Rescue Nehru from his descendants, writes Ramachandra Guha
In his first speech after being sworn in as our new President, Ram Nath Kovind praised Patel, Ambedkar, Gandhi, and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, but did not take the name of Jawaharlal Nehru. This provoked outrage in Congress circles, with the senior party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad terming it ‘unfortunate’ and ‘partisan’ that the President ‘did not mention Nehru who was the first prime minister of India and the architect of modern India. He was not just one of the PMs but the first PM of India who was known around the world for his vision’.
The main reason the President (or his speechwriter) did not mention India’s first Prime Minister was that the Sangh Parivar which sent him to this high office is ideologically opposed to Nehru. They wanted (and still want) a Hindu Rashtra; Nehru insisted that if India was anything at all, it was not a Hindu Pakistan. They glorify our past and ancient scriptures; Nehru instead sought to build a modern society by means of reason and science. The Sangh Parivar even opposed democracy, the RSS journal Organiser writing in 1952 that Nehru would ‘live to regret the failure of universal adult franchise in India’. They think that men are women’s guardians; whereas Nehru believed that women were in all respects fully equal to men.
As is well known, the Sangh Parivar played virtually no part in our freedom struggle, and indeed (as during the Quit India movement of 1942) sometimes worked to subvert it. Moreover, during Ambedkar’s lifetime the RSS bitterly attacked him as well as the Constitution whose drafting he oversaw. ‘The worst [thing] about the new Constitution of Bharat,’ wrote Organiser, ‘is that there is … no trace of ancient Bharatiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it’ (and we may be glad of that too). However, the BJP and the RSS have since sought to opportunistically appropriate both the freedom-fighter Patel and the social reformer Ambedkar. But they draw the line at Nehru. Their hatred of him is everlasting.
That said, another reason the President (or his speechwriter) did not mention Nehru could be that, apart from the confined circle of Congress chamchas, not many Indians would notice or be put out by this omission. Nehru contributed enormously to the making of modern India, by promoting universal adult franchise, linguistic and religious pluralism, and modern science. However, the actions of his descendants have deeply damaged his reputation. Nehru’s democratic credentials were vitiated by his daughter’s imposition of the Emergency; his commitment to gender justice by his grandson’s capitulation to Islamic fundamentalists in the Shah Bano case; his secularist ideas by the same person’s banning of The Satanic Verses and his opening of the locks in Ayodhya.
Unlike Indira and Rajiv, Sonia Gandhi did not occupy the office of Prime Minister. However, as the most powerful person in a Congress-led Government, she erected a cult of the Nehru-Gandhi family, naming dozens of schemes and projects after them. This disgusted many Indians, who knew that the history of the Congress party—still less that of the wider freedom struggle—could never be identified with a single family.
Indira, Rajiv, and Sonia were all thrust into political prominence by accident. The first two became Prime Minister after the incumbent unexpectedly died; the third was asked by senior Congressmen to take over the party after a series of humiliating electoral defeats. By contrast, Rahul Gandhi is where he is only because his mother promoted him. And from what he has done (or not done) in thirteen years in politics, it seems quite evident that he is not a natural or effective leader. And the particular attribute that the Congress President may think is positive—his family name—has, in fact, decidedly negative connotations.
For India has changed massively in recent decades. Especially when it comes to politicians, Indians no longer ask what your father or grandmother did—they ask what you have done yourself. The answer, in Rahul Gandhi’s case, is more or less nothing. His lack of achievement hurts the Congress, which is why some BJP leaders have gone so far as to publicly thank him for what he is doing to ensure their party’s continuing success. And it further damages the reputation of Jawaharlal Nehru. For if it is Rahul Gandhi who claims to uphold, incorporate and embody Nehru’s legacy¬ (a claim endorsed by President Kovind’s critic Ghulam Nabi Azad), can that legacy, ask an increasing number of Indian citizens, be worth defending at all?
Whether one admires or dislikes him, or indeed has ambivalent feelings about him, it is indisputable that Jawaharlal Nehru had a colossal impact on independent India. I have spoken earlier of his contributions to nurturing democracy, pluralism, and science. Set against these major achievements are some notable failures, such as his indifference to private enterprise and to military preparedness, and his lack of emphasis on primary education.
In an essay in my book Patriots and Partisans I have provided an interim assessment of Nehru’s place in our history, juxtaposing his successes against his failures. I hope that a younger scholar—born, unlike me, well after Nehru’s death—will one day write a far more substantial assessment of the man, his times, and his legacy, based on solid work in the archives. But for such a book to merit the objective, dispassionate, reception it deserves, the Nehru-Gandhi family must retire from politics. It is overwhelmingly likely that the family—singly or collectively—cannot resurrect or revive the Congress Party. And it is absolutely certain that so long as his descendants remain in public life, nothing can resurrect or revive the reputation of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal
Follow the author on Twitter @Ram_Guha