Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Nehru: The Invention Of India’ published by Penguin India.
For the first seventeen years of India’s independence, the paradox-ridden Jawaharlal Nehru— moody, idealist intellectual who felt an almost mystical empathy with the toiling peasant masses; an aristocrat, accustomed to privilege, who had passionate socialist convictions; an Anglicized product of Harrow and Cambridge who spent over ten years in British jails; an agnostic radical who became an unlikely protégé of the saintly Mahatma Gandhi—was India.
Incorruptible, visionary, ecumenical, a politician above politics, Nehru’s stature was so great that the country he led seemed inconceivable without him. A year before his death a leading American journalist, Welles Hangen, published a book entitled After Nehru, Who?. The unspoken question around the world was: ‘After Nehru, what?’
Today, nearly five and a half decades after his death, we have something of an answer to the latter question. As the country, still seemingly clad in many of the trappings of Nehruvianism, marches towards the third decade of the twenty-first century, a good deal of Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy appears intact—and yet hotly contested. India has moved away from much of Nehru’s beliefs, and so (in different ways) has the rest of the developing world for which Nehruvianism once spoke. As India begins its eighth decade of independence from the British Raj, a transformation—still incomplete— has taken place that, in its essentials, has changed the basic Nehruvian assumptions of postcolonial nationhood.
Nehru himself, as a man with an open and questing mind, would have allowed his practical thinking to evolve with the times, even while remaining anchored to his core beliefs. That is why I undertook my 2003 biography, Nehru: The Invention of India. I sought to examine this great figure of twentieth century nationalism from the vantage point of the beginning of the twenty-first. Jawaharlal Nehru’s life is a fascinating story in its own right, and I tried to tell it whole, because the privileged child, the unremarkable youth, the posturing young nationalist, and the heroic fighter for independence are all inextricable from the unchallengeable Prime Minister and peerless global statesman. The child himself was slow to reveal any signs of potential greatness. He was the kind of student usually referred to as ‘indifferent’. And yet his impact on our country was so great that in 2003 I chose to title my biography of him Nehru: The Invention of India.
Nehru: The Invention of India is not a scholarly work; it is based on no new research into previously undiscovered archives; it is not footnoted, though a Note on Sources and a Select Bibliography will guide the curious towards further reading. It is, instead, a reinterpretation—both of an extraordinary life and career, and of the inheritance it left behind for every Indian. When I first wrote it I was a detached observer, working abroad for the United Nations; today, writing this Introduction, I am a member of Parliament for the Congress Party and chairman of its Professionals’ wing, and I must confess to being invested in the very inheritance I have tried to depict.
Four men embodied the vision of free India in the 1940s—M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and B.R. Ambedkar. Gandhi’s moral rectitude, allied to Jawaharlal Nehru’s political passion, fashioned both the strategy and tactics for the struggle against British rule. Sardar Patel’s firm hand on the administration integrated the nation and established peace and stability. Ambedkar’s erudition and legal acumen helped translate the dreams of a generation into a working legal document that laid the foundations for an enduring democracy. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence and war, Gandhi taught the virtues of truth, nonviolence and peace. While the nation reeled from bloodshed and communal carnage, Ambedkar preached the values of constitutionalism and the rule of law. While parochial ambitions threatened national unity, Patel led the nation to a vision of unity and common purpose. While mobs marched the streets baying for revenge, Nehru’s humane and non-sectarian vision inspired India to yearn again for the glory that had once been hers.
The other three did not last very long; Nehru was the one who soldiered on, building the foundations of modern India till his death seventeen years after Independence. The very term ‘Indian’ was imbued with such meaning by Nehru that it is impossible to use it without acknowledging a debt: our passports incarnate his ideals. Where those ideals came from, whether they were brought to fulfilment by their own progenitor, and to what degree they remain viable today are the themes of this book. I was as divided between admiration and criticism when I started writing as when I finished the book; but the more I delved into his life, it was the admiration which deepened.
In this book I have sought to analyse critically the four principal pillars of Nehru’s legacy to India—democratic institution-building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of non-alignment—all of which were integral to a vision of Indianness that is fundamentally challenged today.
How did Nehru construct these four pillars and what do they mean today?
