HT Image
HT Image

Jawaharlal Nehru: Hero of his age, outcast of ours

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, writes Ramachandra Guha.
By Ramachandra Guha | None, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAY 24, 2014 09:23 PM IST

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

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
It takes courage to push a conversation that evokes almost zero public sympathy in an audience that is inclined to believe that consent has no place on the marital bed(Shutterstock)
It takes courage to push a conversation that evokes almost zero public sympathy in an audience that is inclined to believe that consent has no place on the marital bed(Shutterstock)

The conversation India refuses to have

By Namita Bhandare
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 08:01 PM IST
In the past few years, India has broken traditional silences on sexual abuse, on consent, and on the rights of sexual minorities. It’s time to break another traditional silence
Close
What other, newer democracies find relatively easy — conducting an election, the counting of votes, the peaceful transition of power — seems to have befuddled the US. There can be and must not be any normalisation of gross prejudice or violence(AP)
What other, newer democracies find relatively easy — conducting an election, the counting of votes, the peaceful transition of power — seems to have befuddled the US. There can be and must not be any normalisation of gross prejudice or violence(AP)

After anarchy in the US, reimagining the middle ground

UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 07:53 PM IST
Governments have to learn how to engage with those who did not vote for them. Citizens have to learn how to converse amidst ideological divisions
Close
Mohammed Siraj led India’s breakthrough in the ongoing tour of Australia. But he grew up playing tennis ball cricket and first held a real cricket ball only five years ago.(Getty Images)
Mohammed Siraj led India’s breakthrough in the ongoing tour of Australia. But he grew up playing tennis ball cricket and first held a real cricket ball only five years ago.(Getty Images)

The secret weapons of a fast-bowling nation

By Rudraneil Sengupta | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 03:31 PM IST
Surprise finds are making their mark in the India bowling line-up, but they aren’t coming up through the system.
Close
A New York street in the 1920s. Just two decades earlier, in the age of horse-drawn vehicles, people had feared their cities would be buried in manure. Then the internal combustion engine took horses off the streets altogether, a shift often used to illustrate the unpredict-able fallouts of new tech.(Shutterstock)
A New York street in the 1920s. Just two decades earlier, in the age of horse-drawn vehicles, people had feared their cities would be buried in manure. Then the internal combustion engine took horses off the streets altogether, a shift often used to illustrate the unpredict-able fallouts of new tech.(Shutterstock)

The horseshit paradox: Why fears about tech are wildly exaggerated

By Charles Assisi | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 08, 2021 03:11 PM IST
Our world runs on complexity. And no machine we have created — or look likely to create — can truly navigate that complexity by itself, says Charles Assisi.
Close
It is no surprise that all kinds of protests are being seen in many parts of the world at the moment(SHUTTERSTOCK)
It is no surprise that all kinds of protests are being seen in many parts of the world at the moment(SHUTTERSTOCK)

This decade will be decisive for democracy, capitalism

By Shashi Shekhar
UPDATED ON JAN 03, 2021 10:07 PM IST
There is another fact which needs attention. Human civilisation has always discovered new light in the darkest days of crisis. With this hope, let us welcome this new decade.
Close
A vibrant corporate capitalist base also leads to additional revenues for the State — which, in turn, can be used for greater welfare for the marginalised and creating a more level-playing field in terms of opportunities(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
A vibrant corporate capitalist base also leads to additional revenues for the State — which, in turn, can be used for greater welfare for the marginalised and creating a more level-playing field in terms of opportunities(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

In defence of reformed capitalism

PUBLISHED ON JAN 02, 2021 07:05 PM IST
Targeting corporate capitalism won’t help. It is essential for growth and democracy. Focus on reforming it.
Close
A health worker prepares a syringe to inoculate a volunteer with a Covid-19 vaccine, Lima, December 9, 2020(AFP)
A health worker prepares a syringe to inoculate a volunteer with a Covid-19 vaccine, Lima, December 9, 2020(AFP)

A robust public broadcaster can guard against anti-vaccine rumours

By Mark Tully
PUBLISHED ON JAN 02, 2021 07:02 PM IST
There seems no reason to doubt that a large number of Indians are, to say the least, undiscriminating in the source of news they chose to watch. This will make them liable to fall prey to false information which can undermine the vaccination campaign.
Close
The silence and loneliness of being on my own is no longer intimidating. In fact - and I know that sounds a little perverse – I’ve enjoyed it. So this morning I feel I don’t want to lose it. At least, not completely.(HTPHOTO)
The silence and loneliness of being on my own is no longer intimidating. In fact - and I know that sounds a little perverse – I’ve enjoyed it. So this morning I feel I don’t want to lose it. At least, not completely.(HTPHOTO)

