Readers Write In #297: In defense of Nehru

Posted on November 13, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

“Kalam sir, please come back and save us”

“Share if you want to see Dr.Kalam’s name in Indian rupee notes instead of Gandhi”

The fact that there are postswith the above lines that populate social media every now and then, is one of the reasons why I was forced to write this essay. And if you are baffled by what Dr. Kalam is doing in an essay on Nehru, I can explain. Some of our educated, urban, middle-class Indians love their country not only with all their heart but also with an additional baggage- their hatred for Nehru and Gandhi. Some of them think that both Nehru and Gandhi were solely responsible for all of India’s problems and their angst and frustration has often been exploited by the Hindutva brigade to their very benefit. And since the Hindu right-wing never had a tradition of famous and sacrificing leaders in its fold, it began appropriating leaders like Bhagat Singh (who was a communist), Ambedkar (who was anti- Manuvaad), Sardar Patel (who banned the RSS) and recently Abdul Kalam to write an alternative history that excludes the legacy of Gandhi and Nehru. This has often led to sincere, educated youngsters ending up hating Nehru and sharing memes and posts created by the Hindu Right, that castigate him ruthlessly. And if you ask some of them on whom they revere in place of Nehru and Gandhi as India’s national icons, they spout the name of Abdul Kalam quite instantly. And I have taken the trouble to discuss with them what exactly their grouse with Nehru is and most of them came up with accusations that could be summed up in two statements, which form the basis of my essay.

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Nehru took India on a socialist path and laid the foundation for the notorious corruption-ridden, licence raj. Had India taken the path of free-market capitalism like America, we would have been a much developed nation.

This is one argument which even well-learned people born or/and brought up in the neoliberal environment of post-1991 India often use against Nehru. Even if a minor attempt to understand the context of India’s ‘Leftward’ shift in 1947 is undertaken, it may not be so difficult to learn the rationale behind Nehru’s decision. When the whole ‘capitalist’ Western Europe reeled under the failure of free-market ideology in the late 1930s, only the USSR and its satellites were able to register solid and remarkable rates of economic growth almost until the beginning of the Second World War. This ‘socialist’ boom in turn helped the USSR to provide its people with free and compulsory education, free healthcare and even one hundred percent employment. Even the Western part of the world couldn’t ignore the merits of the socialist model which gave rise to what was famously known as the ‘Welfare State’ of the post-War period, and even America, let these critics remember, was one major country that went on to adopt it.

Nehru just like everyone else in the Cold War era, was tempted to take India on the socialist path and his famous ‘import substitution’ model placed great emphasis on self-reliance (completely opposite to what is funnily known as today’s Atmanirbhar) for the nation’s development. And contrary to what is generally believed, India prospered under the model registering remarkable rates of growth under Nehru’s leadership for close to a decade. Public sector industries occupied the commanding heights of the economy while a state-driven agricultural model provided the necessary impetus to stimulate food production. It is often not understood properly that any country that embarks on a ‘free-market’ path cannot hope to achieve significant success in the absence of proper infrastructure already laid down by a strong, pre-existing, redistributive state. China which liberalized in 1989 was able to reap rich dividends only by making full use of the strong pool of talent and resources created by Mao’s ‘iron-fisted’ socialist regime. If India was chosen as a proper candidate for liberalization in 1991, it was only because it had if anything, a reasonably well-developed infrastructure that included a vast pool of educated and talented individuals fostered by the erstwhile ‘socialist’ establishment.

Even if none of these aspects are taken into consideration, it must be remembered that India’s antipathy to capitalism was not something that was totally inherent and dubious but was laid to some extent by the British imperialist ‘machine’ itself. India just like every other nation in Africa and Latin America, fell prey to and suffered for centuries under ‘colonialism’, which was nothing but a crude form of Europe’s predatory capitalism forged by the world’s first multinational corporations like the English East India Company. These corporations backed by their respective governments plundered natural resources of backward countries with abandon, stopping at nothing and annihilating whatever that stood in its way. The British Raj that later took over from the East India Company created a form of capitalism whose basis lay very much in draining the resources of a well-endowed country like India that helped in fattening merchants and industrialists located on the other side of the world. Any well-meaning individual with some amount of common sense entrusted with the responsibility of governing a backward nation like India at that time would have chosen only the ‘socialist’ model to follow and that was precisely why even ‘non-socialists’ like Sardar Patel and other influential leaders in the Congress did not object much to Nehru’s actions.

All of this is not to deny the deleterious after-effects of India’s ‘affair’ with socialism such as corruption, nepotism and red-tapism. But considering how India fared in the aspect of corruption in the post-1991 era that gave rise to scams that amounted to millions and millions like the 2G, Coalgate, KG Basin (Reliance’s gas exploration project in Andhra), the ‘corruption’ record of the country in its ‘socialist’ phase does not seem to look so bad after all.

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“Nehru was a closet Muslim. He was anti-Hindu. Having been educated abroad, he knew nothing at all about our culture. All his steps towards secularism were directed at destroying India’s culture and great legacy.”

