On his 58th death anniversary, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, appears a highly polarising and controversial personality. This was not the case a few decades back when I was studying in a university in the national capital named after him - Jawahar Lal Nehru University (JNU). But even during late 1980s and early 90s, Pandit Nehru was not a very popular figure even in a premier University that was named after him. But he was definitely not hated or despised by any standard.
We are the largest democracy in human history with free speech enshrined in our constitutions as a fundamental right. But I don't remember at any point of time in my entire life, at least from mid 1970s since when I remember things clearly, that one could either admire or criticise a big leader or even disapprove of his/her decisions at any public platform, without losing goodwill or inviting some retribution. Today, strangers, if not bots, are waiting to pounce upon anyone on social media with all kinds of vituperative diatribe over any divergent perception on an issues or even a leader.
Nevertheless, in the best interest of democracy and governance, decisions of every important leader, howsoever great, must be open to impartial and enlightened public inquest or intellectual scrutiny. One must never be insulting or prejudiced in such exercise. But an honest venture with candour shall certainly helps build better perspective on governance and democracy.
During my days in JNU, leftists not only dominated the intellectual discourse on the campus but virtually bullied, mocked and intimidated the rest. They often mocked Pandit Nehru, describing his vision of socialism as fake, insincere and utopian. This was prior to collapse of communism in 1989. This was the time, when even the remotest association with Congress Party or BJP, or for that matter any centrist party, was considered a stigma on JNU campus. I remember during 1988-89, Congress Party had arranged a series of cultural programmes to mark birth centenary of Pandit Nehru. But I doubt it had any positive impact at least in JNU.
Interestingly, certain shades of socialists, opposed to Congress Party in 1980s, hailed Nehru as their own icon. They showed enormous praise for Nehruvian socialism, even while opposing and condemning Indira Gandhi over her assaults on democracy during the famous "Emergency" era and eroding and scuttling integrity of nearly all institutions. Some of the elderly and towering socialist leaders like late Shri Chandrashekhar ji and his associates cited Nehru's five-year plans, or his initiatives to build s strong public sector and institutions of learning, his leadership of post-colonial Afro-Asian world to resist “neo-imperialist, neo-colonial hegemonic agenda of the United States” in 1950s, without capitulating to Russia, as hall-mark of great leadership.
They particularly praised Pandit Nehru’s vision of a modern and scientific India, which in their opinion were manifest in Bhakhra Nangal project to IITs to steel plants to atomic power projects etc. We hardly talk about Bhakhra Nangal today, but I was told that it was inaugurated with festivity and joy, befitting a national festival. They opined that these were so very difficult to conceptualise in the atmosphere prevailing in the immediate aftermath of independence.
Many politicians who were young in 1950s and 1960s, had mentioned that despite all its claims to promote democracy, the United States had refused to help India with steel manufacturing technology or any heavy engineering industry or technological modernization plan on which Nehru ji was very keen. Later suspicion of American hand in killing of Homi J Bhabha virtually confirmed Indian apprehensions of American hostility. With John Foster Dulles vindictive policy of 1950s that those who were not with America were against it, was yet another indicator of American disdain towards India's autonomy and independence in conduct of foreign policy. Under these circumstances, Nehru appears to have handled initial challenges of governance and geopolitics so very well.
But these admirers of Nehru also criticized the latter's overly anglicized ways, his stance on Tibet, his follies over Kashmir and of course the debacle that he invited in the war with China in 1962. They identified the root cause of these failures in Nehru's patronizing and self-righteous approach that bordered on some degree of narcissism. Yet in hindsight, his narcissism was far less malevolent compared to not only Mao, Stalin, Khrushchev or even Churchill but also likes of even Tito, Nasser, Sukarno and Nkrumah, who were suspected to have clandestinely eliminated/oppressed some of their key rivals.
Nehru's financial integrity, as per all available records, was impeccable. Unlike Jinnah, who was committed to excesses in luxury and sensuous indulgences, Nehru led an austere life. This was despite having seen luxury and comfort that his father had once provided for. His association with several women were well known. But that was the case with nearly all men in power of that era, in almost every part of the world, varying from Churchill to Mao.
Nehru was thoroughly committed to governance and remained fairly impartial in dealing with of most his colleagues. Chinese betrayal in 1962 had left him shattered and he made no bones about it. In the last interview of his life, which I have inserted in this blog, he was unequivocal that India had to become a strong military power to repel Chinese threat via Tibet. Even at the height of his soft corner for China, he never hesitated in giving shelter to young Dalai Lama.
When India, with its rich civilizational heritage, gained independence as a vast and yet fractured nation, with a set of challenges that were far too complex and yet humongous, it needed an exceptional and towering leader to preside over the initial phase of tumult and uncertainty. Even if Nehru was not the perfect choice, he was certainly one of the best options that the country had at that point of time. He had several strengths but also a share of follies. How Subhash Chandra Bose or Sardar Patel would have acted is a hypothetical proposition. But these leaders did appear more decisive, forceful and realist on several parameters. But Bose was not there and Sardar Patel passed away prematurely.