First, democracy. It was by no means axiomatic that a country like India, riven by so many internal differences and diversities, beset by acute poverty and torn apart by Partition, would be or remain democratic. Many developing countries found themselves turning in the opposite direction soon after independence, arguing that a firm hand was necessary to promote national unity and guide development. Upon the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948, just five months after Independence, Nehru became the keeper of the national flame, the most visible embodiment of India’s struggle for freedom. Gandhi’s death could have led Nehru to assume untrammeled power. Instead, he spent a lifetime trying to instil the habits of democracy in his people—a disdain for dictators, a respect for parliamentary procedures, an abiding faith in the constitutional system. He himself was such a convinced democrat, profoundly wary of the risks of autocracy, that, at the crest of his rise, he authored an anonymous article warning Indians of the dangers of giving dictatorial temptations to Jawaharlal Nehru. ‘He must be checked,’ he wrote of himself. ‘We want no Caesars.’ And indeed, his practice when challenged within his own party was to offer his resignation; he usually got his way, but it was hardly the instinct of a Caesar.
As Prime Minister, Nehru carefully nurtured the country’s infant democratic institutions. He paid deference to the country’s ceremonial presidency and even to its largely otiose vice-presidency; he never let the public forget that these notables outranked him in protocol terms. He wrote regular letters to the chief ministers of the states, explaining his policies and seeking their feedback. He subjected himself and his government to cross-examination in Parliament by the small, fractious but undoubtedly talented Opposition, allowing them an importance out of all proportion to their numerical strength, because he was convinced that a strong Opposition was essential for a healthy democracy. He took care not to interfere with the judicial system; on the one occasion that he publicly criticized a judge, he apologized the next day and wrote an abject letter to the Chief Justice, regretting having slighted the judiciary.
And Nehru never forgot that he derived his authority from the people of India; not only was he astonishingly accessible for a person in his position, but he started the practice of offering a daily darshan at home for an hour each morning to anyone coming in off the street without an appointment, a practice that continued until the dictates of security finally overcame the populism of his successors.
It was Nehru who, by his scrupulous regard for both the form and the substance of democracy, instilled democratic habits in our country. His respect for Parliament, his regard for the independence of the judiciary, his courtesy to those of different political convictions, his commitment to free elections and his deference to institutions over individuals, all left us a precious legacy of freedom.
Nehru’s opening remarks when he moved the motion at the newly established Constituent Assembly on 13 December 1946, gives us a view of the immense pressure and responsibility he placed on himself to ensure that the embodiment of his democratic vision for the country responded fittingly to the situation and did justice to its enshrinement in the process of Constitution-making. He had to preserve the ‘past’ idea of India and march towards the ‘future’ idea of India. Nehru said,
“As I stand here, Sir, I feel the weight of all manner of things
crowding around me. We are at the end of an era and
possibly very soon we shall embark upon a new age; and
my mind goes back to the great past of India to the five
thousand years of India’s history, from the very dawn of
that history which might be considered almost the dawn
of human history, till today. All that past crowds around
me and exhilarates me and, at the same time, somewhat
oppresses me. Am I worthy of that past? When I think
also of the future, the greater future I hope, standing on
this sword’s edge of the present between this mighty
past and the mightier future, I tremble a little and feel
overwhelmed by this mighty task. We have come here at a
strange moment in India’s history. I do not know but I do
feel that there is some magic in this moment of transition
from the old to the new, something of that magic which
one sees when the night turns to day and even though the
day may be a cloudy one, it is day after all, for when the
clouds move away we can see the sun later on.”
The American editor Norman Cousins once asked Nehru what he hoped his legacy to India would be. ‘Four hundred million people capable of governing themselves,’ Nehru replied. The numbers have grown, but the very fact that each day over a billion Indians govern themselves in a pluralist democracy is testimony to the deeds and words of this extraordinary man and the giants who accompanied him in the march to freedom.
Second, secularism. Nehru strived to prevent Partition but when it occurred, he never accepted the logic that since Pakistan had ostensibly been created for India’s Muslims, what remained was a state for Hindus. He lived up to his lifelong conviction that India belonged to all who had contributed to its history and civilization, and that the majority community had a special obligation to protect the rights, and promote the well-being, of India’s minorities. In both governmental policy and personal practice, Nehru stood for an idea of India that embraced those of every religion, caste, ethnicity or language.
Nehru saw our country as an ‘ancient palimpsest’ on which successive rulers and subjects had inscribed their visions without erasing what had been asserted previously. In India, multiple religions not only coexist, but thrive; our diversity is our strength. It was this view that made ‘unity in diversity’ the most hallowed of independent India’s selfdefining slogans.
Even with caste and social relations, the country has moved forward significantly since Nehru’s time. We have witnessed convulsive changes: who could have imagined, for three thousand years, that a woman from the Dalit community, once considered outcasts, would rule India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, as Mayawati has done three times? For that matter, could a boy who sold tea as a youth on a railway platform have aspired to be India’s Prime Minister one day, or one who hawked newspapers its President? Yet Nehru built an India where both became possible. It’s still true that in many parts of India, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. But that too has brought about profound alterations in the country, as the so-called ‘lower’ castes have taken advantage of the ballot to seize electoral power. And in cultural affairs, with the notion of Hindutva being proclaimed from the rooftops in recent times, we have had a searching re-examination of identity. The ascent to power in 2014 of forces who reject Nehru’s secular vision, and who lose no opportunity to disparage his legacy, has fundamentally shaken this pillar of Nehruvianism.
