It is a truism that society treats the failures in its ranks rather poorly. They lose respect, are looked down upon, and because they have failed to live up to expectations, are often denied a second chance. In India, there is one resounding exception to this rule, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Any objective assessment of the man would reveal that his failures were many, real and substantial. His claimed successes, on the other hand, owed much to the fact that as the first Prime Minister of independent India, he was judged against the benchmark of what the British had left India in. The British was here as our colonial overlords, and they had little interest in India’s development. Therefore, a comparison with their record is setting the bar very low, closer to the floor.
Exactly how poor is Nehru’s record? A good beginning can be made by borrowing a couple of cues from a recent speech by the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. He was responding to a comment by Rahul Gandhi that one man riding on a horse cannot solve all the problems of the country, and his rejoinder was essentially that it all depended on the qualities of the individual concerned.
Soon after independent India came into being, the most pressing challenge facing the country was getting all the disparate princely states to integrate into India. The task was entrusted to two of the leading lights of the Congress party, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Nehru was given the mandate to integrate Kashmir (being a Kashmiri himself), while Patel had the responsibility to tackle all the other 600 odd princely states. As it happened, Patel quickly accomplished what he was asked to do, but the one state assigned to Nehru continues to fester, even after six decades.
Modi’s second point was about the state of agriculture in India after Nehru had ruled for a decade and a half. By the early sixties, India’s agriculture was in crisis, and we could not feed our own people. We depended on the United States to supply us with free wheat under their PL (Public Law) 480. As he put it, “Those were days when the stove in a poor man’s home would not light till the ships from the US had berthed at our ports.” In a largely rural country, India’s agriculture was reduced to a sorry mess. Modi went on to contrast Nehru’s record with that of his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, who laid the foundations of the Green Revolution with the clarion call of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”, but that is another story.
Modi’s indictment did not allude to one of Nehru’s biggest failures. This was the defeat inflicted on us by the Chinese, a stark example of how one man’s high-minded delusion can bring an entire nation to its knees. Almost everything about India’s humiliation had Nehru’s imprint, beginning with the naiveté of Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai, to the appointment of an opinionated and downright incompetent defence minister.
But to lapse into a recounting of specific instances of Nehru’s failures is to miss the wood for the trees. How Nehru wrecked India’s economy for three generations to come cannot be reduced into a list with items serially numbered from A to Z. As the first man in command, it was about setting a course for the ship and Nehru got the bearings completely wrong. When a leader with a halo embraces folly, the outcome is disaster because people are lulled into unquestioning acceptance of the idiocy.
Looking back, the idiocies were many. It began with an erratic moral compass that set out to locate equidistance between the free world and the totalitarian bloc led by the Soviet Union. Neutrality was the stated goal but in truth his heart lay with the Soviets. That explains the ill-concealed admiration for the Stalinist economic model that found echo in India with a planning commission dedicated to capturing “the commanding heights” of the economy. As it turned out, the commission succeeded only too well, and to our lasting misfortune. When the industrialist J.R.D. Tata spoke of the need for public sector enterprises to make a profit, Nehru chided him thus, “Never talk to me about the word profit; it is a dirty word.”
Fifty years after his death, we continue to pay the price with desperate poverty and rundown infrastructure. That’s not all. Nehru’s lasting legacy is the cobwebs in our minds that impede straight thinking on the economy even today. A country of 110 crores came to the conclusion, after going through all the due processes, that paying people to dig trenches was a great way to solve unemployment. The fossilisation of the Indian economic discourse (and the mindset playing host to it) began with Nehru.
The conventional defence offered by Nehru’s defenders is to redirect the debate to his legacy as a “true” democrat, that democratic institutions could take root in India when many other decolonised countries strayed into dictatorship. There is merit in the argument but here’s what it does not consider. The true test of a leader’s faith in democracy is not how he responds when he wins elections but his behaviour when he loses.
Nehru was fortunate that he was never tested. As the last survivor of that trinity of great freedom fighters, he had an aura about him that helped him win three elections despite delivering so little to his people. In defence of India’s electorate, I have already noted that the benchmark for comparison in those days was the tumultuous British rule that preceded Nehru, with riots and famine fresh in the mind. With these low expectations, it’s no surprise that Nehru came out smelling of roses all the time.
