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Even half a century after his death, hagiographies of Jawaharlal Nehru continue to be written at a regular pace and many Indians are yet to attain the distance from their first prime minister for an objective look. Nehru’s legacy lives on not only as history, the helmsman at a critical juncture of Indian history, but also politically as the icon of the Indian National Congress to this day. Furthermore, as the INC ruled the country for over 50 of the years since independence, the myth of Nehru has been inscribed into anything that can bear witness – government projects, university names, roads, holidays, statues, national parks, and more.

Congress rule in India has always been rife with corruption and institutional erosion. The pole position of the Nehru-Gandhi family in the party and hence the country has given Indian democracy the feel of a modern-day Elagabalus cult. The last ten years have been so enervating that Congress admirers have had to retreat behind Nehru to preserve the image of the party. While Nehru’s detractors do him injustice by laying all ills at his feet, to project him as an open-minded and liberal leader who steered the Indian ship of state in the right direction at independence – even if she were to later lose her way – cannot be regarded as anything more than a subversive deification of the man.

There are several points of contention in Nehru’s legacy – government, governance, economy, Kashmir, nepotism, defence, civil liberties, and religion to name a few. However, the developing view that the Nehruvian era marked a time of tolerance and free thought must be questioned, especially when juxtaposed with non-Congress rule.

Receptivity to ideas

Nehru was very receptive to new ideas, particularly his own. However, the same intellectual generosity did not extend to the Opposition, other ministers, or even the rest of the Lok Sabha. In parliament, Nehru used his statutory as well as social position to bully members into acquiescing to his views. As Jean-Paul Garnier, the French ambassador to India from 1961-1965 described, Nehru “exerted his authority and did not like it to be discussed.” Diwan Chaman Lall, who also came from privilege like Nehru, remembered, “[Nehru] was the biggest dictator of the world himself. There is no doubt about it. But nevertheless…he tried to behave in a manner in which he would be acceptable to the people.”

Yet as Sir Walter Crocker recalls, Nehru was not above commandeering public functions by vetoing speeches or interrupting speakers to ask them to sit down and shut up. Sir Walter narrates an episode wherein Nehru interrupted a speech by the minister of agriculture and launched into one himself. On a more serious scale, the dismissal of the Kerala government in 1959 over the state’s education bill is well known.

Nehru was not only dismissive of ideas he did not agree with but also ridiculed them. As one parliamentarian stated, “the [prime minister was] easily provoked to anger or to sarcasm when anybody offer[ed] the slightest criticism.” BP Koirala recounts Nepal’s experience in its negotiations with India and how Nehru’s condescension had marred Nepali public opinion. Even the Dalai Lama observed, “Nehru thought of me as a young person who needed to be scolded from time to time.”

Nevertheless, Nehru was an egalitarian in that he did not suppress just domestic ideas he did not like but also foreign ones: the paranoia about foreign influence that his daughter Indira Gandhi elevated into an art form began with the father. In September 1955, the Indian government ordered the closure of all American information centres in the country except for the ones at the embassy and consulates. It is no secret that Nehru exhibited a peculiar superciliousness towards the United States. Yet he was strongly suspicious of their activities and worried about American propaganda and espionage subverting Indian non-alignment. Despite the United States Information Service providing the prime minister with all the information about its activities in the country, Nehru could not overcome his paranoia about the Americans.

Interestingly, the records paint an image of Nehru as childish and petulant. For example, Narayana Raghavan Pillai, the Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs, once complained to John Cooper, the US ambassador to India, that the USIS had offended his country. When asked how, he replied that Nehru had taken offense at a letter addressed to an unnamed family friend. The letter, thought “improper” and in “bad taste,” had merely asked whether the friend was interested in a visit to the United States.

The demand to close USIS facilities – apparently the Indian government did not follow up on that either and they remained open albeit in a far less conspicuous manner – was the result of suspicion more than anything else. For instance, the MEA could not provide information upon a request from India’s security services about the scope of USIS operations in the country. Even Pillai conceded that “we cannot blame the US embassy since they were always giving advance notice of their intentions.”


Bold experiments

In the field of science and technology, Nehru certainly deserves credit. Few of India’s prime ministers have taken such a personal interest in industrial development and technological advancement. More the pity, then, that Nehru’s enthusiasm could not be converted in execution. However, it is in the area of social experiments that Nehru’s legacy comes in for some flak.

It is undeniable that establishing a modern liberal democracy in India was nothing short of a revolution, and as in any such giant upheaval, there are several growing pains. Given the diversity of the Indian subcontinent, it is unlikely that any system other than a representative one would have been stable for long, but allowing universal adult suffrage from the outset needs closer examination. The nations of Europe which Nehru wished to emulate, particularly England, had taken centuries to evolve from monarchies into representative systems; only in the last century, after tremendous improvement in government services, transportation, and education did the countries of Europe allow universal suffrage. For India, poor and only 12 percent literate at independence, representative democracy was an enormous leap of faith. Examples in India’s neighbourhood indicate, however, that India’s path might not have been the wisest or optimal though certainly the one with most smugness points.

The constitution of India has been another reason for heartburn among some. Differences regarding the philosophical underpinnings of the document notwithstanding, the quality of the result is apparent in the fact that it needed 17 amendments even before the nation’s first prime minister left office. By way of comparison, it took the United States 124 years to achieve what Nehruvian India could in just 14. It is of greater concern, however, that some of those amendments affect free speech and civil liberties to this day.


Inputs for policy

Despite Nehru’s paranoia about foreign propaganda and the United States in particular, he did encourage several brilliant Western minds such as Charles Bettelheim, Simon Kuznets, and Paul Baran to visit and work in India with bodies such as the Planning Commission and the Indian Statistical Institute. However, one would be hard-pressed to find much intellectual diversity among Nehru’s favourite guests. Most were of the Marxian mould and the rest believed in market socialism.

Nehru also frequently relied on advice from PMS Blackett on matters of science and defence. For whatever reason, Western reports on Indian science and defence were treated with greater respect than domestic ones. However, this hardly amounted to an atmosphere of open-mindedness and intellectual diversity on Raisina Hill, at least not in the sense one means it when talking about Beltway think tanks and lobby groups. In fact, with universities and monies under the tight control of the government, there was little development of independent thought in any field.

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Understandably, nations like to revere their “founding fathers.” Mature nations also understand that those figures were merely human, warts and all. The cult of Nehru does no one any good except perhaps the political fortunes of a beleaguered Congress. Like most leaders, Nehru too committed some blunders yet also had a few successes; careful consideration of his historical context and government records – most of which remain classified – should tell us which of his mistakes are visible only with the benefit of hindsight, which truly were blunders, and which conundrums had little way out.

Most gratingly, Nehru-ites praise the idea of India. Nehru did not have the idea of India but an idea of India – an idea that was not moored in Indian historical evolution and left large numbers outside the anglicised pale of modern India. To not recognise that this idea of India, always debatable, always changeable, had its strengths and weaknesses like any other is to mire any discussion of Indian history in ideology. Under Nehru’s premiership, all said and done, more was said than done.

This post appeared on FirstPost on November 14, 2014.