The importance of being Nehru

Print edition : December 12, 2014

Jawaharlal Nehru being sworn in as free India's first Prime Minister by Governor-General Lord Mountbatten. Photo: the hindu archives

Prime Minister Nehru with his Cabinet and President Rajendra Prasad, on the eve of his Prasad’s first address to Parliament. (Left to right, front row) B.R. Ambedkar , Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sardar Baldev Singh, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, John Mathai, Jagjivan Ram, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, S.P. Mookerjee . (Standing) Khurshed Lal, R.R. Diwakar, Mohanlal Saxena, Gopalaswami Ayyangar, N.V. Gadgil, K.C. Neogi, Jairamdas Daulatram, K. Santhanam, Satya Narayan Sinha and B.V. Keskar. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

May 28, 1964: The funeral procession of Nehru passes near India Gate on its way to Rajghat. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Jawaharlal Nehru’s was the voice that always stood for the larger principle, which was often at odds with the aims of his own party and government. To what extent was he in control of, or even representative of, the period to which he lent his name?

Anniversaries have a habit of confronting us with uncomfortable contrasts. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, would have been 125 years old this year; the state that Nehru saw through its first years of independence is now ruled by forces he found abhorrent: supporters of a narrow-minded, exclusionary definition of national belonging, accompanied by crude capitalist profiteering and a populist cultural chauvinism that can only be seen as ridiculous. Nehru was a socialist, an internationalist, and a defender of civil liberties in an age when most were willing to compromise on personal freedoms in the service of the state, leading a state and at the head of a successful nationalist movement with which he was often at odds. He was a most articulate head of government, an intellectual among mere statesmen.

The Indian state of which he became Prime Minister attempted to some extent to maintain the internationalist ethos of the inter-War years, an internationalism that was bound to suffer when placed in the hands of a national state. Nehru himself was an anti-nationalist. His formative years were those after the Russian Revolution and of the rise of fascism, and he did not live in an age where there was a choice between nationalism and internationalism: the fate of Republican Spain, Nehru told an audience at Trafalgar Square in London in 1938, was about to be the fate of the world. After that predicted fate had played itself out, the independence and partition of India was one of the outcomes.

To what extent was Jawaharlal Nehru in control of, or even representative of, the period to which he lent his name? The “Nehruvian” state was a compromise which was fronted by Nehru; it was inefficiently capitalist, fiercely nationalist and increasingly parochial despite its public rhetoric of socialism, internationalism, justice and tolerance. The Congress’s cautious leftism in the “Nehruvian period” worked on something like the principle of vaccination: a dilute strand of what many in the Congress openly regarded as a disease, “socialism”, administered to the body politic, helped to prevent the disease itself from taking root. We can now remember Nehru as a self-reflexive intellectual explaining in rather elegant words the inadequacies of the state, of its policies and its people, and we can relate to its radical hopefulness. And the question remains: what was the connection between Nehru and Nehruvianism?

An anti-nationalist

Jawaharlal Nehru was for a variety of reasons able disproportionately to influence the boundaries of what was legitimate and what was not in the independent Indian state. Nehru backed a modernist, centrist version of the state. He stood against a so-called “Gandhian” insistence on the primacy of the village: economically, and in terms of the alleged self-government of an authentic community, this form of villagism emerged from the romantic anti-capitalism of the 19th century. By the time it was being peddled in India as authentically Indian, it had degenerated into an indigenism that turned in upon itself and denied its own international origins.

The possibility of reshaping the world for the better, the end of capitalism, the end of empire, and the reshaping of humanity—the ideals of Nehru’s youthful engagements did not leave much space for nation-states except as an interim goal. In 1938 he had written of nationalism: “All that is reactionary seeks shelter under that name—fascism, imperialism, race bigotry, and the crushing of that free spirit of enquiry which gave the semblance of greatness to Europe in the nineteenth century. Culture succumbs before its onslaught and civilisation decays. Democracy and freedom are its pet aversions, and in its name innocent men and women and children in Spain are bombed to death, and fierce race persecution takes place.” Nehru’s analogy then was that of disease: just as the sick patient cannot perceive much beyond his illness, a nation not yet free cannot see beyond nationalism; but once they are free, the illness that is nationalism must end. Wider and more important goals become important.

In The Discovery of India, published in 1946, we can read Nehru as an anti-nationalist forced into a nationalist position because the national idea is too strong to be disavowed: the book is intended as an antidote to the Pakistan movement’s two-nation theory, and was published too late. Nevertheless, Nehru works with the idea of India as an “ancient palimpsest”. Each layer adds to the whole, but you cannot see what is added by whom and at what point because you can see only the whole.

