National

Jawaharlal Nehru And His Fading Legacy

Today, in the age of disparagement, it is important to find solutions to tackle the cognate routes to democratic and institutional decay

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Historic Moment: Jawaharlal Nehru moves the resolution for an independent sovereign republic in the Constituent Assembly Photo: Corbis
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The Preamble of our Constitution constantly reminds us that We, the people of India, gave unto ourselves a beautiful ecumenical Constitution, and ushered in a sort of a social revolution, a national renaissance. Breaking out of the shackles of colonialism and becoming a free and independent nation, we resolved, solemnly, to make India a ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic, Republic’, and to secure to all its citizens Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’.

With the idea of India, we embarked on a new Indian nation-state, marking a civilisational shift into a modern space, inheriting the rights to elect and get elected, to design the institutional architecture of governance, and to capacitate ourselves to aspire. Jawaharlal Nehru, in one of the Constituent Assembly debates, said: “The first task of this Assembly is to free India through a new Constitution, to feed the starving people, and to clothe the naked masses, and to give every Indian the fullest opportunity to develop himself according to his capacity”.

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And, Nehru’s famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech—“Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially”—constantly reminds us about the solemn pledge that we made in the Preamble.

Nehruvian Ideology

In August 1947, Nehru, 58, took over the reins of governance and headed the government for 17 years. His beginning was inauspicious because the Indian subcontinent did not hold together. The Partition, with a section of Muslims founding a new state of Pakistan, led to a massive migration and unprecedented large-scale massacres and killings of Hindus and Muslims on both sides. Millions, between 15 and 20, died, and many, who were not involved in the Partition struggle, paid for it with their lives. Nehru took up the task of settling millions of refugees in India with utmost priority.

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The immediate task at Nehru’s hand was to create and establish the Republic of India by integrating over 600 princely states into the Republic so that India did not fall apart. He had to deal with working out a Constitution, a home-made one—the desire for which had sprung from the land itself. The Constituent Assembly, according to the Indian Independence Act 1947, sat as a constituent body (also as the national legislature) to deliberate and work out a constitution that would suit the aspirations of the people of India.

Nehru and other leaders played a pivotal role in steering and rowing the Constituent Assembly debates and supported democratic decision-making after genuine debates with high moral sense. The Constituent Assembly’s adoption of the Constitution was a gift to the Indian nation and realisation of Nehru’s original aim—the welfare of four hundred million Indians. Nehru was anxious to work out details of the institutional framework and the best principles that would sustain and let democracy flourish in India. A vision, an ideology, and a paradigm were needed to constitute the political economy of the democratic institutions and Nehru’s unflinching zest to establish such institutions is, in common parlance, often referred to as ‘Nehruvian ideology’.

Nehru was the product of renaissance philosophy, and he dreamt of modernising India. On his development menu, the main items were planned industrialisation, growth of parliamentary democracy, social justice and inclusiveness, secularism, and healthy foreign relations. Nehru held a strong strain of 19th century humanistic liberalism with a strong dose of pragmatic approach. He disdained the libertarian epithets of ‘the Free World’, ‘the free men’, and ‘monolith’ and rejected the communist system, but not the communists and that made one American ambassador quip, ‘What the Americans don’t see is that Nehru is the last of the Liberals’.

Pillars of Nehruvian Thought

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Nehruvian ideology carried four main currents of political thought undergirding India’s modern nationhood—Democracy, Secularism, Socialism and Non-Alignment. For Nehru, democracy quintessentially would mean holding India together, particularly in the backdrop of the breakaway, forging unity, not uniformity, in diversity, and establishing democratic ethos, institutions and practices.

Nehru yearned for ‘representative democracy’ to function more like a real ‘participatory democracy’. He encouraged the growth and development of the parliamentary and cabinet systems. In the legislature, Nehru maintained his leadership by democratic means and political wits and by his sense of timing, combined with courage, resilience, and agility of mind.

Nehruvian secularism is foundationally anti-communalism as much as it is for retaining India’s composite heritage. In 1951, Nehru had remarked at the gathering in the Ramlila ground on Gandhi Jayanti: “If anyone raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from inside the government or outside”.

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Alas, we miss such conviction for secularism in contemporary national leaders. In recent times, the politics of Hindutva and polarisation is antithetical to avowedly Nehruvian secularism and is couched in the rhetoric of political slogans of ‘minority appeasement’ and ‘xenophobic nationalism’. Nehruvian secularism entailed the process of secularisation where the state would give equal recognition to all religions and even atheism, where state-building would be the project of all, and where the nation would mean a place of solidarity and justice.

Nehruvian socialism, predicated on the idea of a ‘socialistic pattern of society’, was aimed to usher in a path of import-substitution-industrialisation and modernisation through meticulously formulated Five Year Plans. The emphasis was on investment for capital formation.

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Planning, primarily through the public sector, was believed to play a key role in inclusive growth and democratic socialism. Non Alignment, as an instrument of foreign policy, meant for Nehru an independent foreign policy that would draw its resources from the freedom struggle, non-violence and non-cooperation with the aggressors, a kind of an asymmetrical response to asymmetrical balance of power.

Nehru played a prominent role in the Bandung Conference (1955) by shaping a new ideology in world politics and forging a new solidarity based on anti-colonial nationalism and movements. In global affairs, he became a beacon of hope for less dev­eloped nations and was counted with the likes of global leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Chou En-Lai, and Ho Chi Minh, and led the global discourse for decades on world peace, sovereignty, colonialism, modernism and religion.

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What Happened to Nehruvian Ideology?

The Nehruvian institutions—which got embedded incrementally during the functioning of Indian democracy since Independence—are under tremendous strain. Over the last decade, they have been forced to attain goals for which they were never meant to be in the first place. There seems to be a weakening, if not evisceration, of critical democratic institutions.

The leaders of political parties, other than the governing one, are treading in fear. The cabinet committees are seldom seen operating independently and the PMO has acquired enough powers to run the government directly.

Speakers have become partisan, quite often bypassing cabinet and parliamentary inputs. How can one account for it when some bills are passed in less than 10 minutes?

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No democracy can transform into an ‘electoral autocracy’ or ‘governmental autocracy’ without the tacit support of the bureaucracy. Based on the principles of ‘impartiality’, ‘anonymity’, and ‘neutrality’, bureaucrats need to work in a non-partisan way and in accordance with the Constitution, but when loyalty is rewarded over competence, the result is top-down politicised bureaucracy.

The press has become a propagandist institution. Independent-minded journalists are either persecuted or proscribed. Faith in the judiciary has been eroded; any progressive judgment is seen as a pleasant surprise.

There is the backsliding of democracy and democratic institutions, undermining of the institutional checks and balances and protection of civil liberties, increasing polarisation based not only on policy or ideology but over identity as well, weakening of horizontal checks on executive discretion and disorienting and disorganising of the opposition. It is important to find solutions to tackle the cognate routes to democratic and institutional decay, not only in India but all over the world.

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(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'The Man And His Legacy')

Tanvir Aeijaz teaches public policy at Delhi University

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