Nehru accepted the different identities of Indians, while insisting that such distinctiveness only remained safe under the sheltering carapace of an Indianness that embraced all equally. It is this secularism that is being questioned today in an effort to redefine nationalism in more sectarian terms. In the face of a triumphant majoritarianism of precisely the kind that Nehru would have most viscerally rejected, Indians have a stark choice. I have made no bones about my own conviction that it is the duty of any citizen of India to resist attempts to reduce our country to a Hindu version of Pakistan. That would be a betrayal of Nehru’s vision and of his life—as well as of the very essence of what it means to be Indian.
Third, socialism. It is fashionable today to decry Nehruvian socialism as a corrupt and inefficient system that condemned India to many years of modest growth levels. We do not deny, as Nehru’s own grandson said three decades ago, that over time the socialist model as practised in India developed many flaws. But at the core of Nehru’s socialism lay his conviction that in a land of extreme poverty and inequality, the objective of government policy must be the welfare of the poorest, most deprived and most marginalized of our people. In his day, the best way to accomplish that was by building up structures of public ownership and state control of national resources, as well as enhancing the nation’s economic capacity through government intervention. Today Nehru’s own Indian National Congress, of which I am a member, welcomes, indeed encourages, the involvement of the private sector in the generation and distribution of wealth. We are proud of our own role in liberalizing our country’s economy and in making possible so many new opportunities for our young to succeed in a globalizing world. But we remain profoundly wedded to Nehru’s concern for the weakest sections of our society. This is why we can say we still claim to be socialist even today.
Our socialism is not anti-growth; rather, it aims to ensure that the benefits of our country’s growth are given principally to the deprived masses, who need it most. We believe in free enterprise while ensuring that the revenues generated by the private sector’s wealth creation efforts are distributed to those who have little. As I have stated in Parliament, the magic of the market will not appeal to those who cannot afford to enter the marketplace. Whether we grow by 9 per cent, as we once did, or around 7 per cent, as we are doing now, our fundamental commitment must be to the bottom 25 per cent of our society.
In the long run, I am certain that Nehru will be remembered for not abandoning vast sections of society to hanker after a notion of growth that only favours a select few, at the cost of everybody else. It is a commitment to this that allowed for an updated version of Nehru’s idea of India to develop in the twenty-first century—one that has widened the scope of its democracy through such innovations as the Right to Information Act; one that has defended secularism in the face of violent threats to our nation’s diversity; one that has deepened socialism through the creation of a framework of rights, including the right to work, the right to food, the right to education and the right to fair compensation for land, all of which have strengthened and empowered the poorest of our people; and one that has remained a proud and independent nation in the community of nations.
Those who decry Nehruvian socialism say it subjected India’s progress to the stranglehold of the state. Few will disagree that our excessively process-oriented and often rentseeking bureaucracy has often impeded India’s growth. But in many areas the Nehruvian state gave India a capacity it did not have and that the private sector would have been unable to create. It was Nehru who built the scientific base for India’s space and engineering triumphs today. Without his establishment of what is now the Indian Space Research Organization, there would be no Mangalyaan and Chandrayaan space probes; without the Indian Institutes of Techology he established, Indians would not have a worldwide reputation for engineering excellence or have established 40 per cent of the startups in Silicon Valley. Today, we are world leaders in Information Technology, the provision of digital services and in the launching of rockets and satellites.
In all this, we are upholding and continuing the legacy of a remarkable human being whose vision soared well above the poverty and misery that colonialism had reduced his country to.
Finally, foreign policy. Nehru was a convinced internationalist. For him, non-alignment was the only response to the bipolar divisions of the Cold War era. After two centuries of colonial exclusion from the global system, Nehru was determined to protect its strategic autonomy; his India was not about to mortgage its independence by aligning itself to either superpower in the Cold War. In that form, it might be argued that his vision is no longer relevant in the changed circumstances of the twenty-first century. Today, there are no longer two superpowers to be non-aligned between. But in its essence, the power of non-alignment was to ensure that India was free to take its own positions without allowing others to decide for it; the Nehruvian vision was about safeguarding India’s independence and self-respect against potential encroachments on its sovereignty. Thanks to him, all Indians can be proud of the role we play in the international community. We are non-aligned in the sense that we are not aligned with any one nation or bloc, and we remain free to conduct our foreign relations according to our own lights and according to our national interest.
