Jawaharlal Nehru Was a True Democrat With Strong Secular Ideals

Taylor C. Sherman has written a timely book that gives us a feel for Nehruvian India and reminds us what we so desperately need in India today.

Nearly sixty years after he passed away on May 27, 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru continues to loom large across most aspects of contemporary Indian discourse politics, foreign policy, economic development, secularism, caste affairs, art and culture. This is because the present-day Indian political order, shaped by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Sangh parivar to which he belongs, has made him the object of derision and find him personally culpable of all that is presently wrong in India.

In Nehrus India: A History in Seven Myths, Taylor C. Sherman has discussed seven issues with which Nehru is most deeply associated: his role as the “architect” of modern India; the foreign policy based on Nonalignment; his role in shaping India’s commitment to secularism; Nehru’s socialist views; whether the state he headed was a “strong state” as also a successful democracy; and, finally, his role in shaping India’s “High Modernism”. She analyses the “myths” that surround these issues, and then presents a more factually accurate picture pertaining to these matters.

Sherman comes to some important conclusions: One, Nehru was not the sole driver of change in India. Two, Nehru’s period in office was a period of experimentation, rather than one when detailed, ideologically driven blueprints were being implemented. Three, throughout the Nehruvian period, he never gave up an emotive attempt at popular mobilisation in support of national unity in the diverse nation. Four, flowing from this, Nehru never gave up the effort to obtain peoples’ understanding and support for the government’s ideas and initiatives.

Finally, the Nehruvian period saw India as deeply engaged with world affairs – backing the political and economic aspirations of developing countries; striving for world peace, and interacting with leaders of global business, technology, art and culture, and, in general, of the realm of ideas in diverse fields that were matters of global debate.

Architectof modern India

The established view of Nehru is that he was the sole “architect” of modern India, particularly in its first two decades. This understanding has the concomitant view of the prime minister locked away at Teen Murti House, “alone … inaccessible and unchallenged”. None of this is true. Nehru never allowed a personality cult to develop around him, refused to shape his ideas into a dogmatic ideology, and was, in fact, rather modest about his own authority and role in government.

Taylor C. Sherman
Nehru’s India: A History in Seven Myths
Princeton University Press, 2022

In the newly independent nation, Nehru was anxious to build its nascent institutions; this he did through personal example: the cabinet was consulted on all important issues, while he was always in parliament to answer questions. He wrote fortnightly letters to chief ministers, urging them to engage with each other and interact closely with the people at large. And, far from being the sole architect of modern India, Nehru, Sherman says, backed ideas and proposals presented to him by innovative minds, and frequently gave them responsibility for their implementation.

The Indian state that emerged from Nehru’s prime ministership has attributes most closely associated with him – that it was democratic and was founded on secular and socialist principles.

Three national elections, based on universal adult franchise, were held when Nehru was prime minister. At that time and since then it has been accepted that democratic politics had worked well in India. This was in sharp contrast with other countries in Asia that, in the 1950s, shifted towards authoritarian rule – Indonesia, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Though Nehru remained a firm democrat, even during his tenure certain deficiencies were already apparent, particularly the role of caste and money power in the political system, which would become the defining features of Indian democracy in years to come. Nehru and his colleagues made valiant efforts to dilute the impact of caste, communal appeals and corruption, particularly through voluntary codes of conduct, and even, in a desperate measure to ask the Indian people to take an oath to reject physical violence to uphold the integrity and unity of the country. None of this changed the situation

Secularism and socialism

Two other attributes of the nation linked with Nehru relate to making India a secular and socialist state.

Secularism, Sherman writes, “was conceived as a mechanism for including members of all religions in the national project”. Even before independence, India was home to several faiths and denominations; after partition, it became a priority challenge to instil a sense of belonging into India’s Muslim community.

While the Nehru and his government remained steadfast in upholding secular ideals and, over the years, there were several “accounts of everyday civility and friendship between Muslims and their neighbours of other faiths”, the project faced numerous challenges in practice. These related to problems of acceptance, low representation in public institutions and questioning of their loyalty, amidst periodic episodes of lethal violence in communal riots.

Also read: Why RSS Cannot Help Hating Jawaharlal Nehru and His Connection With the People of India

However, while there are no doubts about Nehru’s commitment to secularism, the same cannot be said for socialism. Indian socialists, Sherman writes, “encompassed a wide and diverse array of Congress and opposition personalities” whose thinking had been shaped by their experiences of colonialism and the freedom movement.

