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Sunday, August 14, 2022

This is a very relevant question. The present government’s denunciation of Pandit Nehru has much to do with the present PM’s attempt to be seen as somebody who inaugurated a new era in Indian politics , much like how kings of the ancient and medieval periods tried to make themselves immortal by naming an era after them. However, facts about Nehru speak a different story.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of a free independent India under very trying circumstances. There were numerous challenges facing the new nation- healing the wounds of partition, uniting the various princely states and solving the basic problems of poverty and lack of education that were widespread.

The first task was accomplished through his own commitment to secularism, which, in the Indian context, implied equal respect for all religions. He, by example, made sure that this ideal remained rooted in the minds of Indians. The Indian constitution which was put into place by stalwarts like Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar ensured equality and freedom for every Indian, irrespective of his religious affiliations. If today, people in this country are able to challenge the government of the day and society on contentious issues like Aadhaar, gender equality, right of women to worship, irrespective of their age and caste affiliations, triple talaaq, and others, it is only because rights were guaranteed under the Constitution of India.

The sub-continent, at the time of independence, was a complex of small principalities and kingdoms ruled by Rajas and Nawabs. Many of them had benefited from their association with the British and some of them even contemplated independence -The Raja of Travancore, the Nawab of Junagadh and the Nizam of Hyderabad. While the last Viceroy of British India, Sir Louis Mountbatten, played the role of a facilitator, it was left to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and V.P. Menon to undertake this onerous task. This was accomplished, in the process, creating a unified India.

Nehru recognized the need for rapid economic development of the country as its prime requirement in order to overcome widespread poverty. World War II had ruined the economies of all the major players, including Great Britain and India. The defeat of the Axis forces signaled a new era of freedom and equality. Socialism was the new ideology of many European nations, including Great Britain, and the state was required to play a major role in reconstructing the economies of countries which had suffered ruin. India’s first PM rightly believed that a benevolent socialist state would be able to distribute the fruits of economic development more equitably amongst its citizens. We must remember that India lacked the infrastructure for rapid development and had to virtually start from scratch. This reasoning led to the creation of state owned heavy industries and state sponsored creation of large irrigation dams. These institutions led to the creation of an indigenous talent and expertise pool in heavy industry- iron and steel, material handling, thermal and hydro-electric power and the like. Industrial plants belonging to the heavy industry segments were located in economically backward areas in order to facilitate economic development of the area and provide employment to the locals. Self reliance was a key word. In a sense, Nehru had laid the economic foundations of the country by creating a state driven economy, which was relevant to the prevailing circumstances.

Education and promotion of science were also priority activities for the PM. Nehru firmly believed that for the country to make real progress, people had to develop a scientific temper and be rational in their thinking. He chose Maulana Abul Azad as India’s first education minister in order to give shape to his vision. Premier educational and research institutions were established in the hope that the right kind of thinking environment would be created. Some of the institutions like the IIT’s, AIIMS, BARC and others, are still regarded highly for the high standards they maintain in their respective fields. We only have to look at the present state of education & institutions of higher learning, and the general environment of discourse, today, in order to understand the role of the political leadership in their making and unmaking.

We must not forget the institutions of democracy that were nurtured by him in order to ensure accountability of the ruling class-the parliament, judiciary and the executive ( the bureaucracy included). He always maintained that people had a right to criticize him for his failures and he, as a representative, was accountable to them. This was one of the reasons he was a regular attendee in Parliament and enthusiastically participated in debates, ensuring its sanctity. Contrast this with today’s situation and the difference is all very stark and evident.

India had just emerged after nearly 150 years of British rule into a world which had divided itself into two camps-the US and the Soviets who had carved out their respective spheres of influence, marking the beginning of the Cold War. The policy of non-alignment which was followed by India was based on his vision that India as a newly independent nation could serve as a role model for other third world nations which would emerge and act as a single bloc, neither pro-west nor pro-soviet. This was an idealist’s vision, which, Nehru hoped would keep India truly non-aligned in world politics. We must give credit to him, for he dared to dream and raised the country’s prestige in the eyes of the world.

Like many visionaries, he also had his faults and share of critics. But that does not take away the fact that men like Nehru are India’s gifts to the world and will be remembered by generations of Indians for a long time to come. Despite the present government’s best efforts to erase his memory, he has enough recall value.