Nehru was also a skilled exponent of soft power, much before the term was even coined: he developed a role for India in the world based entirely on its civilizational history and its moral standing, making the nation the voice of the oppressed and the marginalized against the big power hegemons of the day. This gave our country enormous standing and prestige across the world for years, and strengthened our own self-respect as we stood, proud and independent, on the global stage.
Indeed, we are still drawing from these traditions. After all, in the information age, it is not the side with the bigger army that wins, but the side which tells the better story. India must remain the ‘land of the better story’. As a society with a free press and a thriving mass media, with a people whose creative energies are daily encouraged to express themselves in a variety of appealing ways, India has an extraordinary ability to tell stories that are more persuasive and attractive than those of its rivals. This is not about propaganda; indeed, it will not work if it is directed from above, least of all by Government. But its impact, though intangible, can be huge. This soft power, too, is Nehru’s legacy; he created a standing for India out of all proportion to our military strength or economic might.
Yet soft power is not just what we can deliberately and consciously exhibit or put on display; it is rather how others see what we are, whether or not we are trying to show it to the world. It is not just material accomplishments that enhance India’s soft power. Even more important are the values and principles for which India stands, and I do believe Nehru would be dismayed to see how the atrocities in our country in recent years, the assaults on minorities and the suppression of dissent, have undermined India’s standing in the world.
India has in recent years undergone profound transformations in its politics (from the dominant Congress system to a proliferation of regional parties to the advent of coalition governance to the dominance of the newly ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]), its economics (from a controlled ‘socialist’ economy to a thriving free-enterprise system), its trade (from protectionism to globalization), and its social relations (from a rigidly hierarchical caste system to a more egalitarian policy affirming opportunities and outcomes for the ‘lowest’ castes, and from a secular political culture to one in which a party of the Hindu majority is overtly asserting its strength). Now, any of these transformations could have been enough to throw another country into a turbulent revolution. But we have had all four in India and yet we have absorbed them, and made all the changes work, because the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India, an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity. That was Nehru’s vision, and this is his vindication.
Perhaps the most underestimated quality of Jawaharlal Nehru—whose life has seen more than its fair share of both hagiology and denigration —was his extraordinary achievement as a writer. Having delved extensively into his books and other writings for this book, I emerged convinced that Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the finest political writers the world has seen in the twentieth century. An India that remains divided over his political legacy can unite in appreciation of his remarkable contribution to the world of Indian letters.
It is all the more astonishing that much of his writing took place amid the privations of imprisonment, the only periods of his life that afforded him the sustained quiet needed to produce memorable prose. In eight terms of imprisonment between 1922 and 1945, Nehru spent a grand total of 3,262 days in eight different jails. Nearly ten years of his life were to be wasted behind bars—though not entirely wasted, since they allowed him to produce several remarkable books of reflection and nationalist awakening, and an autobiography. His rationality, his breadth of learning, his secular outlook, his moral indignation at the subjugation of his people and the lucid fluency of his writing, attested to his own, and his country’s, place in the world of the twentieth century that was still taking shape.
His The Discovery of India is, in particular, a stirring evocation of the past as an instrument to explain the present and give hope for the future, and as such it is the primordial text in what I have argued was, ultimately, Jawaharlal Nehru’s invention of India. This book, written in prison in 1940, marks the apogee of a lifetime’s writing that embodied Nehru’s most important contribution to Indian democracy— the very notion of Indianness. And Nehru it was, above all else, who welded that India of the past and the present into a plausible nation—the man who, through his writings, his speeches, his life and his leadership, can be credited with the invention of the India we know today.
Nehru defined Indian nationhood through the power of his ideas, in many ways like Thomas Jefferson in the United States, a figure to whom he bears considerable resemblance—a man of great intellect and sweeping vision, a wielder of words without parallel, high-minded and eloquent, yet in many ways blind to his own faults and those of others around him.
In the words of Nehru’s most comprehensive biographer, Sarvepalli Gopal, in Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography: ‘To a whole generation of Indians he was not so much a leader as a companion who expressed and made clearer a particular view of the present and a vision of the future. The combination of intellectual and moral authority was unique in his time.’
Nehru was that rare kind of leader who is not diminished by the inadequacies of his followers. Today the ruling BJP and its followers lose no opportunity to denigrate Nehru, especially on social media, accusing him of every conceivable sin of both commission and omission. It is like throwing pebbles at a mountain. They cannot even begin to dent the scale of his contributions to India.
The truth is that Jawaharlal Nehru’s extraordinary life and career is part of the inheritance of every Indian.
His impact on India is too great not to be re-examined periodically. His legacy is ours, whether we agree with everything he stood for or not. What we are today, both for good and for ill, we owe in great measure to one man. This is his story.