India Without Nehru: Revisiting the Gifts and Curses of India's First PM

On Jawaharlal Nehru's 132nd birth anniversary, we ask if his policies are relevant in today's India.

The Quint Lab
6 min read
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Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru – what does the mere mention of this name evoke? Is the man merely confined to school textbooks on India's Independence? Or is he more than just the first occupant of a seat that set the stage for the India that we see today? More importantly, is he relevant in contemporary India?

On Nehru's 132nd birth anniversary, The Quint tries to understand his legacy – or the lack of it, as some suggest – in today's India through the prism of three thinkers: Congress Member of Parliament Dr Shashi Tharoor, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Professor Rakesh Sinha, and Indian historian Professor Madhavan Palat.



Despite the veneration that Nehru enjoyed in the early days of his prime-ministership – and the "difficult" nature of his job, that was rarely faced by any other politician in modern India – his reputation has gradually fallen from the heady highs of mid-1950, writes historian Ramchandra Guha in his book titled Verdicts on Nehru: The Rise and Fall of a Reputation.

But when did Nehru's reputation begin its downward slope? Guha points to the year 1977, when the Janata Party government came to power, after nearly three decades of what Rajni Kothari called 'the Congress system.'

The Janata party – formed by the coming together of the Hindu chauvinist Jana Sangh, the non-communist socialists, and the Gandhian Congressmen – is a thing of the past today, and each of these three disparate groups have gone on to explore their brand of politics.

But it is the Jana Sangh, which paved the way for the modern day Bharatiya Janta Party that continues to be the single-biggest critic of Nehru.


India Without Nehru 

On Jawaharlal Nehru's 132nd birth anniversary, we ask if his policies are relevant in today's India.

(Erum Gour/The Quint)

Remember Nehru's "tryst with destiny" – the iconic speech that India's first prime minister delivered before the Constituent Assembly, just at the cusp of the country's Independence?

"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. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance."
Jawaharlal Nehru

What would the fate of democracy in India and the various institutions that cemented it in the early days have been without Nehru ?


On Jawaharlal Nehru's 132nd birth anniversary, we ask if his policies are relevant in today's India.

Nehru delivers his famous 'tryst with destiny' speech in the Constituent Assembly on 14-15 August, 1947.  

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library

While Nehru's iconic speech places itself at the precise intersection between British and Independent India, the first prime minister is often known for steering the​ newly created nation towards a yet another juncture where it became a parliamentary democracy.

His attempts at making India a democracy, modelled after the British Parliament, however, weren't left unchallenged. While Sardar Patel floated a different version of parliamentary democracy, Dr BR Ambedkar, the chairperson of the Constituent Assembly, was in favour of a presidential form of government – a stance that he later changed.


On Jawaharlal Nehru's 132nd birth anniversary, we ask if his policies are relevant in today's India.

A group of women wait at a polling station during Independent India's first election in 1952. 

Wikimedia Commons.

While the right of every Indian adult to choose a representative of their choice in elections may seem only basic in a democracy, Indians living under British rule weren't quite as lucky.

Sample this: In 1935, an individual needed to be a tax-paying owner of property or have a government job and education to vote. Such eligibility criteria, as WH Morris Jones notes in his 1952 article titled The Indian Elections, meant that about 80 percent of British India's adult population was not even allowed the basic right to vote.

This changed massively after Independence, when every Indian above 21 years of age could vote in the 1952 elections. While the right of every Indian to vote for a swadeshi government was at the very bedrock of the Indian freedom struggle, Nehru, as Ramchandra Guha wrote in Democracy's Biggest Gamble: India's First Free Elections in 1952, "had expressed the hope that national elections would be held as early as the spring of 1951."



On Jawaharlal Nehru's 132nd birth anniversary, we ask if his policies are relevant in today's India.

Nehru(centre) with Mahatma Gandhi (left) and Maulana Abu Kalam Azad (right) 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

A celebrant of India's social diversity, Nehru, as Guha points out in Verdicts on Nehru: The Rise and Fall of a Reputation, was dead against the idea of defining India along "dominant religious or linguistic ethos."

Guha writes that following the large-scale violence and arson that ensued after Partition, refugees who had witnessed gory scenes in west Punjab were restlessly asking for "retribution'' against Muslims who had remained in India.

"That argument does not appeal to me in the slightest. Our secular ideals impose a responsibility to our Muslim citizens in India," Nehru wrote in response to Patel, according to the book.

However, as Thomas Pantham notes in Indian Secularism and its Critics: Some Reflections, the most formidable challenge to Indian secularism has been mounted by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar, who have dubbed the Congress' policies "pseudo-secular."

Those subscribing to the Hindu nationalist school of thought are in favour of what they call "positive secularism" and blame the Congress' version of secularism for the "denigration of Hindu categories and symbols of the majority community and to justify the pampering of the minority community," writes Pantham, while referring to Nana Deshmukh's Our Secularism Needs Rethinking.



On Jawaharlal Nehru's 132nd birth anniversary, we ask if his policies are relevant in today's India.

Nehru inspects the Nangal Hydel canal in 1953. 

Photo: LSE Blogs. 

If India's parliamentary democracy were to be guided by secular thought – as opposed to communal proclivities – what would be that one factor that would bind the nation's diverse communities together?

Nehru answered the question while inaugurating the Bhakra dam on the Sutlej in in October 1963:

“This dam has been built with the unrelenting toil of man for the benefit of mankind and therefore is worthy of worship. May you call it a Temple or a Gurdwara or a Mosque, it inspires our admiration and reverence.”
Jawaharlal Nehru

But the Nehruvian idea of secularism, as Guha points out, has been criticised in equal measure by Lohiites, who believe that Nehru cultivated an upper-class elite that "manipulated both political and economic power to its advantage, but to the detriment of the low-caste, non-English speaking majority."

Yet another critique of the Nehruvian model, articulated by the Gandhian school, suggests that by prescribing the concentration of big industries in urban pockets, Nehru "devastated the countryside."



On Jawaharlal Nehru's 132nd birth anniversary, we ask if his policies are relevant in today's India.

Photo: manujampandey/Blogger

India had just gained independence when it suddenly found itself between two pressing world powers –the Soviet Union and the United States. With a
Cold War brewing between the two power blocs, Nehru adopted a strategy to not align the country with either in a bid to maintain an independent foreign policy.

After becoming the second non-communist country to recognise China in 1949 and the latter's occupation of Tibet in 1950 – in which India's complicity is questioned – India signed the five principles of peaceful co-existence, known as the Panchsheel Pact, with China. However, in October 1962, China's People's Liberation Army invaded India in Ladakh, and across the McMahon Line in the then North-East Frontier Agency.

The strongest critiques of Nehru's foreign policy and the present-day crisis at the borders with China have come from the BJP.

Almost a month after the Galwan clash of 2020, Union Minister Jitendra Singh remarked that the Congress forgets that China is baggage left by "Rahul Gandhi's great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru."

Not just China, the BJP, its affiliates and others have often blamed Nehru for taking the Kashmir matter to the United Nations, after Pakistan invaded Kashmir, which had acceded to India.

In fact, in February 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without naming Nehru, said that for "someone's aspiration to become the prime minister of India, a line was drawn on the map and India was divided into two."

While at the domestic level, the Indo-Pak wars of between 1947,and 1999 and the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 are seen as failures of Nehru's policy to not align, his reluctance to protest over the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956, as seen as one of the many instances where his supposedly neutral foreign policy failed.

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