Goodbye to all that? I’m not so sure

UPDATED ON JAN 02, 2021 06:55 PM IST
The honest truth – and you’ve probably guessed it by now – is that I’m going into 2021 with a little trepidation or, if that’s too strong a word, more than a touch of hesitation.
Close
n many ways, Modi’s economic vision resembles that of the United Kingdom prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the United States President Ronald Reagan. Both faced an avalanche of opposition to their push for economic reforms(PTI)
n many ways, Modi’s economic vision resembles that of the United Kingdom prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the United States President Ronald Reagan. Both faced an avalanche of opposition to their push for economic reforms(PTI)

Farm stir: Latest attempt to stop Modi’s reforms

By Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda
PUBLISHED ON JAN 01, 2021 08:06 PM IST
The Opposition may continue to denigrate him, but millions see in the PM a rare determination and willingness to take risks and cleanse the rot
Close
US President-elect Joe Biden in Delaware, December 29, 2020(REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden in Delaware, December 29, 2020(REUTERS)

Biden has no record of missteps on India

PUBLISHED ON JAN 01, 2021 08:06 PM IST
With the Chinese amassing troops along the border, Indians want to see more, even as they acknowledge that the US will not conduct its foreign policy to please India, echoing a Democratic congressional aide who is normally sympathetic to India but is frustrated by “constant pushing on China”.
Close
Ancient calendars could be intricate, beautiful, but confusing. Above is a section of the ancient Mayan calendar.(Shutterstock)
Ancient calendars could be intricate, beautiful, but confusing. Above is a section of the ancient Mayan calendar.(Shutterstock)

Lend me your years: How the Indian National Calendar came into being

By Rachel Lopez | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 02, 2021 08:29 PM IST
See how, back in 1955, an elite team headed by astrophysicist Meghnad Saha untangled India’s confusing variety of almanacs.
Close
An aangan in an old home in Mehrauli, New Delhi. A fixture since the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the courtyard faded away with the coming of Western-style architecture during colonial rule.(Mayank Austen Soofi)
An aangan in an old home in Mehrauli, New Delhi. A fixture since the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the courtyard faded away with the coming of Western-style architecture during colonial rule.(Mayank Austen Soofi)

Poonam Saxena writes on the true heart of the Indian home, the aangan

By Poonam Saxena | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 01, 2021 07:04 PM IST
It now lives on largely in books and film, but the courtyard was where we cooked, celebrated, slept under the stars on summer nights.
Close
After a traumatic and turbulent 2020, it’s time to ring in a New Year with hope. And since Rabindranath Tagore is being rediscovered by our netas ahead of the Bengal elections, this is a prayer for India in 2021 that draws inspiration from the great poet-laureate.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
After a traumatic and turbulent 2020, it’s time to ring in a New Year with hope. And since Rabindranath Tagore is being rediscovered by our netas ahead of the Bengal elections, this is a prayer for India in 2021 that draws inspiration from the great poet-laureate.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

A ‘new’ India can’t be built by abandoning the core values of our founding fathers

UPDATED ON JAN 01, 2021 06:01 AM IST
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high. Where an Indian identity is determined by citizenship, and not divided by the narrow domestic walls of caste, region or religion. Where true secularism demands that no state authority promote or discriminate against any religion, where equal respect for all faiths must be the basis of our constitutional secularism.
Close
The farmers’ protest may be geographically limited, but the ripples it has caused are international.(ANI)
The farmers’ protest may be geographically limited, but the ripples it has caused are international.(ANI)

The year is almost over, but scars will remain

By Shashi Shekhar
PUBLISHED ON DEC 27, 2020 06:13 PM IST
The year 2020 will be known as a year of bias, discontent, isolation and apprehensions. These can be brushed away by blaming the pandemic, but the virus merely amplified existing tendencies.
Close
The argument Covid-19 did not permit the session is specious. For a start, Parliament’s earlier functioning disproves it. The monsoon session was held in September when daily cases crossed 95,000. So how can a situation when the increase has reduced to under 25,000 be a credible reason for not holding the winter session?(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
The argument Covid-19 did not permit the session is specious. For a start, Parliament’s earlier functioning disproves it. The monsoon session was held in September when daily cases crossed 95,000. So how can a situation when the increase has reduced to under 25,000 be a credible reason for not holding the winter session?(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

Parliament should sit more often

UPDATED ON DEC 26, 2020 07:36 PM IST
The bigger moral argument rests on the belief Parliament is special. It represents our nation. It speaks for us and symbolises our resolve. So if the temple of our democracy ducks the challenge of functioning in a time of the virus what’s the example it sets for the rest of us and what’s the message it sends to the world beyond our borders?
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP