In 1976, when India was under a State of Emergency, the American journalist AM Rosenthal visited New Delhi. Rosenthal had once been the New York Times’s correspondent here, and greatly admired Jawaharlal Nehru. For he had seen, at first hand, how India’s first prime minister had struggled heroically to establish a democratic ethos in a country marked by pervasive social inequalities and by polarisation on religious lines.
Now, on this latest visit, Rosenthal was appalled by the climate of fear and suspicion engendered by the administration of Indira Gandhi. He concluded that Nehru’s daughter had damaged rather than deepened her father’s political legacy. As an Indian friend of Rosenthal’s laconically put it, were Nehru alive, he would be in jail, from where he would be writing letters to the prime minister on the importance of democracy and democratic institutions.
This week marks the 50th death anniversary of a man much admired in his lifetime yet increasingly vilified since his death. The decline in Nehru’s reputation has two principal causes: (1) the rise to power of parties based on ideologies opposed to that of the Congress; (2) the controversial tenures as prime minister of Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi and of his grandson Rajiv Gandhi. If Indira Gandhi departed from her father in her suspicion of debate and dialogue, Rajiv Gandhi abandoned Nehruvian secularism in successively capitulating to Muslim fanatics (by overturning the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case) and Hindu extremists (by opening the locks to the shrine at Ayodhya).
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991. Later in the same year, I published an essay calling attention to the fact that while Mahatma Gandhi’s standing among the intelligentsia had rapidly risen in recent years, Nehru’s had precipitously fallen. (The newspaper gave it the title: ‘Nehru Is Out, Gandhi Is In’). While Nehru commanded colossal respect in his lifetime, I wrote that ‘today few other than the career chamchas are willing to defend him, ... and fewer still to understand him’. Yet I had ‘no doubt that in time Nehru’s reputation will slowly climb upwards, without ever reaching the high point of the 1950s’.
When I wrote this in 1991, it seemed that the dynasty, such as it was, had come to an end. I expected that the death of Rajiv Gandhi would lead to a more rounded assessment of India’s first prime minister. Some of Nehru’s ideas had run their course; thus, for example, both political devolution and market-friendly economics were now widely recognised as more suitable to India’s needs than the earlier emphasis on central planning.
Yet it seemed to me in 1991 that other aspects of Nehru’s legacy were relevant, and needed to be reaffirmed; his commitment to Parliament and parliamentary procedures, his attempts to insulate public institutions from political interference, his vigorous defence of religious pluralism and of gender equality, his nurturing of centres of scientific research and teaching that had helped create India’s software boom. Younger Indians also would, I thought, come to recognise the enormity of the challenges Nehru and his colleagues had to face in the first critical years of Independence.
However, I was mistaken in thinking that Nehru was being finally freed of the burden of his descendants. In 1998 Sonia Gandhi was asked to take charge of the Congress. At the time of writing, she has been Congress president for a staggering 16 terms in succession. Meanwhile, her son Rahul Gandhi has been explicitly anointed as her successor. The Nehru-Gandhis has promoted dynastic politics in other ways, by, for example, naming hundreds of new government programmes after members of their family.
As the sociologist André Béteille has remarked, the posthumous career of Nehru has come increasingly to reverse a famous Biblical injunction. In the Bible, it is said that the sins of the father will visit seven successive generations. In Nehru’s case, the sins of daughter, grandsons, granddaughter-in-law and great-grandson have been retrospectively visited on him.
(Ironically, Nehru himself had no wish or desire to create a political dynasty. When he died in May 1964, Indira Gandhi was in private life. She became prime minister entirely by accident, appointed only because Lal Bahadur Shastri — her father’s successor — died prematurely in January 1966.)
In his pomp — which ran roughly from 1948 to 1960 — Nehru was venerated at home and abroad. Representative are these comments of The Guardian, written after the Indian prime minister had addressed a press conference in London in the summer of 1957:
‘A hundred men and women of the West were being given a glimpse of the blazing power that commands the affection and loyalty of several hundred million people in Asia. There is nothing mysterious about it. Mr Nehru’s power is purely and simply a matter of personality. … Put in its simplest terms, it is the power of a man who is father, teacher and older brother rolled into one. The total impression is of a man who is humorous, tolerant, wise and absolutely honest.’
The object of perhaps excessive adulation while he was alive, Nehru’s achievements have been progressively under-valued after his death. The demonisation of the man is now ubiquitous in popular and political discourse, and perhaps especially in cyberspace. So long as Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are active in public life this state of affairs shall prevail. Only after the last member of his family has exited the stage of Indian politics might a judicious and credible appreciation of Nehru’s life and legacy finally become possible.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha
The views expressed by the author are personal