In all these years of writing about politics and government, never have I felt the need to defend Jawaharlal Nehru. As someone who believes that countries become prosperous when the levers of the economy are not in the hands of the State, Nehru’s economic ideas never appealed to me. Nehruvian India, in which I spent the years of my childhood, was a bleak place in which everything seemed to be in the hands of officials, and everything that they did was tied up in twisted, tangled reams of red tape.
It was as if the future of this country lay buried in dusty files in smelly government offices and the files moved slowly. Central planning, Soviet style, was probably the worst economic mistake India made, and the promotion of inefficient public sector companies while simultaneously making it hard for the private sector to function, caused India’s economy to hardly grow at all. Unsurprisingly, there was as much poverty in India when Nehru became prime minister as when he died.
This economic ideology came to be known, as the years went by, as Nehruvian socialism, and it was a peculiarly Indian idea. Where other socialist countries at least invested in excellent public schools, hospitals and the public utilities that are the tools ordinary people use to lift themselves out of poverty, Nehru failed to do this. Since it was officials of colonial mindset whom Nehru trusted with his plans, they ensured that they never needed to use the facilities they created for the people. In doing this they showed their total disdain for those who voted Nehru’s governments to power time and time again. So, I am no fan of Nehru.
And yet, on his birthday this year, I feel the need to remember the things that he gave India that more than compensated for the mistakes he made. India became free of colonial rule at a time when many other countries in Asia and Africa were shaking off the chains of colonialism. Most of them moved almost immediately from being enslaved by their colonial masters to being enslaved by dictators and military men. India did not, and this was not an accident, but a conscious decision made by Nehru not to let this happen. He was so popular and so much taller than the political leaders of that time that, had he wanted to cancel elections and become Supreme Leader, he could have done this easily.
He chose not to, and he chose to ensure that elections were held regularly and that they were free. He chose to allow the handful of newspapers and magazines that made up the media in those times to criticise him freely and not charge them with sedition and treason, as increasingly happens in Modi’s ‘new India’. It was because of his respect for the pillars that hold up democracy that its roots were able to go so deep into India’s soil that when his own daughter tried to become a Dictator, she failed badly. No sooner did she announce elections on that cold, wet January day at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, than a groundswell began to rise that swept both her and her heir from power. So strong was this groundswell that Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay lost their own seats. If proof was needed that democracy had taken root in our ancient land of kings and brutal tyrants, this was it. When voters found that the men who replaced Mrs Gandhi were weak and ineffectual, they booted them out and brought her back. Another victory for democracy.
It was a victory for democracy once more that, when people saw democracy decay into dynastic politics and corruption, Nehru’s heirs were replaced by the son of a Gujarati tea seller. Narendra Modi has managed to win a second term in office because Indian voters realised that although his government was far from perfect, he was more capable of governance than the Dynasty’s heirs. It is India’s great misfortune that after winning his second term Modi has shown an inclination to see himself as some kind of Supreme Leader, who has to remain above dissent and criticism. Dissidents are routinely arrested these days under laws made to stop terrorism and treason, so the roots of democracy that were planted in Nehru’s time are slowly starting to weaken.
A new India has risen in which the voices heard loudest are those that praise the Leader and those that confuse nationalism with worship of the Leader. Those who believe that this ideology will make India weaker and smaller and not stronger or more prosperous are treated as traitors and jihadists. Private TV channels no longer have room for government critics and dissidents but for those who pass paeans to the Prime Minister off as journalism. When powerful newspapers try to tell the truth about things that have gone visibly wrong in Modi’s second term, they are raided by tax inspectors. This is why on this birthday of India’s first prime minister, one of his most consistent critics finds that she has to praise him for what he did to make sure that democracy took deep roots in a country whose soil was not ready for it. This is why on Nehru’s birthday this year we should remember his immense contribution to this country and not berate him for his mistakes, no matter how big they were.