Here was a man who came to power as the head of a state that refused to acknowledge that it was the heir to a repressive apparatus, a man who came to power at the head of a movement that only tolerated him. Nehru had no illusions about this situation: he knew he was acceptable even to his opponents as the public face of a new dispensation, in a minority in his own party. After a bloody partition, and in the face of communal violence and hysteria, he held his own party to the promises that it had made in public, of conducting non-sectarian and non-majoritarian politics, although many of its members had contempt for these promises in private.

Developmentalism as an ersatz nationalism

But by holding them to their public promises Nehru and a very few colleagues were able to negate much of the exclusionary logic of nationalism. They sought instead to define a nation-state in the future in terms of what it could do for its own poor. Without a defined “nation” idea, a state is an accidental jurisdiction, and the Indian state treated those within its jurisdiction as the subjects of its developmental programme. State-led developmentalism became in many ways an ersatz nationalism. Derived in large measure from early Comintern policy and communist theorising and thereafter diluted both in theory and practice, this form of developmentalism was defended through a stagiest argument, in which an early compromise with anti-colonial nationalism of a bourgeois variety leads to national independence and a progressive nation-state in the hands of an enlightened and socialist-leaning leadership, thereby paving the way for socialism. The resulting (enlightened and socialist-leaning) regime is then expected, in good part through the leftward pull exerted by the Left, to pave the way for socialism.

All this was very abstract: the independent Indian state was a coalition of forces that came into being after the Second World War, when a British exit strategy was formed that required the departing power to talk to interlocutors who would take over power while allowing them to preserve whatever they could of their imperial dominance. Indian elite leaders worried that a post-War settlement would be beyond their control, given the popular unrest and mobilisation of the War years. The settlement that became independent India had to be over the heads of popular opinion. The enlightened and socialist-leaning leadership was not in power.

The Nehruvian state was one in which promises of social justice were always deferred to the future. The centralised state apparatus was partly a legacy of its having emerged from the Second World War, as with all states, with its powers greatly increased. This was a paradox of the end of the fascist period—all states emerge with strengthened powers, even as they were a far cry from the totalitarian and totalising tendencies of the defeated fascist powers, so that a post-Second World War state had in part modelled itself on its enemies.

Nehru’s was the prime ministership of someone seeking to find a place for a new and economically weak power in the world. A boxer would have said that India was punching way above its weight. Non-alignment (which, as Nehru insisted, was not “neutralism”) was both principled and pragmatic as a means to maintain that autonomy. It was not meant to be the movement it became; it was meant not to be a movement or a bloc.

Domestically, the “progressive” elite that sought to direct India’s future development from above was perfectly aware it was an elite. Until the first general election in 1951, those in Parliament were those who had been elected on the colonial state’s property franchise, making about 17 per cent of adults eligible to vote. This property franchise put together much that was enduring in the new India, including the Constitution of India. The Constitution is a model for as just and progressive a state as states are capable of being, even if it contains several parts parked in the Directive Principles that are frankly contradictory of one another.

An important battle won

If by “democracy” what is meant is the view of the majority, Nehru’s ideas were not democratically enforced. If “democracy” consists in being able to crucially influence debates that drive institutions and institutionalisation at a crucial juncture, Nehru’s was an important democratic voice. The framing of the Constitution was one such instance.

Unable to rely on the sentiment of the people, the governing wisdom of political colleagues, or the existence of a robust set of institutional precedents upon which to base a new form of government, the Indian Constitution’s framers attempted to write and thereafter to use a document that would be the safeguard against the instability, irrationality, sectarianism or extremism of people and politicians alike. Nehru’s was a minority voice among a very few others within the Assembly, who were in the position to make their voices count not by democratic force of numbers, but by virtue of their (perhaps less democratic) skills of debate and persuasion.

What can an intellectual do in a period of transition, working with only political principles and without any other major resources to make the right arguments leading to institution-building? Amidst the chaos of the first few days of debate, Nehru introduced the “Objectives Resolution”, presenting a number of unobjectionable principles towards an egalitarian and socially responsible state: clauses five and six read:

“WHEREIN shall be guaranteed and secured to all the people of India justice, social, economic and political; equality of status, of opportunity, and before the law; freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith worship, vocation, association and action, subject to law and public morality; and WHEREIN adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes”.

No one understood at the time why there was such a Resolution. It was not legally enforceable, nor was it intended to become a law. It was only as the rest of the debates continued that it became clear that an important battle had been won. The Constituent Assembly had succeeded in an endorsement of principles that the hidden agenda of sectarian nationalism disagreed with—a battle had been won before it had even been recognised as a battle.

