Note: This article is being republished on the occasion of Nehru’s 52nd death anniversary.
President Ram Nath Kovind in his independence day address to the nation, talked about the long journey that post-independent India has traveled. The president, in his address, highlighted the sacrifices and contributions made by various leaders during the struggle against British rule. He also talked about how Jawaharlal Nehru tried to strike a balance between India’s traditions with technology. He duly regarded the contributions of Sardar Patel and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the making of the independent India.
Nehruji emphasised that India’s age old tradition, so dear to us, coexists with technology and a quest to modernise our society. Sardar Patel instilled in us the importance of national unity and integrity and of a disciplined national character. Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar urged upon us the virtues of constitutional governance, of the rule of law and vital need of education.
However, contrary to the president’s address to the nation, the BJP national president Amit Shah, in his address in Bangalore on August 12, accused Nehru of borrowing western ideas and ignoring India’s glorious past. Shah also said that the BJP is against the borrowing of ideas from the west and it believes in Indian ideas. In a similar attempt, a popular TV channel had also shown how Nehru was responsible for India’s strategic failures as well as domestic problems like the Kashmir dispute. The channel also showed that if India had adopted different policies, it would have achieved the status of a world power by now.
Unlike the president’s speech, which was an attempt to recognise contributions in the making of independent India, the other two instances disregard the valuable contributions made by Pandit Nehru.
At this political juncture, it becomes intellectually imperative to analyse the Nehruvian political legacy. It is also necessary to critically understand the ‘anti-Nehru syndrome’ which is being propagated as ‘the cause’ of India’s various failures and the present political dispensation’s attempts to rectify those mistakes.
It has to however also be accepted that it is desirable to critically question any political leader’s ideas and policy decisions but labelling him or her as the primary reason behind the problems of any nation, is also disrespecting the cause of nation-building, as well as of democratisation. Besides, to achieve a democratic and liberal society (udaar samaj), it is also necessary to show respect to the leaders who contributed to this process in the given circumstances. No nation can establish itself as an independent free-thinking society unless it recognises contributions made by its leaders.
Despite sharing the same political platform, Kovind’s address to the nation was more of a call for the creation of an inclusive India, which respects various religions, gender, communities and also acknowledges the contributions made by different leaders.
Though many biographers and political commentators have written extensively on Nehru, appreciating as well as questioning him, in contemporary times, it seems necessary to highlight some of the very basic facts about Nehru’s statesmanship and political ideas.
First and foremost, it is premature to say that Nehru was against the notion of Indian ideas. Indian ideas here is a reference to historical Indian traditions. As the president also highlighted in his speech, Nehru was rather in support of achieving a mix of the traditional and the modern. For Nehru, both were necessary for the process of nation-building. He was also of the belief that traditions cannot be accepted just because it has been continuing historically.
Any sensible political leader or society would accept that traditions have to be modernised, improved and changed as per the changing realities of the time. If the notion of ‘tradition’ were so fixed, even for the ruling party, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not have launched schemes to build toilets. The problem of open defecation as the primary cause of diarrhoea was highlighted in Europe. Indian tradition vis-a-vis this issue has been different. This has also been accepted in some of the writings of the supporters of the ruling regime. One needs to make a distinction between open defecation as a part of tradition, a problem of sanitation, and the lack of proper defecation facilities leading to manual scavenging.
Even the BJP president in his speech agreed that the BJP is not against being modern, but it believes in the greatness of Indian ideas. Ideas become great when they contribute to the development of society.
Shah was making a significant distinction, which makes Nehru a distinct political leader as well as a scholar. Nehru was a supporter of modernity.
Modernity is an ideology which supports scientific logic, reasoning and experimentation over superstition and myths. Modernity may not necessarily be against traditions in society. Every society evolves through a struggle to achieve modernity. Modernity is a never-ending process. Every society develops its own modernity in this process. This is what is also referred to by famous political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj as ‘multiple modernities’. That is the reason that in every age each society has its own scientific traditions, myths as well as superstitions. Nehru was a political leader who was contributing to the evolution of Indian modernity. So were Gandhiji and Dr. Ambedkar. Nehru and Ambedkar were supporters of modernity as well as of modernisation. But they were in favour of a careful adoption of strategies of modernisation. Gandhi, on the other hand, was against modernisation and also a supporter of tradition.