If some of those who advance arguments like the above could apportion some of their valuable time towards reading Nehru’s Discovery of India, I am sure they will start reconsidering their views on Nehru’s engagement with our culture and religion. Nehru was an agnostic no doubt, but his understanding of India’s history and its roots in religion rival even those of the greatest scholars that India has ever produced. Nehru never imposed his agnostic views on Indians or even on his circle and respected the feelings of believers of every faith in India. Those who blame the Kashmir issue wholly on Nehru accusing him of siding with Muslims and Pakistanis conveniently ignore the fact that the roots of the problem lay in the times of the highly manipulative British Raj. The ‘Hindu-Muslim’ issue that was always a sore spot in the fragile body of ‘centuries-old’ India was never allowed to remain undisturbed as to heal, by the perennially scheming British. Their ‘divide and rule’ method paid off handsomely with hundreds of conservative, fundamentalist leaders belonging to both religions playing faithfully into their hands. These people were the main culprits behind the bloodbath that India faced during its Partition and it needs no reminding that Muslims, being the minorities naturally had to endure a greater amount of destruction with respect to life and property, compared with the other. Millions of Muslims who chose to remain with India were appalled at the tragedies that took place on India’s North-West Frontier and any leader with an iota of logic and regard for humanity would have, under such circumstances chosen to care for the minorities, at least a bit more than for the rest. And that is exactly what Nehru did.

When Nehru mooted the idea for a Hindu Code Bill to end the sufferings of millions of Hindu women who had no rights to property and re-marriage, some of his critics raised questions as to why he was afraid to convert it into a Uniform Code that covers people of all religions. Only open-minded people who possessed an overwhelming concern for the unity of the nation seemed to understand Nehru’s logic. Nehru despite being an agnostic, was viewed by a considerable section of India’s masses (especially by the minorities) as someone who belonged to one of India’s Upper-Caste Hindu communities (Kashmiri Pandit) and any attempts from his ‘Hindu-dominated’ government to reform a ‘non-Hindu’ religion would have been interpreted and blown out of proportion as an ‘attack’ against minorities. And in the context of the horrors endured by them just less than half-a-decade ago during the Partition, such a move towards religious reform would have opened another box of worms that would have only threatened to gnaw at the fragile foundations of a peaceful Indian polity.

Even today, people who throw accusations at Nehru for having been partisan towards the minorities, do so only by willfully forgetting the fact that every attempt of his to revive a ravaged country that India was post-Independence, that succeeded and bore fruit, directly benefited millions of its citizens, most of whom were naturally Hindus. Nehru’s concern for the nation and his efforts to improve the lives of its citizens did not have a discriminatory angle and any attempt to malign him as a ‘closet’ Muslim only exposes some hidden agenda of those who accuse him. When the British left India in 1947, journalists and intellectuals all over the world were preparing to write obituaries for the Indian nation hoping that it would collapse under its own weight of religious, communal and racial tensions within less than a decade. Had someone who belonged to the crop of those who throw ‘religious’ slurs at Nehru had ascended the throne then, I have no doubt that, all those dreadful predictions of disintegration and collapse would have come true earlier than they had actually predicted.

Nehru ruled India from 1947 to 1964, took a nation of tatters and ruins that had nothing but hope and promise and oversaw its transformation into an independent, fast-developing, secular and progressive nation. It was only under his stewardship that a backward country like us took the brave initiative of showing a middle-finger to the gigantic power blocs that threatened to envelop the world, in the form of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. None of the countries that got their independence from the colonial powers made remarkable strides in almost every front possible, as much as India did, despite sticking to its democratic roots, and a cursory look at the current state of nations located across the African, Asian and Latin American countries will easily testify to this fact. And none of these would have been possible without the leadership of the visionary that was Jawaharlal Nehru.

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“Share this post if you want Children’s Day to be shifted to Abdul Kalam’s birthday. Do we have to celebrate a womanizer’s birthday as the day for children?”

I very well understand that Dr. Kalam was a great scientist, a popular President and an inspiration for every citizen in this country and the fact that he was a man who belonged to this generation would bring with it a lot of ‘recency bias’. If people of today in the nook and corner of India celebrate his birthday and mourn his death, I know it would just be foolish to mock their beliefs and actions.

But what baffles me the most is a complete lack of concern, for someone on his birthday who came from almost an aristocratic background, who spent more than eight years in jail for a cause that affected millions of Indians, who had to sell a considerable part of his family silver to keep surviving during his struggle against the British and who finally played an unparalleled role in the construction of what is today known as the great Indian nation (‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’).

Nehru’s popularity in the days that immediately preceded the exit of the British was so great that he could have chosen to throw the Constitution away and run a dictatorial regime, cancelling elections and suspending democratic rights. Leaders who led a lot of nations in the Third World, immediately following independence did exactly that, and harvested terrible consequences. But Nehru if anything,was a democrat, a gentleman and a man of values. He loved his nation so seriously that he took every setback that the nation faced too personally. Ramachandra Guha in one of his books, records how hale and hearty Nehru was in his late sixties when India was doing well in all social and economic indices and how dramatically his health collapsed following India’s defeat to the Chinese in the 1962 war. Everyone who belonged to his generation testify to the fact that had India not lost to the Chinese, Nehru would have lived at least for a decade or more. If Kalam gets a hundred posts on my wall on his birthday, doesn’t Nehru after all, for all his achievements deserve at least one or two? Is there any other mature country in this world that derives so much joy from the habit of smearing its founders and architects as much as we do?

Of course, I am not discounting the successful role of the Hindutva right-wing in their mission towards smearing Nehru’s name and reputation and their efforts would have no doubt, gone in vain had Nehru’s successors loved the country and worked for its progress as much as he did. But the fact remains that they did not, they broke and remade Nehru’s ‘socialist’ vision into something ugly and corrosive as ‘crony-socialism’ to suit their personal ends, they reinterpreted Nehru’s well-meaning love for the minorities into ‘vote-bank’ politics and viewed every occasion to rule the country as an opportunity to loot it. To sum up what happened to Nehru’s legacy after his death and put the gist of my essay in a nutshell, I am reminded of a quote I read somewhere,

“Usually in India, children are said to inherit the sins of their parents. But in Nehru’s case, he inherited the sins of his successors”.