As the Prime Minister, at times he countered violence through physical action. While Gandhi tried to restore communal sanity through fasting in Noakhali, Nehru plunged into an angry mob in order to curb a riot in Delhi. A big tragedy could have been averted had Rajiv Gandhi done that after being sworn-in as the Prime Minister in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s murder.

Nehru held out the promises of constitutional rights, economic and social justice, political stability and social harmony. He highlighted the critical importance of an independent foreign policy and infused a degree of idealism in the young diplomats. He safeguarded national sovereignty, at times displeasing the mighty United States. He was the shield against the scheming forces that subvert a newly independent nation.

Nehru strengthened the democratic institutions and never allowed mass adoration to go to his head. As an enthusiastic parliamentarian, his example is often thrown at the Prime Ministers who do not take their parliamentary duties seriously. By today’s standards, Nehru was a rare politician who did what he said and stuck to certain principles even at the risk of paying a political price.

He endeavoured to maintain friendly relations with other countries and considered that to be the best defence of the country. While personally driving the foreign policy, Nehru regularly interacted with the people as well as the State Chief Ministers on national and international issues. The leaders engaged in anti-colonial struggles and those of the newly independent nations saw Nehru as an inspiring figure. India played a very visible role in the international community and gained prestige—brand value in the current parlance—out of proportion to its military might or economic muscle.

Nehru’s plan to build industrial and techno-logical capabilities placed India in a different league of developing countries. Nehru’s economic perspective, dubbed as Fabian socialism, is strongly criticised by those gifted with the hindsight and those who have the mistaken belief that what was good for the India of the eighties was good for India of the fifties. The kind of economic policies that paid dividends in the eighties and nineties would have caused a disaster in the fifties.

Nehru’s failures such as his misplaced trust in China and in the United Nations are well publicised but many would be surprised if told that the economic growth rate during the Nehru era was not bad. At 3.5 per cent, independent India did better than it did as a British colony or as compared to Britain during its industriali-sation.

industrial India went ahead of China though later it lost the race. The cradles of science and high technology nurtured world-class talent. During Nehru’s lifetime India barged into the club of the six nations having nuclear know-how. The IITs were established with Nehru saying that these institutions would provide “the leaders of tomorrow”. They did, not only for India but also for America!

It was all made possible by the policies opposed by a section of economists. The lower middle class boys and girls educated in the fifties in the government-funded colleges and universities would, in another system, have been forced to become half-literate domestic servants. Generations of young Indians could not afford private education or health facilities.

Nehru’s foreign critics liked his democratic instincts and commitment to secularism but were displeased by his independent foreign policy that ruled out India’s participation in the Cold War. They did not like India’s “moral” lectures and they called non-alignment “immoral”!

The foreign critics opposed state planning designed to secure a measure of social and economic justice. Nehru’s socialistic leanings perturbed the Western leaders funded by the big business. They were displeased that newly independent India did not promote an unregu-lated private sector and open its womb to the multinationals.

India’s economic policies, appropriate for that time, prevented this country from becoming a playground for the foreign business and industrial interests, unlike what happened in some African countries. In India “self-reliance” became a mantra that emerged from the Swadeshi movement blessed by Gandhi.

The public sector was asked to build indigenous capabilities. The Indian private sector then had neither the huge resources nor an inclination to think big and take risks. The public sector, also burdened with some social responsibilities, built up India’s technological and industrial strengths. While the weaknesses of the public sector are highlighted, little is known about the gains derived by the private enterprises from the skill formation in the public sector and the government-financed R&D.

The defence related R&D even in cases when it did not lead to a successful project gave India the capacity to evaluate foreign technologies and the leverage to negotiate favourable terms. When India bought a piece of equipment, it gave a positive signal to other potential buyers.

Nehru took a broader view of science and technology. The Indian Constitution may not refer to the right to happiness but it does contain the words “scientific temper”. As a keen student of history, Nehru saw the dangers of bigotry and religious intolerance. He saw science as an instrument of promoting rational thought and as a bulwark against obscurantism. The link between ignorance and poverty was clear in his mind. Nehru promoted multi-culturalism in order to prevent the outbreaks of sectarian hysteria that could derail a new nation. Nehru frequently talked of the scientific temper and enhanced public understanding of rationalism through mass contact. He created an atmosphere in which the people felt elated, not offended, by his calling a multipurpose dam a temple of modern India!

Nehru linked the pursuit of science to India’s intellectual and cultural heritage. He said: “It is an inherent obligation of a great county like India, with its traditions of scholarship and original thinking and its great cultural heritage, to participate fully in the march of science, which is probably mankind’s greatest enterprise today.” He commented extensively on the contribution that science and technology can make to tackle India’s basic problems including poverty.

Nehru customarily addressed the annual Science Congress sessions and maintained personal contacts with Indian and foreign scientists. He made it a point to meet Einstein. In a historic move, Nehru laid the foundation of nuclear India, picking Homi Bhaba to lead the programme. Nehru freed the physicist from bureaucratic constraints and gave him a direct access in order to avoid any delays in decision-making. That was the India in which Bhaba rejected attractive offers from foreign univer-sities in order to return and work in India.

Nehru’s statements on nuclear energy show him as an idealist as well as a realist. He wanted to exploit the potential of atoms for peaceful uses but he also said as far back as in 1946: “As long as the world is constituted as it is every country will have to devise and use the latest scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for cons-tructive purposes. ...But if India is threatened, she will inevitably try to defend itself by all means at her disposal. I hope India in common with other countries will prevent the use of atomic bombs.”

Commenting on Nehru’s approach to atomic energy, the Indian scholar, T.T. Poulose, said: “There was no guile in his nuclear policy as it originated from a mind imbued with high idealism, deep sense of history and a world view and always with a vision of a strong and modern India.”

Without Nehru’s decisions and adminis-trative action, Scientific India would have remained an unrealised dream. He had a vision to empower India and Indians. Nehru’s sharp critics today show off with great élan India’s core competence generated by the decisions taken by India’s first Prime Minister. It is only fair to expect them to pay at least a grudging tribute to Nehru on his birth anniversary.

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer.

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