On the contrary, the idea of modernisation that the BJP president is subscribing to is a western perception. It is the idea which favours a particular economic and political system over other kinds of popular regimes, especially those that are prevalent in the Asian as well as African countries. Ideas like foreign direct investment, big dams, corporate governed capitalist economic systems or modern taxation systems including the goods and services tax etc. are the steps towards the modernisation of the Indian economic system in line with global realities.
Nehru was also not against modernisation. But he was also not a staunch supporter of the blind adoption of the ideas of modernisation – politically, economically, socially as well as culturally. As Kovind also said, he was in support of tradition as long as they were in line with modernity.
Nehru’s policy ideas were also an attempt to achieve this blend. That was the primary reason behind Nehru’s continuous opposition to the idea of promoting hybrid seeds-based green revolution and a price incentive-based agricultural economic system. Nehru was of the belief that an incentive-based system would generate more rural inequalities. Besides, it would also break the existing rural culture of interdependence and community values. This was also a major reason for adopting policies like land reforms, collective farming and cooperatives. Hence, Nehru’s idea of rural transformation was guided by multiple ideas of socio-economic change, which tried to strike a balance between tradition and modernity. How far these policies delivered the desired outcomes can be a debatable issue, but Nehru’s original contribution to this field cannot be denied.
India’s first (and probably the last) effort to achieve village-level holistic development mission, the community development programme (CDP) was also a Nehruvian contribution. One should remember, that after the CDP, India has not witnessed any such comprehensive and holistic programme aimed at transforming rural spaces. Besides, it was under Nehru’s leadership that India also attempted to initiate Panchayati Raj development, unlike the west, which was still struggling to develop an organised community-level development initiative.
Nehru’s commitment to the ideas of modernity are reflected in his various speeches delivered in the constituent assembly as well as his parliamentary speeches. Nehru’s ardent support for the Indian state’s responsibility, along with other leaders of the Indian freedom struggle, like Dr. Ambedkar, towards the backward sections, was a departure from the colonial understanding of their continuous marginalisation and indirect support to their exploitation by the zamindars.
This idea was quite contrary to the western notion of democracy, which was in favour of keeping political participation restricted to few wealthy and educated sections of the society. It was through the collective effort of Nehru, Ambedkar and Patel that India could adopt a constitution which promised equality and social justice to the marginalised sections of India. We need to know that the Nehruvian idea of economic policy, which favoured a larger role of the government in promoting industrialisation, government jobs and other systems, was also not very much in line with the western idea of company governed capitalism. Rather, it was a departure from capitalism to developing a third world model of economic development. One can question these decisions when analysing policy, but denying its original contribution will be unfair to Indian history. Kovind’s statement showed a more evolved political understanding, that highlighted and acknowledged these Indian contributions made by political leaders.
It is also necessary to recall Nehru’s contributions to the foreign policy domain. Nehru is held responsible for the failure of India in resolving the Kashmir dispute. As a policy decision, one can question Nehru’s wisdom, but it is also necessary to locate Nehru in the existing domestic as well as global political scenario, similar to the manner in which BJP urges voters to judge its policy decisions in the current political situation.
The process of nation-building is an incremental process. No one leader can be a reason for its success or for the challenges it faces.
Acknowledging the contributions of the elders is a symbol of a country’s humility towards its institution builders – which BJP as well as Sangh Parivar claims is a feature of the Indian culture. However, when it comes to Nehru, the BJP leadership becomes selective and doesn’t shy away from denying such contributions. Such a reading is not only politically problematic but also against the very ethics that the BJP and it is leadership claim to believe.
BJP needs to learn from its former senior leaders, like the president, in accepting such contributions to show genuine concern and respect for traditional Indian values. Branding Nehru’s ideas as western ideas is denying one of the most original contributions of an Indian political leader to the world of ideas. Will BJP as a protector of Indian ideas want to do so?
Sudhir Kumar Suthar is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.