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Nehru’s India – and Ours

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By Dr Satish C Aikant

One would have hardly expected Nirad Chaudhuri to speak well of India and the Indians. So, it came as a surprise what he had to say of Nehru. ‘He is the most important moral force behind the unity of India and was the leader not of a party, but of the people of India taken collectively, the legitimate successor to Gandhiji… If Nehru goes out of politics or is overthrown, his leadership is likely to be split up into its components, and not pass over intact to another man. In other words, there cannot, properly speaking, be a successor to Nehru.’ As eulogies go, this is high praise especially if it comes from Nirad Babu.
Nirad Babu’s words will be an anathema to those in power today when there is a systematic campaign to wipe out the legacy of Nehru and belittle his contribution to making of modern India. Yet, if one were asked to name three most important twentieth century Indians who have left their mark on the political and cultural terrain of India and have been recognised globally, they are Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore. Taken together, they represent the genius of modern India. In varying degrees they are the rooted cosmopolitans rising above parochial concerns to embrace humanity in their expansive vision.
Nehru was one of the greatest internationalists of his age. While he was deeply steeped in nationalism, his overall outlook was a combination of cosmopolitanism and the secular ethic. The Western influence made a significant contribution to his intellectual development. In terms of substance of his political ideas, the two highly significant currents of Western thought, which beyond doubt produced an indelibly deep impression on his mind, were Fabianism and Marxism which vied with each other for an exclusive possession of his allegiance. The Fabian abhorrence of violent methods, its unshakable attachment to the democratic processes for the attainment of an equitable and just social order had tremendous appeal to him. But he was overwhelmed by the civilisational currents of India. In his inimitable and forthright way he states: ‘I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thought and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me as she does to all her children, in innumerable ways and behind me lie somewhere, in the sub-conscious, racial memories of a hundred, or whatever the number may be, generations of Brahmins. I cannot get rid of either the past inheritance or my recent acquisition… I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile’s feeling.’ So there are many strands in the temperament, character and intellectual fibre of Nehru, derived from India and Europe, which make his personality uniquely rather like a rich tapestry.
Nehru appeared on the political horizon of India just at the right time and he was fortunate to have found his mentor in Mahatma Gandhi who in several ways complemented him. When Gandhi arrived on the scene he sensed a whiff of fresh air: ‘And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths, like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes, like a whirlwind that upset many things but most of all the working of people’s minds. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition.’
It was Gandhi who strengthened his ethical outlook. Unusually for a politician, Nehru was a man of deeply held moral convictions; he believed in the moral life as sustaining not just private life, but also as necessary for the living of any kind of political life. He was a politician without religious faith, but in possession of the deepest moral sense. From an aristocrat accustomed to privilege, he became a man of the people and empathised with the toiling masses. Unlike Gandhi, he set himself no superhuman moral feats. But like Gandhi, he possessed a remarkable steadfastness of faith. Nehru tried to use, to the utmost, that capacity all of us have – the capacity to reason. He used his reason not only to steer his journey through public life but also to use it as a tool of self-criticism.
In 1937, when Nehru had been elected president of the Indian National Congress for the third time he was worried that the Indian people might begin to perceive his prominence as Caesarism – akin to the dictatorship of the authoritarian Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. Conscious and cautious of the dangers of his own pride and position, he wrote an essay titled ‘Rashtrapati,’ under the pseudonym Chanakya, which was published in a Calcutta journal the Modern Review. In it, the author describes Nehru as ‘some triumphant Caesar passing by’. By writing about himself in this manner, Nehru stressed the importance of questioning the motives of leaders, and checking the power they hold. .Nehru (as Chanakya) ridicules himself in these words: ‘Men like Jawaharlal with all their capacity for great and good work are unsafe in democracy. He calls himself a democrat and a socialist….. A little twist and Jawaharlal might turn a dictator sweeping aside the paraphernalia of a slow-moving democracy. He might still use the language and slogans of democracy and socialism, but we all know how fascism has fattened on this language and cast it away as useless lumber.’
This was an attempt on Nehru’s part to visualise what the worst of his critics might like to think of him. In this sense it was not merely a piece of introspective and self-critical writing aimed at chastising himself and deflating his ego. There is, on the whole, a firm and sustained ironic detachment from one’s own self, an eagerness to take note of an opposite viewpoint. Nehru had the candour to accept his failures. Of course, he had his limitations. Nehru did not prove to be as progressive as he could have been. There were significant gaps between what he preached and what remained the ground reality. One of the glaring negative traits the Nehruvian polity revealed is that it retained a basic element of continuity with the British style of governance, with no significant departure from the colonial style of functioning. It can be reasonably argued that despite certain obvious outward changes in forms of governance, the Indian government under Jawaharlal Nehru represented in many respects a continuation of British attitudes, both, in form and substance. It retained the repressive state apparatus. The Congress government after 1947 unfortunately chose not to develop an alternative State structure, but maintained more or less the political and administrative structures inherited from the British.
And, yet, it cannot be denied that we live in a world mainly shaped by Nehru and his compatriots. No other leader has had such lasting influence on the polity and institutions of his country. Adult suffrage, a federal structure, the mixed economy, non-alignment in foreign policy, cultural pluralism and the secular state – these were the crucial choices made by our first generation of Indian nation-builders, the prominent among them being Jawaharlal Nehru. India is virtually alone among post-colonial states in Asia to have adopted secularism as a key feature of her constitution and the cornerstone of her strategy of nation building. Nehru built India’s image in the world.
The political landscape we inhabit today seems to have become the territory of those who question the fundamentally secular and plural ethos of India by making new claims to selfhood – couched in terms of religion, nation, tribe, culture – all ready to use coercion and violence to assert their dominance. We lack the intellectual capability and the wisdom to see what it takes to keep a nation going. A new nation needs to hold together, to bring its diverse parts into the new imagination that will give it its élan vital and prevent the sectarian political forces from wresting control of the Indian state. It needs a new iconography and a new moral compass that will help its citizens navigate, both individually and collectively, the troubled waters of a complex history.
Today, when India is faced with challenges to its economic and political sovereignty and threats to the secular credentials of the Indian Constitution, we need to revisit the basic Nehruvian values of secularism, pluralism and dialogism to help the country out of its predicament. What we need is an updated version of Nehru’s idea of India in sync with the modern times.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University)