Some viewed it as encouraging character-building, others saw it as a process of popular participation in joint development efforts and sharing of the fruits of these endeavours. Sherman in fact believes that Nehru understood the importance of the private sector in India’s mixed economy, and supported it through import and export controls, finance, technical training, quality control, marketing and management of labour disputes.

Nehruvian foreign policy

Given Sherman’s expertise in South Asian history and politics, it is not surprising that her chapter on foreign policy is the least satisfactory. She rejects the idea that India was nonaligned and asserts: “India was aligned with the western bloc through the first two decades of the Cold War.”

To support this, she points out: one, at independence India was “already embedded in the Anglo-American system”. Two, the Indian armed forces were closely tied to Britain and France. Three, in terms of trade, investments and aid, western countries, particularly the US, the UK and other European states, were India’s principal partners, not the Soviet Union.

But what Sherman omits from her discussion is any reference to Nehru’s insistence on strategic independence in taking positions on foreign policy issues. Francine Frankel, in her book, When Nehru Looked East: Origins of India-US Suspicion and India-China Rivalry, traces Indo-US differences to India’s independence itself when the US pursued “strategic parity” between India and Pakistan.

Over the next few years, this divide broadened to include major US foreign policy posture – the issue of Kashmir, the position on China, inclusion of Pakistan in regional collective security alliances, US initiatives in West Asia, and US military interventions in Indo-China and Southeast Asia.

Nehru in contemporary times

Sherman has set herself the challenge of reconsidering the history of modern India by re-visiting certain “myths” with which the thinking and achievements of Nehru are most deeply associated and, through diligent research, providing an updated narrative relating to these important matters. Much of the ground she has covered is familiar territory – nearly sixty years since India’s first prime minister passed away, there have already been numerous studies of his ideas, personality, leadership, achievements and failures.

This is particularly true of Nehru’s secularism, socialism, the state order that he shaped, and the areas where he failed to realise his dreams in full measure: communal and caste animosities and violence, crony capitalism and corruption, an inert and incompetent bureaucracy, and a venal, violent and corrupt police force. Many of the shortcomings in the national order were already apparent in the Nehruvian period, but they have gone deeper into the national ethos and are often displayed with impunity by their most vile votaries.

Nehru is the hate-object of Prime Minister Modi and the Sangh Parivar to which he belongs. They hold him personally responsible for denying the realisation of a “Hindu” India, but fail to explain the total absence of any serious will or movement in support of their narrow and exclusive “idea” of India; nor do they accept the near-total absence of votaries of their brand of politics playing any serious role in the national freedom struggle.

Also read: India’s New Tryst With Destiny Has No Place for Jawaharlal Nehru

This book is both valuable and timely as it gives us the knowledge and the feel of Nehruvian India which remind us of what we desperately need in India today. Some of these aspects are:

One, the need for modesty on the part of the leader and the need to respect others, particularly one’s opponents; Sherman quotes Nehru describing his role as the representative of the people thus: “… it is a manner of thinking, a manner of action, a manner of behaviour to your neighbour and to your adversary.” What animated Nehru, Sherman says, was respect for the person, even if one disagreed with his or her ideas.

Two, the need for the leader to consult widely before announcing a policy: Nehru, Sherman reminds us, derided those who believed they had all the answers to the world’s problems, while failing to acknowledge that “others might have some share of the truth also”.

Three, the need for the leader to strengthen national institutions by personally showing respect for them: Nehru, as shown above, consulted cabinet members and parliament regularly, and even included chief ministers within his discussion circle. He also consulted experts and academics on diverse subjects of national import.

Four, the paramount need for the leader to strengthen the unity of the nation by assuring all communities that belong to the national tapestry, protecting at all times their life, property and personal dignity, and penalising publicly and firmly all aberrant conduct by extremist elements within one’s fold.

Five, above all, the leader must be driven by ideas relating to national purpose and direction; these should be well-thought out and sincerely-felt visions for the long-term success of the nation. Self-indulgent posturing and delusional rhetoric cannot be substitutes for careful thought and sage action.

This book should be compulsory reading for those in government today.

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune. His latest book, West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, was published last year.