It should start to appear as if we are describing a lost paradise here. The Nehruvian conception of the state disavowed questions not only of the nation, but also of how violent it actually or potentially was. A model of social welfare imposed or awarded from above had certain difficulties. A strong state and a firm sense of where the borders were were crucial in defining this non-definitional state. If the nature of the collective destiny of the state can only be defined by those whose welfare was to be ensured within certain borders, the state needed those borders to be defined. And border disputes, however apparently harmless, disrupted that definition.

Is it a reflexive act of nostalgia that now returns us to Nehru or the Nehruvian vision? Are we not wasting our time looking to an intellectual and accidental political leader? Are we ransacking history for a political science model for really existing states? It might be recalled that this last act was in fact performed, in imitation of Nehruvian India, by many states of the emergent “Third World” where the boundaries of the states were arbitrary acts of a departing or departed colonial power. The idea of an organised ethnocentric nationalism does not function except by destabilising the state. And it was India under Nehru that continually reminded us of the fact that before nation-states there were no monolingual peoples. The enforcing of language nationalism was impossible in India, where different language sub-nationalisms were produced by reorganising federal units by language, as well as by the search for a single national language. Each federal unit was a new parochialism. Nehru, who opposed both the imposition of a single national language and the linguistic reorganisation of States, in a battle that he resoundingly lost, argued that both would damage loyalty to the state as a whole.

The incorporation of peripheries was not one of the strengths of the Nehruvian model, which never worked either for the north-east or for Kashmir. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, responding to separatist and subversive movements (seen from a centrist perspective, of course), gives the Indian state the right to rule by force, to incorporate peripheries into the Indian non-nationalist developmentalist project by force. AFSPA, we need not be reminded, ensures that there can be no prosecution of Army officers operating under it in the national interest. Torture and rape are the consequences of this. Since 1990, AFSPA has “improved” matters in Kashmir. Since the Indian state became the successor to colonial violence, early indications that the full force of the Indian Army would be used in internal matters had shown itself early on, in Telangana in 1948.

Nehruvian foreign policy, under non-alignment, cast India as a non-non-communist state, and also an anti-anti-communist state. This enabled India to provide principled mediatory moves in the Korean War, or in the Indo-Chinese war of succession. But India’s silence in the Malayan case was in that context deafening. During the Malayan Emergency from 1948, there was an acceptance that the Indian state would do nothing in Britain’s increasingly racialised war in Malaya, which demonised its Chinese residents as communists, and emphasised a moderate Islamic Malay version of its national identity as that of true belonging. Non-bhumiputra (the word for “indigenous” Malays; ironically, an Indian word) were relegated to second-class citizens. This could so easily have been the Indian model of national belonging, and may yet be.

The larger principle

Jawaharlal Nehru often remained the voice of the larger principle, at times in opposition to his own government. The “Nehruvian” consensus consisted in the left wing of the Congress and various forces to the left of the Congress. In many senses, Nehru remained the last great front organisation of the communists, a throwback to the United Front and Popular Front policies of the inter-War years, with the important difference being that the communists never tried to control their front organisation, or to take it over. (See E.M.S. Namboodiripad’s article on page 47.) Such was the hegemony of the Left in political argument that there appeared at the time to be an empty right wing in Indian politics. The situation is reversed today.

There was then, as there is now, a majoritarian aspect to how the state operated. Upper-caste Hindu elites controlled most aspects of national life—this was not seen by them as a major issue, and that self-supporting and self-declared elite went out of their way to try and incorporate others, lamenting the non-participation or non-representation of minorities in major aspects of the state’s life. A tremendous paradox lies at the heart of this question. The majority can only incorporate the minority by continuing to define, and therefore to see, the minority as a minority. So then they are in a position to notice that the project has failed or is continuing to fail, but they make matters worse by insisting that you recognise the minority as the minority. Caste must go was the official wisdom. There is a category that you need to abolish. But the category is perpetuated by the fact that you need to abolish it.

In a 1963 interview to an American magazine that has recently resurfaced, Nehru admitted candidly that India, and his government, had underestimated the resilience of caste prejudices and had not done enough to overcome them. Jawaharlal Nehru saw himself as one who believed in the autonomy and fulfilment of individual aspirations. It is ironic that Nehruvian India, and India after Nehru, was marked by a steadfast refusal to develop a theory of the individual. Anti-colonial tendencies that saw Western individualism as the enemy overlap with the rhetoric of social responsibility and anti-capitalism developed by a somewhat wishy-washy leftist thinking to delegitimise the idea of the individual.

Benjamin Zachariah is a Research Fellow at Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University. He is the author of Nehru (Routledge Historical Biographies), 2004.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor