Assessing Nehru’s Legacy – II
Continued from “Where Caesar Faltered: Assessing Nehru’s legacy – I”
To many a reader, the heading of the piece will ring a bell. Wasn’t it the late Comrade Jyoti Basu who used the phrase? Indeed, he did. And it was when his fellow comrades in the Party Politbureau, in their myopic political vision, didn’t let him lead the United Front in 1996, and thereby don the mantle of the first elected Communist Prime Minister of India. He never forgave the Party nor forgot the hurt.
That the Politburea decision turned out, in retrospect, to be a blessing in disguise, is altogether another matter. Had Jyoti Babu taken over as Prime Minister, the whole of India would, possibly, have hurtled down the West Bengal way – gheraos, strikes, run-away populism and economic ruination that the State is still paying for.
No, I’m not talking of this supposed blunder. Instead, my reference is to the real historical blunder that Jawaharlal Nehru committed, which has haunted the polity since then.
As August 15, 1947, approached, Nehru sounded increasingly history conscious. When the first contingent of British troops left India, he was overwhelmed. His message on the occasion was touching indeed: “It is rare in history that such a parting takes place not only peacefully but also with goodwill”. What magicians are the wily British in creating illusions! They made both Indians and Pakistanis feel the warmth of their goodwill as they pushed them on either side of historical divide that would rankle for centuries.
Eloquent turn of phrase was characteristic of Nehru’s command of the English language. (Motilal, indeed, had made a sound investment to have his son educated at Harrow and Cambridge). He spoke feelingly in a husky voice. His carefully worked out speeches – even when he spoke from the text – contained rhetorical flourishes aplenty.
As the fateful hour – 12 o’clock mid-night – approached, Nehru rose to address the House: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially”, he said. (How substantially you can judge by the fact that after three score and five years of Independence at least one third of the population lives below the poverty line – a clichéd economic euphemism for existence not much above the animal level.
“At the stroke of the midnight hour”, continued the famous “tryst with destiny” address “when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”. Members of the House thumped their desks in applause. Both the Hon’ble Prime Minister and Members of Parliament conveniently forgot that when it was midnight in Delhi, those who had ruled India for two centuries from afar were having their last laugh over pre-dinner drinks in their clubs in London. In Japan and China the sun was rising over a new day. In Washington D C, it was noon. It seems when Master Joe (as Nehru was called in Harrow) was in school, the geography taught presupposed a flat earth. (This, however, is an excusable lapse on the part an otherwise well-informed leader that Nehru was.) Perhaps the most significant part of that address was:
A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.
Indeed, the moment came – literally – when we slipped out from the old into the new. Yes, an age ended. Again, literally. But did the soul of a nation find utterance? Did it succeed in finding an articulate voice?
When a nation steps out from the old, there is a lot that it leaves behind to start afresh. Many an oppressive institution is discarded. Many bags of old luggage are disposed of. We had a unique opportunity to take a new road. Instead, we continued traversing the old path, content merely with the change of name.
As Nehru spoke, his party men continued cheering passionately in robust approval. (For them, anything the leader said was sacrosanct). On his own part, having once delivered the much-applauded “tryst with destiny” address, Nehru forgot all about it. He thought it was important for the Congress Party to ensure the continuity of all existing institutions to sub serve the ends of the new set-up.
The real historical blunder of our polity was not to ask ourselves the hard question: now that we have the opportunity to bring into being a new order, which of our existing institutions and laws must be scrapped lock stock and barrel; which ones must be substantially modified and which ones must be carried forward. For example, we must prize for ever one legacy of the British rule, namely, the concept of the rule of law. Under no circumstances, must we let that welt or wither.
However, the acceptance in their entirety of the law-enforcing agencies and, more importantly, their style of functioning that the British created – the police system and the way it works, for instance – was an egregious mistake. The British had created these agencies to rule over and not to serve the people. After six and a half decades of independence, these agencies still deem themselves as rulers. (Have you ever been treated by a policeman with the courtesy due to a citizen?) As a matter of fact each and every institution that came into being during the British rule was specifically designed to rule and instill a sense of fear and awe amongst the ruled. Our failure to examine the working of the institutions that citizens interact with and give a new orientation to their functioning to serve, rather than to rule over people, is our greatest failing since Independence – the real historical blunder.
Self-deluded indeed was the man who glibly talked about stepping out of the old into the new without knowing which way to go and how to reach there. The British rulers lived in sprawling bungalows in Lutyens city. The moment these were vacated, our leaders moved in with remarkable alacrity. Nehru chose for himself the largest mansion in town. (Much to his chagrin, he couldn’t have the Viceregal Lodge converted into Prime Minister’s residence.) So, he settled for the residence of the last British Commander-in-Chief. Others in the Government followed suit. All they did was to step out from the old to the refurbished old called new, and in great style. The polity paid a formidable price for this failing of the rulers-to-be.
Never in India’s chequered history did a rule begin with such a seemingly inexhaustible stock of goodwill as did Nehru’s Prime Ministership. He could do almost anything. Indeed, he could have acted like Achmed Sukarno in Indonesia and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, assuming near dictatorial powers and gravely subverting India’s democratic polity (which his dear daughter later tried her hand at and nearly succeeded). That he didn’t do is a matter not of small, but great, mercies. Other than that, what sort of polity did he leave behind in 1964 when he passed away?
How would history assess the Nehru legacy? Of course, there are numerous powerful stakeholders in the preservation of Nehruvian legacy for whom it’s a blasphemy to question whatever happened during the seventeen long years of Nehru’s Prime Ministership.
It eminently suited Nehru’s successors, especially his daughter and his grandson to carry forward the contradictions of the Nehru era. Those who followed him didn’t have the courage or the caliber to question some of his fatuous assumptions. A business-as-usual policy suited them. Hence, the indefinite lease of life to the Nehruvian legacy.
If ever there was a man who had the opportunity to build a nation and give it, after hundreds of missed opportunities, a new sense of direction, it was Jawaharlal Nehru. How he frittered away the once-in-centuries chance and contented himself with just mouthing high-sounding clichés, is the most unfortunate chapter of our post-Independence history.
And that was the real historical blunder that has haunted the polity since Independence.