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Where Caesar Faltered: Assessing Nehru’s legacy – I
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

The history of the world’s great leaders is often the story of human folly. – Voltaire

All leaders, Confucius warned the led long ago, are “dealers in hope”. They hold out some hope or the other to those whom they lead to inspire them.

Jawaharlal Nehru whose 125th birth anniversary would have been celebrated with great pomp and show had the UPA returned to power last year, also held out a hope to his countrymen when he took over as the country’s first Prime Minister. Bewitched by his charisma, his credulous countrymen fondly accepted his long-awaited “tryst with destiny.”

However, where have we reached today after six and half decades? Unfortunately, one god after another, including the goddess Durga failed us. All hopes of an era stand belied. We have of late opted for new vistas and a new political ideology. And, also, have been promised the new hope of “achhe din”. While hoping for the best a stock-taking is in order.

Considering the formidable interest groups that have deeply entrenched stakes in preserving and perpetuating the supposed Nehruvian legacy, it is hazardous to attempt an assessment defying popular perceptions. Howsoever unsavory, this task has one day to be addressed to. In the year of Caesar’s 125th birth anniversary, we are neither too near nor too far from the Nehru years to have as objective a look as possible.

Notwithstanding his considerable contribution before and after Independence, the failings of Nehru far outweigh his accomplishments. Both of them must be discussed threadbare to let the present generation draw their own conclusions. Much as Nehru’s loyal followers – and they’re still aplenty – would like to wish it away, as the Bard put it “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”.

The following characteristics of the Nehruvian legacy need thorough examination:

Soft State

First and foremost, Nehru bequeathed us what Gunnar Myrdal called the “soft state” in his monumental study, Asian Drama. It is State that at the most gets its good intentions enacted into legislation but dismally lacks the political will to implement them. It refuses, moreover, in its pursuit of popular acceptance, to impose and enforce any obligations on the ruled. Such a post-Independence dispensation blossomed in due course into a very Indian political soap opera whose leitmotif is: connive at everything to cling to power.

Nehru was the last Mughal Emperor in so far as he carried on the tradition of a durbar of sycophants who were ever ready to endorse his pet views and fancies. He was a very poor judge of human beings and his so-called friends – V K Krishna Menon and Sheikh Abdullah were chief among them – did more harm to him, and the country, than he ever realized.

Unto the Last

Nehru started the tradition of sticking to power till the last day of his life – a tradition that his successors seem desperately keen to follow. The thought of grooming a successor and calling it a day after a spell of power, never crossed his power-intoxicated mind. Had, for instance, Nehru retired from active politics after winning the 1961 elections when the Congress returned to power for the third time, and spent the rest of his allotted time writing his memoirs, historical judgments on his Prime Ministership would not have made such a dismal reading. He chose, instead, to stick on and on to power, signing, after his debilitating stroke, anything that was put up to him (as has been recorded by his secretary, N K Seshan and his ICS cousin, B K Nehru) just to die draped in the Prime Ministerial mantle. Obviously, the man was in an advanced stage of senile dementia. He was propped up as a figure-head by those who rode on his coat-tails.

Nehru was enamored of the Soviet economic experiment that the leftists in the West hailed as the dawn of a new civilization. He was also heir to the Gandhian legacy of “people’s participation”. He presided over the consummation of a marriage of convenience of the two and created a License-Permit-Quota raj which, in course of time, blossomed into a system that held India in shackles while the world marched ahead. The new raj forged a version of entente cordiale of the bureaucrats, politicians, and businessmen to serve each other’s interests. Soon clambered on to this bandwagon, criminals whose alliance with their patrons finally hijacked the system itself.

Neglect of Important

In his eager search for the tempting highlands of international recognition Nehru miserably failed to notice the elephantine grass of national problems growing under his own feet. The cavalier manner he displayed in dealing with the problem of the country’s growing population is a telling commentary on his neglect of issues that really mattered.

AAs a leader, Nehru never strove to sort out his national priorities; instead, the urgent elbowed out the important altogether. The complete neglect, for instance, of education as an instrument of social change was an unpardonable blunder on his part.

Despite his serious reservations about the “ICS mentality,” he failed to create an administrative set-up that deemed serving the people its major responsibility rather than ruling over them. The result was perpetuation of a colonial administration – a most unresponsive bureaucracy concerned with its own power and pelf.

