Jawaharlal Nehru occupies a towering space in the political landscape of modern India. He was a Democrat, socialist, visionary leader, and humanist, who played an immensely important role in shaping modern India. Today, when the country celebrates the 129th birth anniversary of the country’s first Prime Minister, it becomes pertinent to look at his contribution in shaping India into a functional democracy. From education to industrialisation, women’s liberation to the welfare of tribes, and from an emphasis on humanity, individuality, and secularism to his vision of a non-aligned world, Nehru displayed all the characteristics of a visionary statesman.
Nehru was above all a nationalist. He envisioned a socialist society and had immense faith and love for the people of India.
The independence had come after a long struggle. The road ahead was an uncharted one, and Nehru committed his life to build the nation. Post second world war when colonialism was gradually fading away, the world was divided into two new superpowers – the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Nehru refused to join any (although he did he have a soft corner for the communist soviet union- a policy that every prime minister, including PM Modi, has followed). He believed that we had long fought for our freedom and India cannot afford to let another superpower dictates its internal and external matters. Essential for this was the need to build a healthy self-reliant, self-sustaining economy. And India soon saw rapid industrialisation, technical innovation, the growth of science and education. He urged the people to believe in themselves and in their capacity to build a nation.
After the complete transfer of power, Nehru was successful in establishing a unified socialist, democratic and secular nation regardless of the several initial hiccups. Under his leadership, India emerged as a nation that promoted ‘unity in diversity’. The aspirations of people from different religion, caste, class, language, provinces, and tribes, found a space in the newly established country. Ours was a nation in the making, and Nehru urged the people to embrace the diversity and provided stability by putting down disruptive forces. The Five Year Plans were a step in the direction. Nehru believed that given the changing dynamics of the world, only a united country could succeed.
He was a man committed to the idea of democracy and civil liberties. He was not ready to compromise on them for anything. They were his religion. Even at the height of power, he maintained democracy through a constitution based on civil liberties, a government elected by universal adult suffrage, free and fair elections, a free press, and independent judiciary. He wanted to leave behind a country that could be properly governed by the people at every level beginning from the Panchayats. He believed in the power of the people. In 1960, he declared, “ In India today, any reversal of democratic methods might lead to disruption and violence.”
For this task, he wanted to build a strong economic base for the country, not through capitalist but through socialism which he defined as equality of opportunity, equal distribution of resources, equitable distribution of wealth created through the developers of science and technology. This change he believed would come, gradually, through a series of reforms. He never wanted to force changes on the people through the parliament but appealed to the rationality of the people to bring change in themselves. He was unwilling to compromise on institutions and disrespect the people to shove his views of development. He was ready to been seen as a weak ruler of a soft state rather than an authoritarian one.
Nehru’s welfare state was based on rapid but self-reliant economic growth through rapid industrialisation, self-sufficient agricultural growth, advancement in science and atomic energy, control of public sector over strategic industries, cooperatives, and a mixed economy with planning.
In doing all this Nehru never forgot the idea of a secular India. According to him, tolerance and acceptance of every faith and religion was a pre-condition for a functional democracy. He feared that any compromise on this would be a betrayal of the cause of India’s freedom. India’s secularism was based on showing respect to all faiths, non-interference of religion by keeping it a private affair, and equal opportunities to all religions. But he was failed by his own party members who began mixing religion and politics. In 1960, Congress allied with Muslim league and Christian communal groups. He was unable to contain these changes within the Congress. Nehru believed that education and scientific temperament alone would bring about secularism. He failed to understand that communalism was much more than that. It was an ideology.
Taking into account his weaknesses does not diminish his stature in the post-colonial world. Unlike Gandhi, he failed to mobilise people even though they had high regard for him. He was unable to use the love the people had for him into the active participation of the masses in politics. A lot of it had to do with Congress as a whole, lacking an ideology. He failed to connect with the people like Gandhi had done in the pre-independence era. A successful mobilisation and organisation of the people would have helped in the growth of the parliamentary democracy and brought about the social change that Nehru was looking for but lacked the insight to implement. Before independence, there were mass movements of the people that kept them actively connected to politics, but after independence people directly engaged with country’s politics only during elections. This led to the rise of new elites in the national politics and masses were finding it difficult to identify with the grand institutions that Nehru built. His policy suffered from lack of execution be it in land reforms or community development.
After Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru was unable to organise the party cadres or use the party as a vehicle of change. This was mainly because even in colonial India he had seldom taken up the task of organising the party. In the post-colonial era this proved to be a serious weakness. He instead relied heavily on bureaucracy that remained aloof from the people and government administration that failed to touch the people.
Today, his legacy continues to oscillate between being maligned and being nostalgically looked at. He shaped India as we know it today. His stamp upon India can be seen across its length and breath. In many ways, he was the architect of modern India.