By Saarthak Anand
14 November 2017 marked the 128th birth anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Celebrated as Children’s Day in India, owing to his affection for children, his birthday never fails to rekindle fervent debate over his contribution to the building of modern-day India.
The debate is usually centred on Nehru’s attitude towards secularism and liberty – two ideals which his supporters claim are threatened under the present dispensation in New Delhi – and his tackling of foreign policy. Most of his critics see the latter as the cause of the problems witnessed today in Kashmir.
Nehru’s legacy, however, runs much deeper than just a couple of contentious issues, and his role in shaping the Nation much larger. Taking charge of a nation which had seen two hundred years of foreign rule, he did well to lay the foundations of a deep-rooted liberal democracy.
This was in stark contrast to many of his international counterparts such as Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Josip Broz Tito (Yugoslavia), and Sukarno (Indonesia), who installed authoritarian rule in their nations. It was Nehru’s vision which led to the establishment of such institutions as the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management, which enjoy great international repute to this day.
The pillars of Nehru’s policy
The Nehruvian Consensus was based largely on three principles – primacy of the public sector, non-alignment, and secularism. Of these, the first was somewhat borrowed from the centrally planned Soviet economy. Though systematically dismantled during the later years, many of its features continue to wield prominence in Indian policy-making even today. Notably, while drawing inspiration from the Soviet model, Nehru made sure to keep a distance from its autocratic features.
Through non-alignment, India sought a place at the high table of global affairs. In a fiercely bipolar world, this was a new order comprising of Third World nations that had broken free from the chains of imperialism and colonialism. With regards to the success of this policy, the jury is still out. Indeed, it has been dismissed as idealistic by critics and blamed for the 1962 loss to China.
Former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, however, eventually acknowledged the wisdom of this approach. “However irritating to Cold War America, it was a wise cause for an emerging nation. With a then-nascent military establishment and underdeveloped economy, India would have been a respected but secondary ally. As a free agent it could exercise a much wider-reaching influence,” he had written in retrospect.
The Nehruvian secularism
Nehru’s secularism was a much wider concept than how it is interpreted in today’s politics. While believing in a separation of state and religion, the Nehruvian state realised the uniqueness of various religions and was committed to safeguarding the culture of minorities. A vast number of minority institutions continue to thrive in India under the protective shadow of the state.
Clearly, his policy was not free of flaws. Nehru’s economic model, while tending towards socialism, failed to accomplish wide-ranging improvements in health and educational indicators. He might also be at fault for not doing enough towards the integration of Kashmir, and for underestimating China’s might. His version of secularism is often criticised by the Right as minority appeasement. That, however, calls for a rational debate over his achievements and failures. The present discourse is quite centred on contentious binaries, leaving little room for rational arguments
Disparate from his successors
The last few decades have seen a blurring of the line between Nehru, the individual, and his family legacy. There has been a tendency to hyphenate him with his daughter Indira and grandson Rajiv. Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the Emergency is, thus, often perceived as a crime of the family. Nehru, on the other hand, was far from an authoritarian leader. His commitment towards building a liberal democracy with robust institutions is evident in the drastically distinct paths taken by India and Pakistan.
It is myopic to view India’s first Prime Minister as belonging to a particular family or party; he was primarily a statesman and a leader of the nation.
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