Nehru never addressed himself to India’s fundamental agrarian problem, perpetuating thereby the inequities of centuries that rural India suffered from and the socio-economic consequences of which continue to haunt the polity till today.

IIn laying the foundations of a foreign policy, considerations of what his official biographer S Gopal describes as “fostering a world community” – and his personal image – took precedence over national interests. His assessment of the rise of China and its role in world affairs was highly romanticized.

His sentimental attachment with Kashmir bequeathed India a festering wound. His policy towards India’s immediate neighbors bore a stamp of personal hauteur with the result that many opportunities of laying foundations of abiding regional solidarity were regrettably lost.


Nehru never understood or addressed himself to the resolution of the bogey that the British had invented to divide and rule India, namely, “minorityism” which continues to haunt us even today.

Nehru was a prisoner of his own rhetoric to the extent that he started believing that a good turn of phrase was a substitute for action. High-sounding speeches and well-crafted phrase-mongering was the forte of his style that enthralled his countrymen. The real problems at hand were seldom addressed seriously.

WWith his over-arching ego Nehru never heeded views and suggestions that ran counter to his own perceptions. The urge to play the dictator that he anonymously wrote about in the November 1937 Modern Review article never left him completely.

Nehru converted the Congress Party that he could have used as an effective engine of social and economic change, into a pliant instrument of self-aggrandizement – a process that his daughter pushed to the extreme by turning the organization into a family fief, which it is today.

The God that Failed

Despite his bold claim to have “discovered” India and its moving spirit (summed up aptly in the German term weltanschauung) in the confines of Ahmednagar prison, Nehru had no feel for what really moves India and its people. Apart from the realization that Indians had always looked forward to the emergence of a Messiah to deliver them from an oppressive order (which Messiah he thought he was), he grievously erred in his understanding of the Indian psyche. Religion has been, since time immemorial, the driving force in peoples’ lives in India. Nehru’s emphasis on the veneer of secularism – whatever his understanding of the concept – to guide the Indian polity has done more damage to the body politic than good.

Assuring all religions an equal place in the socio-political system of post-Independence India and the decision not to make only one of them as the guiding force of state policy is eminently understandable. But the refusal to lay the real foundations of a secular polity through uniform civil code and other necessary measures is unpardonable. It contributed towards preserving the obscurantism of the Muslim community to serve the political interests of the Congress Party. It thus created more fissures in the country’s social structure than contribute towards building a new integrated nation.

Continued to “Historical Blunder that We’ll Regret Forever”  

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Comment Being in the concluding section of 'a History of the World' by Andrew Marr, one of several histories of the world that appear to approach the subject in a different light - or why bother, I have through the course of the book reflected that history, the writing of it, is based on the observable and the interpretable – herein the variance - of this observation. No historian has an idea of an over-arching guiding influence that explains the historical birth and raising of leaders of men in a particular country seeking to enhance its fortunes in the greater world around it. When the historian mentions Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, or Napoleon, or Nehru, it is because they actually appear on the stage of history, but he has no perspective into why these individuals should appear, meaning how they fulfil some greater providence that their birth itself proves. The historian is thus at a disadvantage the moment he begins to pen his observations, and all he succeeds in doing is sedulously put down what he observes to have happened, and to suggest what might have happened that didn't happen and thus be totally unrealistic in respect of the compelling forces that occasioned what did happen. The lessons of history are rarely heeded in the opportunism of the moment, thus the recurrence of empire builders convinced of being the exception, an opportunism that is substantiated in what appears to be the right for the times; what does affect change is that over-arching principle the historian does not know about, one that raises the right man for the job in the prevailing spirit of the times that is all about reality and not dreams of reality. Nehru is gone, and his shortcomings in a modern day perspective evident, but the point is what is happening today, the making of history, and that what affects change in mentality, so evident in the humanisation of an inter-connected world, is clearly in the realm of the providentially endowed. Religion might acknowledge this, but not the historian, who, after all, observes people and events as they happen and not the guiding providential influence of the times. One relies on this spirit of humanity world-wide to influence nations in the elected leaders (providentially born in place and time) in their governance of people towards world-wide harmony.

06/12/2015 14:14 PM

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