Nehru, the Forgotten Hero

The Hon. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian premier, and Sir George Sansom, acting chairman of the Institute of Pacific Relation
The Hon. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian premier, and Sir George Sansom, acting chairman of the Institute of Pacific Relations, enjoy a joke when they met at Lucknow, India, Oct. 10, 1950. (AP Photo)

India is a land of myriad gods and goddesses. There are so many that a figure generally bandied about goes into the hundreds of thousands. Since this may well be an urban myth, I will not quote numbers, except to say that new divinities are added every day. Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood's superstar, has a temple dedicated to him in Kolkata. (The contents include photographs and footwear -- provenance doubtful). A comparatively minor actor, Khushboo, of fulsome figure, is honored in a number of temples in Chennai in the South.

However, one person who seems to have been demoted from his perch atop political gods is Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister. The process had begun a while ago, but has been accelerated after the formation of the Narendra Modi led BJP government in Delhi. As a political party which was formed well after Indian independence in 1947, the BJP has no heroes of its own who took part in the freedom movement. So they decided to appropriate Vallabbhai Patel, often called the Iron Man of India. In promoting the Nehru-Gandhi family, the Congress party has often neglected other leaders of the freedom movement, and Patel, Nehru's number two, has been the most prominent of them. Since he was from Gujarat, Modi's home state, this suited India's new Prime Minister perfectly. Now Modi has announced that a statue (presumably of a matching metal), will be built of the Iron Man in Gujarat, a monument which will be even bigger than the Statue of Liberty.

In this my-hero-is-bigger-than-yours battle, Nehru's 125th birth anniversary received almost perfunctory notice. Which is a shame since any objective assessment will show that Jawaharlal Nehru, after Mahatma Gandhi, was the country's most important figure without any doubt whatsoever, and he belonged to the nation rather than any one political party.

In the age of television, the internet and smart phones, a daily sighting of political leaders is a common occurrence. So to today's generation it would seem odd that I saw Jawaharlal Nehru just once, and that too for a fleeting moment.

We were in Baroda in Gujarat and Nehru had come there for a day. My parents, my sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, all of us went in a large group and joined the huge crowd outside the local Maharaja's palace gate. There was palpable excitement in the air; although I didn't come from a family of hero-worshippers, in India at that time, Nehru was everyone's hero.

At the expected time, his car -- an open convertible in which he stood so people could see him -- came out of the gate. Since the crowd had converged on the road, the vehicle had to slow down and move carefully, exactly what everyone wanted. We shouted his name and he waved to us (I was sure he waved to me). Then, in a spontaneous gesture, he took out the famous rose from his button hole and flung it in our direction. It came flying just beyond my reach and fell into the ecstatic hands of an aunt (who was sure it was meant for her). She kept it in a special box for years.

All this is unthinkable now. First of all, security concerns keep everyone at a safe distance from Prime Ministers. More importantly, no political leader has inspired the kind of adulation that Nehru did. The times, of course, have changed, but more than that, so have our politicians: Jawaharlal Nehru was such an combination of good looks, charismatic personality, intellect and oratorical skills that it's difficult to imagine another like him.

Now, 125 years after his birth, Nehru is a distant memory for most people. Those of us who lived at least some part of our lives when he was around still remember him, but of those, he has more than his shares of detractors. The two most important criticisms centre around his economic policies and the non-aligned movement he started. Generally, these two points of criticism are clubbed together, because non-alignment lost India the support of the United States, and thus the benefits of being an ally of the richest country in the world. In the context of what Jawaharlal Nehru achieved, however, I consider both criticisms secondary, because his contributions to India (and to Indians and to future generations of Indians) are so fundamental that they have defined what our country is today.

First, and foremost, India is a democracy. If we take that for granted, it's another tribute to Nehru. Just look at our neighbors who got independence at around the same time as us. Pakistan is in a shambles whether ruled by the military or an elected PM; Sri Lanka is a mockery of democracy; Burma is ruled by the military; most of Africa is proof that democracy is still only for some of the people, some of the time. The fact that India is a complex nation -- a virtual continent of different languages, cultures and religions -- makes the hold of democracy an even greater cause for wonder. Yet, except for two years of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, we have been a most strident one, going to the polls at prescribed intervals, voting governments out in states as well as at the centre. Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabbhai Patel didn't live for too long after India got independence from British rule on 15th August 1947: Jawaharlal Nehru was the sole survivor of this triumvirate, and he carried the burden of the nation on his shoulders for nearly 17 years till his death in 1964.

My small personal example gives you an idea of Nehru's immense popularity: in fact, he was virtually worshipped across the length and breadth of the country. If he had wanted, he could easily have assumed dictatorial powers, instead of which he did his best to strengthen the institutions of democracy -- the judiciary was not interfered with, the press was free, and as for parliament, Nehru gave it the importance many of his successors have neglected to do: he was regularly in attendance, he observed its norms and took part in its debates

I remembered an essay on Nehru written in his lifetime, which was in one of my school text books. Part of it went like this: "He has all the makings of a dictator in him - vast popularity, a strong will directed to a well-defined purpose, energy, pride, organisational capacity, ability, hardness, and for all his love of the crowds, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt of the weak and the inefficient...From the far North to Cape Comorian he has gone like some triumphant Caesar, leaving a trail of glory and legend behind him... His conceit is already formidable. He must be checked. We want no Caesars."

When this appeared, it caused a furore in the country, much more so amongst Congressmen. The writer (whose name I have long forgotten, you will soon see why) was not known at all -- which made everyone even angrier: how dare an 'upstart' call Nehru a Caesar? After considerable efforts, the identity of the writer was discovered. It was Nehru himself! Can you imagine Narendra Modi doing something like this now? Or any other world leader for that matter?

Apart from laying a strong foundation for democracy, Nehru's other achievement was no less admirable. My generation might not have been there, but we have heard and read about the horrors of Partition -- hundreds of thousands brutally killed, millions displaced from their homes... The splitting up of British India into India and Pakistan was one of the most traumatic events in world history. You would have expected that the repercussions of this horror would have lasted for generations and that the principal communities enmeshed in the partition could never live together. Yet, barring politically instigated incidents through the years, Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs have co-existed in reasonable harmony throughout India. I have no doubt that it was Jawaharlal Nehru's towering personality, and his staunch belief in secularism that was responsible for this remarkable achievement.

As for his failures, it is conveniently forgotten that socialism was not Nehru's invention, but was the prevalent dogma of those days (even Britain was ruled by the strongly left-leaning Labour party for years and many countries in Europe were led by Socialist governments). The Non-Aligned Movement may have been flawed in the way it was practiced, but its premise was path-breaking and made a newly-freed India a proud and independent nation which was not a satellite of a super power.

Without Jawaharlal Nehru, I wonder where we would be today. Wherever it is, it would certainly not be a happy place.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with the launch of HuffPost India (December 8, 2014). To read all posts in the series, visit here.