There was no dearth of a galaxy of brilliant leaders even in cabinet of Pandit Nehru or outside. Nehru did occasionally support even those who were opposed to his views but in few cases, he did appear vindictive. I am not citing specific examples only to avoid controversies. But I doubt that there was any leader in any part of the post-colonial world at that point of time, who was better. We can argue that as the first Prime Minister, he could have done more. But this is an endless debate.
Subsequent researches, incorporating some de-classified military-diplomatic documents, demonstrate that Nehru ji was least receptive to the then military, security and diplomatic establishments of the country. He over-rode institutional wisdom on several issues of critical importance. Deadlock in Kashmir in 1948 or Chinese intrusion in Aksai Chin in 1950s or abdicating offer of a permanent seat in UN Security Council in favor of China or ultimately being surprised by the Chinese attack in 1962 are some of the examples in this direction.
It is debatable whether such lapses emanated from Nehru's romanticist view of the world that he had nurtured as an idealist freedom fighter under the patronage of Mahatma Gandhi. He lacked adequate exposure to geopolitics and security issues or one can say the very principles and practices of statecraft and warfare. Alternatively, he had remained distrustful of incumbents in those very military, intelligence and diplomatic institutions, who until sometime back had faithfully served an external colonial master, helping in oppression of their own people.
Nehru in his bonhomie with Mao in 1950s, failed to appreciate Chinese or Maoist psyche emanating from long uninterrupted tradition of deceptive warfare and diplomacy. Mao was a top guerrilla warrior, adept in overwhelming bigger adversary exploiting their trust and complacence. Nehru had virtually given up on North-East India during the Chinese war besides letting down troops with deficient supply of essentials. He probably acted far too naively in dealing with Islamist radicals, as if they were liberal Muslims.
But a great leader cannot hide behind these excuses. Sardar Patel too had no exposure to statecraft. But he acted with such levels of realism, pragmatism, integrity and vision – in uniting 500 plus princely states, including difficult ones like Hyderabad and Junagadh among others- that could pale even the most seasoned governance and statecraft strategists.
Leaders cannot be omniscient. But they must optimally harness all their resources, including their associates. With all his strengths and good intent, Pandit Nehru could not sufficiently trust his own associates and he probably remained far more than the first among equals in his council of Ministers. He trusted his own wisdom and decisions far too often, ignoring his associates. This contributed to a great visionary and idealist flounder on some major issues of strategic importance.
But today, Nehru is no more and India and the world and the larger context and sub-contexts of governance and geopolitics have significantly transitioned. United States is the closest partner of India, notwithstanding India's refusal to directly condemn Russia for invasion of Ukraine. India- China competition and rivalry is likely to stay forever. Successes and failures of Nehru offer huge lessons in leadership, politics, governance and geopolitics and diplomacy. The biggest criticism that Pandit Nehru faces is on introduction of dynastic politics in India. Probably, it never happened during his own life time. It was Lal Bahadur Shastri who had succeeded Pandit Nehru but following his unexpected death in Tashkent, Indira Gandhi took over premiership with help of some clever courtiers, who had intended to exploit her naivete. She outsmarted all of them and turned out to be exact opposite to her father on tolerance to dissidence or even corruption. But it is pertinent to ask, what were the rest of Congressmen & women doing?
Even today, the Nehruvian idea of egalitarianism is neither fake nor irrelevant. An extreme inequality in society disturbs its strategic equilibrium, undermining the quality of cohesion and competition and consequently the capacity of a society evolve and flourish optimally. Today, China with 109+ highly profitable public sector companies in the list of Forbes Fortune 500, has demolished the myth of inefficiency of public sector. Ability of these companies to invest in R&D without worrying for immediate returns, has helped China surge ahead of even the United States in many critical areas of fundamental research. Yes, we need to avoid obtrusive controls of the kind that the Soviet Russia and erstwhile communists practiced, killing innovation and excellence and choking output of their societies.
Nehruvian model sought to retain people's control over mega companies and major resources without curbing freedom of ideas, initiative and enterprise. The model could have been refined alongside transformation of larger ecosystem to foster higher quality of trust, collaboration, competition and excellence.
But it is time Nehru is liberated from partisan, acrimonious and politically discordant discourses. His lapses must be remedied and his contributions need to be consolidated upon. But this is possible only if his great grand children set an example of some self-sacrifice. Their presence at the helm of Congress Party, by virtue of sheer birth in a family rather than any accomplishment as well as their association with dishonest courtiers, amounts to the biggest indictment of Nehru as harbinger of nepotism, favouritism, dynastic entitlements and corruption in every sector in contemporary India.
Pandit Nehru's great grand children can emerge as powerful agents of change to redeem not only pride of their own great grandfather but also help India realise its optimum potential as a state and society, that Pandit ji had envisioned.