Would Nehru have behaved differently if electoral outcomes had gone in favour of those he disapproved of? We may never have a certain answer to this question but do keep in mind the autocratic way he dismissed the first democratically elected communist state government in Kerala. Moreover, Nehru was a liberal in the non-classical, debased sense the word has come to mean these days. Instead of liberty, this version of liberalism emphasises the expansion of the state to deliver ends deemed desirable.
Typically, liberals cast in this mould have faith in freedom of speech so long as the arguments oscillate within a defined range. They also have great faith in democracy provided the electoral process yields power to parties falling within the range of acceptability of their definition. Anything beyond, and the wolf is sooner revealed. Had he faced defeat at the hands of a party he detested (say, the Jan Sangh), I suspect that our picture of Nehru would have been closer to his daughter, Indira Gandhi.
By and large, it’s true that Indians continue to have an exalted image of Nehru. As common people we generally do not come to our own conclusions. We depend upon the intelligentsia to do our thinking for us and then tell us what to believe in. India’s intelligentsia is dominated by the socialist and the left-liberal types who call themselves liberals and progressives.
Ramachandra Guha is widely considered to be among India’s leading intellectuals of the left-liberal mould. In a recent article overladen with effusive praise, “The commanding heights of Nehru, “(The Hindu, November 13, 2012), he mentions Mikhail Gorbachev who, as a young law student at Moscow university, heard Nehru speak and was deeply impressed. Guha then proceeds to draw a conclusion straight out of a stand-up comic’s act.
“Thirty years after hearing Nehru speak in Moscow; Gorbachev helped bring about a peaceful end to the Cold War while permitting a transition to democracy in Eastern Europe. Unlike Soviet rulers in 1956, 1968 and 1979, he did not send troops into Soviet satellites whose people wanted an end to Stalinist one-party regimes. It appears the early exposure to Jawaharlal Nehru played at least some part in the reformist and reconciling politics of the mature Gorbachev.”
If you have missed the irony, here it is. A fleeting glimpse of Nehru helped Gorbachev change the world for the better. Back in his home country, people saw Nehru every day for 17 long years at the end of which they were scanning the horizon for a sighting of the next American ship bearing charity wheat under PL 480. India’s “leading” intellectual is blissfully unaware that Nehru’s commanding heights left the country plumbing the depths of despair and dysfunction.
What explains the Indian intelligentsia’s adoration of Nehru?
The simple fact is that every dysfunctional system breeds dysfunctional elite that returns the favour by singing paeans to the system. India’s intellectual elite is mostly the progeny of those who held high office in the Nehruvian bureaucracy and its many offshoots. Thanks to their access to power, and thanks to the wealth that comes with access to power in a dysfunctional set-up, they live American style lives in our grim, third world setting. When you (and your close family) don’t suffer the consequences of dysfunction, it’s easy to pretend there’s no dysfunction. Put another way, you don’t find fault when you don’t pay the price.
I once worked at an office where the traffic to the gent’s toilet was very high. Even when cleaned in the morning, it would stink by noon and using it was always unpleasant. One particular day, as I stepped in, I found the place as muddy and smelly as before. But as I got going with my purpose, I was taken aback. For a change, it all smelled so good. My gut reaction was to look around and recheck if anything was different. Nothing had changed. And then I found it.
The wall to which the urinal was attached had a ledge positioned approximately in line with my nose. Today, someone from housekeeping had placed a toilet freshener here. With every breath I took, I found myself inhaling its fragrance directly, before it could dissipate into the overwhelming malodours around. The toilet was dirty as ever but the experience had become pleasant. Cutting the story short, the intellectual class in India that adores Nehru is a victim of the strategic toilet freshener fallacy.
Nehru’s apologists will, of course, question whether his economic record is as bleak as what I’ve painted here. All that I ask of them is to read the arguments put forth by their fellow-travellers in the current debate over the Food Security Bill. Pay close attention to the percentage of malnourished children, the extent of poverty and hunger among the poor, and all the related statistics of misery and deprivation which is said to make an unassailable case for saddling the taxpayer with yet another boondoggle. Since Modi cannot be blamed for any of this, can we make a fair beginning with Nehru for a change?
When a nation holds its failures in high esteem, by definition, it is a failed country. The more we continue to hold Nehru in esteem, the longer we are condemned to poverty and backwardness, because it means we still haven’t come to grips with how and where Nehru went so wrong.
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